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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
6 Apr 2004

Catholic Confusion at the Very Top

by David Palm

Pope John Paul II

Overcoming My Resistance to Face the Facts

(Reprinted with permission from NEW OXFORD REVIEW, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706, U.S.A.)

I do not think it would be difficult to reach a broad consensus among NOR (NEW OXFORD REVIEW) readers that the state of the Catholic Church today is downright confusing on many fronts. Where we would begin to diverge from one another is in the analysis of the root causes of that confusion. Although all would likely agree that there is no single source, orthodox Catholics have increasingly stated in public that at least part of the confusion in the Church today has its origins at the very top — that some of the words, deeds, and omissions of Pope John Paul II are causing confusion among faithful Catholics. To state this, however, is immediately to raise some hackles — hackles that I myself have experienced until recently. In a letter to the editor published in the NOR (Oct. 2003), Bill Foley chided the NOR for criticizing the Pope. Indeed, there are those who believe that any criticism of the Pope leads to undermining papal authority as such. I agree that such a danger exists.

But I have come to believe that there is also a danger in not speaking out. The difficulty is that if a certain hierarch — whether priest, bishop, or pope — is particularly well respected, the faithful under his charge may be tempted to take his every word, action, and even inaction as a positive example. They may be tempted to conform their understanding of right Catholic faith and practice to the man, rather than the man to the Faith.

In This Rock magazine (Oct. 2003), James Hitchcock and Fr. Brian Harrison pointed to certain of John Paul's words and deeds in which they believe sound and trustworthy leadership and example have been lacking. Hitchcock focused on concern over the lack of ecclesiastical discipline in John Paul's pontificate, speaking of "an almost principled reluctance to exercise his disciplinary powers." Indeed, this is an aspect of the Holy Father's pontificate that a number of orthodox Catholic commentators — including Karl Keating, Rod Dreher, and the NOR — have seen as a genuine weakness. Fr. Harrison extends this negative assessment beyond matters of discipline, discussing certain liturgical issues, questions raised by various ecumenical activities, and points of private teaching as well. Although this might strike some as presumptuous and disloyal, Fr. Harrison points out that the Church's law provides for just this sort of expression:

[The faithful] have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence, and position, to manifest to the sacred pastors [bishops] their views on matters that concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ's faithful, but in doing so must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the pastors, and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals. (Canon Law 212)

Fr. Harrison further notes that "No clause in canon 212 exempts the words, deeds, policies, or omissions of a pope himself from such criticism. Moreover, by affirming the right of the faithful 'to make their views known to others of Christ's faithful' as well as to the Church's pastors, this canon makes clear that public as well as private criticism can be legitimate."

In his magnificent book The Devastated Vineyard (1973), Dietrich von Hildebrand warned against a false loyalty to the Church hierarchy in which Catholics uncritically accept every word and action of their bishop, while failing to acknowledge the harm that may be done to the Church by those words and actions:

A third false response, and perhaps the most dangerous one, would be to imagine that there is no destruction of the vineyard of the Lord, that it only seems so to us — our task as laymen is simply to adhere with complete loyalty to whatever our bishop says....

At the basis of this attitude is a false idea of loyalty to the hierarchy. When the pope speaks ex cathedra on faith or morals, then unconditional acceptance and submission is required of every Catholic. But it is false to extend this loyalty to encyclicals in which new theses are proposed. This is not to deny that the magisterium of the Church extends much farther than the dogmas. If an encyclical deals with a question of faith or morals and is based on the tradition of the holy Church — that is, expresses something which the Church has always taught — then we should humbly accept its teaching. This is the case with the encyclical Humanae Vitae: although we do not have here the strict infallibility of a defined dogma, the content of the encyclical nevertheless belongs to that sphere of the Church's magisterium which we must accept as true.

But there are many encyclicals which deal with very different (e.g., sociological) questions and which express a response of the Church to certain new conditions. Thus the encyclical of the great Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, with its idea of a corporate state, differs on sociological questions with encyclicals of Paul VI. But when it is a question of practical ordinances such as concordats, or the suppression of the Jesuit order by Pope Clement XIV, or the introduction of the new missal, or the rearrangement of the Church calendar, or the new rubrics for the liturgy, then our obedience (as Vatican I declares), but by no means our agreement, is required.... In the history of the Church there have been many unfortunate ordinances and practical decisions by popes, which have then been retracted by other popes. In such matters we may, while obeying an ordinance, with all due respect express opposition to it, pray for its elimination, and address many appeals to the pope.

