Political modernity and Vatican policy

Here’s an interesting analysis of the outlook behind recent Vatican policies regarding Church, state, democracy, human rights and whatnot: What Kind of Caesar?. According to the author, Russell Hittinger, traditional Catholic teaching assumed that the state has a necessary sacral dimension—all authority, after all, is from God—and naturally wanted that dimension to be Catholic. The post-French Revolution state attempts on the contrary to abolish that dimension. Until Vatican II, the Church objected to the attempt on the ground that if the sacral dimension were lacking it would be impossible for state authority to remain both real and limited. In the absence of a superior principle that justifies it and puts it in a definite setting, government would end up anarchic or totalitarian.

Two hundred years into the Enlightenment, at Vatican II, the Church decided that settled realities had to be accepted, the secular state could indeed function without immediately collapsing into anarchy or tyranny, and the point was to assure it of popular acceptance and somehow to limit it so it could establish order and allow human life to develop toward its true goals free of political oppression. Democracy and human rights, it was thought, could do all that. Perhaps carried away by the optimism of the early ’60s, the Vatican II generation decided the new situation was even a good thing. After all, why should the Church have to compete with the state in the sacrality business?

The desacralization of the state was to mean a demotion of the state. Gaudium et Spes (one of the documents of Vatican II) expressed the new attitude:

“As for public authority, it is not its function to determine the character of the civilization, but rather to establish the conditions and to use the means which are capable of fostering the life of culture among all even within the minorities of a nation.It is necessary to do everything possible to prevent culture from being turned away from its proper end and made to serve as an instrument of political or economic power.”

The secular state was thus to be strictly subordinated to the life of the society as a whole, and particularly to its spiritual side: culture and religion. It is culture, and not the state, that becomes the theater for the work of conversion, and it therefore becomes supremely important:

“Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history and the position he takes toward the fundamental events of life such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.”

[From Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s major social encyclical.]

So the state was to be limited, and culture and religion free. It didn’t work out that way, and there are no prospects things will get better. In fact, the old view was right: the state that recognizes no sacred dimension cannot limit itself and becomes absolute. Democracy now means that everything is done in the name of the people and for their supposed benefit, but it’s done by their betters in accordance with their own judgment. The democratic requirement of popular consent has come to mean that the people are required to approve of what’s being done, and if they don’t there’s something wrong with them and they have to be re-educated. Human rights, which were supposed to limit government and protect the freedom of culture and religion, instead expand government and require it to remake or abolish culture and drive religion out of public life, all in the name of freedom, equality and tolerance. Some examples we’ve commented on at Turnabout:

  • Multiculturalism, which has become fundamental to the modern state, means that no particular culture can have public standing. That is as much as to say that no particular culture can exist as the way of life of any human society. Culture must therefore be abolished as such.
  • If ordinary people say they don’t like the PC nonsexist multicultural society, everyone who matters agrees that the government should do whatever it takes to straighten them out and in the meantime make sure their views don’t affect anything.
  • In particular, the religious views of ordinary people shouldn’t be allowed to affect anything. Such views by definition are irrational and intolerant.
  • Human rights, as authoritatively construed by treaties, require governments radically to alter the cultures of their own people in unprecedented ways with regard to matters as fundamental as sex and family life. Human rights thus require the strict subordination of culture to ideology.

So it seems the new policy adopted in the 60s doesn’t fit the actual situation or any situation that is now foreseeable. It’s unclear where the Church will go on all this. When a mistaken policy is big and public enough it becomes very hard to deal with, because the consequences of admitting there’s a problem are so immediate and horrifying. Hence the happy talk that’s been such a feature of the post-Vatican II Church. Nonetheless, things are changing. As a result of the scandal regarding clerical pederasty there’s been a lot less happy talk in the American church recently, and recent trends in the EU seem to have had somewhat the same effect in Europe. Open recognition that there are serious problems had been developing for some time. Even in his 1995 article Hittinger had noted that:

“the long train of human history shows that the political imperium has never successfully resisted the temptation to sacralize itself. What the modern democracies proposed, and what Rome has only recently blessed, takes enormous discipline.”

He then pointed out that in Evangelium Vitae, then just released, the Pope had observed the use of “human rights” as a vehicle for the absolutism of the modern state, but nonetheless stuck to his fundamental acceptance of political modernity and of political standards drawn from within modernity itself.

It seems doubtful to me that the Church will be able to maintain its attachment to political modernity. Politically modernist Catholicism doesn’t work and can’t be made to work, because experience has shown so clearly the correctness of the old Catholic view, that the state has a necessary sacral dimension. Moderns try to dodge the issue by abolishing capital punishment and trying to substitute endless dialogue for war, but the power of life and death and the right to demand extreme sacrifice are essential features of the state. Without them the state simply can’t exist. But what can justify such things if the state is simply an agreement we enter into? And if the state feels empowered to claim them without justification, as it necessarily will, rational justification vanishes and there’s no limit to what the state can claim.

7 thoughts on “Political modernity and Vatican policy”

  1. Vatican II for Dummies
    As a non-Catholic, I am unclear about the magisterial status of the Vatican II pronouncements. Are they infallible policy? If so, how can there be legions of anti-Vatican II Catholics? If not, why can they not be modified by future pronouncements of the church when the errors become obvious? I am hoping that a Catholic can explain this so that the rest of us can understand. Thanks.

