Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sunday Thought(s): on Progress and Papal Authority



Right after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict the XVI (is the "the" necessary?), I read in the news - and saw on the telly, of course - that the reaction of some Catholics among us was one of grave disappointment, somewhat to the effect that their church had just been plunged back into the dark age of inquisitorial witch hunts, faggots aflame, thumbscrews, anathemas, crusades, and the whole sorry catalogue of previous offenses. But just as often this downbeat assessment was followed by a note of cheery optimism, which went something along these lines: look, Ratzinger is the result of the previous Pope's legacy. After all, he appointed a huge percentage of the cardinals eligible to vote, so naturally they'd pick his man. But the Church can't keep out the zephyrs of change forever. In 30 to 50 years it probably won't even look the same. We shall see women consecrating the bread and wine. After the Church takes its final step into the modern world by accepting birth control as a reasonable and moral means of spacing children (when we bother to have them at all), we shall see a general clemency issued by the Pope himself for all previous penance imposed upon those who bothered to confess having used it, an absolving of the absolution. In spite of the pathetically fervent and anachronistic desire of some for a return to Latin, we shall see that language purged from the liturgy and fall into its final desuetude. Priests will marry by the boatload, there will be liturgical dancing in the aisles, homosexual "commitments" will be blessed, John Kerry will not be required to impose his faith on himself before receiving communion, and the numbers of the Lord's flock will be increased an hundredfold. And so on and so on.

You've got to hand it to them. They really believe it. They really, really believe it. I heard the same thing after Humanae Vitae. "This is disappointing, but it will change." As John Paul issued encyclical after encyclical reaffirming what had come before, they said it again: "It will change." And they keep on a-sayin' it. Yes, they really believe it. In other words, they have great faith. Faith not in the immutability of doctrine or papal infallibility, but in the inevitability of progress. Since one generation's notion of it must give way to the next advance in our thinking, it seems a rather elusive concept to make the object of one's faith. Progress must always...progress. It's like the logician's infinite regress. The progression of progress. Or is it a tautology, circling back round upon itself? All I know is that it won't hold still. Whereas a doctrine has a destination, progress is like an arrow with no tip, a roadmap with no towns in which to stay the night.

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A corollary (I think) sometimes came to me during John Paul's final years. Did you ever notice how often we saw him seated, leaning on his staff, eyes tight shut in prayer? I often wondered what he was praying for, and what it was like to be him, and what the world must have looked like from where he sat. It is, of course, a tale of "lamentation, mourning and woe." He had authority from God to teach Truth to the whole earth, but the earth wouldn't listen. Even great numbers of his own communion would not listen. He knew he had that Truth - of a God who loves each of us as if there were no other - and wished only to lead us to it. But we are not easily led. We'd like a room in God's house, but only after negotiating the terms of the lease. Some don't want to live there at all. They live for the love of love's opposite.

In any case, it's hard to imagine being in possession of this knowledge only to watch it go unheeded in most parts of the earth, and in the individual hearts of most men. It's as though God had given him a job for which there was no way to measure success except by failure. It's a wonder to me that he didn't die of a broken heart long before the ravages of old age had had their way. There must have been consolations invisible to the earthly eye, through which lens I peer most all the time.

22 comments:

Faith said...

But consider...in the 50's and before liberals hoped for a Mass in their own language, to be able to see the priest consecrate, to have the communion rail gone and move physically as close as possible to the sanctuary. And God willed it so!
.......Well??????
If it be God's will. Amen.

Posted by Faith email at May 8, 2005 10:21 AM

William Luse said...

I'm not sure of what point you're trying to make.

Elena said...

She's trying to make the point that the church changes and so the progressives are right to hold on to their view that other changes are possible too, (although there seems to be some confusion between doctrines and dogmas on faith and moral issues which are God given and don't change, and practices and disciplines which do.)
But I understand what you wrote Mr. Luse and I agree. I think there is a lot of unnecessary handwringing and gnashing of teeth right now among our progressive friends.
Posted by Elena email at May 8, 2005 05:24 PM

John said...

