The rapid weakening in the strength of Catholic Christianity in countries of Western culture is too clearly established - in terms of the decline in religious practice, of the number of religious vocations, of the practical extinction of many religious orders - to be denied. Pope Paul Vl spoke of the "self-destruction" of the Church over which he ruled. Jacques Maritain, his close friend and confidant, a major proponent of the ideas which led to the calling of the Second Vatican Council, described his own anguish in the last book of his life, The Peasant of the Garonne.
From the far-off days of the '30s and '40s. when Abbe Godin wrote his France: Pars de Mission, and later when Cardinal Suhard published his The Church: Growth or Decline?, it was understood that France was largely de-Christianised. But with the Dutch Catholic Church, the strongest of the European churches, partly in schism and visibly threatened with extinction, and with great German Archdioceses, like Cologne, reduced in regular religious practice to approximately 10 per cent of professed Catholics, the crisis is real and inescapable.
It would be an over-simplification to define any single cause as being more fundamental than others. Pressed to the point, however, it is difficult to reject the conclusion of the Anglican Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard, (who has led the fight against the ordination of women in the Anglican Church both in Britain and the United States).
The heart of the matter, he stated, was that there was now an internal schism within all Christian denominations. "The growing division in Christianity", said Bishop Leonard in the address he gave at Fulton, Missouri, in October 1987, "is between the so-called theological 'liberals', who believe both Scripture and tradition have lost their authority and who wish to reshape Christianity in accordance with modern ideas, and the so-called 'conservatives' who believe that the Gospel is revealed by God and who maintain the unique authority of Scripture. That division", he concluded, "applies in all denominations ...".
That this analysis is not merely wild imagining may perhaps be substantiated by reference to a statement of Russell Shaw (The Tablet, 27 February 1988). His testimony is important since until recently, and for a number of years, he acted in the position of Information Officer of the United States Catholic Conference. In this position he would have been in direct contact with all currents in US Catholicism and within the ranks of the US Catholic Hierarchy. He writes: "In a certain sense, Pope John Paul lI's pastoral visit to the United States last September was about the conflict between orthodoxy and a runaway version of inculturation - Roman Catholicism versus the 'American Church' ... The emergence during the last 15 years of what is now generally called the American Church helps explain the current crisis of Catholicism in the United States, as well as Pope John Paul's appeals in September for adherence to traditional doctrine and discipline ... Although the American Church lacks a clear structure and a well-defined program, it possesses recognisable characteristics and champions, with little tolerance for other views, a kind of new orthodoxy of its own. Linked to Rome by loose affective bonds, it nevertheless claims and often exercises a high degree of autonomy. The refrain, 'Rome doesn't understand', comes readily to the lips of adherents. It is more or less permissive on sexual morality, disposed not to argue too hard about things like abortion and euthanasia, committed to the idea of women priests, opposed to clerical celibacy, and more interested in political activism than in piety. While only an elite group gives a clear and systematic account of these positions, public opinion polls, including many published on the eve of the Pope's visit, show that large numbers of Catholics are sympathetic to some or all.
"Deeply opposed to the American Church on many matters is a second group comprising what one might be called the Catholic Church in America. Although no less American in the style of their religiosity, persons of this persuasion take their lead on matters of spiritual and moral substance for the most part from orthodox Roman Catholicism as articulated by John Paul II. (On the far right, however, stands a handful whose inspiration seems to come from a pre-conciliar vision of the Church)".
That these divisions are so basic has, of course, been denied. (See The Tablet, 5 March 1988). Nevertheless, the present writer's belief, founded on some experience, is that, granted many gradations in between, Leonard's and Shaw's assessments are substantially true and that the phenomenon they describe extends beyond Britain and the United States. This is also the message which emerges from Cardinal Ratzinger's Report on the Faith.
The evidence for the existence of such an internal schism is to be found equally in the fields of dogma and of moral teaching, in the latter case particularly in the field of sexual morality.
That a considerable proportion of Catholic university and seminary teachers had departed radically from some of the most fundamental and sacred teachings of the Christian faith was the theme developed at considerable length by Thomas Sheehan, formerly Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago, in his review of Hans Kung's Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical Philosophical and Theological Problem (in the New York Review of Books, June 1984). Sheehan from the viewpoint of an extreme theological liberal, but is now said to have 'lapsed' from his original Catholicism. Even if the departures from Christian beliefs are only half as widespread as Sheehan indicates, his statement sheds considerable light on the causes of the contemporary weakness of Catholicism.
"In Roman Catholic seminaries", he wrote, "it is now common teaching that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the messianic claims that the Gospels attribute to him and that he died without believing that he was Christ or the Son of God, not to mention the founder of a new religion.
