Pray for the Russian Church

Much to my surprise (and delight), the Wall Street Journal ran a story today covering the plight of the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC) and their ongoing synod in Italy which, among other things, is seeking greater recognition of their rights from Pope Francis. Here are some excerpts.

A group of Russian Catholics is demanding greater recognition from Pope Francis, saying the Vatican’s appeasement of Moscow threatens its very existence.

. . .

On the agenda is a longstanding request for their own bishop and resources for training their own clergy. Church leaders say the pope has ignored their appeals as he pursues closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is dominant in the country.

. . .

The complaints of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church echo those of other groups who feel Pope Francis is willing to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of other priorities.

Catholics in Ukraine accuse the pope of playing down Russian aggression toward their country in order to placate the Russian Orthodox Church, which has criticized Ukrainian Catholics’ opposition to Russian-backed separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated a close relationship with the Orthodox Church as part of a nationalist campaign.

Lamentably, Francis and Vatican hyper-ecumenists are not the only Catholics willing to overlook the plight of Greco-Catholics. As I have discussed elsewhere several times, far too many traditional Latin Catholics romanticize the Russian Orthodox Church and the secular Russian state on the belief that both represent twin pillars of Christian virtue. While the Russian Orthodox Church should be commended at times for its public witness against numerous liberal pathologies, no one should ignore the hard truth that many Russians remain nominally Orthodox and the Russian nation itself is steadily depopulating. Although the RGCC is small, it will never have any chance for ground-level growth unless it is given proper recognition and support from the Roman authorities. Now more than ever the RGCC needs the prayers of all of the faithful. With more and more Russians realizing that Orthodox Church has been compromised by secular politics, there is a moment of opportunity for the RGCC to bring souls into the Catholic fold. But will the Vatican let them?

A Remark on Economics/Political Economy

The Josias recently offered up a fresh translation of Pope Pius XII’s 1941 Pentecost radio address which, inter alia, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Patrick Smith, who had a hand in its publication, offers up some thoughts on the address over at his web-log while highlighting Pius XII’s reaffirmation of the Catholic Church’s competence to teach when the social and moral order intersect. That is distinct from teaching on purely practical matters, such as how a society ought to calibrate its competition (antitrust) penalties or design social safety nets. While popes—and indeed the episcopate as a whole—can weigh-in with suggestions, the faithful are not necessarily bound to follow them.

With this noted, it is important to highlight the fact that a great deal of confusion surrounds statements such as, “The Church does/does not have the competence to speak on economics.” Why? Because “economics,” in the widespread understanding, refers to a particular academic discipline which is often regarded as part of the “social sciences.” Economics, in this sense, refers to both a theoretical and practical discipline which, like so many academic disciplines, remains fractured into a series of “schools,” many of which disagree with each other on questions ranging from methodology to normativity. Those wishing to set aside the Church’s social magisterium when it conflicts with the tenets of libertarian or neoliberal ideology are, in a certain sense, correct when they say that the Church has no competence to speak on economics when “economics” is understood as “economic science.” (More on that below.) This is an easy parry, and one that needs to be addressed.

One way to do that is for Catholics who wish to defend the Church’s authentic social magisterium to move away from using the expression “economics” as commonly understood in favor of an older—and more defensible—expression, “political economy,” which does a better job of capturing the policy aspect of economics. Economics is not, as many economists would have it, a “value neutral” science; behind every economic theory or research question lies pre-scientific value judgments over what is to be studied, why, and how. Anthropological assumptions, which have nothing to do with economics per se, animate most branches of the economics discipline, and too often those assumptions are directly at odds with what revelation and natural reason tell us about the human person. Today, however, the economics discipline has cloaked itself in the garb of the physical sciences in order to give itself a prestige which it may not deserve. As the old joke goes, economists love to say that what they do is similar to what physicists and biologists do; but physicists and biologists would never dare say that what they do is similar to what an economist does.

Least Amount of Terror, Greatest Amount of Security

In the provocative Preface to the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Leo Strauss opines that “[t]he controversy between [reason and revelation/philosophy and theology] can easily degenerate into a race in which he wins who offers the smallest amount of security and the greatest terror.” “But,” Strauss continues, “just as an assertion does not become true because it is shown to be comforting, so it does not become true because it is shown to be terrifying.”

