Crises in the Church: Fr Hubert Jedin's warning to Rome

Crises in the Church: Fr Hubert Jedin's warning to Rome


Fr Hubert Jedin, who died in 1981, was probably the greatest Catholic historian of the 20th century. He wrote the definitive history of the Council of Trent and a ten-volume 'History of the Church'. The March 'AD2000' published the text of his Memorandum to the German Bishops in 1968, expressing concern at runaway post-Vatican II reforms and a lack of episcopal leadership. A sequel to this, 'Crises in the Church', was published in the Vatican newspaper 'L'Osservatore Romano' (January 30, 1969). Though written a generation ago, its major points remain as relevant today as they were in 1969.

Is it possible, or is it perhaps even necessary, to speak of a crisis in the Catholic Church? Those who answer the question negatively cannot appeal to the fact that the structure of the Church, looked at from the outside, does not show a single crack; that after Vatican Council II there have been no movements of defection and no schisms, as there were after Vatican Council I, the Council of Trent, and almost all the preceding Councils.

For myself, I answer the question affirmatively. In my opinion we are witnessing a crisis of the Church. First of all there is a liturgical crisis which we can all see. The implementation of the liturgical reforms provided for by the Council has provoked an equal share of enthusiastic approval and violent opposition. I do not wish to speak of chaos, but if one goes around on a Sunday morning visiting the parish churches in a single city, one finds in each a differently 'organised' service. He runs across omissions and sometimes different lessons from those up to now provided for by the ordering of the readings.

And if one happens to be in another country, and does not understand the language, one feels oneself a complete stranger. Not to mention the communal Eucharistic functions which are organised without a sharing of belief in the real presence of the Lord. It is true that the formalism and the uniformity of the old system was in need of revision, and there is much reason for satisfaction in the fact that the active participation of the faithful in the divine service, as was championed by the liturgical movement and had already been largely practised in Germany, is making progress throughout the entire Church. But there is too much experimentation. The liturgy is being 'organised' like a community meal and people are forgetting that this is 'liturgy', a service pre-ordained by God.

The second is the crisis of authority. I do not wish to get involved in a discussion of the recent causes of this crisis of authority which arise from the spirit of our times, because this would take us too far afield: the rebellion of the new generation against the so-called establishment, the abuse of the concept of 'liberty' for anarchy, and of 'democracy' for terror; and I shall limit myself to the symptoms in the life of the Church. "Democratisation of the Church" is a controversial slogan which can have a valid meaning, especially when it means that those who hold authority - the Pope, bishops, parish priests - are more willing than before to listen to the people of God and they cultivate contacts the laity and seek their collaboration. This collaboration presupposes an active contact and the right to participate, otherwise Catholic action becomes Catholic passivity. This is the true meaning of democratisation".

However, it is understood that the final responsibility for the catechesis of the faith, for the proclamation of the true faith, rests not with the laity, nor with the theologians, but rather with those to whom Christ has entrusted the mandate: "Go forth into the world and teach all peoples," that is, the apostles and their successors, the bishops. Their authority and their responsibility rest upon this mandate and neither the one nor the other can be democratically divided up.

And with this we arrive at the third and most serious crisis, the crisis of faith. An American professor of Yugoslavian origin, whose father was kidnapped after the end of the war and then assassinated by agents of the local regime, and who later sought asylum with her mother in Germany and finally emigrated to America, said to me, when I was travelling across California with her and her husband, who is also a university professor: "During all the terrible years we lived through, my Catholic faith, our Church, was the secure support to which I clung, the rock upon which I stood. Now everything seems to vacillate, everything has become doubtful."

Content of the faith

What this extremely intelligent woman said to me was later confirmed in Germany by many faithful and zealous Catholics. In religious preaching and teaching, ideas are expounded which no longer represent the true exposition of the content of faith but instead, they disrupt it and reduce it to figures and symbols. It was always one of the privileges of the Catholic Church to state clearly and equivocally to its members what they must believe. Our catechisms were clear and unequivocal. Now we often hear people ask: Exactly what is the Catholic faith?

What does the history of the Church have to say for the current crisis of the Church? No matter how profoundly the historical events which we are experiencing may affect the life of humanity, for the believing Christian, and not only for the Catholic Christian, the Church remains the vehicle and the herald of divine revelation, the pillar and foundation of truth, and because of this her history can tell us something about how the internal and external crises of the Church have been overcome and can be overcome. We can isolate in the history of the Church two processes which no one can doubt were serious crises.

The first began with the decline of the Hellenistic-Roman culture and the Roman Empire. In the course of four centuries the Church had grown within the bosom of these cultures and had become amalgamated with them. The Apostle Paul had written his letters in one of the two world languages of the time, which was spoken in the Roman Empire, and he had travelled in his missionary journeys along the roads of this empire. After long struggles this empire had become Christian. Even those who consider the "Constantinian development" as a tragedy for Christianity, must recognise the fact that the existence of that empire helped the spread of Christianity; and those, too, who date the falsification of Christianity from the time of its "hellenisation", must accept the fact that theology and the magisterium found in Greek thought an instrument for the formulation and exact expression of the content of the faith.