Von Hildebrand's words need to be pondered afresh in light of our present circumstances. There are significant dangers in saying that whatever the pope says and does serves as a positive example, or is beyond all critical evaluation. On account of the height of his office and moral authority, the faithful are naturally tempted to emulate the example even of a pope who gives bad example by omission or commission, in word or deed. This is especially true in the case of a very popular and charismatic pontiff. The pitfall is that one who adopts such a course inevitably conforms his faith to the man. But in Catholicism it is the man — even the Roman pontiff — who must conform to the Faith in both word and deed.

With regard to the Church's doctrine, the pope is of course its guardian and not its creator. He is bound to preserve the deposit of Faith intact and without innovation. As Vatican I stated: "For the Holy Spirit promised to the successors of Peter, not that they would unfold new doctrine which he revealed to them, but that, with his assistance, they would piously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith handed on through the Apostles" (Pastor Aeternus, #7).

Certainly this principle applies directly and primarily to the Church's doctrines. But even with regard to the Church's discipline the pope is rightly expected to uphold and protect ancient and venerable customs and also to adhere personally to the Church's canon law. As the Church's supreme legislator, the pope may certainly abrogate canon law for a particularly grave reason. But in such an instance he would be bound by prudence to declare openly that he intends to alter the legislation. In the absence of such an open declaration, one may conclude that the pope is setting a bad example by breaking the Church's laws.

In the remainder of this article I will point out a number of examples in which right Catholic belief and practice would be wrongly altered by following the example set by John Paul II. My intent is by no means to denigrate His Holiness, but rather to prudently exercise my right under Canon Law to make known to Christ's faithful my concerns about their spiritual well-being. When properly understood, such lawful undertakings are in fact supportive of the Holy Father and the mission of the Church.

The Death Penalty

Traditionally, the Catholic Church has taught that the death penalty is not only permissible but is the correct and appropriate punishment for certain crimes. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent states: "The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this [Fifth] Commandment which prohibits murder."

Prior to the publication of John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae (EV), most conservative Catholics could be counted on to mirror this traditional view. But in EV, as well as in the most recent edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a significant restriction of the application of the death penalty was laid out. In EV the Holy Father states that societies "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (#56).

Many faithful Catholics took this as a change of Church doctrine and overnight reversed their position on the death penalty. But a number of prominent and orthodox Catholic thinkers have noted publicly that the Holy Father's stance on the death penalty as laid out in EV represents a prudential judgment, not a Church doctrine, and that therefore this issue is not closed to continued discussion. For example, in surveying the issue of capital punishment from the Old Testament to current Church teaching, Fr. Avery Dulles (shortly before being given the red hat) said:

The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases.... Like the pope [John Paul II], the [U.S.] bishops do not rule out capital punishment altogether, but they say that it is not justifiable as practiced in the United States today. In coming to this prudential conclusion, the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes.... Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. (Laurence J. McGinley Lecture, Fordham University, Oct. 17, 2000; emphasis mine)

But the inclusion of this prudential judgment in the (revised) Catechism has generated a considerable amount of confusion. For example, in a recent address to the Institute on Religious Life, Archbishop Charles Chaput blurred the distinction between a prudential judgment and Church doctrine, and on this basis chided Justice Antonin Scalia for questioning the prudence of the Pope's stance:

When Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia publicly disputes church teaching on the death penalty, the message he sends is not all that different from Frances Kissling [President of Catholics for a Free Choice] disputing what the church teaches about abortion,... the impulse to pick and choose what we're going to accept is exactly the same kind of 'cafeteria Catholicism' in both cases.

Thankfully, His Excellency did acknowledge that abortion and the death penalty "don't have equivalent moral gravity." But it is simply incredible — and irresponsible — for a bishop to publicly rebuke a faithful Catholic for questioning a change in prudential judgment with respect to the death penalty, placing Scalia in the same league with brazen dissenter Frances Kissling as a "cafeteria Catholic."

Unfortunately, the confusion grows deeper. For the Holy Father has, in a public talk, asserted a view of the death penalty which extends even beyond Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism: "The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.... I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary" (Papal Mass at the Trans World Dome, St. Louis, Mo., Jan. 27, 1999; emphasis mine).

This text seems to represent an absolute and unconditional prohibition of the death penalty, in that it implies that the death penalty automatically takes away "the dignity of human life," and also that the death penalty is intrinsically cruel. Such a prohibition — if that is truly what this represents — extends well beyond what the Church has perennially taught concerning capital punishment. This cannot help but confuse the individual Catholic.

