Burning Down The Church

I’m not the favorite person of radical Catholic traditionalist Hilary White, but look, she’s onto something here in this thread:

For those not following, “Traditiones Custodes” was the document from Pope Francis that severely restricted use of the Tridentine (Latin) mass.

In the nearly seventeen years I have been Orthodox, I have come to understand in a way that I didn’t as a Catholic how central the liturgy is to constituting the Church. Orthodox Christians use the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (as do most Eastern Rite Catholics), and celebrate it in the local language (versus Latin; some Russian parishes use Old Church Slavonic, but generally the custom is to use the local language). After I began to understand this, I appreciated in a new way why Latin mass Catholics are so devoted to that rite. True, you can easily find some Latin mass Catholics who treat it like some magic incantation that can make all the bad things of modernity in the Catholic Church go away. But at its best, I think, the movement is made up of people who more or less understand what White says here about the liturgy.

I’m not competent to say whether Vatican II proclaimed a “new religion,” but facts on the ground make it harder to avoid the conclusion that the Council, at least in its reception, was the French Revolution of the Catholic Church. I’m close to finishing the second volume of Peter Seewald’s authoritative biography of BXVI, and it really is the case that Ratzinger was blindsided by the “spirit of Vatican II” people. There’s a part that reports that Ratzinger, in the years immediately following the Council, would be shocked and scandalized by the craziness that Church people were doing, claiming the mandate of the Council. He would go back and read the Council documents, and find that nothing there justified what the radicals were claiming. But none of it mattered. They carried on with their revolutionary destruction.

Where I depart from the Catholic trads is in the belief that everything was pretty much humming like a top until the Council came along. If things were so great, the Church wouldn’t have fallen apart so radically, and so swiftly. I think Ratzinger, as a Council peritus in the 1960s, likely had it right when he judged that rigid Neo-Scholasticism was too fossilized to survive in the modern world. He said to his biographer:

‘Certainly I was progressive,’ he said in our conversation. ‘At that time “progressive” did not yet mean that you broke away from the faith, but that you learned from its origins to understand it better and live it better.’ Translating the faith into the present, the search for up-to-date forms in teaching and liturgy, was the first requirement for any advance towards being a missionary church. His difference from other theologians was that Ratzinger argued with the church’s faith andnever against it. In a contribution to the journal Wort und Wahrheit in 1960 he wrote: ‘The point is to rescue the faith from the rigidity of the system and reawaken its original vital power, without giving up what is really valid in it.’ He said in a lecture for Frings that the aim was the one ‘that the pope set for this Council, namely to renew Christian life and to adapt church discipline to the demands of the time, so that witness to the faith can shine with a new brightness in the darkness of this world’.

He understood the word ‘awakening’ as ‘revitalizing’. It was not primarily about reorganization but about inward, spiritual reforms.

If you believe that the Catholic Church took a disastrous wrong turn in Vatican II, then you have to wonder what would have happened had the Council never happened. I would love to read some historically and theologically informed counterfactuals imagining where the Church would be today if the Council had never occurred. I would like to believe that the Catholic Church would be a lot stronger, but I just can’t bring myself to credit that view. The cultural revolution that is late modernity — meaning the postwar period — has changed everything, for almost everybody, Catholic and otherwise. A reporter asked me in an email question today if I thought the Catholic Church was capable of producing another Ratzinger. I answered that anything is possible, and if God will send another Ratzinger, then that kid is probably a Catholic homeschooler today.

