Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fr Ratzinger, von Balthasar, and demolishing the bastions

Veneration of the relic of St Edmund: from
St Edmund's College, Ware.

Considering the reactions (mostly on Twitter) to my post about Fr Ratzinger's 1969 remarks about how once all the 'edifices' and 'privileges' of the Church had been completely wrecked, 'a great power will flow' from the Church, it strikes me how difficult many people find recognising liberalism when they see it. Even after all this time, many people with conservative, even traditional, instincts, don't really grasp what liberals are all about.

It should be obvious that the 1969 passage is an expression of liberal views; it is a perfectly clear, indeed a classical exposition of them. In his (much criticised) early book, Principles of Catholic Theology, Fr Ratzinger wrote:

The fact is, as Hans Urs von Balthasar pointed out as early as 1952, that … she [the Church] must relinquish many of the things that have hitherto spelled security for her and that she has taken for granted. She must demolish longstanding bastions and trust solely the shield of faith.

This is, clearly, the same thought as that expressed in the passage I quoted in the earlier post. Far from him regretting the loss of the Church's institutional baggage, as one might call it, Fr Ratzinger thought it was necessary and good.

This is simply the application to the Church of what political liberals have been saying since Rousseau, and are saying today more loudly than ever. Destroy the institutions, destroy the structures, customs, traditions and expectations of traditional society, of morality, of the family, and of the state, and a great awakening, a great liberation, a great flowering of humanity will take place. Haven't we all heard this? And isn't its absurdity sufficiently evident?

Political liberals like to say that what they call 'the nuclear family' and 'capitalism' are 'intrinsically oppressive'. They are no more friendly towards the extended family or to small-holders: Stalin and Mao reconfigured industry to serve the state rather than shareholders, but faced with people living traditional, pre-industrial, ways of life, felt the need to starve and machine-gun them by the million. No, liberals hate 'feudalism' even more than they hate 'capitalism', because its social institutions are more powerful, and for the liberal therefore by definition more powerfully oppressive. Since they don't believe in Original Sin, it must be the oppression from these 'structures' which is stopping everything from being wonderful.

Don't blame the Communists for not planning how things should be organised after the revolution. Don't blame secular liberals for not thinking through how children will be brought up once divorce, contraception, welfare, and gender theory have finished off the institution of marriage once and for all. Don't blame liberal Catholics for not thinking how young people will acquire the Faith without systematic catechesis or habituation into pious practices. These are not chance omissions. They honestly believe that no one needs to worry about that glorious future. Without the crushing of the human spirit by the institutions of oppression, it will all be wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Don't you see? The dawn is breaking! If obstacles remain, they will be destroyed just as the first opponents of the Revolution were! Oh yes, we may have to break a few eggs to make the omelette, but it will be worth it.

We know this story, and we know it has been tried - oh, how it has been tried - and it always fails, because the most potent obstacles to peace and harmony are within us, the selfish and disordered desires of fallen human nature. Of course there have been oppressive customs and institutions over the centuries, and the Traditionalist is faced with the complex and subtle task of reforming and purifying while maintaining, strengthening, and passing on, the institutions which have grown up, because while they can be abused, they exist to limit the opportunities for crime and sin and to cultivate virtue and facilitate mutual aid.

The crisis of the Church mirrors the crisis of Society, because the revolutionary ideology which has been destroying the Church's institutions is no more than a religious variant on the revolutionary ideology which has been gnawing at the vitals of secular society for two centuries and more. Society's crisis of marriage and the family is matched by an ecclesial crisis, not only in the practice of marriage and the family, but in the theology as well. In both cases, numerous 'conservatives' are determined to resist what the liberals want to do tomorrow, while accepting what the liberals did yesterday, and accommodating what the liberals are doing today. We need to see things more clearly than that; we need to work not for a slowing down of the revolution, but a restoration of those 'edifices' or 'bastions' which sustained the life of our predecessors.

What are we talking about? Practices and customs, institutions and laws, which incarnate the Faith, proclaim it to others, bind the Catholic community together, and help the individual to live a good life. Fish on Fridays, head coverings for ladies in church, the Angelus, Catholic schools and hospitals, canon law, and above all the Traditional liturgy, as well as the institutions of Natural Law like the family, and of Divine Law like the Sacraments and the Church herself.

Why would anyone prefer to live as Catholics without the full range of such things, given the choice? Because in some confused way people like von Balthasar and the young Fr Ratzinger, not to mention the more hard-line liberals, thought they made for rigidity and unhealthy regimentation, contrary to spontaneity and authenticity. (No doubt they made an exception for those 'bastions' established by Natural and Divine Law, though this exception seems arbitrary from the point of view of liberal ideology.)