Sitting in the background of these remarks, penned three decades after the original German publication of the Spinoza book, is the problem of Heidegger, or more generally, the problem of existentialism—both religious and atheistic. An insecure world, gripped by terror, is what existentialism wishes to both expose and relieve. That relief, however, can only come about “if the highest of which a man knows is absolutely secure,” or so says Strauss. Revelation offers the security of truth, but the terrifying prospect that not even all men who come to knowledge of the truth will be secure in the end. For a philosopher like Heidegger—to turn to Strauss again—“there is no security, no happy ending, no divine shepherd, hope is replaced by thinking, the longing for eternity or belief in anything eternal is understood as stemming from ‘the spirit of revenge,’ from the desire to escape from all passing-away into something that never passes away.”

In considering the state of religion today (particularly Christianity), somewhat removed from the more poignant existential concerns of early 20th century Teutonic philosophers and theologians, it is possible to say that it has come around to the idea that best way to touch men’s souls is to offer the least amount of terror and the greatest degree of security (at least as concerns his final end). This shift, which among “magisterial” Christian confessions, is in noticeable tension with their respective traditions of promoting insecurity and terror as a sure (though perhaps not the surest) path to virtue (and onward to salvation), is often castigated as “liberal,” with “liberal” too often meaning little more than “not conservative” or, rather, “not traditional.” From a certain point of view, this trend does appear to start from the reality of insecurity in this world to a hope for security in the next; terror today does not mean terror for eternity; and the God who made all things good will not tolerate His creation to be lost to sin.

There is something paralyzing about this view, at least as it concerns the time that remains before the end of all things. Granted, under conditions of radically reduced terror and unprecedentedly amplified security, the temporal plane becomes a blank canvass onto which man can lightly sketch or intricately detail his greatest hopes and fears; his basest desires and noblest instincts; and so on, and so forth. There is, broadly speaking, a “background” or “source” to which he can repair to for guidance, namely a holy book with an ostensibly inspired but contested canon that fails to provide its own proper hermeneutic, though except for those who are typically castigated as “fundamentalist,” this need not be the only source. Convention rather than nature becomes the measuring stick, with too little scrutiny being given as to where and when those conventions emerged or why. If “why” is explored at all, it is explored in a “scientific” manner, that is the manner which sociology and psychology and anthropology deem appropriate; man’s movement from cannibalism and rape to agriculture and marriage has a survival component and nothing to do with the illumination of his faculties, either from within or above.

Whether or not this all seems personally quite horrific is secondary to the truth that there are those who do indeed see it as quite horrific. Against the narrative of greatest security and least terror comes a flurry of reminders in the opposite direction, rooted—again—not in existentialist concerns per se, but a nagging sense that physical and psychic hardships of an earlier age pointed toward the truth that without the transcendent, man’s position in this world amounted to nothing. It would have been better to have never been born into a world riddled with war, famine, and pestilence if death could not bring anything except a cessation of the misery without the promise of redemption. But since not all men have an equal participation in these miseries, and by a sheer act of the will, choose to bring new miseries down upon others for their own gain, death alone cannot be the answer—it should not be the answer. This belief, rooted in what seems to be a certain “natural” instinct for justice, should be a relic of bygone ages; it seems look an entirely inappropriate basis for conversion, repentance, and (possible) salvation.

Unfair to Dreher?

Recently, over at that great forum of learned and calm disputation known as Facebook, my friend Conor Dugan posted a link to his recent review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for Catholic World Report. Although I disagree with some of Dugan’s comments on the book, I am not interested in critiquing it. In response to Dugan’s post, Dreher himself wrote the following: “I do not mind at all constructive criticism, or any kind of criticism, as long as it challenges what I actually wrote in the book. But so many of these reviews don’t even do that. It’s bizarre. I wonder why that is?” This prompted me to write the following reply (to which I expect no answer to):

Because, in all fairness, much of what you wrote is derivative and seems divorced from the intellectual moorings you wanted it to have. Also keep in mind that no matter how much time goes on, people won’t forget the manner in which you left the Catholic Church; besmirched the Catholic Church for years in your writings; and yet repair to Catholicism whenever you need to add some heft to your positions (heft which you apparently cannot find from the Orthodox).

As I have noted elsewhere, people have been doing what you are now marketing for years—decades even. It’s not new. It doesn’t require a catchy title. And unlike what you are proposing, these folks—particularly traditional Catholic communities such as the one found in St. Mary’s, Kansas — aren’t backing down or retreating from the world. They are working — to quote St. Pius X’s motto—”to restore all things in Christ.” There is very little of that restorationist spirit in your book.

