Tuesday, June 26, 2018

My presentation to the Rome Study Day

I gave the short opening address at the Study Day on Modernism in Rome, organised by the Lepanto Foundation, which took place on Saturday. Here it is.

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Reverend Fathers, ladies and gentlemen.
The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, in his history of the lamentable 4th century AD, observed that, as it became overwhelmed by barbarian invaders, the Empire behaved like an inexperienced boxer, moving to protect that part which had just been struck, instead of countering the blow to come. Those charged with the defence of the Catholic Faith, whether as Pastors, theologians, or simple members of the laity with the graces and the obligations which the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation imply, have in recent years had a very similar experience. One day we find the indissolubility of sacramental marriage is under attack, an attack apparently supported by prominent Cardinals. A serious defence of this doctrine requires serious work. One looks up from one’s books six months or even six weeks later and the talk is no longer of the indissolubility of marriage: that topic has almost been forgotten. No, the internet is now alive with the question of whether homosexual unions can be a means of grace. However outrageous the proposal may seem, we may be sure that its proponents will be taking it for granted as a stepping-stone to something yet more shocking a year from now. What will that be? The mind boggles. How could one possibly prepare for the blow next to come?

It is tempting, in this situation, to respond to each issue in a superficial, polemical, way. And indeed many of the challenges thrown at the Faith in this age of social media deserve no more. However, the danger is that in the end the arguments in favour of our august Faith, revealed by God and entrusted to the safekeeping of the Apostles and their successors, begin to look as flippant and shallow as the arguments they oppose. It may appear to onlookers that they are observing merely two groups of people scoring debating-points off each other, a spectacle which is neither enlightening nor edifying.
There is, however, an alternative. There is a way of counting the blow just struck and the blow to come, because they both, in fact, derive ultimately from the same root. This entire debate, this entire dogmatic crisis, is driven by a set of closely related fundamental issues. Roughly speaking, these are the issues of the objectivity of the sacraments, the nature of sanctifying grace, the place of tradition and authority in theology, and the nature of truth itself, in faith and in morals. These issues have come to prominence in the historical context of the Modernist movement, of the Nouvelle Theologie, of Neo-Modernism, and of the liturgical reform.


This shifting of the focus from the specific to the general and the fundamental has been the approach of the Appeal to the Cardinals of 2016, and of the Correctio Filialis of 2017, of both of which I had the privilege of being the Spokesman. It was the approach of the Four Cardinals’ Dubia, also in 2016, and it is the approach of the present Study Day. My experience of the debate arising out of the earlier initiatives has confirmed to me that this approach is the correct one.

It was clear to the signatories of the Appeal and of the Correctio Filialis alike that only in the context of dissent from, or serious misunderstanding of, the Church’s teaching on the fundamental issues just noted can the specific, startling pastoral proposals we encounter each morning in the news make sense, let alone be found attractive. And yet it is also seems to be true that few of those who disturb the tranquillity of the Faithful with these proposals recognise that they are connected with such fundamental and problematic issues. If you point out the fundamental issues, many of these individuals are genuinely baffled, as though they had never given them a moment’s thought.

In the course of the intense debates following, particularly, the Correctio Filialis, I was not aware of anyone coming forward, for example, with a theology of marriage which would allow divorce and remarriage; a theology of the Eucharist that rejected the Real Presence; or a theology of Grace which rejected the distinction between mortal and venial sin. It would not be difficult to do so: such theologies are two-a-penny in Protestant circles. But the new pastoral orientation of Pope Francis, or whatever its defenders wish to call it, is not to have fundamental theological foundations of any kind. We may think that it calls for this or that theological presupposition, but the official line of its supporters is that it is compatible with all the fundamentals of the Catholic Faith, but that this compatibility should not be clarified or discussed, on pain of disloyalty to the Holy Father. There is simply a zone of compelled silence where one would expect a theological argument to be.
The benefit of pressing the fundamental issues, then, should be apparent. By doing so we were able to force our critics to come to a decision. Either they care about the teaching of the Church, or they do not. Still without setting out a coherent alternative theological structure, we found at this point in the discussion that a number of our more committed critics began to ridicule the idea that Divine Revelation, Tradition, or the historic Papal Magisterium could bind the Church or the Holy Father today. One of the high points of this process was a Tweet, which became famous, despite its subsequent deletion, by the theologian Massimo Faggioli:

Problem is the theological view conveyed by some of the most active promoters of the Old Mass—theological views that are not Catholic any more.[1]

A similar sentiment was expressed by Austen Ivereigh, Papal biographer and co-founder of  Catholic Voices, only a few days ago; it is still being ridiculed on Twitter.