Moreover, the fact remains that the basic structures of the constitution of the primitive Church were elaborated in connection with the breakup of the Roman Empire. And then this Roman Empire, at least its western part, collapsed under the attacks of the Germanic invasions, because its own citizens no longer believed in the value of their own social system, and were no longer ready to defend it. In Augustine's City of God we can still feel the tremendous dismay created by the sacking and conquest of Rome by the Visigoths in 410: for the men of that time the world was falling apart and we learn from the biography of St Severinus the reactions to this event among the people of the Danube. How did the Church overcome this crisis?

Even though in many of the outlying territories some dioceses and many communities temporarily disappeared, the liturgical tradition was never interrupted. On the contrary, with the fixing of the liturgical texts, it was safeguarded from interruptions. The most important liturgical texts, those of the sacraments, took on their definitive form during the transition period of the following centuries. The level of theology dropped, but the content, reduced to formulas, remained intact and was passed on to the nations to be evangelised ... In the general political and economic catastrophe, the authority of the Church never weakened; on the contrary, it grew, and not the least of the reasons for this was because the Church preserved the Christian and pagan cultural heritage to such a degree that up into the late Middle Ages it held a cultural monopoly ...

The second crisis of the Church to which we now turn was very different from the first. It was not the result of a political and cultural catastrophe. It was basically an internal crisis of the Church. For two centuries people were aware that the Church was in urgent need of reforms which would eliminate the defects which had become rooted in her, and adapt the catechesis and the pastoral functions to the changed conditions of the times. But nothing really fatal happened. The external edifice of the Church was surprisingly intact; not even the great Western schism which had divided the Church for a generation had been able, in spite of its long duration, to topple this structure. But many abuses had exhausted the intrinsic moral and religious authority of the Popes and the Bishops. The clergy were not up to its task of guiding, and often, through thirst for riches, they allowed popular piety to continue along its sometimes superstitious path, but they held firmly to their privileges ...

The Reformation was a protest against this state of affairs. Luther wanted to reform the Church, to do precisely what the competent authorities had neglected to do up to that time. But he was convinced that the cause of the existing defects was the falsification of the pure doctrine of the Gospel, which must in the first place be restored in order to then draw from it the yardstick of the other reforms. The cause of the tragic confrontation consisted in this: Luther not only broke with the human traditions, or human propositions as he called them, but he rejected the obligatory character of the ecclesiastical magisterium, the vehicle of the sacra traditio.

Crisis of authority

The crisis of the 16th century was just as much a crisis of authority as a crisis of faith. The majority of those who held authority had refused and neglected to bring about the necessary reforms. This negligence was now being vindicated: the judgement of the Pope on the doctrine of Luther was hardly known, many of the German bishops refused to publish the Bull Exurge Domine. What the controversialist theologians wrote against Luther was not read. The uncertainty of faith grew.

Those who called for an improvement in the conditions of the Church, who wanted reform of the Church, were called "Progressivists" as they are called today, and they united with Luther and supported his 'reform' even though this was something quite different from what had first been understood by the 'reform' of the Church. The Council, continually requested to clarify the faith and to bring about reform (in the old meaning of the word), was put off for 25 years and when it eventually met at Trent and defined the Catholic doctrine and enacted reforms, it was too late to prevent the division. The division in the Church had already become a reality. A great part of the medieval "orbis catholicus" had already separated from the Church and from the Papacy - the whole of northern Europe and almost all of Germany; while in France and Poland things stood on a razor's edge. It was the most serious crisis that the Church had witnessed since her foundation: even the Vatican Council II called it a "gravissimum discrimen", a grave crisis. How did the Church overcome it?

She did not overcome the crisis by giving up her authority, nor by accepting equivocal formulas of compromise nor by welcoming the liturgical chaos created by arbitrary innovations in the divine service; these were also eliminated on the Protestant side with Luther's German Mass and the later Lutheran ecclesiastical ordinances. Rather, it was overcome through the re-establishing of the religious and moral authority of the Papacy, when, towards the middle of the century, the See of Peter was occupied by Popes who were sincerely concerned with the internal renewal of the Church and who considered it their principal task to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent.

In the same way, this Council strengthened the authority of the bishops in their dioceses as regards the care of souls, even though not to the degree that would have been desirable. The Tridentine decrees on the faith and the Tridentine Creed compiled on the basis of those decrees re-established the security of the faith, which had so long been wanting, and they gave a solid foundation to theology. The missal and the breviary of Pius V unified the liturgy, and this unification was not at all, as one might think, a product of Roman centralism; on the contrary, it came about through the wishes of the Fathers of the Council of Trent ...

We shall now draw some conclusions from the observations which we have made concerning the two great crises - the decline of the ancient world and the division of the 16th century. Contained in these conclusions is the answer to the question which was posed at the beginning: what has the history of the Church to say about the current crises of the Church?