    • Re: Vatican II for Dummies
      Vatican II was a pastoral Council that taught nothing that Catholics must believe as an article of Faith. Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, the Popes who convened and closed the Council, respectively, both were very clear on this matter.

      The problem with the Council is that the traditional schema that were carefully drawn up before it were thrown out after what amounted to a “palace coup.” The enemies of Christ who infiltrated the Church (see Pope St. Pius X’s encyclical “Pascendi Dominici Gregis”) basically seized control and have been in control ever since. The documents they came up with are filled, not with out and out heresy, but with ambiguities that can be read conservatively—or read to mean what Modernists want them to mean. It’s a fascinating topic, and a good introductory book on the topic is “The Great Facade” by Christopher Ferrara and Thomas Woods.

      In spite of the ambiguous documents and the reign of terror since their promulgation, the human element of the Church has put nothing forward as an exercise of the Solemn Magisterium—no anathemas, no formal definitions, etc. It is in this way that the Holy Ghost has been preserving the Church, even if “by a hair.” But the liberals and “conservatives” (i.e., neo-conservatives, or yesterday’s liberals) push on, causing immense confusion. Only the traditional Catholics teach and live the Faith to the fullest, carrying on even in disobedience if need be.

      • Another “dumb” question, if I might…
        I’m not clear what the Vatican’s position is, exactly, on the Latin mass. The way everyone was talking recently about Mel Gibson for financially supporting a church in Malibu where masses were celebrated in Latin, you’d think he was an out-and-out heretic or something, off starting his own splinter religion with a band of dark cultists. That attitude toward him was nonsense obviously, but why did people think they had a right to talk about him that way? Has the Vatican erected obstacles in the way of parishes wishing to return to the mass in Latin, and does it sternly frown on them, or something? If so, why does it? If not, why all the insinuations that Gibson was a kook?

        “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

        • Another “dumb” question, if I might…
          The problem isn’t in the Vatican, which mildly supports the Latin Mass, but with individual bishops. My parish kind of “cheats” in that we celebrate a musical (i.e., Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart) High Mass every Sunday, which is sung in Latin because that’s how it was set. This might be one way to get around a hardline “liberal” bishop— our Mass is officially Novus Ordo, by the way. Another parish in the city holds a true Tridentine Mass in Latin. Ours seems to be a middle-of-the-road diocese, where liberals win some battles and traditionalists others.

        • The Vatican hierarchs play a
          The Vatican hierarchs play a game, see. They put out papers that are can at least be read as orthodox once one digs past the ambiguities, but then let Bishops get away with not enforcing them, all in the name of “collegiality,” the post-Vatican II attitude toward authority that has disempowered the papacy and turned Popes into mere figureheads.

          So, the Pope “encourages” that Bishops allow “widespread use” of the old Missals, but when the Modernist Bishops don’t, the Pope shrugs and goes back to writing his poetry books. That way, the media can complain about the “conservative Pope” (even though JPII was a Modernist at the Second Vatican Council); neo-Catholics can listen to the media and then rally behind the Pope, thinking they’re doing the “conservative” thing; and Modernism presses forward with nothing to stop it, temporally speaking. That’s the game that’s been played for 40-some years, and it’s been very effective.

          In order to be a Catholic nowadays, one must engage in Christian disobedience, just as St. Athanasius—excommunicated by Pope Liberius—did during the Arian crisis. Just believe what our Catholic ancestors did, and carry on with great patience—and with trust in Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail. That’s what the SSPX does. That’s what Mel Gibson does. We just have to ride the storm out…

  2. Random comments
    1. The Vatican II documents are extremely wordy and their effect depends on what they say. When they speak of faith and morals they’re authoritative but since the intent of the council was pastoral they’re usually not written in any very exact way so their effect is not necessarily clear. That’s especially true when the meaning seems different from what the Church has said in the past. If the documents propose a particular action like revising the liturgy, or e.g. a changed general orientation toward the modern world, ordinary believers aren’t obligated to think it’s a good idea and future popes and councils aren’t bound by it. Also, Catholics aren’t obligated to approve of the implementation of the Council let alone what’s called “the spirit of Vatican II.”

    2. The problem isn’t the mass in Latin. Any priest can do his masses in Latin facing the altar although almost none of them do. The problem is the ability to use the pre-Vatican II (“Tridentine”) text. At least as a practical matter you need your bishop’s permission to use it. The pope has asked the bishops to give their permission widely and generously but most of them give it grudgingly if at all. I don’t think the new text and the old text are that different on important points if the right options are chosen, but if you want something like the old way of saying the mass enough to defy the prejudices and pressures against it you want authenticity. Making the new form as much as possible like the old by choosing the right options won’t be enough. Or so it seems.

    3. I don’t know what the story is with Mel Gibson. There are a variety of priests and groups disobedient to Rome that just do the Latin mass and usually ignore Rome in various other ways. The Vatican says it’s OK for ordinary believers to attend the masses of at least some of these groups. Lots of priests are disobedient in one way or another and whatever the effects for the priest they don’t always spill over to the ordinary faithful.

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.

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