I believe that he was seeing things through the eyes of faith. He also lived it through his words and his works. Faith without works is dead.
Some of those who say that "the church must change" are trying to make God in their own image: whimsical and willful.
We live in a world of laws. Gravity and conservation of momentum come to mind. I had to work hard to teach certain of my children (in a very willful stage of life) not to run into the street. Things that they did not then understand could easily kill them.
I wonder if there are spiritual laws that we (like my children at that age) do not understand. We can stand in the street sticking our tongues out at the rules and not see the truck that is about to take our spiritual lives.
As with many analogies it is somewhat strained. But, there may well be a reason that a loving parent chose to tell us "No!".
JPII asked us to continue praying for him. I am doing that. We cannot know his moments of doubt, his omissions, his weaknesses. I praise God for his teaching and his example. I pray that they were sufficent "works" for his "faith". Whatever he may have lacked, I pray that our prayers may help him through any purgation (cleansing) he needed. May he rest in Peace and the love of God.
Posted by John Huntley email at May 8, 2005 05:58 PM

William Luse said...

Thanks, Elena, you're probably right.
And John, my prayer is that he didn't need any of that purgation stuff. If he did, I can't imagine what's in store for me.

Micki said...

if i were able to find out that our precious JPII was in actual need of purgatory, i would fall into such a great despair that i may never stop weeping for my own lost soul.
May 8, 2005 09:44 PM

William Luse said...

Maybe purgatory has circles, like Dante's hell, and there's room for many. Though I'd probably be looking up at you from a lower level.
Posted by William Luse

Todd said...

I think it's hard to pin down any single reaction to "progressive" Catholicism. As Elena hints, some yearn for changes in discipline that will continue church reform. And many progressives have no desire to see the moral underpinnings of tradition collapse into rubble.
As Catholicism is lived today by most anyone, leaders close generally have more influence than leaders far away. As a progressive, I have a hope the Church will be better in ten or twenty years than it is now: more effective in evangelization, more prayerful and artistic in liturgy, more thorough in catechesis, and tons more people heading to retreats centers and mission work. Perhaps traditional Catholics share those yearnings for progress. Some seem to be talking more of a smaller Church. I don't get that silliness.
Some Catholics of various ideologies attempt to imprint their political or social ideologies (free markets, just war, contraception, gay sex, and most things in between) into their prog or tradi-Catholicism. My sense is that these folks miss the boat.
Personally, I don't need a wake-up call from a new pope, bishop, or pastor. I've been trying to enhance parish liturgy for over twenty years now. Generally, that means "new" ideas as opposed to existing ones. If there was a way to recapture the energy and excitement about the Church I recall from the 70's, that would be a good thing, especially if it were laced with a sensible and healthy dose of "what we know now."

William Luse said...

Todd, Thanks for taking the trouble, but as usual your use of language raises more questions than it answers, lacking as it does a single concrete example of what might constitute "progress." Yes, you used the word, which I'd thought my post might have warned you off of.
May 9, 2005 02:54 AM

Todd said...

If you're asking for specifics, I can oblige, though these examples are negotiable and far from complete:
"more effective in evangelization" = inching up our 33% Sunday Mass attendance rate gradually to the 40's and 50's
"more prayerful and artistic in liturgy" = parishes employing skilled musicians who can recruit a small handful of choirs, who take on organ students, who present music that represents the best of tradition and the best of the new. Real statues and icons rather than plaster reproductions purchased from a catalogue.
"more thorough in catechesis" = Catholic adult who know their way around the liturgy, Church history, Christian morality
"tons more people heading to retreats centers and mission work" = This one seemed specific enough, if wildly optimistic. Mormons send their youngsters away for mission work. We don't need to make it mandatory, but Catholic colleges or even dioceses could identify their catholicity more clearly by sponsoring and encouraging the missions.
The desire for progress implies a person is dissatisfied with the way things are. Dissatisfaction is an attitude with great potential for the spiritual life. A distaste for progress, at worst, can lean a soul dangerously close to acedia. That's not to say the individual has complete control of the outcome of the desire for progress, but in light of the human need for continuing metanoia, I think it's untenable to argue against progress on either a personal or a broader scale.
And a traditional Catholic who yearns for more Eucharistic devotion opportunities (one small example) in her or his parish: that's progress, too, and a worthy aspiration.
Posted by Todd email at May 9, 2005 09:59 AM

William Luse said...

Except for increasing mass attendance, it still sounds vague to me. I notice you don't touch upon the points raised in the post. For example, you'd like to see Humanae Vitae vigorously taught by the clergy and embraced by the faithful? You'd like to see women stop agitating for the "right" to be priests? I don't care if "tons" of people go on retreat. It all depends on what they're being fed.
Posted by William Luse email at May 9, 2005 02:01 PM

Todd said...