The liberal objection to the 'bastions' is based on a grain of truth in the way things were done in a certain period, perhaps, plus a mountain of Romantic and Rationalist ideology. Habitual and formal actions can be the most heartfelt things we do; they can be the ones most expressive of our deepest commitments. Think of solemn promises, such as wedding vows, or habitual expressions of affection. They are formal because they are important; they are habitual, because they have become part of our very souls.

Bishop Fulton Sheen addressed the argument about the demolition of bastions very well with a little parable [from Chesterton, I'm told: see the combox]. (I've heard him tell it in a recorded talk, but I found the text online on Rorate Caeli blog.)

"In the midst of a great sea there was an island with a great wall, a high wall. On that island lived children, who sang and played. One day some men came to the island in a rowboat. They called themselves 'liberators' and said to the children, 'Who put up these walls? Who built these barriers? Can you not see that they are restraining your freedom and your liberty? Tear them down. Be free.'

"The children tore down the walls. Now if you go back, you will find all the children huddled together in the center of the island, afraid to sing, afraid to play, afraid to dance, afraid of falling into the sea!"

Distributing Holy Communion, celebrating Mass, receiving priestly ordination:
the priestly life in a stained glass window at St Edmund's College, Ware.

See also the Position Paper on the Extraordinary Form and Western Culture.

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  1. Can't fault a word of that! Thank you Dr Shaw.

    But what an utterly disastrous pontificate this is; the temptation to give in to despair is strengthened by every new thing the Holy Father says.
    I have to admit that for me, the SSPX is looking a better option as each day passes.

    1. And Saint Leo says, "God Himself teaches us by the Prophet Isaias: I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, and I will turn the darkness before them into light and I will not forsake them."

      Do not despair. Keep Praying.

    2. Thank you very much for that, Zephyrinus. I will.

    3. Don't forget Isaiah, who thought he was the only prophet left, and was so miserable at the wickedness around him he wanted to crawl into a corner and die. The Lord showed him he was not alone and encouraged him to keep going. Ratzinger changed his mind around 1968 (and the liberals hate him for sussing their plot).

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  3. The Walled Garden is in Chapter 9 of Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Was he the first begetter of this parable; or was he borrowing it from elsewhere? He doesn't say.

  4. Chesterton uses a related (and relevant) metaphor in 'The Thing':

    'In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

    'This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.'

  5. And now we see the earthly end of destroying these edifices is really Islam.

  6. Your readers will find an excellent introduction to some of von Balthasar's more questionable teachings here:


    Scroll down the page; there are several articles that discuss him. His ideas certainly smell like heresy to this uneducated layman.

  7. These are both excellent essays - and I do think you are right to identify in Ratzinger's earlier writings here a mistrust for the panoply of Church institutions and confessional state privileges with which he had grown up. That said: even on these terms, Ratzinger was introducing a somber note not much in evidence in the writings of his other liberal contemporaries in the 60's (at least so far as I have read).

    I do wonder if we continue to underestimate the impact of the world wars in fostering this liberal mindset in the Church (which had been in evidence for many years, but never with the same force as it took on in the postwar era), and correspondingly weakening institutional resistance to it. It's not just that there was a loss of confidence in a Church which had failed to avert these unprecedentedly destructive wars by societies it had, in most cases, largely formed; but that the real victory was won by Anglo-American and Soviet societies which formed by an ethos hostile or at best tolerant of Catholicism, whereas the societies the Church was strongest in tended to be those most compromised by fascism (including Joseph Ratzinger's Bavaria), notwithstanding that the Church had made formal condemnations of fascism and had worked to resist it before and during the war. But that's a historical question, and one whose answer may be of limited value to us today as we attempt to rebuild and restore what has been lost.

  8. I wonder whether an element of unhealthy Prussian militarism and discipline had not fed into the Catholic Church in Germany provoking an over-reaction?

  9. Can we honestly admit that the infiltration into the Church of Communists and those infected with the heresy of Modernism, as well as those who were "liberal" already,combined together intend to destroy the true faith?

    If we look at what has happened since Vatican II and all of the changes it invoked with consistent changes occurring during each pontificate after it, it ought to be clear by now that the institutional operation of the Church is no longer Catholic. Oh sure, some remnants remain as destroying nineteen centuries of teachings will take more than 50 years to accomplish but within these last 50 years, nothing comparable in history has succeeded in destroying the true faith, even the Protestant Revolt and the French and American Revolutions.

  10. pious practises
    the practise of marriage
    Practises and customs
    Tut, tut. Even the Americans can spell the noun correctly.