One time, the fringe at big Catholic events was made up of LGBT groups, women’s ordination & ‘Church of the poor’ advocates, complete with their friendly bishops. Now the fringe is occupied by traditionalists (incl bishops) pushing a 1930 encyclical as a way out of ‘confusion’.

The 1930 encyclical referred to is Pope Pius XI’s Casti conubii.

Such responses brings serious discussion to an end. One can only argue with a person with whom one has something in common, such as a shared commitment to the principle of non-contradiction. But this exchange revealed to faithful Catholics and to non-Catholics alike that there is a real difference between the parties in the current debate. It is not simply two groups of people scoring debating points off each other, to re-use my own image. It is, rather, the difference between a serious and sincere attempt to engage with theological issues and something essentially frivolous: an attitude which says, in the end, ‘I don’t care what past Popes said—what Vatican II said—what Our Lord and Saviour said. That was then and this is now.’ On the one hand, it is impossible to argue with this, but on the other, it is unnecessary to argue with it. By saying that, one’s opponent has revealed his empty hand.

I believe that Faggioli’s tweet did more benefit to the supporters of the Correctio than many thousands of words written by the Correctio’s often academically distinguished supporters. But he would not have been provoked into making that admission had it not been for the spotlight being forcibly shone onto the fundamental issues.

Two other responses from critics of the Correctio are also worth noting. I found myself in direct dialogue with Robert Fastiggi and Dawn Eden Goldstein, who encapsulate the Ultramontanist response. The discrepancies between, for example, the guidelines for the implementation of Amoris laetitia by the Bishops of Buenos Aires, and Pope John Paul II’s Familaris consortio, simply didn’t matter, on their view, and need not be examined: Pope Francis’s authority is enough.

Again, I think it is useful to take a step back from our attempts to persuade each other, and ask how this looks to others, viewing the debate online. What they see, as with the earlier examples, is one side presenting substantive theological and philosophical arguments, and the other side trying to close down the debate by appealing to the authority of the living Pope. We needn’t wait to see how they will react to a new Pope with different ideas to those of Pope Francis: we have already seen how they reacted to the transition from John Paul II and Pope Benedict to Francis himself. This is not an intellectually serious position.

Finally, the most theologically intricate response came from Rocco Buttiglione, building on an article he wrote defending Amoris laetitia in L’Osservatore Romano.[2] To the extent that Buttiglione engages in a serious way with the arguments his contribution is to be welcomed, as part of a theological discussion which many of Pope Francis’ self-appointed partisans would prefer not to have. His position makes clear the disadvantages, for them, of this approach, however, since his conclusions do not permit the concrete pastoral proposals which are put forward under the cover of Amoris: notably, he wrote that sinners should receive sacramental Absolution before receiving Holy Communion.

On the other hand, his argument hinges on the claim that Amoris proposes disciplinary rather than doctrinal changes, and to establish this he found it necessary to insist repeatedly that public sinners, such as those living in irregular unions, were ‘excommunicated’ until the time of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. This of course is a historical nonsense which is, moreover, a simple matter for historians to establish. It represents a more subtle example of the denigration of the past than those offered by Faggioli and Ivereigh, but it serves the same purpose. We should not seek guidance from any documents more than a few years old because they belong to a time of darkness.

And so, today, we gather to study and discuss some of these fundamental issues. Far from this being a distraction from the current crisis taking place at the messy, pastoral level, in dioceses and parishes around the world, I believe it is the approach which can address our practical problems in a uniquely productive way, and lends significance and weight to the sensible things being said on the less fundamental, specific issues, issues which shift from day to day like sand-dunes in the desert.
The matters we address today are large ones, and our purpose today is to open, or progress, a debate on them, rather than to close the debate on them. We do not have a pre-conceived set of conclusions, we are not aiming to produce a joint statement, and we have not limited our speakers to those of one, narrow, viewpoint. We wish to investigate, to debate, to shed light, in such a way that will ultimately help provide an intellectual and cultural basis upon which a coherent and attractive defence of the Faith may be built, one which will be proof against the full range of fashionable errors. We do so in all humility, as theologians, philosophers, and historians, not simply willing, as the conventional phrase has it, to submit our judgement to the judgement of the Church, but aiming above all to bring to light, to clarify, and to recommend to all men of good will not our own speculations, but that very judgement of the Church. In the words of St Vincent of Lerins:

Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all... . We shall hold to the rule if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from the interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike... .

What will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? ... He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a portion of it? Then, he will take care to cleave to antiquity which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. But what if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils... . But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort can be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers... . And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only, but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.[3]


[1] Tweet dated 2nd October 2017
[2] July 19th 2016
[3] Commonitorium, II: 3 - III: 4


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