But you know, there can’t be another Ratzinger, except in a general sense, because the world that produced Joseph Ratzinger has passed into history. I’m sitting here in my apartment listening to Mozart, because he was Ratzinger’s favorite, and that dear old pope is much on my mind. But we no longer live in a world where the son of a policeman grows up loving Mozart, the Catholic faith, and European high culture. The next Ratzinger will have grown up in the desolation left by the postwar period. Ratzinger lived was born after the First World War, and endured the Second as a child, but there were still enough fragments of the Old World present in the cultural memory of Bavarians to produce a Ratzinger. However, reading Seewald, it is painfully — very painfully — clear that Joseph Ratzinger was isolated and despised by many of the leading German theological lights of his generation, epitomized by the loathsome Hans Küng, his Swiss rival. Ratzinger was a man out of time, even in his own time. Look at this from Seewald’s book, about Ratzinger’s election as pope:

Thousands of Catholics came to Benedict XVI’s reception for his compatriots, but only two German bishops, Cardinals Meisner and Wetter. On the first election of a German pope for 500 years, the secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference, Hans Langendörfer, had not deemed it necessary to cancel a routine meeting of the German bishops.

Catholics drawn to the Old Mass — and I sincerely say, “More power to them!” — are unavoidably aware of the great rupture in the life and practice of their Church. Their entire ecclesial consciousness has been formed by this event. I believe that if the Catholic Church is going to have a future in the West, or at least in Europe, it will most likely be through them. They seem to be the only ones radical enough — that is, rooted enough — to withstand the storm.

From the biography:

In fact [said Ratzinger], the magisterium protected ‘the faith of the simple people, those who do not write books, or speak on television, or write leading articles in the newspaper. That is its democratic task. It is to give a voice to the voiceless.’ Anyone today who ‘has authority in the church does not have power. On the contrary, they stand against the dominant power, the power of opinion, whereby faith in the truth is an annoying disruption of randomly ascribing certainty to anything.’ But the norm for theology was the Catholic baptismal confession and not the other way round. ‘It is not the intellectuals who are the standard for the simple people, but the simple people who are the standard for the intellectuals.’

When I read that line on the flight back to Budapest from Rome, I thought of this beautiful small-town Bavarian family I saw on St. Peter’s Square, at the funeral. Look at Mama’s face, especially:


In our time, Ratzinger continued, ‘Christianity has suffered an enormous loss of importance’. In more and more areas of life it now took courage ‘to confess to being a Christian’. There was even ‘the danger of an anti-Christian dictatorship’. On the other hand, in many places the church was ‘suffocated by its institutional power’. Perhaps we should ‘say goodbye to the idea of national churches. Possibly a different age of the church is coming, in which Christianity is seen again as seed corn, in apparently unimportant small groups, who resist evil and bring good into the world, who let God in.’ Finally, and that was the point at which I thought I had misheard, the cardinal swung into an emotional declaration: ‘The church needs a revolution of faith. It must not associate itself with the Zeitgeist. It must not give up its values in order to preserve its property.


Ratzinger did not deny the symbolic power of the millennium. But he was much too sober-minded to share John Paul II’s expectations for the date. He was clear that there would not be a mass new beginning. Whereas the pope wanted to counter the decline of Christianity with huge events, well publicized in the media, his guardian of the faith preached that the church must think of its message, which probably could only really be sustained by a small but vital and authentic circle of believers.

This is what I mean by the Benedict Option, and why I have always called Benedict XVI the “second Benedict of the Benedict Option”.

I wonder what the Orthodox experience with modernity has to say to our Catholic brothers. It’s difficult to say in large part because most Orthodox churches suffered the most vicious expression of modernity, Communism, which devastated them, and the spirituality of their lands. Orthodoxy is barely a presence in the West, which is why it is easy for Westerners to project their own views, positive or negative, onto it. When I read young Ratzinger talking about the kind of church he wanted to recover, I think, “Well, we have that in Orthodoxy today!” It is certainly not the case that the Orthodox Church is perfect. Indeed, it has many problems. But that rupture that Hilary White talks about did not happen, and it is very hard to imagine it happening, because we Orthodox are blessed (or cursed, if you ask the modernist theologians in our midst) by an inability to call a Council like Vatican II. In theory we could do it, but it hasn’t been practically possible, thank God. Plus, the Orthodox don’t mess around with the liturgy. Father Alexander Schmemann used to lament the way contemporary Russian Orthodox were lost in a Byzantine fog, not noticing the modern world. He sounds like Ratzinger of the Council, actually. I can believe it. I encounter from time to time Orthodox Christians who just want to keep their heads down and keep praying and worshiping, hoping that the modern world will pass them by and leave them and their families alone. It’s a fool’s game.

