Balderdash on the Tiber

Today’s first reading is from an explication of the academic program of the reconfigured Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences by Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, the institute’s rector (translation provided by the institute):

The recomposition of the thought and practice of faith with the global covenant of man and woman is now, with all evidence, a planetary theological space for the epochal remodeling of the Christian form; and for the reconciliation of the human creature with the beauty of faith. To put it in the simplest terms, by overcoming every intellectualistic separation between theology and pastoral care, spirituality and life, knowledge and love, this evidence must be rendered convincing for all: the knowledge of faith cares about the men and women of our time.

Say what?

The Catholic blogosphere was in an uproar about these two sentences for days, the word “gnostic” appearing with some frequency. One commentator of a literary cast of mind compared Msgr. Sequeri’s discourse to the speech patterns of the agents of N.I.C.E. in C.S. Lewis’s novel, That Hideous Strength. My own thoughts turned to H.L. Mencken and the memorable autopsy he performed on President Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address of March 4, 1921:

Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, [Harding] takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line. It reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

(Some might imagine, in charity, that Msgr. Sequeri’s word salad made more sense in the original Italian. Alas, it is equally bizarre when rendered in the good monsignor’s native tongue.)

The John Paul II Institute was founded in 1982 to help reform Catholic moral theology. Over three decades, the institute has trained a new generation of Catholic scholars committed to the Gospel conviction that the truth sets us free in the deepest meaning of human freedom. Moreover, the institute’s scholars, following the lead of their now-canonized patron, have helped put Catholic moral theology on a more firm foundation through a searching philosophical reflection on the nature of the human person, created male and female and made for communion in sharing the divine gift of life.

On the occasions when I had the honor of lecturing at the institute (which is based at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome), I found both faculty and students intellectually inquisitive and pastorally sensitive. They were fully aware of the difficulties of proposing the Church’s ethic of human love in cultures dominated by a concept of the human person as a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is a “human right.” Yet they were also determined to make the Church’s proposal in a winsome way, for they were persuaded that truth makes for happiness, that happiness leads to beatitude, and that beatitude is the point of the moral life.

Now the John Paul II Institute has been hijacked by a new pack of Vandals conducting a new sack of Rome. The new Vandals march under the banner of pastoral “accompaniment.” But it has been clear for some time that their primary purpose is deconstructing John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor [The Splendor of Truth], and its teaching that some acts are simply wrong, period, such that no calculus of intentions and consequences can give them moral value. In aid of that destructive program, the Vandals have now fired tenured professors at the institute, remade the curriculum, and hired faculty whose grip on Catholic doctrine is tenuous at best. Now, they attempt to justify this vandalism with gobbledygook about the “planetary theological space for the epochal remodeling of the Christian form.”

This is nonsense on steroids. It has nothing to do with either the New Evangelization or compassionate pastoral care, and everything to do with a craven surrender to the spirit of the age.

Featured image by Rabax63 | Wikicommons

COMING UP: Ironies in the fire

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The eminent sociologist Peter Rossi was a world-class punster whose scholarly accomplishments fed a sometimes-whimsical view of the human condition — in which, Rossi memorably observed, “there are many ironies in the fire.”

That’s certainly true of the interaction between Catholicism and cultural, social, and political modernity over the last 250 years. The multiple ironies in that complex relationship, and their surprising results, are explored in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books), in which I turn the conventional telling of this tale inside-out and upside-down.

Why the inversion? Because I believe the way the story is typically told — modernity acts, Catholicism simply reacts — is wrong. Things were much more complicated and much more interesting than that. So were the outcomes.

It is certainly true that, at the beginnings of what we think of as the “modern world,” thinkers like Voltaire declared Catholicism am “infamy” that must be “crushed” — a demolition project taken up with relish by the French Revolution, the German Kulturkampf, the Italian Risorgimento, and other quintessential expressions of political modernity. That assault provoked a sharp reaction, with Popes Gregory XVI (1832-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) lambasting the modern project in its various expressions.

But then came the pivot of my story: the election of Pope Leo XIII, who at the beginning of his pontificate in 1878 took a bold, grand-strategic decision — the Church would engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic intellectual tools in order to convert it. That decision set in motion what I call the “Leonine Revolution”: the search for appropriate Catholic methods to engage and convert the new world being built by science and technology, post-monarchical politics, and skepticism about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Had Leo made the right decision? If he had, how should it be implemented? Those questions were hotly contested in the Church for 80 years, not without a fair amount of ecclesiastical elbow-throwing.

Then, in 1959, the newly-elected Pope John XXIII took another bold, grand-strategic decision: he would gather the energies set loose by the Leonine Revolution and focus them through the prism of an ecumenical council. And as he made clear in his magisterial opening address to what we know as Vatican II, the council’s purpose would be conversion: The Church would engage the modern world in order to offer it truths essential to satisfying the modern quest for freedom, solidarity, and prosperity.

That Johannine intention got lost in the 20-year brawl that followed Vatican II, as some Catholics interpreted the council as a call to embrace the modern world unreservedly, just as the late-modern world was slipping into incoherence: freedom misconstrued as license, and human beings considered as nothing more than twitching bundles of desires. Beginning with Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi [Proclaiming the Gospel], however, the Church’s teaching authority began to reclaim the evangelical, missionary imperative that had animated Leo XIII and John XXIII. That recentering on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 was given depth and breadth by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two men of Vatican II whose authoritative interpretation of the council summoned the Church to a springtime of evangelism, sharing with the world the gift of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ that every Christian is given in baptism.

So what were the ironies in this particular fire? The first and most important is that, through the twists and turns of its encounter with modernity (which began with both sides hurling condemnations and anathemas), the Catholic Church rediscovered the basic truth about itself: that we are a community of disciples in mission, whose purpose is to convert the world. The second, related irony is that, in the course of that rediscovery, the Catholic Church developed a social doctrine — a way of thinking about freedom, solidarity and prosperity — that could help save the post-modern, 21st-century world from self-destructing.

And today’s crisis of Catholic self-confidence? Viewed through this interpretive lens, the abuse-and-leadership crisis comes into focus as a time of essential purification, so that the Church can be a persuasive evangelist and a compelling advocate for the truths that make us truly free.

There are, indeed, many ironies in the fire. Grasping their providential character, as I try to do in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, suggests grounds for hope in this wintry Catholic season.

Featured Photo by Courtnie Tosana on Unsplash