Please understand that I am saying this in all honesty and charity. While I would agree that some criticisms of your book have been uncharitable, I think in your understandable desire to defend yourself, you are overlooking some of the “meta” issues surrounding your work.

Although an argument could be made that Dreher’s confessional leanings should not affect the reception of his work, the truth of the matter is that he does strike a lot of people, particularly Catholics, as an opportunist who leans heavily on the Catholic tradition (or, at least, his own interpretation of it) while simultaneously rejecting the Church which gave birth to it. Moreover, Dreher appears to be insensitive to the fact that there are those in the West—including Catholics—who oppose Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church not out of some naïve love for secular liberalism but because of Russia’s longstanding and ongoing history of aggression toward the Catholic Church.

For instance, Dreher is quick to defend Russia from its Western critics, but fails to take note of Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and east Ukraine, including backing the persecution of Greek Catholics in the region. While Dreher recently opined that he “bristle[s]… at restrictions on religious liberty in Russia, in particular on the freedom of minority forms of Christianity,” he quickly writes this off as little more than an expression of his “Westernized view of how religion relates to society.” Now that Dreher is apparently cognizant of this, does that mean he now realizes that his “Westernized view” is wrong and that, as an Orthodox Christian, he should adopt the “Russian view”? That’s all fine and well if he does, but he should realize that by aligning with the ideology of the Russian state and its vassal church, Dreher places himself directly at odds with Catholicism—the very thing he needs above all else to advance his idea (or career).

There is more. As already noted above and elsewhere on this web-log, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” brand has been chided as derivative, incomplete, and retreatist. There are Catholic communities all over the world which have been living out what Dreher calls the “Benedict Option” for decades, and none of them saw fit to promote themselves through blogs, TV appearances, and book deals. They are simply working and living as they are supposed to be—in accordance with the timeless principles of the Catholic Church. And even those who find it impossible to relocate to an intentional Catholic community still find it possible to practice their faith without succumbing to the machinations of secular liberalism. And so it shouldn’t be difficult to see why Catholics might be put off that Dreher—an unapologetic rejecter of Catholicism—is hijacking their way of life in order to fill his bank account.

While some lines of criticism against The Benedict Option book do miss the mark (particularly those lines of criticism coming from liberal Christians), I do believe that in Dreher’s race to defend himself from all charges, he overlooks why so many Catholics are unsympathetic to his various projects. What can he do to correct that situation? One might hope, at the very least, that he publicly repents of the ways in which he has uncharitably attacked the Catholic Church since his departure more than a decade ago. I don’t see that happening, however, but with God all things are possible.

Some Thoughts on The Keepers

Less is being made of the new Netflix murder-drama spectacle The Keepers than I had anticipated. After the rousing success of Making a Murderer and, prior to that, the podcast Serial, I had assumed that The Keepers would become the talk around the water cooler at thousands of offices across the country. Apparently not. That is not to say that there hasn’t been some discussion of the miniseries’ contents. The graphic depictions of sexual abuse on teenage girls at a Baltimore Catholic school in the 1960s are as difficult to overlook as they are to stomach. Personally, following the grotesque revelations made in episodes 2 and 3, I had to hit pause on the show lest I find myself overtaken by irrational anticlericalism. Yes, I am well aware that the abuse accounts contained in the series are a gross exception, not the general rule, but acknowledging that fact does not relieve the burning sense of betrayal all Catholics should feel when presented with evidence of priests who violate all standards of decency and care in pursuit of their vile desires.

Like any expose of the Catholic Church, there are points where The Keepers tries to exaggerate the extent of secrecy, malfeasance, and general vice within the Church. There are, naturally, stories of people losing (or, rather, abandoning) their faith because of the abuse that went on, and the “hero” of the story—Sister Catherine Cesnik, who was murdered because she was apparently prepared to expose the abuse scandal in 1969—was a “hip” nun who had been granted permission to live outside of the cloister sans habit prior to her death. (It is hard to not shake the feeling that if she had remained living with her order rather than a mid-grade apartment complex, she might still be alive.)

