Off Center: Is the Catholic Church a Political Spectrum?
This is my 2003 article about the neo-conservative idea of the Church as a political spectrum. In the recently announced "Catholic Identity" conference we see the "spectrum" ecclesiology come to the fore again. "Right-wing" of the Church and "left-wing" of the Church are those in contention. The true language of the Church, believer or schismatic, heretic, or apostate figures no where in this Church of many theologies. Here is the article.
By: Dr. Peter Chojnowski
In the April 2003 issue of the neo-conservative periodical First Things, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, former Lutheran minister and ordained Catholic priest, presented a "spectrum" of "groups" in the contemporary Catholic Church. On the extremes of this spectrum, unsurprisingly, you have those of the right, the two mentioned being the "Lefebvrists" of the Society of St. Pius X and the Sedevacantists, along with those on the left, among whom Neuhaus includes Gary Wills, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Fr. Richard McBrien, the former archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, and those who might fall into the New Age, radical Feminist, and Liberation Theology camp. Also, unsurprisingly, you have Fr. Neuhaus positioning himself in the center of the spectrum. This positioning, Neuhaus assures us, is in no way meant to identify the Center with those who are "neither hot nor cold," but rather, it is meant to identify them as those who "eschew" the extreme, those whose position is "considered," "thoughtful," and "moderate." 1 Says Neuhaus, the "center" is "warm," "welcoming," and, yet, at the same time, "cool, as in composed and unruffled." Le centre c’est moi!, states Neuhaus, who, also, places in this "center ground" George Weigel, Pope John Paul II, Vatican II, John Courtney Murray, Henri de Lubac, Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar, Jean Danielou, the juveniles attending World Youth Day, and "growing and vibrant networks of young professionals excited about being Catholic." 2 These are part of the "vital center," which he defends throughout the article.
Fr. Neuhaus himself acknowledges how peculiar it is to place those taking theological positions on an obviously ideological or political spectrum. He also points out that
When he, precisely, describes the history of his own position, he states:
As a way of clarifying his own position, that of the "Center," and to set off the "extremes" of left and right, Neuhaus employs another, somewhat awkward neologism, "discontinuants." The "discontinuants," of left and right, are those, unlike the continuants of the center, who believe that the doctrines of Vatican II were a "radical break with the tradition [of the pre-Vatican II] Church, the difference being that the right deplores and the left celebrates the putative break." 5
According to Neuhaus, these two "branches" of the "party of discontinuity" 6 stand opposed to the center, which understands there to be a "continuing community," which is the Catholic Church, "from the Council of Jerusalem to Vatican II, from Peter to John Paul II." 7 Here we encounter, not only Neuhaus’s peculiar claim that only the "center" recognizes that the Catholic Church has continued from St. Peter to Pope John Paul II, but we also read of his identification of "the center with the Magisterium. When reading through his extensive criticism of "bishops and religious superior," who "turned to the popularizers to implement the Council, with the mostly sorry results still with us today in theology, liturgy, catechesis, and much else" (Emphasis mine) it is fairly clear, that the "Magisterium" with which he wants to identify is Pope John Paul II and the Holy Father’s interpretation of the "infallible" teaching of Vatican II.8
In order to grapple with this rather pedantic and cursory summary of the various positions that have been taken with regard to the situation of the post-Vatican II Church, we might first emphasize something which Neuhaus himself states and then passes over without comment:
This point must be the first to be brought out, although I believe Neuhaus misses the point when he brings up the "pre-Vatican II" labels of "good" and "bad" Catholics. When men or women were spoken of as "good" or "bad" Catholics, in the time when there was no question of what it meant to be a Catholic, the labelers were referring to whether or not the individual members of the Catholic Church were living up to the norms and standards of perfection, which were the practical part of being a baptized believer in the Catholic Faith. You were "good" if you did, or at least tried, and you were "bad" if you did not. The salient point, which is seemingly missed by Neuhaus, is that no Catholic, "good" or "bad," failed to understand what it meant to be a Catholic. The reason is obvious. The Faith and the morality which went with it was taught clearly and was universally the same. "Good" or "bad," the faithful knew that they were associating themselves with a Church whose doctrine did not change. Their faith did not always translate into action, but they had the Faith. The question that Fr. Neuhaus never poses to himself is, "Why now is everything up for grabs?" Why are these now times in which we can, even apparently, divide the Church up into "left," "right," and "center?"
