The state of Catholicism after 'Veritatis Splendor'

The state of Catholicism after 'Veritatis Splendor'

B.A. Santamaria

The Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which was issued by Pope John Paul II in October 1993, was reportedly eight years in preparation. The extraordinary length of time involved indicates the importance attached to it. The fact that it was addressed specifically and exclusively to the bishops has an added significance of its own, which was spelt out in the last pages of the Encyclical. The Pope's specific objective, outlined in par. 4, was to meet "a new situation (which) has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced numerous doubts and objections ... with regard to the Church's moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall general and systematic calling into question traditional moral doctrine ...". The Pope called this undermining of "foundations" - "a genuine crisis (par 5).

The crisis must if possible be ended, or the Church will cease to exist as a Church of the masses. The work of regeneration must be begun. We in Australia must play our part, despite the relative unimportance of this country in the context of the entire Church.

The broad analogy of the method normally used in the course of a medical diagnosis might perhaps provide the most appropriate approach to this study of the crisis.

  • What are the symptoms of the crisis?
  • What are its fundamental causes?
  • Is there a 'centre of infection'?
  • Which is the best approach to a cure?


The symptoms accompanying the crisis are almost, if not quite, uniform in most Western industrial countries. The Australian example with which we are most familiar may, therefore, be safely used to understand the problem as a whole.

Within Australia the problem as it manifests itself in one major city - Melbourne - is not dissimilar from that in other parts of Australia. While there may, of course, be variations, between Melbourne and Sydney, where the respective religious traditions are different, and between rural and urban dioceses, the variants are minor. If, therefore, the Melbourne situation is capable of analysis, it may enable us to understand the general situation, first of Australia, and then of the West as a whole.

Australian Catholicism is admittedly in the course of rapid change in terms both of its racial and cultural composition. Nevertheless, it may still be accurately regarded as an example of the Irish Catholic model. For Irish Catholic societies the most accurate gauge of strength or weakness is the level of religious practice among those who identify themselves as Catholic.

Over the past 20 years, two major developments have characterised the Church in Australia.

(i) The first is that the number of those who publicly identify themselves as Catholics has grown quite rapidly.

Catholicism is now numerically the largest denomination in Australia. The change was first apparent in the Census of 1986, when the number of Catholics, for the first time, exceeded the number of Anglicans. The difference was some 350,000. By the time of the 1991 Census the disparity had grown to 600,000. This disparity will doubtless grow further by the time of the 1996 Census.

(ii) The second, equally important, factor, has been that as rapidly as the numbers of those who identify themselves as Catholics has increased, the percentage of those who go to Mass each week has fallen just as, if not far more, rapidly.

A basic source is Professor Hans Mol's Religion in Australia, published in 1970. He quoted two alternative figures as to the weekly religious practice of Catholics in the decade of the sixties. One source stated that 60 percent of those who identified themselves as Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. The Gallup Polls produced lower figures, between 54-55 percent.

The figures of religious practice during the past decade - which are mentioned for purposes of comparison - are the official figures of Mass attendance in the Archdiocese of Melbourne itself. It is unlikely that the percentage of those who attend Sunday Mass weekly would have been understated.

  • In 1986, approximately 26% of Melbourne's Catholic population went to Mass each week.
  • By 1991, the level had fallen to 22%.
  • By 1993 the figure was 20.5%.

Thus in about thirty years, the total decline has been in the vicinity of two-thirds. In the seven years from 1986 to 1993, the fall has been approximately 5.5 percent.

Many detailed statistical qualifications have been advanced as to the absolute accuracy of those figures. It is doubtful whether on careful evaluation they greatly alter the situation.

Some claim that the true figures of Australian religious practice are actually somewhat higher. While this may be so in a few outer metropolitan parishes, characterised by the preponderance of young families, and in many small country parishes they are balanced by the fact that many of the over-50s comprise a disproportionately large part of those who still go to Mass. That disproportion is certain to be reduced by the year 2000. A continuation of the rate of decline which has been evident over the past seven years would create a rate of practising Catholics of approximately 15 percent. That is, in fact, the best possible result available since, while many of the remaining over-50s will have died by that time, they will not have been replaced by those who come from Catholic homes and schools.

