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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
8 Mar 2004

Cafeteria Bishops

by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.


Enough peculiar incidents have occurred within the Church during the past several weeks alone to vindicate the traditionalist argument many times over. Among the most dramatic was the recent appointment of the Benedictine abbot Jean-Baptiste Gourion as a bishop in Israel, where he will minister to the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community there.

Bishop Gourion is a Jewish convert. Unfortunately, he shares much in common with the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. Both are Jewish converts and in fact the two are friends — fine so far — but both deny that the Jews are under any obligation to convert to Catholicism. "For me, Christianity and Judaism are the same," the new bishop said shortly after his appointment. "I didn't have to leave Judaism to come to Christianity. The Jew and the Christian form the same body."

The new bishop was as blunt as he could be in an interview with Israel Today. "The Catholic Church has no intention of converting Jews to Christianity," he said. "Therefore, the Pope advocated a Jewish bishop in Israel."

So there it is. The Catholic Church has no intention of converting Jews to Christianity. It does not get much clearer than that. Everyone knows perfectly well that no Vatican rebuke of this statement will ever be issued. As Chris Ferrara and I show in our book The Great Fašade, even the boldest Vatican prelates obfuscate when confronted with the question of Jewish conversion. Even if, miracle of miracles, some Vatican official should actually distance himself from the bishop's remarks, his statement would inevitably be so evasive and obscure that no one would understand what he was saying anyway. (I'm reminded of the time when President Dwight Eisenhower was warned by his press secretary of a potentially delicate matter of foreign policy that might be raised at his upcoming press conference. The president reassured him: don't worry, Eisenhower said — if they ask about that, "I'll just confuse them.")

When asked how he could have joined the Catholic Church in the 1950s when he knew that the Church saw itself, rather than the Jews, as God's chosen people, Bishop Gourion replied, "I knew then that the Church's theology was wrong concerning the Jewish people." The Church's theology was wrong. It doesn't get much more blunt than that.

Now if the Church had really been wrong on this issue, she had been wrong for rather a long time. Weren't the apostles, who might be expected to know a little something about the Faith, attempting to convert the Jews in the first century? How can a man be appointed bishop when he is apparently convinced that the Magisterium could have been in error for two millennia despite the Holy Ghost's presence in the Church?

Critics of traditionalism sometimes accuse us of taking statements out of context, of failing to understand the profound continuity that allegedly exists between present teaching and traditional belief, or of neglecting the role of doctrinal development over time. But I have certainly not taken the bishop's statements out of context, and frankly it is rather difficult to imagine a context in which they could have been acceptable. And even the most committed defender of the Vatican's statements and behavior during these catastrophic decades must have difficulty explaining how "The Catholic Church has no intention of converting Jews to Christianity" could be described with a straight face as a "development" of "The Catholic Church intends to convert every living soul, Jews included, to Catholicism."

If the latter position was traditionally held by the Church — and, of course, it was — and the ordinary Magisterium is infallible, then it is metaphysically impossible for the exact opposite of the traditional view suddenly to become "Church teaching." Any churchman who holds that it could is claiming that the ordinary Magisterium was in error for two thousand years. Yet the Church claims infallibility in matters of faith and morals. If someone believed that her teaching on the Jews — namely, that they have the same need for Christ that everyone else has — had been a two-thousand-year-old mistake, then he is denying the Church's claim to infallibility. A self-described Catholic who makes such a claim is therefore saying that the Church to which he belongs is a fraud — yet for some reason he still wishes to belong to it.

Although "conservative" defenders of the policies that brought us the post-conciliar catastrophe are always eager to "prove" that some official statement isn't really the radical departure from tradition that it appears to be, the leftists they are so at pains to defend unfortunately refuse to cooperate with these contrived explanations. This was especially the case with Bishop Gourion — who, before the neo-Catholics had even had a chance to clog their magazines and weblogs with stunned indignation that anyone could even suggest that the new bishop thought traditional Catholic theology had been wrong on an important matter, came right out and said that traditional Catholic theology had been wrong on an important matter.

To a certain extent it is understandable that a Catholic would want to put the best possible construction on a disturbing episcopal statement. But living in a dream world is not going to make the present crisis go away any faster, and there is little use in pretending that someone who obviously lacks the Catholic faith is really just a misunderstood bedrock of orthodoxy. A good friend of mine, as intelligent as they come, really believed, as did many decent Catholics, that the late Cardinal John O'Connor was a man of unimpeachable orthodoxy. Whenever I brought some of the Cardinal's strange words or actions to his attention, he insisted that I was misinterpreting them or taking them out of context; he then proceeded with a strained explanation purportedly showing how the Cardinal's words could be interpreted in a perfectly orthodox manner.

Then came the incident on Christmas Eve when His Eminence appeared on ABC's Nightline. Chris Ferrara and I provide all the details of the Cardinal's appearance in The Great Fašade. Suffice it to say here that a young Jewish man whose parents had raised him Catholic had decided to revert to Judaism — and the Cardinal gave the man his blessing, insisting that God was "smiling on the whole thing."

This, finally, was just too much for my friend. Try as he might, he couldn't come up with a way to make that statement sound Catholic. The evidence had been all around him for years but he had simply refused to believe it. Before this incident there had been no bizarre statement or action that he couldn't explain away. But all of a sudden, he just couldn't do it anymore.

No one knows what it will take to persuade more of those whom Chris and I have described as "neo-Catholics" that, much as traditionalists would like to be wrong in their diagnosis, we have indeed been right all along. The contrived explanations that neo-Catholics have devised to excuse the inexcusable have served only to entrench corruption by providing cover for faithless prelates anxious to undermine the traditional Catholic faith. They cannot seriously expect people to believe that every seemingly problematic statement by the Church's highest officials is in fact not problematic at all but in fact perfectly orthodox when rightly understood.

Once again, let the import of this news item sink in: the Vatican just appointed a bishop for Israel who says that the Catholic Church has no intention of converting Jews. No serious Catholic could have uttered that statement. There is no way to exonerate the Vatican here. At the very least, the Vatican is guilty of gross negligence for not even inquiring into the man's views before appointing him to so exalted an office. Even some neo-Catholics, when pushed to the wall, might have to admit this much. Yet can we really be expected to believe that the Vatican would be less responsible in selecting a bishop than is a local government in choosing a dog catcher? Might Bishop Gourion in fact have been chosen precisely because he reflects current Vatican thinking? This is the possibility that the events of the past four decades positively compel us to consider, no matter how terrifying its implications. But it is precisely this that the neo-Catholics reject a priori.

Either way, this incident is only one of dozens, hundreds, thousands, that reveal for anyone with his eyes open that the present rot extends all the way to the top. Four decades of pretending otherwise have gotten us nowhere. Truth, say the philosophers, consists of conformity of mind to reality. It is reality itself from which the neo-Catholics have consistently sheltered themselves, all the while hurling barbs at traditionalists who refuse to accept that up is down, true is false, and that yesterday's novelty could be today's orthodoxy.

The fact is, on matters of great importance to the Faith, our present hierarchy is obviously contradicting traditional Catholic teaching as a matter of routine. So routine has it become that some Catholics are positively gleeful when a bishop seems to be to the right of Walter Mondale. Now we may legitimately discuss how to cope with this problem. But it is no longer reasonable to expect a thinking man to deny it, or to call him names for having the courage and presence of mind to face up to it.


Thomas E. Woods, Jr., holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He is associate editor of The Latin Mass magazine and co-author of The Great Fašade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church. His next book, The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era, will be published by Columbia University Press in May 2004.

© Copyright 2003 Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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