The Danger in Being a Merely Conservative Catholic
One unpleasant fact that we have to face as Catholics is that there truly are better and worse eras through which the Catholic Church, the Bride of Christ, sojourns in her earthly travail. As the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council taught us in the constitution ‘Lumen Gentium’, the Body of Christ imitates her Head by existing in two elements, the heavenly and the earthly. In her heavenly element, which some call the Church Triumphant, she cannot be assaulted by the attacks of hell; in her earthly element, however, she knows better and worse times, times when heresy is rampant, when accordingly even her clerics cannot be trusted, and times of great orthodoxy and stability. In the Church Militant, the Body of Christ’s earthly element, the Catholic Church soldiers on in the Passion of her Divine Spouse; in this path she encounters throughout history a great variety of persecutions, taking on many different forms as the ages go by. The strength of the assault of the evil one mercifully ebbs and flows according to the Lord’s inscrutable Providence. Some historical examples may be of use to us as we examine the Church’s own Passion which she suffers together with her Lord in our endeavor to understand the dangers of being a merely conservative Catholic:
- The first major persecution is the bloody, worldwide one that the pagan Roman Empire initiated in the sustained war which it waged against God and His Christ. This lasted roughly three hundred years, and produced countless martyrs while the Church was yet in her infancy. Among these are the great heroes of our Faith, including Sts. Peter and Paul, Chief of the Apostles, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Justin the Martyr, St. Agatha of Sicily, St. Cyprian of Carthage, and St. Catherine of Alexandria, as well as many others. Time would not allow for the heroic memoirs and narratives of all the martyrs to be recounted, nor for their names to be commemorated here. Truly the Spirit of the Father sustained His children in Christ throughout this bloody period, and in this is the double nature of the Body of Christ manifested powerfully.
- The next important persecution of the evil one came in the form of the great Christological heresies of the first millennium: Arianism (A.D. 300), Pneumatomachianism (A.D. 370), Nestorianism (A.D. 410), Monophysitism (A.D. 430), Apollinarianism (A.D. 500), Monothelitism/Monoenergism (A.D. 600), and Iconoclasm (A.D. 740). Each of these seven major heresies was opposed by the Catholic Church in the great Ecumenical Councils of the first eight centuries of Church history, which preserved authoritatively the essence of the identity of the Son of God, and of the Spirit of God. In each of these heresies, scarcely a single diocese was spared and kept uncorrupt. During Arianism in particular, nearly the entire Catholic world, save for the Patriarchates of Rome and Alexandria, fell to the spread of the heresy. Bishops fell left and right, earthly rulers were corrupted in the profession of a false religion, and the ordinary Catholic experienced tumultuous times with little indication of who to trust other than the Church of Rome and her Bishop, and each Ecumenical Council convoked in full communion with Rome. Even Rome herself, in the case of Pope Honorius I (A.D. 630), experienced a time in these great persecutions when her theological guidance on the informal level could not be trusted. Though Rome has never officially taught absolute error in her solemn Magisterium (her official, formal teachings to the world in Encyclicals, Letters to Ecumenical Councils, he ex cathedra definitions, and so on), in Honorius she did unofficially guide some toward the heresy of Monothelitism; for this terrible deed, Pope Honorius I was anathematized by Pope St. Agatho and the sixth Ecumenical Council. All of this chaos and confusion occurred in the earthly element of the Body of Christ, the societal element, while in her heavenly element she remained as inviolate and pristinely pure as the Mother of God herself, dwelling perfectly in Christ.