Although a considerably higher proportion of country children would still attend Mass regularly after leaving school, nevertheless, on a nation-wide basis, it would be very surprising if more than a minute percentage of those who leave school are still practising regularly 12 months later. If this decline had occurred to a commercial corporation, it would have ceased to exist. A religion, however, is different from a corporation, not least because supernatural factors play their part.

If the factors which have led to the present situation have been effectively countered, 15 percent constitutes a sufficient base for the regeneration which is indispensable. If, however, the present chaos, particularly in the field of belief, persists, the Church will simply fragment into a sect. The essential factor is what happens to belief.


If the rapid fall-off in the affiliation of Australian Catholics with the Church is the essential symptom, what are the deeper causes? "Christianity," wrote Nietzsche, the anti-Christian, German philosopher, "is a system. It is a consistently thought-out and complete view of things. If one breaks a fundamental idea within it, the whole thing will fall to pieces."

Whether that single "fundamental idea" within the Christian system has actually been broken, one cannot pretend to know. However three fundamental links in the chain of Christianity have certainly been gravely weakened. They are separate, but, in practice, interconnected. They may be ranked in the following order:

1. The consequences which have flown from the work of some of the most influential scholars in the field of Christian Biblical scholarship, in their impact on the popular perception of Catholic doctrine and dogma;

2. The disintegration of the traditional system of Catholic moral teaching, particularly, but not exclusively, in the area of sexual morality;

3. The degradation of the liturgical structures of Catholic worship and piety - the liturgy in general, the Mass, the Sacraments, sacramentals, and pious practices - which has followed the de facto abolition of the Latin Mass in 1969.

Any one of them would have had profound consequences. Together their joint influence has been almost overwhelming.

Failure to understand and to combat these factors will result in "parishioner-less parishes" long before it issues in "priestless parishes".

That much modern Catholic Biblical scholarship has yielded positive fruit is undeniable, as John Paul II stated at the official gathering of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, reported in L'Osservatore Romano of 28 April 1993. However, there are less positive aspects, due perhaps to a not insignificant failure on the part of many Biblical scholars to observe the norms laid down in that address.

Scholarship is good. Ignorance and obscurantism in both the secular and the religious areas of society are bad. We cannot possibly know too much. But whether it is in the field of secular research - historical, legal, scientific - or in that of religion, scholarship is merely scholarship. The quality of scholarship varies. Scholarly researches reach conclusions which may or may not be true. New schools of learning, reaching radically different conclusions on the same facts, arise in every generation. In whatever field, the conclusions of scholarship remain tentative until validated by the recognised authority in each field.

In the field of religious research, this means that the conclusions of scholarship are not doctrine. They are merely examples of scholarship, with all of its value and all of its limitations, unless and until they are accepted as doctrine by the Church.

John Henry Newman insisted on this point a century and a half ago: "A revelation is not revealed unless there is an authority which tells us what is, in fact, revealed." Newman's point was reformulated, with even stronger authority by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum:

"All that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church, which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the word of God."

The conclusions of Biblical scholarship thus do not constitute doctrine, nor should they be taught as doctrine either in seminaries, teachers' colleges, or schools, until they possess this ultimate seal of authority. This is especially so when they run counter to defined doctrine, or are based on presuppositions which erode the foundations of defined doctrine.

The failure to observe these common-sense rules has led to profound practical consequences, to different degrees, in both Protestant and Catholic churches.

In its origins Biblical scholarship was more closely linked with the German Lutheran than with the Roman Catholic tradition. Developing over the past two hundred years, some of the most conspicuous names have been Protestant scholars like Strauss, Bauer, Harnack down to Bultmann, Tillich, Robinson and beyond. Part of their contribution was to propound theses which, in the judgment of some important Protestant scholars at least, have effectively destroyed Protestantism.

Strauss, for example, regarded the Gospels not as history, but as myth; as expressing religious, but not historical, truth. Bauer denied that Christ ever existed, asserting that he was merely a historical fiction created primarily by the author of Mark's Gospel. The contemporary Jewish authority, Geza Vermes, who recently retired as Director of Oxford's Oriental Institute, in his work Jesus the Man repeats the ancient proposition that Christ certainly did exist, but that He was not God. He was essentially a Jewish "hasid" or "holy man", a by-no-means unique phenomenon in the Palestine of Christ's era.

As to the consequences of this type of teaching, the great Anglican apologist, C. S. Lewis, wrote: "The undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of Protestant divines engaged in New Testament criticism."

