Till Tuesday

In a recent interview on his meeting with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Society of St. Pius X’s Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, had this to say on what he sees as a connection between the Second Vatican Council and Cardinal Walter Kasper’s troubling proposal to overhaul Church praxis with respect to divorced-and-remarried Catholics:

Cardinal Kasper’s proposals in favor of Communion for divorced-and-remarried persons are an illustration of what we blame on the Council. In the talk that he gave to the cardinals during the Consistory on February 20th of this year, he proposed doing again what was done at the Council, namely: reaffirming Catholic doctrine while offering pastoral overtures. In his various interviews with journalists he harps on this distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice. He says that theoretically doctrine cannot change, but he introduces the notion that concretely, in reality, there are some situations in which the doctrine cannot be applied. Then, in his opinion, only a pastoral approach is capable of finding solutions . . . at the expense of doctrine.

For our part, we blame the Council for making this artificial distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice, because pastoral practice must follow from doctrine. Through multiple pastoral concessions, substantial changes have been introduced in the Church, and its doctrine has been affected. This is what happened during and after the Council, and we denounce the same strategy that is being used today against the morality of marriage.

These are strong but necessary words, for a new narrative is beginning to creep into the Church, one which holds that whatever it is that is unfolding right now in the Church is in no way, shape, or form related to the Council. That is to say, a fresh rupture is occurring which is at odds with the “fruits of the Council” which allegedly grew during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Narratives of rupture are nothing new, though for many years traditional Catholics were maligned for developing one with respect to the pre- and post-Conciliar Church. The truth is that the narrative rupture entered Catholic consciousness some time before that, as evidenced in no small part by the “new theology” and its ostensible claim to go “back to the sources” and “refresh” Catholic theology and doctrine in the light of the Church Fathers which the later Scholastics either misunderstood or ignored over the course of many centuries. A narrative of rupture never stands alone, of course. For once it is introduced, it is almost always necessary to affirm that one is, in fact, continuing forward with “the tradition” (vaguely formulated).

To return to Bishop Fellay’s statement, let’s be clear that his read of current events is the more difficult one insofar as it does not provide cover in the way most narratives of rupture do. What he is saying, in effect, is that the Church and her leadership needs to take responsibility for what came after the Council and not write-off Kasper’s proposals, or the sentiments of other Church leaders, as the sui generis aberrations which some think they are. That’s a comforting way to look at affairs; but is it the correct way? For at some concrete point in the Church’s history the sundering of praxis and doctrine in the name of “the pastoral” entered into the picture, and it wasn’t last February. Moreover, those who deny that a shift in praxis does not create at least the appearance of a shift in doctrine are deluding themselves. Think of how difficult it has become to reaffirm the indefectible teaching concerning an exclusively male priesthood when female altar servers and “Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion” are normative throughout the Catholic Church. No, neither of those “roles” are ordained positions, but their frequent employment in the Church has sent — and continues to send — the message that the Church’s doctrine on the priesthood is starting to erode at the margins. It’s only a matter of time, they say, before the “opening up of the Church” promised back in the 1960s is complete.

It is not enough to comfort ourselves with pleasant statements like “infallible doctrine cannot be changed” or “dogmas will be left untouched.” Both claims are of course true. However, what is to be done with the fact that an increasing number of Catholics do believe, in all sincerity, that a shift in praxis in the name of the pastoral means a shift in doctrine? Even prior to re-entering the Catholic Church I had met and conversed with a number of devout and honest individuals who had been told by their respective priests that it was acceptable to use contraception “in certain circumstances,” that premarital relations wasn’t a sin if you truly loved the other person, and that once-abhorrent practices such as masturbation, intentionally missing Mass on Sundays, and receiving the Eucharist in a state of serious sin were no longer “on the books” so-to-speak. Indeed, through the exercise of “pastoral care” the very concept of mortal sin has been obscured, if not eliminated altogether. The doctrine on mortal sin remains; as a practical matter it is effectively a nonissue.