Son of God?
"One would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who pre-existed from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being. Strictly speaking, the Catholic exegetes say, Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity and never mentioned it in his preaching.
"Nor did Jesus know that his mother, Mary, had remained a virgin in the very act of conceiving him, let alone, as Thomas Aquinas thought, that she delivered him while her hymen remained intact. Most likely Mary told Jesus what she herself knew of his origins: [born] in Nazareth, indeed without the ministration of angels, shepherds and late-arriving wise men bearing gifts. She could have told her son the traditional nativity story only if she had managed to read, long before they were written, the inspiring un-historical Christmas legends that first appeared in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke fifty years after her son had died.
"Moreover, according to the consensus, although Jesus has a reputation of a faith healer during his life, it is very likely that he performed very few such miracles, perhaps only two. (Probably he never walked on water.) And it seems that he did not know that he was supposed to establish the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic church with St Peter the first in a long line of infallible popes.
"In fact, Jesus had no intention of breaking with Judaism in order to constitute a separate Church. Rather, he restricted his mission to Jews and called on his disciples to repent, to celebrate the dawning of God's kingdom and perhaps to expect the imminent arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the 'Son of Man' whom Jesus never identified with himself."
This is little more than a compendium of the familiar theses of the Higher Criticism whose ravages within the Protestant denominations had already led the renowned Anglican apologist, C. S. Lewis, to write that the undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism. Sheehan was saying little more than that those same ravages were now almost as extensive among Catholic scholars, a development not to be wondered at, granted the growing professional association between Catholic and Protestant Biblical scholars.
Professor Raymond Brown is among those who have denied that Sheehan is a "witness of truth". The support given to Charles Curran by so many US academic theologians - despite the nature of his teaching in the field not of doctrine but of morals - indicates that the disorder, while difficult to quantify, is extensive.
The crisis in the field of moral teaching - as distinct from that of dogma - is most clearly epitomised by the positions of the same Charles Curran, who obviously played a major part in the concerted operation to destroy Humanae Vitae immediately after its publication in 1968. Since that year Father Curran's positions have, to say the least, considerably evolved, although, granted his original dissent, not illogically. Father Curran has since repudiated the Church's teaching over the whole field of sexual morality - in relation in particular to contraception, abortion, sterilisation, divorce - to the point of asserting that, in particular circumstances, proportionate good may even justify homosexual acts (i.e. sodomy), and that such a belief is tenable by Catholics without affecting their right to call themselves Catholic.
Lest they forfeit their connections with the great mass of Catholics whom they are endeavouring to lead in a direction which would be anathema to the latter if openly avowed, the dissident groups carefully label their continuing internal rebellion "faithful dissent" or "loyal opposition", without clearly specifying to what they are faithful or to whom they are loyal. However, as the main protagonists know only too well, the scenario - valiant individual v. organised autocratic power - is a "natural" for the media.
What "faithful dissent" and "loyal opposition" mean is that the doctrinal and moral teachings which have been regarded as mandatory for the Catholic since the earliest days of the Catholic Church are set aside, while those who set them aside aver that they are still Catholics; still priests; still celebrate Mass; still receive and dispense the Sacraments. One does not question their inner dispositions (which are beyond human judgement). If one even questions the logic of their publicly-stated positions, however, there will always be some bishops who will defend the heterodox and condemn the orthodox as "simple-minded".
The "simple-minded" can be safely ignored, indeed insulted, as long as they continue to contribute to parochial and diocesan collections. It is not so easy, however, simply to dismiss the urgent criticism of the "progressives" offered by Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford.
Dummett analysed the "consensus" concerning the life and beliefs of Christ and of his Mother as outlined by Thomas Sheehan
"Talk of this kind [i.e., Sheehan's description of the "consensus']", wrote Dummett, "makes no pretensions to plausibility. It is a 'trope' allowing those who engage in it to avoid conceding outright that they regard the New Testament writers as fraudulent. But in the context of so massive an apostasy as that claimed by Professor Sheehan, the point is minor.
"Views like those commended by Sheehan might be combined with some religious belief in which Jesus played an important role, but not with anything recognisable as the Christian religion. If, in speaking of the Son of Man, Jesus was not referring to himself, then the Gospel accounts of his words are hopelessly garbled, and we cannot claim to know what he taught ... But, if Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah, we ought not give him the title of 'Christ', nor claim that the Messiah has already come.
"If he did not believe himself divine, then we have no ground to do so, and hence commit idolatry in praying to him. If he knew nothing of the Trinity, then we know nothing of the Trinity, and have no warrant whatever for supposing that there is a Trinity.
"lf he intended to found no community, then the Church has no standing and is an imposter institution.
