Pope Francis is fond of saying “everything is connected.” Traditionalists have been saying the same thing for the past six decades.
We have long emphasized that those who transformed the Catholic liturgy on paper and in practice were also entertaining doctrinal novelties, oddities, and, at times, even heresies. Conversely, a radically changed liturgy has led to the weakening, and occasioned the loss of faith in, any number of central doctrines of Catholicism, or that the loss of reverence for God is bound up with moral drift in every sphere of life. It is not hard, after all, to see that the lex orandi, the lex credendi, and the lex vivendi stand and fall together.
The name of Andrea Grillo has gained prominence in recent years. Among Italian liturgists, he has been the most outspoken critic of Summorum Pontificum and the most ardent proponent of Traditionis Custodes. Although he denied having had any role in the drafting of the latter document, his ideas—sometimes in verbatim formulations—are easy to find in the motu proprio as well as its accompanying and implementary documents.
In an article published on August 7, “Condoms for Sex and Ecclesiastical Preservation” (a play on words in the Italian original: “Preservativi Sessuale e Preservazioni Ecclesiali”), Grillo reveals the extent to which he is willing to see the Catholic Tradition since the Council of Trent as a gigantic deviation that must now be corrected by more enlightened churchmen. The article is short but packed with revealing statements. I will comment on key passages.
A singular analogy allows us to discover how, around the issue of contraceptives, the Catholic doctrine of marriage and sexuality has undergone a transformation and polarization completely at odds with nearly two millennia of history. We could say that, faced with the new challenges that the 19th and 20th centuries proposed to the Church, the Church reacted by accepting a polarization and simplification of doctrine on marriage and sexuality that almost disfigured its tradition.
Worthy of note is how closely this account parallels the one that Grillo—in company with the cancer phase of the Liturgical Movement—offers of the traditional Roman heritage of divine worship: it, too, underwent (so they maintain) a clericalist transformation and anti-popular polarization divorced from the best of ancient tradition. They think the Tridentine rite disfigures Tradition.
In particular, the buzzwords that drove the reaction, first in the late 19th century and then in the first half of the 20th century, introduced a way of looking at reality that created an absolute distance between God and man. In reality, this reading was driven by an urgency that was not theological but politico-ecclesiastical, namely, the need for an all-out defense of ecclesiastical authority over marriage and sexuality. In this way an overtly ecclesiastical theology, and therefore concerned with operating on the plane of authority and power, has largely forgotten the wealth of thought with which the tradition has thought about these issues.
In this next portion, one wonders how Grillo is consistent with himself. For in the realm of liturgy, he rather likes the fact that a pope has such centralized authority that he can dictate a new Mass or whatever—or can dictate the abolition of a prior rite that no longer suits a particular influential group’s conception of Modern Man.TM As for the claim that 19th and 20th century reactionism created an “absolute distance between God and man,” this is the sort of boilerplate nonsense that modern theologians regurgitate without a shred of evidence. On the contrary, one would have thought that Christ’s authority over marriage and sexuality, which He entrusted also to His Church as mater et magistra, establishes the right hierarchy of the divine and the human, the supernatural and the natural. In the Sacrament of matrimony, Christ restores this most natural of relationships to its original model and elevates it to an image of His relationship with the Church. That teaching is as old as St. Paul; presumably Grillo has no wish to dissent from the Apostle to the Gentiles?
What happens between the 19th and 20th centuries finds its premise in the great turning point constituted by the Tametsi decree, by which the Catholic Church intends to commandeer the entire marriage and sexual experience within itself. It is interesting that the word that gives the decree its title— ‘tametsi’ [although]—signals that the Tridentine Fathers were aware of the gamble they were proposing, namely the overcoming of all forms of irregular or clandestine marriage that had always been recognized as valid. In that “tametsi” is the sign of an institutional shift that introduces a totalizing competence in the head of the Church, the first among modern States to bureaucratize its relationship with marriage and sexuality.
Grillo refuses to acknowledge that there may have been other reasons besides an ecclesiastical power-grab for wishing to discourage irregular or clandestine marriages! For thinkers like him, anything one dislikes in the teaching and practice of the Church is postmodernistically reinterpreted as a power-grab, and anything one likes is praised as a “liberation” from coercive restrictions. One cannot help wondering what additional sorts of irregular or clandestine unions Grillo might wish to defend…?
What happens 50 years later in the 1614 Rituale is striking: whereas before consent remained in the background and the ecclesial act was the blessing, now the center of the marriage rite is consent and the blessing becomes marginal. This is the premise of an ecclesial self-consciousness that believes it has competence over all levels of marriage and sexual experience. Note that this is entirely new, beginning 1,500 years after the birth of the Church.
