The Next Pope and the Crisis of the West

In February 1968, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła wrote Father Henri de Lubac, SJ, about a project in which the cardinal was engaged: a philosophical explanation of the uniqueness and nobility of the human person. The idea of the human, Wojtyla suggested, was being degraded, even pulverized, by ideologies that denied the deep truths built into us. The response could not be “sterile polemics.” Rather, the Church should counter-propose a higher, more compelling view of “the inviolable mystery of the person.”

That project eventually became Wojtyla’s major philosophical work, Person and Act. And while his immediate target was the communist “disintegration” of our humanity, Wojtyla likely intuited that other disintegrating forces in Western culture might prove even more threatening, over time, to “the inviolable mystery” that is every human person.

That time is now. For on June 15, the Supreme Court of the United States decreed that it is an illegal act of discrimination in certain circumstances to invoke what was, until recently, the universal idea of the human person, biblically expressed in Genesis 1:28: “…male and female he created them.” The author of the Court’s majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, Justice Neil Gorsuch, claimed that its ruling only touched employment practices involving same-sex attracted people and those who consider themselves “transgendered.” In fact, the Court jack-hammered a degraded, pulverized, and, yes, disintegrating idea of the human person deep into the foundations of American civil rights law.

According to that idea, each of us is what we say we are, period. Willfulness is the measure of the human and biological reality doesn’t matter. Thus as David Crawford, Michael Hanby, and Margaret Harper McCarthy pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, the Court’s decision means that “we are all transgendered now, even if sex and ‘gender identity’ coincide in an overwhelming majority of cases.” And, as always, detachment from reality has consequences. For as Mary Eberstadt noted, citizenship itself is subverted when Americans are coerced, socially and in some instances legally, to “assent to untruths.”

The usual suspects cheered Bostock’s alleged defense of freedom. But what kind of “freedom” is this? It certainly isn’t a mature freedom, tethered to truth and ordered to goodness. It’s more like the pseudo-freedom of the two-year old who imagines that his or her will is supreme: I want it, and I want it now. Once, childish willfulness was thought to be something that parents and educators should help children overcome, for the children’s sake and society’s. Bostock, by contrast, insists that the most extreme (and often deeply disturbed) forms of willfulness are legitimate exercises of liberty protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, published earlier this month by Ignatius Press, I note an instructive historical fact. The modern popes from Leo XIII through Francis have been men of different backgrounds, intellectual formations, and life experiences. Yet, they’ve all taught that the contemporary crisis of Western civilization, which first manifested itself lethally in World War I and which has intensified ever since, is fundamentally a crisis in the idea of the human person. Who are we? How ought we relate to others of our kind? What is our destiny? When a culture gets the answers to those questions wrong, there is hell to pay – and in this life.

As Wojtyła suggested to de Lubac, the Church’s response to this crisis cannot be the “sterile polemics” too frequently indulged by doomist Catholic ultra-traditionalists and woke Catholic progressives. The Church’s response must be that of the Second Vatican Council: “Christ the Lord….fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” Christ the preacher of the Beatitudes, Christ the Good Shepherd, Christ who thirsts for the faith of the Samaritan woman, Christ crucified and raised from death to a superabundant form of human life – this is where we encounter the truly, fully human. This is the truth of who we are and what our destiny is.

The entire Church must bear witness to those truths. For in a West dying from the incoherence that breeds both coercion and the plague of identity politics, those truths are cultural life-support now and a source of renewal for the future. By being relentlessly Christ-centered in his preaching, the next pope can empower all of us to rescue the idea of the human by proclaiming the crucified and risen Lord, the embodiment of self-giving love, as the true image of humanity and its freedom.

COMING UP: The Next Pope and Vatican II

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Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous  affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.