- Another important persecution came with the advent of Islam around A.D. 690. After the death of Muhammed, Islam was forcibly spread by the sword through the Middle East, Palestine, Northern Africa, Iberia (Spain), and eventually, by the fifteenth century, Asia Minor and parts of Greece as well. Although Christianity was largely tolerated after the initial conquest, Christian influence on society all but ceased and the glory of the Eastern Roman Empire almost entirely vanished. Christians were subjected to a false religion, contrary to the reign of Christ, and her evangelism was inhibited. The seventh great Christological heresy, Iconoclasm, may have actually been precipitated by Islamic influence over Christianity in East and its opposition to statuary, and images in general, as idolatry. Christianity under Islamic rule in the East managed to survive, even to this day, but its glory and influence has never been the same. Such would have been the fate of Europe, had it not been for Latin Catholics in the West who drove back Muslim forces at various times throughout the Middle Ages, keeping Rome from falling under Islamic control. We are still dealing with this persecution to this day.
- The next great historical threat to the Catholic Church was the Great Schism, which was a gradual process of alienation between the Latin Church in the West, and the various Eastern Churches in the East between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1700. Though 1054 symbolizes this whole process and is often used to represent the Great Schism, the actual separation took centuries and was not even completed by the 1700’s, which is when the Greek Patriarchate of Antioch declared their full communion with Rome after centuries of ambiguity and became the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church. Throughout this process of prolonged pseudo-schism the Catholic Church was greatly wounded, not in the sense losing her unity, sanctity, catholicity, or apostolicity, her four marks from the Creed, but in the sense of being greatly inhibited in her evangelism and, as Pope Leo XIII noted in his Encyclical ‘Orientalium Dignitas’, a loss of the practical expression of her catholicity in the multitudinous traditions inherited from the Fathers. For this reason the devil inspired the pride and stubbornness of men during this period, with ebbs and flows in its severity over the centuries, to push the sui iuris Churches away from one-another and leave the Latin Church the only one manifestly united to the Pope of Rome and capable of exercising the authority of the Magisterium. The result is the tragedy we are currently faced with and the continuing hierarchy of the Eastern Churches not in full communion with the Apostolic See, which is both terribly sad and violently opposed to God’s will. As is the case with Islamic influence, we are still enduring the effects of this persecution of the Church of God by the devil to this very day.
- Another monumental challenge to the Church came with the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. In this persecution, the evil one severed enormous numbers of Catholics from our Holy Mother, the Church, and enabled simultaneously the ongoing development of heresies in the West in such a fractured form that today we face thousands upon thousands of sects all tracing their existence back to a few revolutionaries in the sixteenth century. Many individuals in these sects have been validly Baptized, and are therefore Christians with an implicit connection to the heavenly element of the Body of Christ, while being yet outside of her societal, earthly element, which is a monstrosity and terrible to behold. Because this ongoing heresy entails the alienation of the Baptized from their supernatural Mother, it entails a kind of tension and a wound, a contradiction which never should have happened, and thus is quite naturally and obviously a facet of the Body of Christ’s own Passion, just as the alienation of particular Churches sui iuris from the Apostolic See of Rome in the gradual Great Schism is itself a kind of wound to the Body of Christ, though on a larger scale to be sure.