The greatest of modern Protestant theologians, Karl Barth, is reported by von Balthasar to have warned Catholic Biblical scholars: "Do not do the same stupidity that we did a hundred years ago." The most outstanding among recent Anglican ecclesiologists, the late Professor E. L. Mascall, expressed identical views in the series of works he published before he died including The Secularisation of Christianity and Theology and the Doctrine of Christ.

Despite this visible chain of consequences, a similar process has been under way in the Catholic Church for many years. In a recent controversy with an official Catholic theologian in the Brisbane Catholic Leader, I experienced the 'treatment' which is the fate of the unqualified non-expert. The theologian began by telling me that whatever I knew about politics, in religious matters I was a mere Christian "fundamentalist", out of my depth in the field of religious controversy, who should therefore defer to the experts.

Thereupon this particular Biblical expert proceeded to describe what he said were the "findings" - not merely the opinions - of modern Catholic Biblical scholarship. (Remember that he is the official spokesman on these matters of the third largest Archdiocese in Australia).

One "finding" was that the statement which Matthew's Gospel attributes to Christ: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock ..." on which the Church has leant so heavily in the matter of proving Papal authority, was not uttered by Christ himself, but was of "post-Resurrection origin".

Another "finding" was that there is no evidence that Christ ever ordained anybody with the words "Do this in memory of Me" as the Council of Trent taught - in fact, Christ may not have uttered the words at all. Hence the Church is now free to ordain whom it wills (a conclusion not dissociated from the current feminist campaign for the ordination of women). For the same reason the doctrine of the Eucharist can have little substance. Other scholars have, with equal freedom advanced the proposition that Christ did not clearly know he was God until later in His life: this knowledge developing as a kind of evolution in his consciousness (a statement which led the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University Michael Dummett, a convert, to ask in a recent controversy in the English Dominican magazine New Blackfriars, "If Christ did not know that he was God, how do we know?") The assertion that Christ did not rise bodily from the dead, but that his rising was only an imagining in the minds of the Apostles overwhelmingly influenced by the power of his personality while he was alive, has been widely taught in a number of Catholic seminaries, despite the emphatic teaching of St. Paul that to believe in Christianity if Christ did not rise from the dead is a simple absurdity.

On the best assumption, these scholars believe that they are modernising Catholic belief, cleansing it of ancient superstitions, while leaving its essential authority unimpaired. What they are actually doing is to show that for 2000 years the Catholic Church, which Catholics have been taught to regard as "the pillar and ground of truth," has in fact taught a mass of falsehoods. As Professor Dummett has written: "The monolithic Church was never a reality, and is not an ideal: but the divergence that now obtains between what the Catholic Church purports to believe and what larger and important sections of it do believe, ought, in my view, to be tolerated no longer; not if there is to be any 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."

Regardless of the cautions expressed in the most recent document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and of Pope John Paul II, all of the above completely unorthodox views are, whether in whole or in part, taught freely in seminaries, in teachers' colleges, and in schools. How then can one wonder when so many young priests, still wet behind the ecclesiastical ears, preach heresy?


The second factor in the contemporary disintegration of Catholicism is the fragmentation of Catholic moral teaching, particularly but not exclusively in the field of sexual morality. That proposition is the essential subject matter of Veritatis Splendor.

For the past 20 years the teaching generally imparted in most Catholic secondary schools and many seminaries has been that in matters of morality, and in particular, sexual morality, the final authority is the person's own "informed" conscience. It is not denied that the Church's most serious moral teachings - of which in modern times the most controversial has been that relating to contraception - should always be respectfully received and prayerfully considered. Contraception must rightly be regarded, it is occasionally added, as a "serious disorder"; but the "serious disorder" involved in the practice of contraception, must be balanced against the damage to one's family life consequent upon the decision not to practise it. The individual's own conscience, thus "informed" by the teaching of the Church, is nevertheless the final arbiter. This is the practical, as distinct from the theoretical, substance of the concept of the informed conscience".

As it is commonly understood, it is, in my own private view, the most unhelpful concept emphasised in Christian moral teaching in recent times.

What it has come to represent is, in fact, the denial of objective moral standards, the privatisation of morality.