Nevertheless, the fact that Orthodoxy really has preserved the ancient liturgy, and celebrates it in a language that makes it accessible to the people, is a big deal. The fact that the Orthodox never did what Catholics of the Council did, and did away with or diminished the ancient discipline of fasting, is a big deal. When I started attending Orthodox liturgies in 2005, shattered from my experience of Catholicism in the scandals, I was shocked to discover that Orthodoxy was what I thought I was going to get when I converted to Catholicism. It was beautiful and transcendent, while also seeming so intimate and personal. After some time, I grasped that for all the depth of Orthodox theology, it really was first and foremost a religion of the heart. Reading Benedict’s biography, it seems to me that Ratzinger, the council peritus, was hoping to reclaim that more Augustinian experience of the faith for the Catholic Church, as distinct from the brilliant but chilly abstractions of Neo-Scholasticism.

I have taken a lot of crap from Catholic trads over the years for losing faith in Catholic claims, and becoming Orthodox. Water off a duck’s back for me, but I gotta ask: if postconciliar Catholicism really is a “new religion,” then on what basis do Catholics who believe that criticize other Catholics who leave for Orthodoxy? The reason their criticism has not moved me one bit is because whatever my faults may or may not be in becoming Orthodox, I don’t have to live with the cognitive dissonance of having to pledge allegiance to a pope who is dismantling most of what I believe to be the authentic faith. If I had to do that, I would be as angry and bitter as many of them are. I get it. But I am too tempted towards doom-and-gloom and decline-and-fall to survive that with my faith intact. If I had not become Orthodox, I may well have lost my faith entirely by now, given the way my own particular brokenness, and the brokenness of the Catholic Church today, intersected. I have lots of Catholic friends who are suffering through all this, and I want to help them be faithful if I can. But given where Catholicism is today in the Bergoglian Era — which, if White is correct, is the more authentic expression of postconciliar Catholicism — I cannot take seriously those trads who spite people like me for becoming Orthodox. When you have Protestants and Orthodox who loved Benedict XVI far more than many leading Catholics did — including the current pope — precisely because he was such a loving and brilliant servant of Christ and teacher of truth, even if we could not agree fully with him, well, where exactly are your real enemies to be found? The truth is, most of us are just muddling through in the ruins left to us by modernity. Anybody looking for an absolutely consistent System of faith is bound to be disappointed, wherever they turn.

As a sympathetic outsider to Catholicism, I fear for their future — and for our future, because in the West, Catholicism, with its breadth and depth, is the foundation on which even the many churches that reject that iteration of the Christian faith depend. It seems to me that the core problem is not Vatican II, but Vatican I, the late 19th century council which gave so much power to the figure of the Pope. I’m open to correction, but it seems to me that the move to centralize so much of Catholicism in the person of the supreme monarch, as a way of strengthening the institution against modernity, was a terrible mistake — one that the papacy of Jorge Bergoglio has revealed. I don’t understand how contemporary ultramontanists of the Right can maintain their faith in papal supremacy while at the same time enduring a modernist pope who hates what they stand for, and who is trying his best to dismantle it. That was the plan all along, you know. Here is Seewald on how the St. Gallen Group — a conspiracy of progressive cardinals who tried to derail the election of Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy — identified Jorge Bergoglio as their man:

The group was founded by Cardinal Martini in 1996 and called St Gallen (after the place where they met). It aimed to torpedo the policy of John Paul II and to make the church ‘much more modern’ by things that were thought of as ‘reforms’. Ratzinger did not know of the existence of the St Gallen group.15 As well as Danneels and Martini, its members included the Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, the Germans Lehmann and Kasper, Audrys Bačkis from Lithuania and the Dutch Adrianus Simonis. The group’s clear favourite for the current election was Jorge Bergoglio. Danneels hit the headlines in 2010, because when he was in office as archbishop he had covered up child abuse by priests and then also kept secret about a bishop who abused his own nephew. That did not prevent Pope Francis from appointing him to the Synod on the Family in 2014.