No Souls in Hell?

One of the most pernicious errors that plagues the Catholic Church today is creeping universalism. While few will come out and baldly state that no one is damned to Hell, the door is left open to that conclusion by writers such as Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? We have seen this played out in the pages of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW (Jan. 2001, Jul.-Aug. 2001, Oct. 2001), as the universalist tendencies of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus have come under scrutiny. And I have encountered any number of relatively prominent Catholic apologists who argue vociferously (although privately) in favor of the view that we cannot know for certain, based on Scripture and Tradition, that there are any human souls in Hell.

One finds, unfortunately, that support for this new-fangled notion may be found at the very top of the Church's hierarchy. In a general audience of July 28, 1999, the Holy Father stunned many faithful Catholics when he stated that: "Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it" (emphasis mine). This appears in the official version of the Pope's talks, Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, but without the doctrinally difficult wording "whether" (se e in Italian). Presumably someone in the Vatican noticed that the words, as they were actually spoken, were problematic and intervened to make sure the official version conforms unambiguously to Church teaching. Still, it is the publicly spoken version that has received so much attention. Thus the Holy Father's spoken words appear to deny that the sources of public revelation (i.e., Scripture and Tradition) are sufficient to tell us whether any human souls at all are damned. And yet our Lord says quite plainly that many will fail to attain eternal salvation: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it" (Mt. 7:13-14; emphasis mine; also see: Mt. 13:24-30, 36-51; 22:1-14; 25:41; Lk. 10:13-15; 13:23-24; Jude 7). And the entire Catholic Tradition has affirmed that we can indeed be certain that there are human souls damned, although we cannot know specifically which individuals are so affected. Numerous magisterial texts leave no room for a Hell empty of human souls. I will quote but two: "And so Our Predecessor, Benedict XIV, had just cause to write: 'We declare that a great number of those who are condemned to eternal punishment suffer that everlasting calamity because of ignorance of those mysteries of faith which must be known and believed in order to be numbered among the elect'" (Pope St. Pius X, Acerbo Nimis #3, citing Benedict XIV, Instit., 27:18). (What is being referred to here is vincible ignorance, not invincible ignorance.) Also, the current Catechism states regarding Christ's descent into Hell on Holy Saturday: "Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, 'hell' — Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek — because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into 'Abraham's bosom'.... Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him" (#633). This clearly indicates that there are human souls in Hell who will never escape.

Creeping universalism has very troubling practical results. Most notably, it dampens missionary zeal and Catholic evangelism. The driving motive behind all the great missionary efforts in the history of the Catholic Church has been the understanding that, without Christ and His Church, human beings are in varying degrees in a disadvantageous situation regarding their salvation. The imperative to go and preach the Gospel, even in the face of torture and death, has been driven by the conviction that multitudes are in danger of eternal damnation if they are not reached. But if everybody will be saved or if Catholics may entertain true doubts whether anybody at all will end up in Hell, then a key motivation for missionary work and Catholic evangelism is subverted.

Collegiality & Lack of Ecclesiastical Discipline

Agnosticism about the reality of human damnation also stands in large measure behind the collapse of ecclesiastical discipline that plagues the Catholic Church. If a shepherd in the Church truly believed that the souls under his care are in jeopardy of hellfire on account of heresy, sacrilege, and mortal sin (as is taught by innumerable Fathers, Doctors, and popes) then he would act decisively to suppress these things and punish the individuals responsible for spreading them, even to the point of excluding them from the body of the Church. This is what the entire tradition of the Church (and even her present canon law [see canon 915]) tells him to do.

Could it be that our Holy Father does not exercise his disciplinary authority because he is not convinced that we can know whether there is anyone in Hell? Is it not possible that certain theological conclusions and practical outcomes logically go hand in glove?

It seems, too, that the lack of ecclesiastical discipline in the Church may be the product of other theological and philosophical shifts. Romano Amerio, a peritus at Vatican II, presents this fascinating commentary on the lack of discipline since Vatican II, which he poetically dubs a brevatio manus Domini, a foreshortening of the hand of the Lord:

The external fact is the disunity of the Church, visible in the disunity of the bishops among themselves, and with the Pope. The internal fact producing it is the renunciation, that is, the non-functioning of papal authority itself, from which the renunciation of all other authority derives....

Now, the peculiar feature of the pontificate of Paul VI was the tendency to shift the papacy from governing to admonishing or, in scholastic terminology, to restrict the field of preceptive law, which imposes an obligation, and to enlarge the field of directive law, which formulates a rule without imposing any obligation to observe it. The government of the Church thus loses half its scope, or to put it biblically, the hand of the Lord is foreshortened....

