Church Musings: Douthat on Vatican II, and Diocesan Mergers [Update: JP II Institute]

Hello everyone. It has been a busy but rewarding semester, and I should be returning to podcasting in the spring, barring any unforeseen events. However, I did want to make a few comments on a couple of items in the news regarding the Catholic Church recently. Let’s begin, shall we?

Ross Douthat on Vatican II: Ross Douthat is the house conservative for the New York Times, someone who is supposed to represent the “reasonable” face of political conservatism, though many of the liberals who react to his columns act as if he is a fascist anyway. The main thesis of his article can be summed up like this: Vatican II was a failure but we are now stuck with it. We cannot go back to the past and everyone is now living in a “post-conciliar” age, whatever we may think of it. He also says the council was necessary to reform the Church, even if it failed.

I don’t read Douthat much anymore, as I find his opinion on things to be too anodyne, and this instance is not exception. His opinions always seems to aim after a Golden Mean whether it exists or not. Now, I should say I do appreciate that he is trying to reach people (in this case, liberal Catholics) who otherwise would never listen to someone like me (or a traditionalist who actually had a public following). In this essay, he clearly is trying to convey to them what should be obvious but no one in the progressive camp can admit to themselves: that Vatican II was a colossal failure.

But, as if trying to balance out the psychological blow of stating the obvious to people who don’t want to hear it, he grants two very dubious assumptions to them as a means of softening it. Let me take each in turn.

The first is that the Council was necessary because “the church of 1962 needed significant adaptations, significant rethinking and reform.” There are those who may not, but most of the traditionalists I know would agree that the Church needed some reforms in 1962. But that an ecumenical Council was the only means of addressing those problems seems like a stretch to me. As to the need for “adaptations” that largely depends on what you want to adapt, why and how you will do it. Part of the problem of holding an ecumenical council is that it inevitably raised expectations, ones that were not realistic, of being able to “fix” the Church’s problems all at once. I do not doubt the Church had serious problems, but they were the kind that necessarily can’t be solved by a gigantic meeting of bishops. Most importantly, it allowed dissident theologians and ambitious Churchmen a platform to pursue their agenda which would not have presented itself otherwise. If the Council had not met, it is unlikely they would have had the chance to impose their vision so firmly (and disastrously) on the rest of the Church. No reform the council could have undertaken was worth that risk, as events have proved.

As for the idea that the Council cannot be undone because we cannot wind the clock back to 1962, I think this misses the point about critiques of post-conciliar Catholic life (and not only critiques by Traditionalist Catholics). It is not just that so much of what both the Council and the post-conciliar leadership did was novel (though it didn’t help) but that it departed from so much of what was perennial in the life of the Church. By perennial I mean forms–liturgical, disciplinary, devotional, theological and otherwise–that have proved they can flourish in multiple historical settings, and yes, even be resurrected if necessary (such as Scholasticism was in the 19th century). That doesn’t mean resurrecting everything that existed in 1962, or 1562. But it does mean that treating the Council and all that came after it as an absolute irreversible event grants too much credence to the knee-jerk historicism of progressive Catholics.

The Merger of Stuebenville Diocese: if you haven’t heard, the bishops of Ohio are plannning to merge the diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, with that of Columbus, which some are beginning to question. The bishop of Steubenvill, Jeff Monforton, says the diocese is unsustainable economically, but a dozen and more priests have just signed a letter to the bishops of Ohio asking them to reconsider, saying that the bishop’s own mismanagement is to blame for the diocese’s financial problems and that they won’t be solved by a merger.

I often have wondered about how competent most bishops are with money. I have complained in print about bishops becoming nothing more than bureaucrats, but the fact of the matter is that being organized and effective in managing finances as well as other organizational tasks is a valuable skill. It might be that there are not that many people who possess those skills, though I suppose they could be taught (though how with all the things seminarians have to learn in their formation I don’t know).

Still, this case bears watching, since the Church in the US is going to shrink dramatically in the coming years. My editor at Crisis Magazine, Eric Sammons, suggested on Twitter an idea I first heard the late Richard John Neuhaus years ago, that the Church should do the exact opposite. Instead of merging failing dioceses, it should create many new ones to reduce their size and make them easier to manage. I have often thought this would be a good idea: bishops are supposed to have a face to face relationship with their priests, and this is well nigh impossible in gargantuan dioceses like Chicago or New York. Of course, pooling one’s financial resources is part of the logic of mergers, but if dioceses were smaller they would not require as many resources to maintain themselves. Of course, Fr. Neuhaus mentioned one possible problem with getting bishops to agree to this is that many like the prestige of running a large, presumably wealthy diocese. But with the lock-downs accelerating the decline in attendance and membership, they might not have the option in the future. It would seem to me to be a good idea to start trying things like this now, while there is still time to experiment. But that would require the bishops to focus squarely on the Church’s problems rather than maintain the facade of its health and unity as long as possible, which is what most of them seem trained to do.

UPDATE 10/22

I am sure everyone is aware now of the appointment Pope Francis has made the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. I don’t comment much on pope Francis, because I don’t think there is much new to say, but it is obvious to anyone who has followed this pontificate, and the saga of the JPII Institute, that Francis has intentionally undermined the pro-life witness it was intended to nourish.

I don’t relish making harsh comments about bishops, or the pope, because no matter how wicked they may be, I believe with all my heart that the office they abuse is divine. That having said, Francis’ undermining of the Church’s pro-life witness should convince anyone who is not blinded by loyalty or self-love, of just what a terrible person he is. There is no excuse for this, and the sooner this pontificate ends, the better.

However, that is not what I wanted to comment on this painful betrayal. I wanted to encourage my listeners not to lose hope, or to grow cold in their faith because of his actions. The faith that God himself, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, gave to us though the patriarchs and apostles, is eternal, and will outlive all the awful men who will harm the Church in this world. I confess to have struggled with prayer and my faith as of late, though not necessarily on account of anything going on in the Church. In fact, I am thankful to have had struggles that took my mind off what is going on in Rome these days. But I know that God will keep his promise not to abandon us, whatever the future may hold. And I so I will try to reinvigorate my prayer life, and pray for all my listeners and patrons, that you keep a cheerful spirit in these troubling times, and ask you to pray for me the same as well.

In any case, thanks for listening to my thoughts on these topics. Be on the lookout for new articles of mine, which should be appearing in OnePeterFive and hopefully Crisis at the end of this month.

“And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen”

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