It is not easy to follow the labyrinthine paths of Grillo’s thought, but he seems to be arguing that the Church’s role for 1,500 years was merely to bless unions that responsible adults agreed to on their own (hints of Germany here?), whereas after Trent the Church dared to claim ownership of the moment when the consent of a man and woman was given, as if to symbolize that only the Church can determine marital and sexual rules, with the blessing falling into the shade as a tacked-on feature. Yet is it not true that the Church always implicitly and frequently explicitly, over every century for which we have records, made determinations as to the conditions and requirements of marriage? And how could anyone who actually bothers to read the old ritual of marriage come away with the impression that the blessing is marginal in its theological content and impetrated effects? As is typical with progressives, Grillo presumes that his readers are gullibly ignorant of the truth.
With the rise of the liberal States comes first of all a new competence over the union between spouses. The Church’s first reaction is to deny any competence other than its own.
There is not a single reputable theologian from any century who denies that the State has a certain competence in the framing of laws concerning marriage and family. The Church insists, however, that the State is not the exclusive or final arbiter of these laws, and that when Catholics marry, their marriages are solemnized by the witness of the Church and by her authority. To deny this is simply to cease to be a Catholic—which raises questions about Grillo’s affiliation with the Church. The same questions may indeed be raised about other highly prominent proponents of errors on marriage and family.
From a systematic point of view, however, it is interesting to see what arguments are used to justify this denial. It is very striking that it is said [in the Rituale Romanum] that it is God who unites spouses and not man. In this way the clash between Church and State is shifted to the theological level: the Church guards the primacy of God, while the State tries to impose the primacy of man.
The incoherence here is almost laughable. All “Tridentine” theologians taught that the free, uncoerced, mutual consent of the spouses is a real and true cause of marriage, so much so that without it marriage cannot exist at all. Nevertheless, God, the Lord of creation and author of human nature, is certainly the primary author and cause of marriage as such and of each marriage in particular, which is why He, and the Church on His behalf, are alone competent to establish or to iterate the moral laws that govern it. Put simply, it is theological nonsense to say that man, exclusive of God or equally with God, effects marriage. Leo XIII expressly condemned this position in his encyclical Arcanum. “Without Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). As St. Thomas Aquinas, who handsomely predates the Council of Trent, phrased it:
The first cause itself produces and moves the cause acting secondarily and so becomes the cause of its acting. The activity by which the second cause causes an effect is caused by the first cause, for the first cause aids the second cause, making it to act. Therefore, the first cause is more a cause than the second cause of that activity in virtue of which an effect is produced by the second cause (In Liber de Causis, I).
Now Grillo comes around to the point he has been angling toward:
The same happens a few decades later, in the early twentieth century, on the level of generation: it is God who brings children into existence, not man, so any birth control method is a denial of God and an affirmation of human selfishness. This way of argument is never found in the previous tradition and is the result of cultural and contingent pressure in which the Catholic Church loses the richness of tradition. If there is one thing clear in the earlier tradition, it is that the logics of union and generation are never fully divine or fully human.
Ah, thank you for speaking your mind so fully! Casti Connubii of Pius XI (for surely that is the 1930 encyclical to which he is referring, with its thundering condemnation of contraception) correctly attributes to God the primary causality of new human life; He is the author of the human soul, while the parents contribute the matter that will become the human body upon fertilization. The parents are true causes of their offspring, but God is more fully and more ultimately the cause, as being not only the cause of all being but the exclusive cause of the immortal intellectual soul that makes man to be man.
Husband and wife are recipients of this gift and must never wish or attempt to set themselves up as masters over it and possessors of it, to do as they please with the power of life and with life itself. Grillo denies this, seeing birth control as not connected with selfishness but presumably with an untrammeled freedom of rationality. Grillo again baselessly and gratuitously insinuates that “the richness of tradition” includes openness to birth control and that the magisterial condemnation of it is a “narrowing” of Tradition.
Note the remarkable parallels to the liturgical question. There are at least two. First, the reform was governed from start to finish by an anthropocentric rationalism that prioritized communitarian utility over divine worship, freedom of choice over receptivity of tradition. Second, as mentioned above, a common theme of the radical reformers was that the way the Church had been praying for 500, 1,000, or even 1,500 years represented a deviation from and a dilution of the most authentic Christian Tradition. This error, condemned on various occasions by Pius VI, Gregory XVI, and Pius XII (who dubbed it “false antiquarianism”), is a prominent common denominator for the Protestants of the sixteenth century, the Jansenists of the eighteenth century, and the liturgists of the twentieth century.
The last remark in the above quotation—“the logics of union and generation are never fully divine or fully human”—is the sort of throwaway line that means little or nothing. Is there any reputable theologian in the entire Catholic Tradition who has ever maintained that marital union or the generation of offspring is either exclusively God’s work, or exclusively man’s? And yet, precisely because both of them are at once God’s and man’s—but God’s first, and man’s secondarily and by participation—man is unquestionably in the position of an active recipient, one who must insert himself into a larger pattern of nature, life, and holiness into which he is ingrafted and over which he has no “say.”
After a digression about an unnamed American theologian, Grillo comes to his concluding paragraph, which we will comment on in three segments.
