In the January 2011 issue of The Swag, the quarterly journal of the National Council of Priests which is sent out to most of Australia's priests, retired Melbourne priest Fr Eric Hodgens wrote an article in which he slammed the direction of the Church under the Pope as a "reversal" of the second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Father Hodgens claimed that Pope John Paul II had a "lust for power ... taken to monumental proportions", had re-emphasised "devotion to the static Real Presence" and "reinforced a distorted devotion to Mary". He went on to denounce Church teachings on papal infallibility, confession, priestly celibacy, contraception and homosexuality.
The following is Cardinal George Pell's response to Father Hodgens Pell which was published in the April edition of The Swag.
Father Eric Hodgens' piece on the Gaudium et Spes priests gives us plenty of food for thought. It is well written and provocative, as you would expect of a priest who described his own cohort as possessing "the biggest proportion of intelligent, educated and competent leaders". But it is unbalanced, misguided, selective and sometimes inaccurate.
Recently I have been concerned by the theological extremism of some Swag contributions, and am grateful for the opportunity to state the case for the orthodox mainstream. I am not ordering anyone to "withdraw to the fortress and sing the old song", but my best lines are still from the New Testament with its ancient truths and melodies.
Father Hodgens sees himself now as "a presbyter called and ordained by the Church - the People of God" rather than as "a priest called and consecrated by God". It is difficult to know exactly what this means, but it might point us to a number of fundamental issues.
More cards have been laid on the table than in Father Hodgens' earlier writings. While it would be interesting to know whether he still has any jokers up his sleeve, it is more important to recognise that many of the cards cannot be identified accurately. We do not know, for example, his answers to the nine questions he lists. We do not know the limits to his hostility to some ancient devotions such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and veneration of Our Lady. We do not know whether his opposition to the papacy and episcopate touches these institutions themselves or simply the style of recent incumbents. So too with priesthood and traditional Christian teaching on marriage, divorce and sexuality.
We cannot be sure whether Eric's theological position is typical of a liberal or a radical Protestantism. But as an exercise in loyal dissent it moves beyond the limits of orthodox Catholicism.
Let me attempt to state the issue in the most basic terms. We find no evidence in Eric's article that the Catholic Church is the recipient of divine revelation, "God's message not some human thinking" (1 Thess 2.13); nor that the Catholic Church was founded by the Son of God "the Word who was with God ... the Word who was God" (Jn 1.1), Jesus the Christ, the son of Mary with a divine as well as a human nature. If Christ is divine, New Testament teachings have a unique authority.
Eric writes with the genuine anguish of most of us older Catholics who grew up at an unusually high tide of faith and practice and lived through the radical decline which followed the social revolution of the 1960s in the First World. But some of the damage was self-inflicted.
One major point of difference is that in my view Eric's prescriptions are a significant cause of our problems. His solutions were put into practice after the Council, to some degree in Australia, but especially in Belgium, Holland and French-speaking Canada. They emptied the Churches there.
Pope Paul VI appointed no bishops who were opposed to the ethos of Vatican II, and for various reasons the good bishops appointed in Holland were overwhelmed, tossed aside by the liberal gales. This brings me to another contemporary fact, which I never anticipated as a young seminarian in Rome during the Council or as a young priest.
The now aged liberal wing of the Church, which dominated discussion after the Council and often the bishops and the emerging Church bureaucracies, has no following among young practising Catholics, priests or religious. This is not only true in Australia, but everywhere in the Western world. In these different countries dominated by a secular media and intelligentsia, liberalism has no young Catholic progeny.
On reflection we should not find this surprising, as growth is tied to Gospel fidelity, to faith, love and sacrifice. After Vatican II many of us overestimated our cultural strengths and underestimated the virulence of anti-Christian forces. You need strong Christian foundations to participate productively in "open dialogue". Without these roots the end of the road is agnosticism.
Attacks on popes
I should conclude with a few words in defence of the four popes who were mauled, especially Paul, John Paul II and Benedict. Incidentally it is a matter of historical record that at the 1971 Synod of Bishops, Pope Paul offered to the bishops the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood and the bishops declined to accept this.
All three popes were prolific writers, while John Paul II and Benedict were professional academics with a record of scholarly and popular publications rarely if ever equalled by any Australian priest. I believe Pope Benedict is now our most distinguished living theologian.
The charges against the Holy Father do not amount to too much e.g., instituting a special year to honour priests (which was well received by priests and people), continuing with a new translation of the Roman Missal, and encouraging the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated. He did not receive back the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, but only lifted their excommunication. They are still in schism.
Pope John Paul provokes a special hostility, allegedly an abuser of power, out of touch in scripture, limited in theology, a bad listener. It is a surprise that anyone came to his funeral.
In particular he is denounced for emasculating the leadership of the Church, who are clerical and compliant, "low on creativity, leadership, education and even intelligence". In an astonishing example of provincial arrogance, Hodgens claims that "the more intelligent and better educated" bishops (only "some" to be sure) are corrupt and have sold their soul for advancement. Me thinks he protests too much.
Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict were not hostile to intelligence, education or competence, but they have striven regularly to appoint bishops who will defend the apostolic tradition and strive to implement policies which will strengthen the Catholic position, not white-ant it.
Father Hodgens' misunderstanding of the magisterium is typical of his position. The magisterium refers primarily to the teaching authority of the pope together with the bishops (Vatican II's collegiality). The baptised faithful share in this and so do the theologians with priests and religious.
Certainly the teaching authority of the bishops was recognised early by St Ignatius of Antioch (+107 AD) and St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (+200 AD) with his apostolic succession lists of bishops to defend the apostolic tradition. The ancient teaching chair of the bishop exemplifies this, predating by many centuries any groups of professional theologians in the medieval universities.
In Pope John Paul's 27 years of pontificate 24 individuals were disciplined for their theological views, including eight who were silenced or removed, in the worldwide Catholic community of more than one billion believers. Father Hodgens himself escaped any reign of terror and so did many hundreds of dissidents.
Eric is a bit too generous to his generation, to which I belong. Many were formidable, but we coincided with a period of decline probably unparalleled since the Reformation.
"Reflections on an ordination golden anniversary" is thought-provoking. I am glad Father Hodgens has enjoyed his years of priesthood. Unfortunately much of the analysis is mistaken since his solutions, to the extent we can identify them, are less than Catholic and would make a difficult situation worse.