AS GK CHESTERTON observes, there are any number of angles at which one falls, only one at which one remains upright. That’s the context of the little diagram below. I’m aware of its deficiencies, and that it won’t pass for real theology. I’m aware too that it’s likely to make any kind of sense only to conflicted Roman Catholics of a certain persuasion (such as this blogger). Nevertheless I’ve found it helpful in sharpening my approach to certain questions and developments, so bear with me a little while; all will become obscure.
Think of the spot in the centre as a bird's-eye view of the end of a broomstick standing absolutely upright. It represents normative, traditional Catholicism. The ring around it represents the perimeter of the Church's faith, as defined by Scripture, Sacred Tradition (the content of Tradition) and the Magisterium (the organ of Tradition). The arrows represent three exaggerations, as directions in which the broomstick might be prevailed upon to fall. Now consider the following:
To suggest that doctrine can change at the behest of the reigning pope is to reduce the status of the ordinary universal teaching of the Church to a nullity, and to subvert its infallible certainty by a kind of dogmatic positivism. Papal remarks about universal justification, evolution, capital punishment and non-Christian ecumenism in subsequent years, have displayed this same tendency. The Fascists used the slogan Il Duce ha sempre ragione (The Duce is always right). The Ultramontane is a Catholic who asserts the same about the current policy (whatever it may be) of the current pope (whoever he may be).
If Eastern Orthodoxy can be charged with taking tradition as its operative norm, even to the obscuring of the present authority of the successor of Peter and to the loss of a centre of unity, Catholicism since the mid 19th century and especially since the 1960s, can be charged with taking the policies of the current occupant of the Holy See and a bureaucratic centralism as its operative norm, even to the obscuring of traditional formulations of belief and worship. In both cases there is an imbalance that needs to be righted.
Fr John Parsons
Briefly, the spot at the centre ought to be occupied by the official organs and institutions of the Church, together with the Catholic faithful. But it isn’t. They and their Ultramontane and neo-conservative apologists have, since the 19th century at least, been moving ever further “south”. This movement advanced without significant rumblings for as long as the Magisterium continued to uphold the normative, traditional praxis of the Church. Eventually, however we reached a point at which it was accepted, more or less without question or opposition, that “even … the traditional formulations of belief and worship” as incarnated above all in the Sacred Liturgy, could be suppressed legitimately by legal proscription – and that provided a theoretical orthodoxy was maintained, no harm could come of it, since the action was underwritten by Peter. In other words, a solemn anathema of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea was overturned without anyone much turning a hair.
Thence, Catholicism is more or less exclusively a question of “following Peter”, everything else being merely secondary and contingent. A loyal Catholic will therefore “accept” whatever an inimical bishop throws at him, because that’s the only viable definition of what a loyal Catholic is – anything else is “Protestantism” or “schism”. Thus, the Roman instinct for order and discipline is reduced to legalistic parody: Bishop X is “in communion” and in good standing despite the fact that he disbelieves openly in defined dogmas of the Church and promotes liturgical anarchy. Group Y, however, are “schismatic” because they wish to pray, worship and be catechised according to the immemorial traditions of the Church. From the perspective of those acclimatised to this view of things (looking at the diagram again) any attempts to restore the balance and persuade Catholics to re-occupy the centre, are seen solely in terms of movement “north”, and therefore in the direction of Protestantism or Orthodoxy.
The prototype of the Papacy is of course the Fisherman, who was famously inconstant, reckless, impetuous, and sometimes just plain wrong - but whose faith ultimately "would not fail" because the Lord, who called him 'Rock' and granted him the keys in spite of his human frailty, had prayed that it wouldn't. Modern Catholics, right across the spectrum, have forgotten Peter; “conservative” or “liberal” their idea of the Pope is a cross between Moses and Superman - the universal athlete, genius, poet, prophet, philosopher, saint. It is a conception essentially mobilist and positivist. "Follow Peter!" they cry, "that's what Catholicism is - anything else is Protestant!". But in what sense does one follow a Rock? Self-evidently this is not Catholic.
"Centrists" then, cast out of the bosom of the Church, persecuted and derided by their shepherds or marginally tolerated in precarious ghettoes, holding their breaths with every conclave to discover whether their religious existence will be protected or proscribed according to Papal whim or curial machination, are driven inevitably to ask hard, searching questions about the relationship of the Church to her past. In this, I always believed, they had a powerful champion:
For fostering a true consciousness in liturgical matters, it is also important that the proscription against the form of the liturgy in valid use up to 1970 should be lifted. Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here. There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church's whole past. How can one trust her present if things are that way?It seemed to me that Pope Benedict XVI really did intend to inhabit the “centre”, notwithstanding the reservations of many "Traditionalist" brethren who (unlike me) repine for the Tiara and the sede gestatoria. Self evidently, only the Pope is capable of reconnecting an ultramontanist to Tradition, and thus curing him permanently of his instability. So far, however, vaguely encouraging discourses and numerous rumours notwithstanding - nothing. And now, we hear, a coterie of French senior clergy, whose every published word confirms their terminal addiction to the “hermeneutic of rupture” and irremediable mental incarceration on the PlanetSoixante-huite, are making determined attempts to re-man the barricades. Will they succeed? If they do, is there any longer a point to the Papacy? If Benedict cannot make a home in the Church for normative Catholicism – who can?
Ratzinger - God and the World p416.
What has brought this terrible crisis upon us, brewed apparently in the confrontation with modernity? I'm certain Fr Parsons' historical account is correct as far as it goes; but I'm increasingly convinced that a more radical aetiology is to be sought in the parting of the ways with the East. Afterwards, the lack of a "conservative" counterweight to the Roman adventure allowed a mobilist mentality to develop among westerners, already heady with renewed cultural and political confidence. The collapse of the East – marooned, supine and overrun by Islam seemed almost a historical vindication; in reality the Western crash has been on its way from the day we first monkeyed with the Creed.
I believe that one of the currents converging on the Second Vatican Council was an uneasy sense that something in the Church had gone too far, was becoming unsustainable and unbalanced. It's possible to see behind the Council's principle of Collegiality, for example, some sort of attempt at rebalancing, subverted at one level by that leitmotif spirit of bogus "democratisation" and at another, by its very prosecution as a project of the “new” Magisterium, to be pursued and imposed in an ultramontane manner, by agencies incapable of extricating themselves from an ultramontane bureaucratic mindset. The "party line" changed - the mentality and reflexive attitudes remained exactly the same. Revolution? We can "make" our own Revolution. God is with us! It can't fail!
Throughout it all one continues to believe that the Holy Spirit has been, and is, quietly at work - perhaps never more so than in the working-out of that explosive and toxic conjunction of ultramontanism and liberalism in the fall-out of which we grope our way today. To the ultramontane, legalist mind you need only the components – Pope, Bishops, Council - connect up the plumbing in the requisite order, turn on the tap and out comes Pentecost; but God, famously, “writes straight with crooked lines”. The Council was not "Pentecost". In consideration of its fruits and the darkness and confusion following in its wake, the suggestion is proximately blasphemous. Nevertheless, is it not possible that the aggiornamentist project, in its pride and folly, unintentionally set the match to an all-consuming fire – not of Pentecost but of Purgatory - from which a chastened, humbled and truly restored Roman Church can at last emerge?