- Finally, the latest and potentially the most pervasive persecution of the evil one has ever brought against the Body of Christ in her sacred history is the modern conglomeration of heresies that has found a foothold and conveniently discovered various opportunities to attack the Catholic Church through the weakness, inaction, or heresy of clerics of the Church, which assault has been termed ‘Modernism’ by Pope St. Pius X and his Successors. In fact, to be perfectly frank, the Modernism that Pope St. Pius X vigorously opposed is less diverse and less dangerous than what Modernism quietly and subtly evolved into between the first decade of the twentieth century and the seventh, during which time it also merged with many heterodox elements of the Liturgical Movement of the nineteenth century and other ideologies that hopped along for the ride. This conglomerate monster, dreadful to behold, sprung itself upon the Catholic Church by influencing the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and subsequently using these ambiguity-ridden documents to interpret the Catholic Faith in an altogether heretical way in subsequent decades. The manner in which this combined movement of Modernism and the Liturgical Movement ended up influencing the documents of the Council was primarily by forming a theologically heterodox minority party within the Council that opposed the majority party, the latter of which tended to toe the line of the Supreme Pontiffs who came before in the twentieth and nineteenth centuries. After a rough attempt at synthesizing these two warring parties, the final product of the Counciliar texts was, in most cases, a trustworthy exposition of the Catholic Faith in ancient terms and a different style from scholasticism; in some cases, such as Lumen Gentium 8, it’s actually brilliant and a fascinating doctrinal development on the previous teaching of Mother Church. However, because the synthesis of the two parties within the Council was done poorly and rashly, without strong guidance from the presiding Popes of Rome, in many cases the Conciliar documents are frighteningly at war with each other, with the majority and minority contributions to the text standing in seeming opposition or at least severe tension in the middle of paragraphs clearly designed to be read as a whole. While all Ecumenical Councils form their ultimately orthodox text from the comprise of two or more parties, one or more of which may be heterodox or borderline so without sufficient balancing out by another party in a given Council, the lack of cogency in the Council texts in this case is on an entirely different order of opposition. My opinion, which I candidly submit to you today, is that this is precisely the crux and breaking point, the attack which Modernism conducted on the Church. The heresy’s most profound assault was not properly heresy at all, but a deliberately engineered chaos and ambiguity, masked by feelings of naive optimism and an almost piously pelagian view of future progress, both of which dominated the Conciliar period in the history of the Church. It was this chaotic ambiguity in the texts of the Council and the sloppiness with which both the Council Fathers and the Pontiffs of Rome approached the promulgation of the documents. The heretics wasted no time; the ambiguities were exploited so vigorously that just three years after the close of the Council, Pope Paul VI had this to say regarding the state of the Catholic Church in 1968:”The Church finds herself in an hour of anxiety; a disturbed period of self-criticism, or what would even be better called self-demolition. It’s an interior upheaval; acute, and complicated, which nobody expected after the [Second Vatican Ecumenical] Council. It is almost as if the Church were attacking itself. We looked forward to a flowering; a serene expansion of conceptions, which matured in the great sessions of the Council, but… one must notice above all the sorrowful aspect. It is as if the Church were destroying herself.”This unfortunately is not hyperbole being used by His Holiness, but a grim-faced acceptance of the reality of the situation. Indeed, that late 60’s was the heyday of Modernism’s influence, but my, was it ever enough to alter the course of history and affect the Church even to the present day and into the future. This effort was curtailed in some select instances under the pontificates of John Paul II and to a larger extent under Benedict XVI, but their Successor in Francis seems to be rather unaware of the reality of the true Modernist heresy still affecting the Church to this day, and its authentic danger.
Why then do I recall, in great detail, the travails of Mother Church throughout history? Precisely for this reason, that I might be able to better situate the current crisis in the Catholic Church in the historical context of her sacred history, which allows for us to somewhat make sense of the madness. It is absolutely critical that we attempt to do this, all of us Catholics, because although this crisis is unique among all of them in that it used a valid Ecumenical Council’s ambiguities to accomplish its goals, it nevertheless is not qualitatively different from the previous Passions the Body of Christ has endured in her earthly element. You might be wondering what this long introduction has to with being a so-called conservative Catholic in the modern era. Usually when we speak of conservative Catholics, it’s in contrast with traditional Catholics. This dichotomy is used by many in order to distinguish a certain specific kind of ‘orthodoxy’ found in Catholic conservatism with a more objective and historically rooted orthodoxy in traditional Catholicism among so called ‘traditionalists.’ Leaving aside the fact that this distinction is illegitimate on its face, for there cannot be two orthodoxies with varying degrees of faithfulness and loyalty to sacred Tradition, the most troubling aspect of the conservative Catholic mentality has more to do with a certain downplaying of or even denial of the reality that the Body of Christ, in her earthly element, undergoes such tribulation that even the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in some locales or even many locales cannot be trusted absolutely and blindly followed without circumspection and humble, frank questioning. The conservative Catholic mentality of the modern era tends to follow after the recent Magisterium to the exclusion of earlier Magisterium, ignoring or deftly reinterpreting the earlier Magisterium, and following the Bishops and even the persona and innocuous, unofficial comments or actions of the Holy Father without any reference to our first loyalties and to the exclusion of sacred Tradition. The problem with this has to do with precisely these first loyalties and the denial of the reality of serious crises that occasionally strike the Body of Christ, as well as the common blithe, naive acceptance of the modern era of Catholicism as inspired by God whole and entire. The problem with this is that, from time to time, the hierarchy of the Church, apart from the Church’s official Magisterium, cannot be trusted blindly and must be actually held in some suspicion and vetted cautiously against sacred Tradition. This is simply the reality, whether we like to believe it or not. The primary loyalties as Catholics are themselves hierarchical, and descend as follows:
- Sacred Scripture
- Sacred Tradition, chiefly among that Tradition the Liturgical Tradition
- Sacred Magisterium, chiefly among that Magisterium infallible teachings and definition, and then less weighty Magisterium after that.