Beyond the tales of abuse, corruption, and cover-ups galore, The Keepers provides an indirect, but interesting, snapshot of Catholic life during the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. While the image of Catholicism as it appeared in decades prior is still present, there is a noticeable shift in attitude among some of those interviewed about what it meant to be Catholic. For instance, one interviewee, an ex-Jesuit priest, had at one point proposed marriage to Sister Catherine just prior to his ordination and before she was to take her final vows. He was unashamed in his recollection that he had grown to love her; and though she apparently talked him into fulfilling his vocation, it didn’t “take” as they say. Like so many priests and religious after Vatican II and the laicization of the Church, he opted to abandon his calling, perhaps no longer seeing any “value” to it.

As the series proceeds, it’s hard not to notice the shift in aesthetics and tone that are presented over the decades. Well-adorned temples that had been standing for more than a century give way to barns decked out with modernist statuary surrounding priests vested in horse blankets presiding over an emaciated rite. One of the abuse victims, up until her grueling trial of attempting to get the Diocese of Baltimore to take action against the priest who repeatedly raped her, boasted of her involvement in the Church, complete with serving as an “Extraordinary Minister” of the Eucharist. Now, however, the unconsecrated fingers that once held the Body of Christ have been washed of all dealings with the Catholic Church. There was, in her mind, nothing left for the Church to give in exchange for everything some of its priests had taken from her decades ago.

In addition to the abuse accounts themselves, nothing is more chilling in the series than the descriptions of how these perverted clerics used the confessional to their advantage. Without compunction, these priests excommunicated themselves by violating the sacred seal of Confession in order to manipulate their victims into submitting to their carnal desires. While the abuses detailed in The Keepers are undoubtedly excessive, they do call to mind the more general problem of how clerics can use confession to inflict psychic and emotional harm on others, all in the name of being their “spiritual fathers.” Rather than dispensing God’s infinite mercy, they seek to aggrandize themselves by micro-managing the souls entrusted to their care, often leading them not to virtue but to emotional confusion and spiritual despair.

It is difficult for me to recommend The Keepers to everyone. Those who have suffered some form of abuse, regardless of the source, will find the graphic depictions contained in the miniseries difficult to stomach. Those already inclined to blame the Catholic Church for so many of the evils in this world will probably find the series to be little more than a confirmation of all of their prejudices. Even faithful Catholics might be so put off by what unfolds during the documentary that they may begin to question their place in the Church generally. Heaven forbid. However, despite its flaws and occasional biases, The Keepers should remind us that the Church is both a divine and very human institution. It is not, by virtue of its divine establishment, immune from satanic machinations and the corroding power of sin. Its history is one riddled with crises, both moral and doctrinal. While it may be difficult to acknowledge that, particularly in a day and age when “religion” is believed to be either outdated or representative of little more than easygoing sentimentality for the “spiritual,” there’s no good reason to look away from that reality, either.

How Not to Convert the Russian Orthodox

The following is an excerpt from a translated article by Fr. Sergey Golovanov, a Russian Greco-Catholic priest concerning the 1920 Jesuit mission to Istanbul, Turkey. The full text can be read over at the Holy Unia web-log here. (Thanks to Fr. Athanasius McVay for bringing it to my attention.)

In 1920, the superior general of the Society of Jesus ordered Fathers Baille, Jansseand, and Tyszkiewicz to go to Georgia. The war prevented the Jesuit missionaries from reaching their goal and stopped them in Istambul, where there were many thousands of Russian refugees. All Russians felt anxious and feared an attack by the Bolsheviks or extradition back to Soviet Russia. With the cooperation of the occupational administration of the Entente, the Jesuits organized relief action among Russians. Lois Baille, SJ, founded St. George’s Residential School for orphans. He appointed a Russian Latin-rite priest, Sipiagin, as director of the school. Sipiagin came from a family with mixed Russian-Polish origins. He was enthusiastic about the Latin rite and Western culture. Stanislas Tyszkiewicz, SJ, set up a hostel for Russian proselytes. He taught the Catholic Catechism. The proselytes passed an examination after several months, repudiated Orthodoxy, made a profession of Catholic faith and communicated at a Latin-rite Mass. The Jesuits stimulated the transit of Russians into the Latin rite. Tyszkiewicz enrolled paid secret informers among Russians to control the situation. He had many secret contacts with persons among the Orthodox intelligentsia and suggested making conversion to Catholicism a condition of any financial help. Many Russians angrily rejected the unbecoming proposals of Tyszkiewicz. Fr. Sergiy Bulgakov was disappointed in Catholicism after the meeting with Tyszkiewicz: the great universal idea of St. Peter’s ministry boiled down to mere proselytism. Tyszkiewicz was a Pole by origin and wrote many articles under the Russian pseudonym, Serge Bosforoff, where he called on Russians to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. He used the emigrants who received charitable help for his own purposes. He wrote a provocative «Open letter of the Thirty Russian Catholics to Orthodox Metropolitan Anastasiy Gribanovskiy», and used the names and signatures of those Russian people whom he had aided. This scandalous action compromised the idea of Catholicism among Russian intellectuals, who had sympathized with it earlier in the spirit of the philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev.

