I. The Two Ways of Viewing the Church
There are two ways of looking at the Church. I don’t mean here “visible v. invisible,” but rather the fundamental way that orthodox and heterodox Christians differ in their conception of the Church. They are, broadly:
- As a divinely-ordained body created by Christ, entrusted with a sacred and inviolable Deposit of Faith. This is the way that Catholics view the Church. It’s why even when the conclusion you or I might arrive at by independent reason disagrees with something She has said, you and I would be smart to defer to Her authority. This is the difference between what’s known as “real assent” and “religious assent”: in the former, you “get it” mentally and spiritually; in the latter, you believe, even though you don’t understand the reasons why). Evangelicals and other traditional Christians wouldn’t ever use the terminology I used above, but they certainly view the Deposit of Faith (in their case, usually the Bible, but sometimes the Creeds) as an absolute bound on the Church’s power.
- As a political body. This is the way that non-Catholics and Catholic heretics look at the Church. Here, She’s no different than the UN, or Wal-Mart, or Congress.
Interestingly, the second view of the Church is more powerful than the first. In the first, She’s bound by the Truth. There are certain things which She cannot do. So, for example, Pope John Paul II explicitly said in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that no pope has the power to ordain women. None. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow. It’s not a power Jesus Christ, God Eternal, gave to the Church, so the story ends there.
But in this second view of the Church, Pope Joan XXIII can come along and repeal all of these earlier papal declarations, and allow priestesses, contraception, gay marriage, and the like. Because modern heretics generally like these things, they support these sweeping powers. But of course, a Church structured like this could find under the next papacy (Pope Joan XXIV, perhaps?), all of these things were back off of the table. Timeless morals become subject to the whims of the people.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that when ecclesial power is so sweeping that it can literally veto facts (after all, at the end of the day, either Pope John Paul II is right that no pope can ordain women, or the imaginary Pope Joan XXIII is right that a pope can: one of the two has to be factually wrong) that people stop believing in the whole institution. Throughout Christianity, there’s a growing rift between Traditionalists of various sorts and Modernist heretics. And yet everywhere we’ve seen, the modernist sects are hemorrhaging people, as they either leave for churches which will stand up for Absolute and Timeless Truth, or give up the search for Truth all together. Despite being called “Mainline” Churches, the modernist denominations have been in a freefall, and now have fewer members than either their Evangelical or Catholic brethren. And this is the recipe for repair that these heretics have for the Bride of Christ? To become Episcopalians with more rules?
II. The Foolishness of the Modern Heretics
Imagine, for a moment, that the second view is correct. Imagine that the Catholic Church, and indeed, all Christian churches, are simply democracies, aristocracies, or dictatorship where whatever the people (be they the laity, the clergy, or the pope) decide goes. In this scenario, there’s nothing authoritative and binding, like the Bible or Sacred Tradition preventing even the most liberally inclined authority from validly implementing the modernist reforms. Now consider, even if this is true, how likely is the Church to reverse Herself?
Because even if it were true that Church teaching was nothing more than the enforcement of the peculiar notions of some sex-deprived, empowered males, these men obviously believe themselves that it’s more than that. Or, if you’re so much the skeptic that you think that the pope is a pretender, putting on a grand old show of Tradition, while knowing it’s a Big Lie, it’s obvious that those in power are (and have always been) hellbent on perpetuating that image. The why doesn’t matter: it will suffice to say that this is a Church which doesn’t repeal earlier dogmas. Even when faced with seemingly contradictory Magisterial statements, She always goes to great lengths to explain how the two sets of facts and circumstances were different, in the same way that traditional Christians of all denominations are able to harmonize seemingly incompatible parts of the Bible.
Imagine a Supreme Court with no power to repeal earlier decisions, always bound by its prior rulings. How likely is that Court, secular and man-made body that it may be, to repeal its earlier decisions? Even appearing to do so would undermine the Court’s very authority, rendering its new ruling suspect or illegitimate.