After these supreme loyalties, coming in a very distant fourth, our loyalties are beholden to the hierarchy, including the Pope of Rome insofar as he is a private theologian, a catechist, a social commentator, an actor on the world stage, and a homilist. All of these facets of his office, together with the various other offices in the hierarchy of the Body of Christ’s earthly element, are subject to the three chief loyalties listed above.
This used to be common sense to us as laity. There is a legend that during the pontificate of Pope St. Gregory the Great, the faithful of the Church of Rome threatened to take his life for altering the Roman Canon by adding a single word to it. Whether this is literally true or not is not important; what is important, however, is that it is illustrative of an attitude which did in fact hold sway among the laity for the greater part of the history of the Church. Compare that to today, and you’ll realize that our primary loyalties have been entirely skewed; this is the culprit and the cause of the modern phenomenon of ‘conservative’ Catholicism and its self-distinguishing from ‘traditionalists,’ who are simply those few Catholics who retained the proper hierarchy of loyalty. Take for instance the Missale Romanum (1970). Pope Paul VI didn’t just add a word to the Missale Romanum’s canon, he presided over a removal of a phrase and a mistranslation of ‘Pro multis’ into ‘For all men’ among the various European languages into which the Missal was translated after its promulgation, which just covers the changes made to the Roman Canon, and does not mention the thousands of other changes to the broader text of the Mass, often inspired by heterodox or even heretical ‘Liturgical experts’ who near totally contradict the Magisterium of Pius XII and other Supreme Pontiffs prior to the 1960’s. Where were we, the majority of the laity, when this happened in 1970? Did we care enough to whimper a protest? The answer is dreadfully simple, and predates Vatican II by decades: we had become merely conservative Catholics.
 Just to be clear, when I speak of wounds to the Catholic Church, I don’t mean in any way that would necessitate a loss of her four great Marks, which would be unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity. Rather, I mean it in the sense that Dominus Iesus means it:
“The lack of unity among Christians is certainly a wound for the Church; not in the sense that she is deprived of her unity, but ‘in that it hinders the complete fulfillment of her universality in history.'”- Pope John Paul II, Dominus Iesus 17, A.D. 2000
This quote applies both to the division among Protestants, who, if they are validly Baptized, are Christians, but in a preeminent sense to the division of entire portions of the hierarchy from the Apostolic See in the societal element of the Body of Christ, as is the case in the Orthodox Churches of the East.
 This phrase ‘pious pelagianism’ is hyperbole originally used by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to signify the incredibly over-optimistic and naive attitude which permeated much of the Council regarding especially the necessary progress of man away from the disorder of sin and the chaos of misunderstanding and violence and seeming inevitable improvement of societies; it is not literally the heresy of Pelagianism, but something that reminded Cardinal Ratzinger of the ancient error. This naivete is distinct from the actual potential of the thought of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which Ratzinger later as Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged as a legitimate excitement. It is an excitement that I fully concur with, if once we ever work up the will to strip away the accretions that grew to overshadow the Council itself, and actually clarify the internal tensions in Vatican II’s documents.