"If he conferred no authority on the apostles, no bishops, no priests and no popes have any status not allotted by men and rescindable by men.
"It is easy to understand how someone may come to accept the views reported by Sheehan; it is a straightforward case of loss of faith ...
"What, without lack of charity, we may legitimately find astonishing is this: that people who have adopted positions that imply that, from the earliest times, the Catholic Church, claiming to have a mission from God to safeguard divinely revealed truth, has taught and insisted on the acceptance of falsehoods, falsehoods enshrined in her most sacred books, and is, accordingly, as much of a fraud as her enemies have always maintained, should think it proper to teach such views to those in training for the priesthood.
"And, indeed, their actions are helping to transform the Church into something distinctly fraudulent.
"The monolithic church was never a reality and is not an ideal; but the divergence which now obtains between what the Catholic Church purports to believe and what large or important sections of it in fact believe ought, in my view, to be tolerated no longer: not if there is to be a rationale for belonging to that Church, not if there is to be any hope of reunion with the other half of Christendom, not if the Catholic Church is not to be a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world" (New Blackfriars, October, 1987).
Dummett, replying in a later article to Professor Nicholas Lash, who accused him of "dove-like innocence" or "integralist repression", wrote, "I do not want to revive the Inquisition or even the anti-Modernist oath: I only want an authoritative pronouncement of the limits of admissible reinterpretation of the articles of the Creed" (New Blackfriars, December, 1987). What Dummett asked for was no more than what the Anglican Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge, Dr Edward Norman, described elsewhere as "real, educated, faithful belief in exact truths, which in turn was no more than a restatement in different words of what Newman called "the dogmatic principle."
The conflict over dogmatic and moral issues leads inevitably to a constitutional conflict over the issue of where ultimate ecclesiastical jurisdiction lies. Who - if anyone - has the right to make the authoritative pronouncement which Dummett asked for? And if such an authority exists, once it has solemnly stated its position, can a Catholic simply set it aside, as no more than another more or less interesting viewpoint, and still claim to be a Catholic? It is this question which has forced many Catholics to the surprising conclusion that, in the plain and literal meaning of the words as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, what is being attempted is a revolution, carried through by the use of the weapon of subversion, by a group of theologians determined to substitute its own authority for that of the Pope and bishops, an authority which all Catholics have heretofore regarded as of divine origin.
That the internal schism results from a campaign whose object is revolution by subversion in the interests of an ecclesiastical "new class" is openly asserted by the most extreme wing of the theological dissidents. Other members of this same group are either less aware of the direction towards which their internal rebellion is tending, or more prudent in expression.
As far back as 1980, Rosemary Ruether, the militant feminist theologian, outlined the strategy in these terms: "A new consensus could only come about if this traditional power could be deposed and the Church reconstructed on conciliar, democratic lines accountable to the people Then the theological consensus of the academy could serve as a guide for the pastoral teaching of the Church. This is really what Kung is calling for: that the academy replace the Hierarchy as the teaching Magisterium of the Church.
"This cannot be accomplished by the academy itself. It requires the equivalent of the French Revolution in the Church, the deposing of a monarchical for a democratic constitution of the Church. No one has seriously discussed how this is to be done. But one thing is sure. It will not be legislated by the present power-holders. It demands revolution from below of a type that difficult to imagine, much less to organise
"In the immediate future we cannot hope for a new consensus that will overcome this theological split between the academy and the Hierarchy. Rather, the best we can hope for is the defence of pluralism ...
"There are a number of institutional bases of the new theologies. These are Catholic academic institutions, Catholic faculties of theology at colleges and universities, seminaries (primarily order rather than diocesan seminaries), renewed religious orders, lay-run base communities, independent study and action centres and movements concerned with social justice, and the independent Catholic media.
"The reason why there is any significant pluralism in the Catholic Church today is primarily because the Hierarchy has lost control of a number of important institutions and Catholic media. In addition, new kinds of Catholic movements have developed, outside of direct ecclesiastical control. These are the social bases of liberal and liberationist theology (quoted in The Wanderer, December, 1987).
The objective could not be more clearly stated.
That these relatively, although not absolutely, novel strategies are being widely discussed was indicated in an address given on 2 September 1987 by Dr Hans Kung at the Lutheran Church of St Peter's, New York, to a meeting of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church. In addition to Kung, the meeting featured, among others, Rosemary Ruether and Charles Curran.