The reason this "division" of the Church can even be theoretically presented is on account of the fact that Neuhaus never indicates that there is a necessary connection between having the Faith of the Church as that Faith has always been understood and held and being a member of the Church. Throughout his discussion, "left" and "right" are separated, and the "center" distinguished, not because of their respective adherence to the traditional dogmatic, moral, and social teaching of the pre-Vatican II magisterial teaching of the Church, but rather, because of their particular stance on the current "moment" in the history of the "continuing and identifiable community that is the Catholic Church."10 By "current moment," we are to understand, on the ecclesiastical level, the current pontificate, and on the dogmatic level, we are to understand the current pope’s interpretation of Vatican II. If you adhere to the current pope’s interpretation of Vatican II, which, according to Neuhaus, "set forth a millennia of tradition" and which he identifies with "the Magisterium," you are a centrist. If you believe that this teaching, and the practice which proceeds from it, are at variance with what went before, you are one of the discontinuants, "…the difference being that the right deplores and the left celebrates the putative break."11
Neuhaus’s dismissal of the discontinuants of the left is interesting only in so far as it further brings forward Neuhaus’s own salient adherence to the "Church of today," which, he holds, is not, in any way, at variance with the Church of "yesterday." The leftists, of the Rahner and Kung type, are loyal to the "Church of Tomorrow." By this, Neuhaus means that they are not loyal and faithful to this current pope and his interpretation of Vatican II, but rather, are loyal to "Pope Chelsea XII" and to the doctrinal and disciplinary innovations that the leftists believe will be instituted by a pope, unlike the present one, who is "liberated by the spirit of Vatican II from past and present."12 According to Neuhaus, "discontinuants of the left hold themselves rigorously accountable to a future of their own desiring." Here he quotes Karl Rahner:
The problem with the Left, according to Neuhaus, is that it misinterprets the Second Vatican Council. If it interpreted the Council as the current Holy Father interprets it, it too would be in the "cool," "composed," "unruffled," and non-contentious Catholic Center.
There is nothing unusual in the "Center’s" attack on the "Left," other than statements about the temporary need for "power sharing" with them, along with a subtle threat that "your day has come and gone," or, as Neuhaus states, "the silly season is almost over." 14 This is clearly a statement which indicates that Fr. Neuhaus believes the "Center" to be the "party of power." The problem, which comes to mind when reading his criticism of the "left," is that it is never mentioned that they are, clearly, Neo-Modernists. In fact, the word "modernism" is never used in Neuhaus’ attack on the "discontinuants of the left" at all. His criticism is that they are not in accord with the present "Catholic Moment" and, instead, are loyal to a future Church of their own imagining.
Neuhaus’s attack on the disloyalty and "silliness" of the Left at least deals with concrete issues and doctrines. When he speaks of the "discontinuants of the right," he speaks only of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre labeling Vatican II as "heretical," "the Lefebvre Land of schism," "the left ear lobe of Giovanni Battista Montini," "Elvis sightings" (when referring to links on Sedevacantist websites), and "Lefebvrists" who "have their American headquarters in Kansas City." 15 At the end of the article, perhaps in tacit recognition that he never offered a single doctrinal, historical, or textual argument proving the continuity of the documents of Vatican II, and their interpretation by Pope John Paul II, with the traditional teaching of the pre-Vatican II papal and conciliar Magisterium, he finally states, "Can anyone really believe that the likes of Gary Wills or the Society of St. Pius X are the future of the Catholic Church?" 16
There is a wrong tendency on the part of those faithful Catholics who would be loyal to the traditional dogma and religion of the Catholic Church to think according to the "spectrum" paradigm presented to us by Fr. Neuhaus and others of the "Center." According to this incapacitating and obfuscating image, Neuhaus and the enthusiastic rockin’ youths of World Youth Day, along with Ignatius Press and places of higher education like Christendom College, can be identified as "conservative" Catholics who attend "reverent" Masses and who are attached, perhaps a little too closely, to a conservative pope who is "trying to hold the line."