Two things are needed to maintain truth. First: remove the error from the doctrinal sphere, which is done by refuting erroneous arguments and showing that they are not convincing. Second: remove the person in error, that is depose him from office, which is done by an act of the Church's authority. If this pontifical service is not performed, it would seem unjustified to say that all means have been used to maintain the doctrine of the Church: we are in the presence of a brevatio manus Domini....

The origin of this whole brevatio manus lies quite clearly in the opening speech of the Second Vatican Council, which announced an end to the condemnation of error, a policy which was maintained by Paul VI throughout the whole of his pontificate. As a teacher, he held to the traditional formulas expressing the orthodox faith, but as a pastor, he did not prevent the free circulation of unorthodox ideas, assuming that they would of themselves eventually take an orthodox form and become compatible with truth. Errors were identified and the Catholic faith reiterated, but specific persons were not condemned for their erroneous teaching, and the schismatic situation in the Church was disguised and tolerated....

The general effect of a renunciation of authority is to bring authority into disrepute and to lead it to be ignored by those who are subject to it, since a subject cannot hold a higher view of authority than authority holds of itself....

The renunciation of authority, even as applied to doctrinal affairs, which had been begun by John XXIII and pursued by Paul VI, was continued by John Paul II. (Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century)

Amerio cites the amazing testimony of Cardinal Oddi, who spoke to a gathering of Catholics United for the Faith in the 1970s. Amerio shows, in his answer, that refusal to exercise discipline in the Church has at its heart a philosophical shift:

The Prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy was insistently asked why the Holy See did not remove those who taught error, such as Fr. Curran, who had for years been openly attacking Humanae Vitae, and who teaches the licitness of sodomy. Why was it that the Holy See did not correct and disavow those bishops, such as Mgr Gerety, who depart from sound doctrine and protect those who corrupt the faith? The Cardinal replied that "The Church no longer imposes punishments. She hopes instead to persuade those who err." She has chosen this course "perhaps because she does not have precise information about the different cases in which error arises, perhaps because she thinks it imprudent to take energetic measures, perhaps too because she wants to avoid even greater scandal through disobedience. The Church believes it is better to tolerate certain errors in the hope that when certain difficulties have been overcome, the person in error will reject his error and return to the Church."

This is an admission of the brevatio manus...and an assertion of the innovation announced in the opening speech of the council: error contains within itself the means of its own correction, and there is no need to assist the process: it is enough to let it unfold, and it will correct itself. Charity is held to be synonymous with tolerance, indulgence takes precedence over severity, the common good of the ecclesial community is overlooked in the interests of a misused individual liberty, [and] the sensus logicus and the virtue of fortitude proper to the Church are lost. The reality is that the Church ought to preserve and defend the truth with all the means available to a perfect society. (ibid.)

Here, it seems, is a direct clash between the Church's pre-conciliar Thomistic realism and a post-conciliar emphasis on a certain kind of personalism which increasingly looks like a divorce from reality and a rejection of common sense. Further, as the years have passed since Vatican II, these now-stock excuses for why the Vatican has refused to discipline renegade priests and bishops have crumbled, one by one. Certainly the many decades over which the crisis has spread have been sufficient to gather the information necessary to judge the erroneous opinions of various priests and bishops accurately and justly. And the "greater scandal" argument — most often formulated in terms of the avoidance of an open schism — has now been shown false in the most recent clerical sex scandals. The Holy Father could have removed many deviant bishops and priests with complete impunity. The other bishops would not have dared defy him on such an issue, especially since those most apt to break openly with Rome tend to have scandalous skeletons in their own closets. With even the secular world rightly expecting tough treatment of such deviancy, who would have dared go into schism over the situation? But has any disciplinary action been taken? Rather, in yet another bow to the novelty of collegiality, the entire problem was handed back to the national hierarchy which, through its own laxity, spawned the scandal in the first place.

No Return of the Dissidents To the One True Church?