I would like to summarise these consequences in three points:

1. The Church was able to resist and survive both the crises which we have chosen as objects of comparison, because it gave priority to the preservation of the revealed heritage entrusted to her through the magisterium. Theology, after the fall of the ancient world, was not able to maintain the heights it had reached in the era of the great Fathers of the Church, with Origen and Augustine. The ecclesiastical magisterium, had fallen back on formulas such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the so-called Creed of Athanasius, and other Creeds, for the instruction of the faithful, and in the work of evangelisation especially, it had contented itself with the most simple doctrinal instruments, the Apostles Creed, the Pater Noster, and the Ten Commandments. But even in this simplification, and perhaps because of it, the magisterium was able to conserve the continuity of the faith. At the time of the Reformation clarification came for the first time when the Supreme Magisterium, the Council, spoke.

This clarification came too late to prevent the division of the Church, but not too late to restore the security of the faith for those who remained Catholic. The magisterium of the Church, not theology, is and still remains today the binding norm of our faith. Theology must seek, through reflection, to master the content of faith: it can make the mysteries of the faith comprehensible and demonstrate their connection; it must work with scientific methods which correspond to the level of the times; it must continually keep its hand on the pulse of cultural life. It has a high task and it is indispensable for the magisterium, but it is not identical with it. The role of the ecclesiastical magisterium belongs to the successors of the apostles.

Basic structures

2. The crisis of authority in which we find ourselves today did not arise primarily from the often bureaucratical form of its use. But to a greater degree it arose from the aversion of our times to authority in any form. There is no word more scoffed at than the word "obedient." But as in the 16th century the crisis of authority in the Church cannot be abolished with the democratisation of the Church, by transferring directly into the Church certain democratic forms which are the current tender of the political and social life of our times. The Catholic Church has her own basic structures which were firmly set down by her founder, by virtue of which the successors of the twelve apostles and their head, the Bishop of Rome, hold the triple office of teacher, priest and pastor, and because of this they possess authority and also responsibility, and both the authority and the responsibility are indivisible. For this reason the Council ordained that those who hold authority should be assisted by parish and diocesan councils and also by laymen, but it did not share with them the power to make decisions. The Pope's primacy cannot be limited by the decisions of a congress of laity. No future Council can become a "parliament of the Church"...

3. Only with great circumspection would I wish to express my opinion about the liturgical crisis. The Tridentine centralism has been broken up by giving wide powers in the liturgical field to the episcopal conferences. The reforms to be drafted by the post-conciliar liturgical commission are not yet complete. Let me say only this: a liturgical renewal which proceeds step by step with a deepening of our concept of the Church can be regarded as one of the most important processes in the history of the Church of our century, as the overcoming of a formalism which for many years has prevented the development of the liturgical life. A famous liturgist said, when the new Easter Vigil was introduced: now the ice age is over. But let us remember: liturgy is a disciplined service of God, a common 'actio' of the celebrant and the community. The previous or concomitant reading of the texts of the Mass by the community is not the only, nor the most important form, of active participation (actuosa participatio) in the carrying out of the liturgy; the decisive form is the interior participation of the faithful in the sacrifice and in the Eucharistic meal. Let us also remember this, that the constitution of the Council on the sacred liturgy (art. 22,23) demands that all reforms take account of the sana traditio, the sound tradition, and that the venerable heritage of the tradition - the texts in which our forefathers built it up in the course of a millennium and a half - should not be lightly jettisoned; here there must be no arbitrary experimentation. And in reference to this we must also remember that the constitution itself (art. 36) maintains as a rule the Latin liturgy in the same manner as before.

Would it not be nonsense if the Catholic Church in our century - the century of unification of the world - were to renounce completely such a precious tie of unity as the Latin liturgical language? Would it not be a tardy slip into a nationalism which is already regarded as passé? When I was in America two years ago I had to ask for a Latin missal from the press in the sacristy. I fear that in the not too distant future in some places it will be impossible even to find a Latin missal, and that our children will no longer know what a Gloria or a Credo is, and that we will have to go to a concert hall to hear the immortal creations of our sacred music.

The Catholic divine service is both mystery and catechesis. As mystery it is and remains impenetrable to our reason, and this fact cannot be changed in the least by the translation into the vernacular.

Holy silence

But the divine service of the word, the prayer of petition, is quite another thing. However, with our German translations, we are still a long way from equalling the beauty and incisiveness, for example, of the Sundays after Pentecost in the Roman Missal ... Space should be left for holy silence, and that on Sunday, in churches where several Masses are celebrated, one of them should be in the Latin liturgy. Participants will not be lacking; and the order of the liturgy should remain fixed. This cannot be made a field for experimentation.

The history of the Church cannot give us any formula for the solution of our crisis of the Church. The history of humanity does not repeat itself, nor does the history of the Church. However, the history of the Church, as a knowledge of the past of the Church, is similar to lived experience for the individual. It claims to know quite well what should not be done and hopes to be able to place signposts along the path of the Church in the future. And since I feel co-responsible for this path, I felt obliged to say what I have said. On this subject much more could be said, but I shall stop here.

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