One need look only to Church history. Certainly, there were abuses permitted, and certainly, the winds of theological thought have shifted – popular Catholic views have sometimes been wrong, even heretical; but the Catholic Church stands solidly behind every infallible (and virtually every fallible) Magisterial teaching She’s ever made. We still believe that “Outside of the Church, There is No Salvation,” although we reject a Feeneyist interpretation that says that anyone who calls themselves something other than Catholic is outside of the Church. Given this history, how probable would you say it is that the Catholic Church will one day simply say, “Scratch all that. Abortion, Euthanasia, Gay Marriage, Contraception, Women’s Ordination, Embryonic Stem Cell Research, etc., is ok”? Is there any historic precedence for these sort of radical reversals?
One might point to the Second Vatican Council, but I think that’s the best example for my point. Even though the false “Spirit of Vatican II” was one of repealing Church teachings, the actual Council documents are chock full of citation to earlier Church documents, papal statements, and so forth. Besides this, since the Council was pastoral and not dogmatic, it must be viewed through the lens of dogmatic Magisterial statements – a prudent move to ensure that the Council wasn’t viewed as changing any dogmas. In other words, even in Vatican II, the Church painstakingly showed how all of the changes She was making were consistent with what She’s always believed. She changed a lot of disciplines, a lot of the ways in which we worship, but She left wholly intact (and in fact, helped further clarify) what we believe and Who we worship.
An intelligent and sensible person can think that women’s ordination is a good idea or any of the other modernist “reforms” I mentioned above. But I’m at a loss for how intelligent people can think that the Church will ever implement their pet views.
III. The Tired Prophets of Heresy
Commonweal, like National Catholic Reporter, is sort of a hotbed of dissent from Church teachings. Their very existence is strange: two publications which seem to exist entirely to criticize the Catholic Church, while still feeding off of it for support. Read the editorials in either, and you’ll see what I mean. You choose the issue and the columnist. Commonweal at least has interesting points from time to time, but it’s mostly just new and interesting ways to re-present the same old tired and rejected heresies.
It might make sense if this were, say, the 19th century, and the paper was run by some virulent anti-Catholic, so consumed with a misguided zeal for souls (or just hate or paranoia) that he felt he had to give his life to “save” Catholics. But here, the folks in question seemingly think that orthodox Catholics are saved (or anyways, that there’s no hell anymore, so everyone’s saved, except racists and Hitler, and maybe Republicans); what’s more, they claim to be part of the Roman Catholic Church.
If they’re just advocating for what they think is a good (but not absolutely necessary) idea, their devotion to it signals a lack of prudence and wisdom… regardless of the merits of the reform itself. The primary focus of every Christian should be upon the core of Christianity. If there are interesting innovations you think might be helpful, fair enough: but keep it proportional. And note, I’m speaking here of any innovation. There are some proposed within the Church which haven’t been formally suppressed or rejected: the move to formally name Mary “Mediatrix of All Graces” or even “Co-Redemptrix”; the approval of certain apparitions; the canonization of various possible saints. These are things which the Church may approve, may formally suppress in the future, or may take no action on whatsoever. But anyone who devoted almost all of their time and religious energies talking just about these issues would be doing a disservice to their own spiritual formation and the health and well-being of their own soul. Even those figures whose very lives were controversial, like St. Padre Pio, spent their time not focusing on themselves (in his case, not obsessing over his stigmata), but on their Lord.
Here, it’s worse: the proposed reforms aren’t new or exciting. They’re tired. They’re tried, tested, and failed in our mainline brethren’s churches, they’ve lead people away from the Cross of Christ and towards the pit of their own egos, and they’ve been flatly rejected by the Magisterium. There’s no suspense left. The verdict has arrived, and it’s not in their favor.
Women’s ordination once seemed edgy, I’m sure. It doesn’t anymore. Many of us, even cradle Catholics, know women “priests” from other denominations, and almost all of us know people who think that women’s ordination is a good idea. Anyone even sort of paying attention to the Anglican Communion can see what sort of effects this idea has had, as the Anglican garment is rent in two. For one brief moment in history, maybe those liberal Catholics intoxicated on the spirits of Vatican II could convince themselves that women’s ordination was just around the corner. Today, any neutral observer can plainly see that it is not. Rome has spoken. The quest has become obviously quixotic, and those who have achieved these dissidents’ goal (in other denominations) have found the paradise lacking.