If that is how Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor are to be interpreted, it would not be difficult to establish that, under the conditions of modern urban living - with the excessive cost of housing, high rates of interest, the refusal of industry to pay the Family Wage and the consequent exodus of married women into the workforce - a good Catholic couple having had two or three children close together, would not merely have the right but the duty to practise contraception!

Such a view of the "informed conscience", in fact, invalidates the entire structure of Catholic moral teaching as it has existed for 2000 years. Not merely in the field of sexual morality, but in that of morality in general, it becomes impossible to define any course of conduct as absolutely wrong. Everything depends on one's own estimate of proportionate balance between good and evil results as established by one's own conscience.

Fr Charles Curran, an extremely able dissenter, points out that this principle applies not merely to contraception but to pre-marital sex, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, etc. If the original principle is accepted, the conclusion Curran draws inevitably becomes general.

What began with a seemingly justifiable insistence on the ultimate authority of the "informed conscience" has ended with disbelief in all moral absolutes. There is now very little difference between what most Catholics and almost all non-Catholics believe not merely in the matter of contraception, but of pre-marital sex, abortion, divorce and perhaps to a lesser extent, homosexual practices.

The spate of articles which has followed the publication of Veritatis Splendor has indicated that many non-Catholic critics have been far more positive in their reactions to the Encyclical than the old guard of Catholic dissenters. The former appear to be more fully aware of the tide of cultural devastation throughout the West which has followed on the sexual revolution; and they have neither theological positions nor professional appointments to defend.

What is also remarkable in relation to the Catholic dissenters is that they appear to take no account of the Church's claim to infallibility, as it is defined in what is known as the "ordinary" magisterium. Since neither Humanae Vitae nor Veritatis Splendor claimed to be infallible documents, their teaching, it is claimed, must be non-infallible. that is, fallible. Those who hold this view appear completely to ignore the Church's "ordinary" magisterium. Even Küng has acknowledged that by the traditional criterion of the "ordinary" magisterium, a Catholic would have to regard the teaching on contraception as infallible. (See Infallible: An Enquiry by Hans Küng, pp.54-55).

The only way in which Küng himself can escape from the implications of his own logic is to state that while he must regard the teaching on contraception as thus theoretically infallible according to the criteria of the "ordinary" magisterium, the teaching is itself in fact transparent nonsense. From this, it follows that not only the teaching on contraception but the entire doctrine of infallibility is false and untenable. It is difficult to see how any person holding the dissenting position can seriously reconcile his belief with membership of the Church. Yet one might accurately guess that the dissenting position is what is taught in the vast majority of Western seminaries.


The last of the three factors is the liturgical degradation which, in the case of the Catholic Church, has followed the de facto abolition of the traditional Latin Mass in 1969. What occurred then was not merely the introduction of a radically restructured Mass in the vernacular or local language, side by side with the traditional Mass, but the effective banning of the latter. Today, while the ban has been modified, its modification has not in fact led to any general revival of its use.

As far as I can read, Archbishop Lefebvre himself never denied that, properly conducted, the new Mass - and in the vernacular - is a valid Mass.

The damage occasioned by this enormous liturgical change lies not in any invalidity, but in that it opened the stable door to every kind of improvisation, many of them unaesthetic and some quite lunatic. Hence the liturgical vandalism of every type which we have witnessed without any real attempt by episcopal authority to curb it. Here again it cannot be said that there was no warning.

The importance of liturgical degradation in bringing about a fundamental change in the beliefs of the Church is shown conclusively in a most important study of religious practice in sixteenth century England after Henry VIII's revolution. Entitled The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400 to 1580, it is written by Eamon Duffy, a fellow of Magdalen College and was published in 1993.

Between the time of the execution of Thomas More and John Fisher in 1535, and the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 - a period of 50 years - Duffy clearly establishes that it was the liturgical change, more than any other single factor, which led to the revolutionary change in religious belief which occurred in England in the course of a mere two generations. Insofar as historical research is conclusive, it is clear that while Henry VIII might have had a rather over-developed taste in women, and might have been a cruel and wilful despot in killing them when they had ceased to please, nevertheless, when he died, it is likely that some 90 percent of his beliefs were still fundamentally Catholic. It was, in fact, the continuous changes, partial and marginal at first, in the abolition of the Mass; the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from the altars; the removal of statues and pictures from the churches; the change in the ordinary prayers; the banning of pilgrimages; the destruction of the monasteries; of chapels - the whole visible mental furniture which created and conditioned the Catholic mind - which, in Duffy's view, both created and perpetuated the divisions which persist between English Christians to the present day.