It has never been the case that one’s position vis-à-vis the Catholic Church was indicated by the terms left, right, and center. The question for Catholics has always been whether a person or group of people agree or disagree with one or more of the defined and perennial doctrines of the Catholic Church. The question was one of doctrine. —Did one adhere to the doctrinal teachings of the Church, in all the particulars, or was there, at least, one deviation? When we consider the position taken by Richard John Neuhaus, we must state that there is a deep doctrinal divide between what he and others of his "Center" advocate and what has been championed and unreservedly upheld by those who follow the lead of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
When considering the exact nature of this doctrinal disagreement, we must refer to a text, The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), in which Neuhaus states his own position most exactly. It is here that we can find the essence of his notion of "Center." In this text, we find Neuhaus attacking the "monism" that marked both "old Christendom" and the mentality of the Catholic Church prior to the, supposedly, non-innovative Second Vatican Council. By "monism," Neuhaus is referring to the view that the truths of the Faith should be both manifested and implemented through a union between Church and State. For a man who states that his position upholds the idea that there is no discontinuity between the doctrine and practice of the Church of two millennia and the post-conciliar Church, Neuhaus makes a point of emphasizing
These "habits of monism" were most perfectly expressed in "Franco Spain" from 1939-75. We are left wondering if Neuhaus intends to attack more than the traditional Church teaching on the Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, when we read,
So here we have the "continuant" and, therefore, "centrist" Neuhaus speaking of the new understanding of the Church that was initiated with Vatican II. We can discern the dim outline of what he means by this "new understanding" when we read more about the divergence between the "pluralistic mentality" of the new "centrist" Catholic and the "monistic mentality" of those who adhere to the teaching and practice of the "bad old days" (as Neuhaus often refers to the pre-Vatican II period). In this regard, he says,
What our neo-conservative Catholic Whig is saying is that it might not be better if everyone were a Catholic. In his rejection of the Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ he is also advancing the idea that there is a totally different view of the Church, salvation, justification, and even a new anthropology at work in the Church of the "Center," the Church of Vatican II and Pope John Paul II. Surely, this "continuant," who pours such scorn on the "discontinuants of the right" for understanding there to be an opposition between the new teachings of Vatican II and the traditional doctrinal content, understands that there is not one Catholic prior to Vatican II who would assert that it would not be better if everyone in the world were Catholic, "agreed on the truth," "articulated it in the same way," agreed upon the right ordering of the world," and were part of the "same community of Faith." Surely, there would not be one. Surely, even to the majority of Council Fathers at Vatican II, the Neuhaus thesis would have been unrecognizable. Based upon these statements of this spokesman for the "Center," it is clear that Fr. Neuhaus cannot believe that it is necessary to be a member of the Church in order to be saved.
It is Fr. Neuhaus’s opinion that the "paradox" of the Christian life, which he identifies as the Christian’s living "in a world that is not yet what it is to be [N.B.: "Is" and "Is not" are contradictions and, hence, can be part of a paradox. But "Is" and "Is not yet" are not at all contradictories and, hence, have no role in a paradox]," results in our need to live as "alien citizens" in the world, "to be a people experienced in the sometimes painful paradox of living between the times in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet.’" According to Neuhaus, the "paradox" of the Christian’s life is "the result of the pluralistic character of reality itself." Citing his inspiration, John Courtney Murray, he states that, "‘every tongue [shall] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’; but that time is not yet." (Emphasis mine) If any one should be weak enough in spirit to seek after a temporal manifestation of the Reign of Jesus Christ, like the Catholic State, or should believe that one belongs to the Only True Church, that, in this world is the Kingdom of God, one is bringing about a "premature closure," and, hence, falsification of the proper Christian experience. Neuhaus is more than a little condescending and falsely sympathetic when he states,
Does a Catholic, left, right, or center, speak this way? —"Their church"?!
In perfect accord with the New Liturgical Calendar’s repositioning of the Feast of Christ the King to the end of the Liturgical Year, during which the Apocalypse is emphasized, Neuhaus would identify the "kingdom of God" —the only one for which Catholics have the right to hope —with the New Jerusalem which shall come after this tired world is rolled up. To desire any kind of "transformation of the world in Christ," one thinks of Pope St. Pius X’s motto, "Instaurare omnia in Christo," is to seek a consolation and a "prop" where there should not be one. Apparently, Fr. Neuhaus would not even allow us the consolation of considering ourselves to be part of the one true Church. All of this arid "spirituality" fits very well with the generally "cerebralist" nature of the Neo-Conservative movement within the Church, cut off, as it is, from the normal "props" of traditional Catholic piety and devotion. Even anthropologically speaking, how can we imagine a life in which we would not strive to realize in the world that we currently dwell in the ideals which are given to us by Holy Mother Church and the manly civilization that She fashioned? Can we, any longer, look up to the martyrs who did nothing if they did not give their lives for what they publicly stated was the one true Church? Do even papal social encyclicals make any sense for the mentality of the "paradox"?
The only way Fr. Neuhaus and his "cool" centrists can truly argue that their view of Catholic doctrine and life is in accord (i.e., continuant) with what was universally practiced and believed in the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II is by adopting Pope John Paul II’s theological ideas of the "enrichment of faith" that the entire body of Catholic dogma underwent as a result of the "teaching of the Council" (i.e., Vatican II). The Holy Father has held that the apparently disparate teachings of the pre- and post-Vatican II Church can be reconciled by recourse to the theological concept of "reciprocal integration of the faith." According to the German scholar Fr. Johannes Dörmann, this principle, which is a creation of the former Cardinal Wojtyla, holds that "a relationship of reciprocity …exists between the deposit of revealed truth and the conciliar awareness of the Church." In the newly translated and published Dörmann text, he states
Fr. Dörmann’s series of books [available from Angelus Press —Ed.] must be read in order for the deceptively conservative "center" to be theologically understood. We "discontinuants of the right" are not looking for Elvis, but if we were, at least we know that he has definitely left the building!