Thus we find a series of official positions dotting the last century in which contraception or responsible parenthood/maternity is often traced back to these minor and fragile topics. The systematic point of view calls for new coherence between understanding of the phenomenon and theological response. To take this path, it is important to recover the great tradition on marriage and sexuality, which has been much freer and bolder than we think, if we try to read it without the glasses of the Tametsi Decree. In essence, it is a matter of articulately reconciling the three levels that systematic scholastic theology has identified in generation. Being begotten for nature, being begotten for the city, and being begotten for the Church are three experiences that cannot be unified at one point.
Like those who argue against the Catholic social doctrine of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII (1826–1962), brushing it off as a 150-year detour from the “main tradition” of Christian ethics, so too Grillo sees the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (from, say, Arcanum of 1880 to Familiaris Consortio of 1981) as a roughly 100-year detour from the “great tradition.” Its stances are traceable to the narrowing of perspective introduced by Trent and to “minor and fragile” topics like the power conflicts between Church and State in the age of secularization. This conservative perspective lacks coherence between phenomenon and theology, i.e., between “reality” and “ideas” (to invoke a favorite contrast of Francis’s). Grillo advocates severing the link between natural generation, the family’s role in the political common good, and the begetting of future children of God in the midst of sacramental marriage—a threefold cord that was kept unbroken by a Catholic tradition Grillo either fails to understand or deliberately misrepresents. He continues:
And it is curious that, in the well-known argument with which Paul VI structured Humanae Vitae, the ecclesial dimension can find a small way out of its embarrassment only in “natural methods,” as if civil experience, with its creativity and autonomy, were simply a suspicious and dangerous drift of generation. A naturalized model of man, and thus deprived of those characteristics of speech, consciousness, and craftsmanship that make him unique, is used to get out of the crisis. But even here, as Peter Hünermann has pointed out, a simplified theology of marriage implies an overly stylized reading of man [as a being] without true subjectivity.
Oddly enough, Grillo’s Homeric hero of liturgical reform, Paul VI, comes in for criticism in the area of sexual ethics. Apparently Paul VI felt he had to support the argument that blocking generation in any way was violating the rights of God (and, for that matter, of the Church and of the State), but he also intuited that birth control has a legitimate place, so he awkwardly introduced NFP as a clever escape! This move suggests, for Grillo, that the popes—presumably up until Francis, his even greater Homeric hero—did not recognize the “civil experience” with its “creativity and autonomy,” which is code language for: mature modern men and women who, using their own free judgment and following their own autonomous conscience, decide for themselves whether or not they wish to have children, and how many, and when, using whatever methods they judge to be appropriate for themselves.
Here the natural sphere dictates to the supernatural, and the subjectivity of man issues forth in objective rules for himself, to which both the civil and ecclesiastical spheres must bend. Man’s rationality (“speech, consciousness, and craftsmanship”) is equated with a Cartesian-Baconian mastery over nature, softened by a touch of Rousseauean naturalism that prevails over a “stylized reading of man [as a being] without true subjectivity.” Margaret Sanger, meet Karl Rahner.
What is at stake in the current discussion on contraception is not a change in doctrine, but a better fidelity to the complex relationship that, in [the act of] begetting, ties God’s action and man’s action into a single knot. Respecting the knot, rather than cutting or untying it, is the task of this phase of the best Catholic systematic theology.
In his deflective style, Grillo finally tells us that the reopening of the contraception question by the Pontifical Academy for Life—a reopening endorsed by Pope Francis and intended to lead to a soft and smushy reversal of the teaching of all of his predecessors, just as he did with the “inadmissible” death penalty in the Catechism and the foxy footnotes of Amoris Laetitia chapter 8, elbowing out fundamental premises of Veritatis Splendor and Familiaris Consortio—bespeaks “no change in doctrine.” Perish the thought! Rather, it betokens “a better fidelity to the complex relationship that, in [the act of] begetting, ties God’s action and man’s action into a single knot.”
Strange, isn’t it, that it was precisely this complex relationship that the Church’s Magisterium in the past so deeply probed and so carefully formulated during that 100-year period Grillo has written off as a detour?
Remember the primary rule of interpreting progressives: what they say is the opposite of the truth and of what they think. When Grillo says: “We want to recover the complex relationship between God and man in begetting,” he means: we want to exalt man’s free choice independently of the divine law and traditional teaching. When he says: “We want to recover a richer tradition,” he means: we want to ignore most of the tradition and cherry-pick a few pieces from it that we will then distort and innovate upon. When he says: “There will be no change in doctrine,” he means: doctrine needs to change radically and the consequent loss of coherence and credibility is not a problem, because it will liberate Christians from outmoded forms of belief and shackling norms of action. Modernity trumps all tradition; it is the new tradition through which everything else is to be reviewed and revised.
Now, recall what I said at the beginning: Grillo is the intellectual architect, or at least the most prominent spokesman, of the suppression of Summorum Pontificum and the anti-overpopulation policy of Traditionis Custodes. It is high time for us to cast away the naivete that treats liturgical issues, dogmatic issues, and moral issues as the contents of separate hermetically sealed compartments. The falsehoods that drove the dogmatic revolt of the modernists and the liturgical upheavals of yesterday are genetically linked to the falsehoods that drive the moral revolution of today.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.