The reason is that even more profoundly than anything they learn in the process of formal education, than any conclusions which they reach as the result of rational argument, ordinary people are influenced in their religious beliefs much more by what they repeatedly and continuously see and do in the course of worship than what they learn by intellectual exertion: Lex orandi, lex credendi.


All of these beliefs are to be found, in whole or in part, in greater or lesser degree in probably the majority of Catholic centres of higher learning - Catholic universities, seminaries, theological schools, teachers colleges - where they are protected and advanced by the power of the ecclesiastical bureaucracies which today dominate the Western churches. These are the "centres of infection." They form the minds of Catholic academics, theologians, priests, religious, lay teachers. These duly transmit them - often unaware of the consequences of what they are doing - to the Catholic people. Among their most perverse achievements is the catechetical catastrophe which has been the major factor in creating the advanced degree of religious illiteracy, which now uniformly pervades the minds of 90 percent of Catholic youth. It is not to be wondered at that Pope John Paul felt impelled to include the following strong paragraph in the concluding pages of Veritatis Splendor.

"We have the duty, as Bishops, to be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught. My Brothers in the Episcopate, it is part of our pastoral ministry to see to it that this moral teaching is faithfully handed down and to have recourse to appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to it ...

"As Bishops, we have the grave obligation to be personally vigilant that the "sound doctrine" (1 Tim. 1:10) of faith and morals is taught in our Dioceses. A particular responsibility is incumbent upon Bishops with regard to Catholic institutions. Whether these are agencies for the pastoral care of the family or for social work, or institutions dedicated to teaching or health care, Bishops can canonically erect and recognise these structures and delegate certain responsibilities to them. Nevertheless, Bishops are never relieved of their own personal obligations. It falls to them, in communion with the Holy See, both to grant the title 'Catholic' to Church-related schools, universities, health-care facilities and counselling services, and, in cases of a serious failure to live up to that title, to take it away."

When it is realised that all four Catholic medical schools attached to Catholic universities in the USA teach contraceptive techniques, one understands the necessity for the Pope's words. Nevertheless, it must be stated that while the Pope's words are clear the decisions are not enforced.

The way to salvation and to regeneration lies not merely in the repudiation of these combined phenomena, but in an active, resolute, prayerful and intelligent and unfanatical fight against them, by ordinary Catholic people in their parishes and every other Catholic institution.

There are only two crises in the history of the Church which were as great as the crisis faced by the Church today. One was that posed by the Pelagians, where the line of division occurred was over the existence or otherwise of Original Sin and of the consequent necessity of the Redemption. The other was that posed by the Arians in the 4th and 5th centuries, where the line of division was simply whether Christ was or was not God. After more than a century of fighting the Church formally overcame the Arian, Pelagian and similar heresies, as the consequence of the decisions of the General Councils from Nicaea to Chalcedon. These provided the fundamental basis of the secular and religious order which lasted for more than a thousand years.

But what was formally decided by General Councils had to be made effective in the field.

Long before his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, even in his earliest Anglican phase, Newman had understood that, in some religious conflicts, popular resistance is as indispensable as theological acumen. When, with his colleagues Pusey and Keble, Newman began the Tractarian Movement within the Anglican Church at the beginning of the 1830s, he made it clear that his objective was not to run a polite Oxford debating circle but to establish a network, a Movement, to defeat liberalism and progressivism in religion.

In 1859, fourteen years after he became a Catholic, Newman wrote The Arians of the Fifth Century and On Counselling the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. He pointed out that the Arian heresy, while defeated in principle at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) - in which the role of Athanasius was vital to the final result - was not defeated in the field for another century. There were long periods when the majority of the bishops were in schism, and there were even doubts about the beliefs of one Pope. Arianism, wrote Newman, was defeated by the popular resistance of ordinary people and of ordinary parish priests, by the "Church taught" rather than the "Church teaching". That was not a popular thesis in high places within the Church. Nevertheless, the popular resistance was critical.

Today's position is identical with theirs. The resistance must be prayerful, persuasive, intelligent but neither fanatical not arrogant. However, it must be active resistance.

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