Well, they eventually go their wish, when an ailing Benedict retired. In a future post, I’m going to write about the startling things I’ve learned from the Seewald biography about how weak and sickly Ratzinger has been for some time, long before his election as pope. Did you know he was blind in one eye? Did you know he had a pacemaker installed when he was head of the CDF? Did you know that he had been so weak, sick, and overwhelmed by his job as head of CDF that he spent a decade or so begging John Paul to let him retire? I did not. Anyway, it looks to this observer that while one could have claimed continuity with the past while the postconciliar popes Wojtyla and Ratzinger were on the papal throne, it is very, very hard to do that now. This is why Hilary White’s characteristically pungent tweeting landed with me. The question is this: Is Francis behaving lawlessly, with no heed to the Council’s actual teachings; or is Hilary White correct, and he is acting faithfully to the Council, and its “new religion”? And if he is acting lawlessly, then who can stop him? Nobody. He is the absolute monarch. Pius IX and the first Vatican Council saw to that. In Orthodoxy, a synod can depose a patriarch. But what recourse do Catholics have? It’s one thing to point to all the formal documents, but if you have a lawless pontiff, by which I mean one who doesn’t feel bound by them, and you have a lawless cadre of cardinals, bishops, theologians, and others who are on board with his lawless program, doesn’t this papacy amount to a great, “I refute it thus!”?

Pope Francis refused to answer the five dubia questions of the four cardinals, requesting a clarification of how his teaching in Amoris laetitia seems to contradict the Catholic faith. Two of the cardinals have since died. It is clear that the two others, Cardinal Brandmüller and Cardinal Burke, will either die themselves without receiving an answer, or bury Francis, who blew them off. It is extraordinary that Francis simply blew them off, and went ahead doing his thing — and nobody cared. Lawless is the word. If this or any pope can get away with behaving this way. Francis didn’t believe he owed anybody an answer. If his teaching contradicts settled, authoritative Church teaching, well, tough. He’s the pope, and they aren’t. Is this something new, a facsimile of Catholicism, but not authentically Catholic, as Hilary White says? If so, then where is the Catholic Church? Did the Orthodox have it right all along? I’m quite sure White and others who sympathize with her won’t go that far … but what happens when and if Francis, or his successor, follows the logic of Bergoglio’s constant promotion and coddling of the aggressively pro-LGBT Jesuit father James Martin, and in some way normalizes homosexuality within Catholic teaching? Will we see Catholic conservatives do what so many Anglican and Episcopalian conservatives do, and kick the can down the road, saying, “One more thing and I’m outta here!”? If what presents itself as Catholicism is a new religion, as Hilary White claims, then where is the Pope? Where is the seat of authority? I’m not asking rhetorically — I really do want to know how they think. Because sitting on St. Peter’s Square this week, reading on my phone the English translation of the funeral homily Francis had just delivered, I had a sinking feeling that all of these questions are going to be intensely relevant, and faster than many think.

Look at that photo of the Bavarian family. There, somehow, is the future of the Catholic Church, at least in Europe. May God bless and protect them.

UPDATE: A reader who is a very sharp observer of how Wokeness has marched through and conquered all the elite institutions of American life, writes:

I think the claim that the radicals were empowered and marched through every other institution would not have done so with or without Vatican II is exceedingly unlikely. As Benedict himself noted, the council itself is sound and doctrinally defensible, so it’s not as though that was the issue.

Another friend recently visited a major US military base, and texted me that he saw more Ukrainian flags and LGBT Pride flags flying than American ones. If even the military has been captured, what chance did the Catholic Church have?

Originally found on American Conservative. Read More

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