Acton Commentary

Catholicism, True Reform and the Next Pope


Given the contempt with which some people regard Catholicism these days, it’s extraordinary just how badly the very same individuals want everyone else to hear their views of the Church’s future. Plainly there’s something about this 2000 year-old faith that truly bothersthem. How else can one explain the tsunami of unsolicited advice from pop atheists, incoherent playwrights, angry ex-priests, and celebrity theologians that has erupted since Benedict XVI’s abdication?

Speaking of celebrity theologians, right on cue, we have the ever predictable Hans Küng opining in that equally predictable outlet, the New York Times, as he insists on subjecting everyone else—once again—to his very predictable laundry-list of things that the next pope must do to avoid catastrophe.

Much of Küng’s article involves his familiar tactics of citing dubious polls (as if polls somehow determine Christ’s will for His Church) about Catholics’ views of the usual subjects as well as propagating myths about Church history. Then there is his mockery of the evident love for Benedict and his saintly predecessor by young church-going Catholics. According to the good professor, we shouldn’t pay too much attention to “the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups.” Plainly it’s been a very, very long time since young Catholics have applauded Father Küng—assuming, that is, they even know who he is. As one such person recently remarked to me: “Hans Küng? I thought he was dead.”

Writing in his Carnets du Concile during the Second Vatican Council, the Jesuit theologian and council peritus Henri de Lubac—who was no reactionary—described Küng as possessing a “juvenile audacity” and habitually speaking in “incendiary, superficial, and polemical” terms. Nothing, it seems, has changed.

But amidst his litany of half-truths, Küng is right about one thing. There is something dying in global Catholicism. It’s just not what he thinks it is.

What’s disappearing is the type of “reform” envisaged by Küng and the boomer dissenters that followed him. Among the many “gifts” bequeathed by that now-obsolete generation was an infantilization of the liturgy, Scripture studies corrupted by a hermeneutic of suspicion, Stalinist church architecture, unending bureaucratization, and lots of mere political activism that had more to do with subservience to whatever happened to be the zeitgeist than with proclaiming the Gospel.

Across the world, however, all this is crumbling to the ground and—as I suspect Küng knows—the collapse is accelerating. For wherever the essentially liberal Protestant vision of Küng et al. took hold, it produced nothing but spiritual death and organizational torpor. It amounted to what de Lubac called in the late-1960s an “autodestruction de l’Eglise et d’apostasie interne [a self-destruction of the Church and internal apostasy].”

Many Catholics consequently grew up knowing virtually nothing about a religion for which thousands have died over the centuries. Instead of faith and reason, they were given skepticism and feelings-babble. At an organizational level, numerous Catholic agencies in countries like Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands degenerated into state-funded bureaucracies staffed by NGO internationalistas whose creed turns out to be far closer to Euro-environmentalism than the Catholic faith of a Paul, Augustine, Aquinas or Thomas More.

But this leaves us with a question. Where can we find an authentically Catholic agenda for reforming the Church? Actually, there’s no shortage of possibilities. I’d suggest, however, that Catholics might like to peruse a book-length interview that a young French priest Geoffroy de la Tousche conducted in 2011 of Cardinal Marc Ouellet. In Actualité et avenir du concile œcuménique Vatican II (2012), one finds a program for Catholic renewal that any future pope may like to consider.

Part of the attractiveness of Ouellet’s vision is that it comes from someone who has literally seen it all. Ouellet grew up and was eventually made an archbishop in a part of the world (Quebec) in which some of the virulent forms of secularist fundamentalism have taken root. On numerous occasions, Ouellet had the courage to stare this ideology in the face and call it for what it is—tyranny. Then he got on with the business of breathing life into a moribund archdiocese.

The same man, however, also spent years working in seminaries in the most densely Catholic part of the world. In Latin America, Ouellet had to form priests in the midst of societies marred by poverty, violence, corruption, and the heresies generated by liberation theology. And if that wasn’t enough, Ouellet found himself serving stints in Rome: first, as an accomplished theologian-professor and then as an official in the Roman Curia with a reputation for getting things done.

All this, however, is essentially a backdrop to the program for a revitalized Catholicism that Father de la Tousche draws out of Ouellet. And most refreshingly of all, it’s an agenda rooted squarely in Vatican II. In short, Ouellet opts for a renewal of the Church through a return to the sources (ressourcement) bequeathed by Vatican II. To that extent, the book reflects the same methodology of reform developed by the Council itself, but pioneered by figures such as de Lubac himself from the 1930s onwards.

With this plan in mind, Ouellet takes his readers through the four key Council constitutions—Lumen GentiumDei VerbumSacrosanctum ConciliumGaudium et Spes—and illustrates how they can be fleshed out in the Church’s living body today. Note, however, the themes of these documents: the Church itself; the Word of God; the Liturgy; and the Church’s critical engagement with modernity. The point, it seems, is to immerse Catholics in the breadth and depth of the faith expressed at Vatican II, perhaps because Ouellet knows many of us were never taught it.

Ouellet’s approach owes much to the paths laid out by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, not least among which is Ouellet’s reiteration of Benedict’s point that Vatican II was not—contra the dissenters and the Lefebvrists—a “rupture” with the past. But nor does Ouellet’s picture of renewal amount to a carbon-copy of these two popes.

That’s partly because of context. Secularism’s toxic character has never been more obvious. Across the West it is spawning, among other things, unprecedented levels of family-breakdown, cults of personality, rampant narcissism, a political class that apparently believes there’s no such thing as too much debt, demographic-decline, and notions of tolerance that are used to destroy freedom. Moreover, secularism’s effects are not limited to the West. They are spreading throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In other words, secularism is not simply a Western problem. It now confronts all Catholics.

To retain (let alone learn and live) the Catholic faith in such an atmosphere is becoming considerably harder: a reality to which Ouellet makes numerous references. Today any serious Catholic must simply assume their faith will be questioned, and more often mocked, in a culture which has given up even the pretence of being coherent—witness Hans Küng’s latest tirade.

To this problem and others, Ouellet has a clear response. On one level it concerns something as old-fashioned by apologetics. Catholics must learn the faith and how to defend it in intellectually-compelling ways that break through the static surrounding us. Doctrinal break-time, ladies and gentlemen, is over.

In another sense, however, Ouellet plainly believes the response to secularism also involves Catholics entering fully into the reality of Christ’s call to the communio that is His Church: something that he underscores as given special resonance by the rich sacramental theology spelled out at Vatican II. Through such immersion, Catholics will draw the strength to witness to the joy of being a Christian, to the happiness of knowing we has been called to friendship with Christ, to the greatness of living Christian morality in all its fullness, and to the certainty of the Creator’s love for us.

And that, Father Küng, is what true Catholic reform is about. One day, I pray, you will see that.\

This article was originally published at Crisis Magazine.