In 1922, Fr. Gleb Verhovskiy came to Istanbul at the direction of the Oriental Congregation. He set himself at variance with Tyszkiewicz owing to such improper methods of missionary activity and urged the conservation of Byzantine-rite status for all Russian proselytes. The Jesuits made Fr. Verhovskiy’s situation very moral uncomfortable, and obliged him to leave Istanbul.

The most scandalous action committed by Tyszkiewicz involved sending a group of Russian young people to study in France and Belgium with stipendiums from the Catholic Church. Tyszkiewicz came from a very aristocratic family, and normally tended to give excessive importance to other aristocrats. He appointed a former courtier and aristocrat, Nikolay Burdukov, as a curator of the group. All the Russian settlement in Istanbul was scandalized and moved to laughter by this appointment. Nikolay Burdukov was famous in high society as a sodomite with the telling alias «princess Mescherskaya.

I’m quoting this article excerpt on Opus Publicum for three reasons.

First, despite what the situation may be today, this debacle serves as an important illustration of just how poorly the Society of Jesus often handled its encounters with non-Catholic Eastern Christians, particularly the Orthodox. Rather than respect their traditional rites and spiritual patrimony, they frequently attempted to foist a particular brand of Latin Catholicism on their would-be proselytes, which did very little to win much sympathy toward unity with the Catholic Church. Compare this with the missionary efforts of Blessed Bishop Mykola Charnetsky and other Redemptorists working in Ukraine to bring the Orthodox back into the Catholic fold. Rather than attempt to equate “Latinism” with “Catholicism,” they adopted the form of the Byzantine Rite in use among the Russian Orthodox in the hopes of demonstrating that to be Catholic does not not mean sacrificing one’s authentic traditions.

Second, there was genuine interest among certain segments of late 19th/early 20th century Russian society for unity with Rome. After seeing how the Russian Orthodox Church had become little more than a handmaid of the Russian Imperial state, only Rome proved to be a truly independent ecclesiastical force working in the world; standing up to the onslaughts of liberalism; and refusing — at least until the 1960s — to forego the social rights of Christ the King in favor of a “safe compromise” with secular powers. Even Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who eventually became a fierce critic of certain Latin Catholic doctrines, was interested in joining the Catholic Church after his exile by the Soviets, though clearly that never came to pass.

Last, there are far too many (traditional and some conservative) Latin Catholics today who seem to think that the Church should approach the Orthodox in a manner not dissimilar from the Jesuits recounted above. Given the suspicion in which many of the Orthodox now hold the Catholic Church, coupled with the Latin Church’s demolition of its liturgical patrimony, that’s never going to work. Yes, some individual Orthodox priests and laity do choose to unite themselves with Rome, but often only after wading through a great deal of nonsense. (Those fortunate enough to have access to a Greco-Catholic parish tend to have an easier time of it.) This is why true ecumenical dialogue — understood as a necessary step toward re-unification — is neither a waste of time nor a betrayal of the Catholic Faith. Before unity can become a reality, centuries of misunderstandings and political animosity have to be swept away. While Catholics — Latin or Greek — should continue to witness  to their estranged Orthodox brethren and never compromise the Faith, they should do so with patience and charity. In other words, don’t follow the historic lead of the Jesuits.

