The Church Must Again Become a Sign of Contradiction

In 1986, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre wrote the following infamous words:

For the fact is that a grave problem confronted the conscience and the faith of all Catholics during the pontificate of Paul VI. How could a Pope, true successor of Peter, assured of the assistance of the Holy Ghost, preside over the most vast and extensive destruction of the Church in her history within so short a space of time, something that no heresiarch has ever succeeded in doing? One day this question will have to be answered. (Open Letter to Confused Catholics, 1986)

About ten years before, in his book of the same name, Pope John Paul II, in a rather more optimistic vein, referred to the Church as being, like Christ, a “sign of contradiction” against the sin and error of the world. Several decades later, Lefebvre’s question has not yet been answered, and John Paul II’s characterization of the Church’s enmity with the world has become progressively more risible, as numerous bishops and cardinals appointed during his own pontificate openly make peace with the world and its sins. Nevertheless, many conservative Catholic commentators continue to insist that because of the doctrinal orthodoxy of the “New Evangelization,” the Church has maintained her aspect of contradiction with the world’s sins.

Whether all aspects of the New Evangelization are indeed orthodox is a separate question. What is more important is to note that mere orthodoxy in doctrine is insufficient for the Church to be the sign of contradiction against the world. Just as it is possible for an individual Catholic to be fully doctrinally correct and in a state of grace while maintaining a timid demeanor, so it is also possible for the Church as a whole to falter in boldly opposing the world without actually falling into doctrinal error. Indeed, it is precisely this that has happened since the Second Vatican Council. Lefebvre’s question and the former pope’s description of the Church are in fact intimately linked: the destruction of the Church’s inner stability devastated her ability to be a sign of contradiction against the world. If the Church is to have hope of recovering her former strength, lay Catholics must first understand what was lost at the Council: not doctrinal orthodoxy, not infallibility, but a spirit, a character, of both strength and opposition, that the world once knew well.

One of the aspects of the Catholic Church that was most strongly emphasized up until very recently, by her enemies and by her children, by converts and by opponents, was the sternness and consistency with which the Church insisted on absolute adherence to precise doctrinal formulas, in contrast with the freedom of thought enjoyed by Protestants. On the Protestant and freethinking side, it was condemned as obscurantism and dogmatism; on the Catholic side, it was hailed as the only guarantee of certainty of faith – of knowing what a Christian ought to believe.

The unanimity with which the Church’s character was described is striking. When David Hume wished to attack “Christian superstition,” he directed his fire at Roman Catholics, knowing that his largely Protestant audience would sympathize with his denunciation of Rome and his assertion in his Treatise of Human Nature that “[t]he Roman Catholics are certainly the most zealous of any sect in the Christian world.” Charles Hodge, a 19th-century Presbyterian theologian of great influence, referred in his Systematic Theology to the Church’s claim to magisterial infallibility as “a tyranny for which there is no parallel in the history of the world,” a judgment with which the evangelical Anglican theologian of the same period, J.C. Ryle, concurred, calling the Catholic submission to the Magisterium “laziness, idleness, and sloth.” Ryle went on to say in reference to the Oxford Movement and the growing sympathy among High Anglicans for Catholicism:

We dreamed, in our folly, that the Reformation had ended the Popish controversy, and that if Romanism did survive, Romanism was altogether changed. If we did think so, we have lived to learn that we made a most grievous mistake. Rome never changes. (“On Private Judgment,” emphasis in original)

The early 20th-century liberal theologian Charles Gore, who was influential in the post-Oxford Movement stage of High Anglicanism, spoke of Leo XIII’s encyclical on the authority of Scripture, Providentissimus Deus, as “disastrous.” He contrasted Leo’s alleged obscurantism with the freedom of inquiry Protestants enjoyed in the Anglican Church, criticizing the encyclical as being:

… designed to suppress the school of real and free criticism which seemed to be forming itself in the Roman Church, and taking such firm root[.] … Nothing else is to be allowed – till truth revenges itself as it revenged itself on the same Church when she dealt in similar fashion with the science of Galileo. (Gore, Roman Catholic Claims, 1920)

Catholic authors who noted the same difference between the Protestant layman’s plight of having to choose between competing authorities and his Catholic counterpart’s being able to rest in the living voice of the Church reads like a who’s-who of eminent figures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Henry Edward Manning, John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Hugh Benson, Hilaire Belloc, Adrian Fortescue, Dom John Chapman, G.K. Chesterton, and Ronald Knox, to name a few. To sample merely a few, Newman noted in his Apologia that the crucial turning point at which he realized that the Anglican theory of the Church was untenable was his recognition of the exact resemblance of the outward aspect of Rome in the fourth-century Monophysite controversies and again twelve centuries later during the Reformation, noting:

The drama of religion, and the combat of truth and error, were ever one and the same. The principles and proceedings of the Church now, were those of the Church then[.] … The Church then, as now, might be called peremptory and stern, resolute, overbearing, and relentless[.] (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864)

What is key to notice here in Newman’s statement, which he stressed elsewhere, is that the critical issue was not simply a matter of doctrinal continuity between Rome in the fourth and sixteenth centuries, but a continuity of spirit, of character, in how Rome related to heresies and the outside world. Indeed, the question of doctrinal continuity was precisely the difficulty that kept Newman out of the Church for years after he had lost faith in Anglicanism; as he relates in the Apologia, he found himself unable to go over to Rome because of a long abiding conviction that the Tridentine developments, particularly the veneration of the saints, were unscriptural and foreign to the early centuries of the Church. It was not a persuasion that Rome’s doctrine had not changed that led Newman to conclude that the Catholic Church of his day was the same as that of the fourth century – indeed, that is nearly the reverse of the truth. It was a general sense that the persona of Rome in the two periods was the same that led him, in spite of his difficulties, to ultimately conclude that the alleged contradictions and novelties in doctrine were only apparent.