"I notice you don't touch upon the points raised in the post."
Perhaps that's because I don't see all the "progressive" points raised in your post as being central or even germane to my views or the views of many other liberals I know.
I think the HV ball is back in the Magisterium's court. We have a teaching soundly rejected by the practice of the overwhelming majority of the world's Catholic laity. Why? It may not be as simple as saying it's either God's will expressed in the Catholic faithful, or a wholesale disobedience of a proper teaching of the Church. If HV is proper and true, a new way will be needed to teach it. Not sure clergy are the whole answer there.
Women in the priesthood is neither a matter of faith or morals, and the case for the gag order is pretty weak. I think ordaining female Catholic priests at this time would be more damaging than helpful. It's an issue that deserves serious treatment, and not being cast as a political issue. For the record, men don't have the "right" to be priests; ordination is a call and a grace from God.
And retreats, yes. I guess I could agree with you that bad retreats are bad and good ones are good. Catholics should be making more good retreats, and they should be doing it as individuals, as families, with men, with women, and in the many special programs various retreat centers offer. When was the last time you went on retreat?
Posted by Todd email at May 9, 2005 02:46 PM
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Anonymous said...

We have a teaching soundly rejected by the practice of the overwhelming majority of the world's Catholic laity.
So what? The overwhelming majority of people who met God in the flesh rejected Him as well. That means nothing. And a large part of that rejection came, not from people being thoroughly taught the teaching (I assume you refer to AC), but from the overwhelming silence of those charged with teaching at the local level. For what, fear of losing followers? That did not seem to prevent Jesus from teaching the hard sayings.
Posted by c matt email at May 9, 2005 04:36 PM

Anonymous said...

"So what?"
Is the purpose merely to elucidate right teaching? Then the mission is accomplished, the issue is ended, and we can move on to the next pronouncement. But if you actually want people to listen and act on the teaching, something more might be required. It's the lost sheep issue: do you go after the lost one (or ninety-nine) or play it safe with what's left? WWJD, so to speak?
Posted by Todd email at May 9, 2005 07:15 PM

William Luse said...

I don't see all the "progressive" points raised in your post as being central or even germane to my views or the views of many other liberals I know.
If this is the case, why did you respond to the post at all?
If HV is proper and true, a new way will be needed to teach it.
If? I'll try one more time: do you want this teaching embraced by the faithful because you think it's true?
Women in the priesthood is neither a matter of faith or morals..
If you believe this, then one of the points raised in my post was "germane" to your views.
When was the last time I went on retreat? Two answers: 1. The last time my wife picked up a rolling pin. 2. None of your business.
Posted by William Luse email at May 9, 2005 09:56 PM

William Luse said...

"If this is the case, why did you respond to the post at all?"
Because I find it curious for people to set up specious arguments of their ideological adversaries only to knock them down. Sort of like playing chess with yourself: you always win. And lose. I responded because perhaps the self-styled orthodox do not have a true measure of those they consider ideological adversaries.
"I'll try one more time: do you want this teaching embraced by the faithful because you think it's true?"
Good question. I could be cute and say none of your business. To be honest, I'm not sure of my answer. The teaching works for my wife and me; we've had no problem with HV in practice or principle. I certainly wish westerners, even Catholics, had a healthier approach to marriage, child-rearing, and family.
Posted by Todd email at May 9, 2005 10:14 PM

William Luse said...

I wasn't being cute by saying "none of your business." I was stating a fact.
On Humanae Vitae...To be honest, I'm not sure of my answer.
In saying this, you tell me all I need to know, and that my argument against my "ideological adversaries" was not "specious," and that you are among them.
Posted by William Luse email at May 9, 2005 10:37 PM

Anonymous said...

Regarding John Paul the Great, one of the things that sticks out in my memory was how he said that he prayed for a person just before or while meeting him/her. As many people as he met that was close to "praying always". Be much more difficult to lust, for example, while praying for someone.
Posted by TSO email at May 10, 2005 12:52 PM

William Luse said...

I should read more by, and about, him, but he wrote so much I hardly know where to start. We've got Weigel's Witness to Hope, but I was wondering if I should start at the source. Any suggestions?
Posted by William Luse email at May 10, 2005 01:25 PM

William Luse said...

I was introduced via "Crossing the Threshold of Hope". Fabulous, but perhaps too introductory for someone like yourself. If you want to read about him, you shouldn't bother with anything other than Weigel.
The encyclicals are short but meaty. Perhaps the encyclical "Fides et Ratio", or the Divine Mercy one. Or "Veritas Splendor".
Posted by TSO email at May 20, 2005 03:41 PM

Anonymous said...

When will our long national nightmare - i.e. your silence - end?!
Posted by TSO email at May 25, 2005 10:55 AM

William Luse said...

There, I've broken it. :~)

Posted by William Luse email at May 25, 2005 06:47 PM