Kung said: "For quietly and unostentatiously, often enabled by an intense commitment paid for with the sacrifice of everyday comforts, the network of another kind of church is being formed 'from below', within and outside our congregations. It is a church shared by many pastors and chaplains, benignly tolerated and indirectly supported by many anonymous people at 'the switching points of the ecclesiastical apparatus', and in some countries and continents by many bishops as well: a Church made up of groupings and communities with shared interests of all kinds, working groups, action circles, meditation centres, issue-oriented groups. They are in the Christian spirit another kind of 'confessing church', a new form of community development often beyond the territorial parish.
"The church among us is no isolated church within or outside the Church. It lives in the midst of the great church community and also in countless youth groups within the territorial parishes, which often, of course, have their own priorities and manners, their own styles and actions different from the high-level official Church" (quoted in The Wanderer, December, 1987).
All of this is, of course, merely the application of the revolutionary doctrine of the prophet of Italian Communism, Antonio Gramsci, to the conquest of power, not within a State, but within the Church. As Gramsci pointed out, a modern industrial state is too well-organised to be taken - as was Czarist Russia - by a coup d'etat. If, however, a revolutionary force has already won control of the "culture" of the State, the political power will fall like an over-ripe fruit into the hands of the revolutionaries.
What Kung, Ruether and their colleagues are saying is that once they have won control of the "culture" of Catholic universities, seminaries, bureaucracies, the power of the national churches will fall equally into the hands of the "progressives". The conclusion is obviously well-founded, since these bodies train not only their own successors, but succeeding generations of teachers and even the next echelon of members of the national hierarchies.
In order to forward the doctrinal and moral revolution, the objective which is being sought by the "loyal opposition" is a transformation of the constitution of the Church into what it has never been: a constitutional monarchy in which the Pope, like the British monarch, would reign but not rule.
This endeavour has taken two forms.
On the one hand there are those who wish to magnify the role of national episcopal conferences at the expense of the Holy See. National episcopal conferences are said to be better fitted to handle problems of theological discipline within their respective countries than the Holy See, since they are closer to the scene. (By the time the dispute within the US hierarchy over the AIDS-condom issue is resolved, that suggestion is likely to appear less convincing in practice than in theory).
On the other hand, there are not a few dissident theologians who aspire to elevate their own authority above that of the Papacy and the Episcopate. Their assertion is that only those Papal teachings are to be regarded as binding which, in their jargon, are "received". "Received" is code for those teachings with which the theologians happen to agree: otherwise, they will conduct the kind of campaign which they ran against Humanae Vitae to ensure that, in the subsequent confusion, nothing whatsoever is "received", except that with which they agree.
That these strategies have led to a deep internal schism in Holland is beyond denial. The AlDS-condom controversy will indicate how far like causes have led to like results in the US. If successful, they would ultimately lead the Church in general into what Kung described as "global ecumenical consciousness", of which Peter Ackroyd, the London Times reviewer of Kung's latest work, Christianity and the World Religions, could only comment: "... to worship some amorphous deity, some shared oneness with a variety of prophets, is equivalent to worshipping no deity at all. The global consciousness could turn out to be the ecumenical equivalent of airline food - acceptable to all but palatable to none. No doubt it is noble to emphasise, as Kung does, that Christianity is not 'superior' to any other religion: but that happy confession may be just another forerunner of decay" (Times, 8 January 1987).
In Australia in the eighteen months which have passed since the Pope's visit, with the single exception of the belated stand of the bishops in relation to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace - of which the ultimate result is still a matter of conjecture - there is little evidence that any of the problems have been tackled, let alone solved.
The teaching of 'liberal' theologies is obviously common in not a few seminaries and houses of formation. Demand for the end of clerical celibacy, for female ordination, coupled with blind insistence on visibly inadequate catechetics, are everywhere audible and visible, not least among the ecclesiastical bureaucracies which effectively control the 'commanding heights' of the Church in Australia.
How all of this appears to one who cannot be dismissed as pessimistic and conservative, an Anglican journalist whose bent is liberal, is illustrated by James S. Murray's descriptions of Australian Catholicism in February 1988: "Many Catholics, of course, are quite unaware of what is in the Vatican II documents, but the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, the saying of Mass facing the people, the reading of lessons by lay men and women, the administration of communion by lay people, and the very general abandonment of distinctive dress by clergy and religious are visible signs of dramatic post-Vatican II change ... Common Catholic practices like crossing yourself, genuflecting, saying the rosary and visiting the Blessed sacrament in church are largely abandoned by many Catholics, though some are bemused by paraliturgies almost Protestant in style. There is always a frenetic desire by some priests to separate themselves from liturgical propriety, to be pals around the altar. The old Catholic mystique is missing" (The Australian, 6-7 February 1988).
If it is to be restored, it cannot be achieved merely by the revival of ancient devotional practices. First of all, the outer parameters of the Faith need, once more, to be defined - but definition is not definition without enforcement.