Some Comments on a (Liturgical) Tweet

Yesterday, in a moment of mild exacerbation over—yes—something I read on the Internet, I tweeted out the following: “I remain astonished that there are people out there deeply devoted to private revelations and yet don’t pray the Psalms.” (In retrospect, I probably should have just said “private devotions” generally.) Thankfully, no one took my remark as a knock against devotion to Our Lady of Fatima (a devotion I hold and have recently defended). My point (to the extent one can have a “point” in a tweet) was to express a real perplexity over present day devotional priorities, one which I admit likely plays into certain Protestant-based narratives about the Scriptural ignorance of Catholics and the absence of a surefire Biblical foundation to the Catholic Faith. Then again, on that matter, Protestants aren’t entirely wrong. Catholic Biblical literacy is probably as poor as it has ever been since the advent of the printing press; just because people own Bibles doesn’t mean they read them. Further, given the extent to which the ideologically charged “findings” of “objective Biblical science” have penetrated Catholic Scriptural exegesis and preaching (“The words the second-century author of the Gospel we attribute to John placed on the lips of Johannine community’s conception of the Jesus who rose in their hearts…”), I long for the days when the Biblical text had to be copied-out by hand—in Greek or Latin, safe from the raw idiocy of armchair exegetes.

But in many ways that’s a separate matter from the one which caught my attention, namely the sure and steady replacement of the Church’s public prayer (appropriated, I should add, from the public prayer of the pre-Christian Jews) with devotions which often have less than half-a-millennium of history behind them. No doubt the reasons for this phenomenon are complex, particularly in the Latin Church where the Divine Office has all but disappeared from parish life despite the greater “accessibility” of the rather problematic Liturgy of the Hours. Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite do a noticeably better job of things, though restoring Matins or even the small hours (Terce and Sext) to regular usage has been a struggle for many Greco-Catholic parishes in the West. It’s difficult not to sympathize a tad bit with certain liturgical extremists who throw their hands up in the air when they see 30 minutes of para-liturgical devotions before morning Mass but no interest in reciting Prime in common.

It seems that there is a sense among too many Catholics that the Psalms, if not the Bible as a whole, “belong to the Church,” which by that they mean, “Belong to the priests.” It is the duty of the cleric to recite the Miserere, De Profundis, and Laudate Dominum de caelis; it is the reserve of the people to make novenas to the Sacred Heart and pray the Rosary.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, let me make clear that I have nothing against para-liturgical and/or private devotions per se, particularly ones with as long and wonderful history as the Rosary. Moreover, I am not insensitive to the fact that for a significant portion of Christian history, most lay folk were illiterate and therefore depended largely on fairly simple, memorized prayers (Pater, Ave, and Gloria). Even as recently as the 17th and 18th centuries, St. Alphonsus and the members of the Redemptorist order sought to instruct the poor and uneducated faithful in meditative prayer so that they may draw closer to God in their everyday lives. Praise be. However, it should be recalled that before the spread of prayer books and increased literacy, the public recitation of the Divine Office was far, far more prevalent than it is today. It was not absent from the life of the Church—the whole Church—even if, arguably, it may have been kept at some distance from the laity.

Despite likely being in the minority, I am convinced that until the liturgical life of the Church is revived for the people of God (clerical and lay), the Church’s spiritual and physical health will not be restored. This has to mean more than just the Mass (Divine Liturgy), even if it is necessary to begin there. Christianity, particularly in the West, has been reduced to a “Sunday church,” and with regard to Catholicism in particular, liturgical observance is primarily thought of in terms of legal obligation rather than an integral part of a renewed life in Christ. And that must mean more than being present at the Eucharist; it must also mean standing in continuity with all God’s people throughout the millennia, giving praise and worship to God at the dawning of the day and the setting of the sun.

Lubac, Ressourcement, Preparing a Talk

One could say, from a certain point of view, that there are two kinds of theologians; some say: let us reread Scripture, Saint Paul, etc.; let us examine tradition; let us listen to the great classical theologians; let us not forget to pay attention to the Greeks; let us not neglect history; let us situate ourselves in this vast context and understand the ecclesiastical texts according to it; let us not fail, either, to inform ourselves about the problems, needs, and difficulties of today, etc.—The others say: let us reread all of the ecclesiastical texts of these last hundred years, encyclicals, letters, occasional speeches, decisions made against something or other, monita of the Holy Office, etc.; from all of that, without dropping any of it or correcting the least word, let us make a mosaic, let us push the thought a little farther, let us give to each assertion a stronger value; above all, let us not look at anything outside; let us not lose ourselves in the new research on Scripture or tradition or a fortiori on any recent ideas, which might make us relativize our absolute.—Only a theologian of the second type is considered to be “sure” in a certain milieu.