Another instructive example of how the Church was viewed by those who converted to her comes from the early 20th-century convert from Anglicanism and later chamberlain to Pope St. Pius X, Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, who wrote an apocalypse entitled Lord of the World in 1908. In the book’s alternative history, Benson imagines a scenario in which a second ecumenical council is convened in the Vatican in the 20th century as a continuation of the First Vatican Council, but where the fictional Second Vatican Council maintains strict orthodoxy and condemns modernist biblical criticism. In a dark parallel to the course of actual history, one of Benson’s characters relates that a great apostasy took place after the book’s Second Vatican Council, but it took the form of an exodus from the Church in light of the hierarchy’s doctrinal intransigence, rather than the betrayal from within, with the Church becoming smaller but remaining orthodox. Though Benson’s prediction about the nature of the future apostasy was wrong, it sheds considerable light on the way in which Catholics of his time thought of the relationship between the Church and heresy. The natural way to depict the two fictionally was simply to have the Church maintain the very same “Roman obscurantism” that she had always displayed. The possibility of the Church herself ceasing to be dogmatic and stern in her demeanor to the world does not seem to have occurred to Benson, even in a dystopian context.

As late as the 1950s, the contrast between the alleged dogmatic uniformity of the Roman Catholic Church on doctrinal issues in comparison with the relative openness of Protestant communions was noted by C.S. Lewis in an address to Anglican priests on modernist biblical criticism, in which he highlighted the Catholic Church’s negative view on the subject. A similar observation was made less than a decade before Vatican II, in 1952, by the agnostic-turned-Anglican philosopher CEM Joad shortly before his death and after his reconversion to Christianity, noting that Anglican clergymen were free to contradict one another on matters as significant as the Virgin Birth, while Catholics were bound to hold to a single constant faith, and commenting upon the relative vitality of the Catholic Church in light of her doctrinal firmness:

That the elasticity and vagueness of the [Anglican] Church’s creed have played no small part in the decline of its influence, the comparative popularity of the Roman Catholic Church which has made few, if any, concessions to the ‘spirit of the times’ and has withstood the challenge from science, convincingly demonstrates[.] …There is, I imagine, little evidence that the Roman Catholic Church is declining either in influence or in numbers. On the contrary, it is growing in respect of both. (CEM Joad, The Recovery of Belief, 1952)

I could easily multiply statements like the ones I have cited from Catholics – including liberal dissidents – and Protestants prior to the Council at a great enough length to triple this article’s size. All attest to the same fact: the Church’s character before the Second Vatican Council was universally seen as being stern, suspicious of novelty, and dogmatically insistent on adherence to precise doctrinal formulas, by friend and enemy alike. Whether they deplored or praised it, those outside and inside the Church would have had no difficulty agreeing that her attitude toward doctrinal error and the outside was indeed a “sign of contradiction” over and against Protestantism’s ever growing doctrinal latitudinarianism. There is almost no word that would have been more antithetical to the Church’s spirit, as described by those who knew her, than aggiornamento.

Yet within less than twenty years of Joad’s statement, the Church would enter a period in which her faithful throughout the world would be thrown into a doctrinal confusion the likes of which had not been observed since the Reformation, and in which the Church’s own pastors would be at the forefront of championing novelties of every description in the Church. To this day, most members of the hierarchy, steeped as they were in the spirit of the Council in their youth, speak the language of moving past the allegedly old, rigid, dry authoritarianism of the pre-conciliar Church.

This striking contradiction between the outward characters of the Church before and after the Council indicates that those conservative Catholics who attempt to defend the orthodoxy of the conciliar documents, or of individual papal statements in post-conciliar popes, are to a great extent missing the point. Merely to show that the Council did not teach anything technically unorthodox is hardly enough to resolve the central objection against it, which is that it introduced a spirit of novelty and openness to doctrinal change that was and is diametrically opposed to that which the Church had always had before the Council. To paraphrase from the old saying that the medium is the message, when it comes to how the outside world perceives the Faith, for all practical purposes, the Church’s attitude is her teaching. The world, lost in spiritual darkness, may not discern the precise doctrinal nuances in Church teaching, but it knows the shape and outline of a devoted enemy from that of a lackadaisical accomplice. The world once had no difficulty recognizing the Church as the former, however great its enmity against her might have been. Now, in the age of Fr. James Martin and Pope Francis, the world is increasingly finding it difficult to recognize in the Church the age-old enemy it once knew.

The Church must indeed once again become a sign of contradiction. But to be such a sign, it is not sufficient for the Church simply to maintain doctrinal orthodoxy. Something more is needed: a collective recovery of the old sense of certainty of the Church’s teaching and the self-sufficiency of the Church’s spiritual resources. The world will not be converted by a Church who comes to make an alliance with its spiritual decay. It is the Church in her old garb, the garb of confidence and strength in the truth of her teaching and the gravity of spiritual error, and she alone, who will be recognized by the world as the sign of contradiction her Bridegroom long ago became and still is.

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