“Hoc non fundatur in documentis” [This is not based on the [ecclesiastical] documents]: I have heard that more than once. The conclusion to be drawn from it: it is not a sure doctrine; it is a doctrine that is advisable to dismiss, even if it has the support of Scripture and tradition. Only the ecclesiastical documents count, especially the most recent ones. The least words of these documents are received as absolute. In response to any objection against any particular idea or formula or one-sided phrase: “Ipsa verba desumpta sunt ex documentis; sunt in talibus litteris encyclisis; in tali oratione pontificali” [These expressions are taken from the ecclesiastical documents; they figure in some particular encyclical letter or other; in some pontifical discourse or other].” So no one can do anything any longer but submit.

There is in this a very excessive positivism of method and fundamentalism of spirit—which could provoke as a reaction, among some, a contempt for all writing of the magisterium.

– Henri de Lubac, “September 30, 1961,” Vatican Council Notebooks, vol. 1 (Ignatius Press 2015), pp. 93-94.

In preparing for a panel talk based around Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s excellent First Things article, “Catholicism in an Age of Discontent,” I found myself skimming back through Fr. Henri de Lubac’s Vatican II notebooks, particularly his critical remarks concerning the so-called “Roman theologians.” It is generally expected that my contribution to the panel will be along traditionalist lines with the other two panelists defending (albeit with some possible reservations) the “new theology” and ressourcement (“return to the sources”) movement to which de Lubac belonged. Truth be told, I am not sure what “angle” I will take, or if I will even take one at all. For as White’s article itself makes clear, the story of pre-/post-Conciliar Catholic theology is not as simple as the polemicists of our age maintain. There is an undeniable childishness found in de Lubac’s description of his theological adversaries in the run-up to Vatican II; but that doesn’t make his description wholly inaccurate either. Today, there is a culture of “positivism of method and fundamentalism of spirit” found within certain traditional Catholic circles which cannot be dismissed lightly. At the same time, a nauseating triumphalism permeates the work of too many post-Conciliar theologians who wish to maintain the falsehood that Vatican II dogmatized the theological projects of a handful of men whose works were once eyed with understandable suspicion.

As a Greco-Catholic who has never had a high fondness for the excesses of manualism nor believes that the theology of the Church can be reduced to St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa and the commentarial tradition, I am not unsympathetic with de Lubac’s desire to take a broader view of the Church’s tradition, one built by the Greek and Syrian East just as it was built by the Latin West. However, as Fr. Peter Totleben observed in an old thread on a previous iteration of this web-log, one of the perils of ressourcement is the tendency for some to use this-or-that passage in a Church Father or two in order to perform an end-run around the settled magisterium of the Church. In the hands of unscrupulous souls, ressourcement becomes just another tool of dissent; it purports to uphold tradition while simultaneously tearing it down. Consider Elliot Milco’s words on the matter.

[T]here is an overall difficulty in the implications of the Ressourcement position for the proper approach to the Tradition as a whole.  If these new theologians are correct in claiming that the main threads of theological reflection as practiced over the past thousand years are largely fruitless and disposable, and that “authentic theology” needs to be recovered from some hidden trove where it has lain undiscovered in the writings of the Greek Fathers, then it becomes difficult to tell how one is supposed to perform this rediscovery.  Doesn’t one become a kind of highly-educated protestant?  Isn’t the entire function of the tradition between the Fathers and the Present that it has conveyed the former reliably to the latter together with all necessary clarifications and developments to render their testimony intelligible in the present time?  And what are we to make of the innumerable commendations by great Popes and Saints for this supposedly dry and barren mode of theological reflection?  Could it be that Ressourcement is just an excuse to abandon the Catholic tradition altogether, and reconstruct a new one according to one’s tastes and creative inclinations?

Of course, it is possible to warp Milco’s line of critique into an excuse to ignore Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the non-Latin patrimony of the Church—which, as noted, is a real problem for some traditional Catholics (though not for Milco himself). There is no obvious reason one can’t defend the Catholic renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries while drinking deeply from the theological orations of St. Gregory Nazianzus or the ascetical homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian. A Greco-Catholic should feel perfectly comfortable in joining Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Josyf Slipyj in studying the Angelic Doctor and seeing his theology as a bridge between East and West just as a Latin Catholic should see the same in the works of St. John Damascene. Why this broadmindedness seems so difficult to attain to in a day and age of unprecedented access to the Church’s vast intellectual and spiritual treasures isn’t entirely a mystery; ideological black boxes are safe havens. Noting that doesn’t make this closeminded reality any less unsettling, however.