Creeping universalism may lie behind another phenomenon in the Catholic Church as well, the quasi-official change in her stance regarding the status of non-Catholic Christians. Prior to Vatican II, the Catholic Church's constant stance vis--vis those Christians separated from her by schism and heresy is stated clearly by Pope Pius XI in his 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos:

So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it.... Let them therefore return to their common Father, who, forgetting the insults previously heaped on the Apostolic See, will receive them in the most loving fashion.... You, Venerable Brethren, understand how much this question is in Our mind, and We desire that Our children should also know, not only those who belong to the Catholic community, but also those who are separated from Us: if these latter humbly beg light from heaven, there is no doubt but that they will recognize the one true Church of Jesus Christ and will, at last, enter it, being united with us in perfect charity. (#10, #13; emphasis mine; also see Pius XI, Iam Vos Omnes and Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum)

But today, there are no more calls issued from the Vatican for those Christians separated from the Catholic Church to return to her. Rather, the new outlook is one of a mutual journey of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants along a common path toward unity. This new "orientation" is proclaimed publicly by some of the Church's highest ranking prelates, such as Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor in 2001: "But if we look at all the Roman documents in recent years, it is clear that they do not spell a turning back to the 'ecumenism of return,' or 'you-come-inism.' The direction and dialogue of convergence were firmly set by the Second Vatican Council and endorsed and confirmed six years ago by [Pope John Paul II's] Ut Unum Sint."

Of even greater concern is the publicly stated position of Walter Cardinal Kasper, who was appointed by Pope John Paul II to head the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Right after receiving the cardinal's red hat and the appointment to this curial position, Kasper said this in an interview in answer to the question of the meaning of ecumenism:

The decision of Vatican II, to which the Pope adheres and spreads, is absolutely clear: Today we no longer understand ecumenism in the sense of ecumenism of a return, by which the others should "be converted" and return to being "catholics." This was expressly abandoned by Vatican II. Today ecumenism is considered as the common road: all should be converted to the following of Christ, and it is in Christ that we will find ourselves in the end.... Even the Pope, among other things, describes ecumenism in Ut unum sint as an exchange of gifts. I think this is very well said: each church has its own riches and gifts of the Spirit, and it is this exchange that unity is trying to be achieved and not the fact that we should become "protestants" or that the others should become "catholics" in the sense of accepting the confessional form of Catholicism. (

Unfortunately, Kasper's claim that the Pope agrees with him on this matter is difficult to deny, for at least two reasons. First, there is the fact that the Pope specifically appointed Kasper, whose views on this matter were perfectly well known before he received the red hat and this appointment, to the very pontifical commission in which these views matter most. Therefore, Kasper's views would seem to be shared by the Pope. And second, as Fr. Brian Harrison pointed out in a private note to me, the Holy Father has himself refrained from speaking as his predecessors did of the need for separated Christians to return to the Catholic Church:

Far from reining in these Cardinals, John Paul II himself has abstained absolutely, according to my computer's scrutiny of the Vatican website, from ever using the word "return" in an ecumenical context. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that the vigorous and unabashedly conversion-oriented apostolate of This Rock and Catholic Answers, together with that of like-minded groups such as Marcus Grodi's Coming Home Network, would now be viewed very coolly, if not icily, by the various dialogue-promoting departments in the Roman Curia of John Paul II. After all, what is "coming home" (to Rome) if not a "return"? But the conscious deletion of this word from our Dictionary of Dialogue is causing great confusion. Indeed, by raising false hopes, it is actually doing a disservice to separated Christians themselves. For it insinuates (without overtly stating) the heretical notion that some kind of future unified Church will be possible — and acceptable to Catholicism — in which other Christians will not be required to submit to the supreme governing and teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, as solemnly defined for all time by the Councils of Florence and Vatican I. For what would such submission be, if not a "return" to the Roman Catholic Church?

That this represents a significant about-face in the Church's life is shown by the fact that, as late as 1949, the Holy Office was vigorously upholding the Church's constant and traditional stance toward those Christians outside the communion of the Catholic Church:

As regards the manner and method of proceeding in this work, the Bishops.... shall also be on guard lest, on the false pretext that more attention should be paid to the points on which we agree than to those on which we differ, a dangerous indifferentism be encouraged, especially among persons whose training in theology is not deep and whose practice of their faith is not very strong....

Also they must restrain that dangerous manner of speaking which generates false opinions and fallacious hopes incapable of realization; for example, to the effect that the teachings of the Encyclicals of the Roman Pontiffs on the return of dissidents to the Church, on the constitution of the Church, on the Mystical Body of Christ, should not be given too much importance seeing that they are not all matters of faith, or, what is worse, that in matters of dogma even the Catholic Church has not yet attained the fullness of Christ, but can still be perfected from outside. They shall take particular care and shall firmly insist that, in going over the history of the Reformation and the Reformers the defects of Catholics be not so exaggerated and the faults of the Reformers be so dissimulated, or that things which are rather accidental be not so emphasized, that what is most essential, namely the defection from the Catholic faith, be scarcely any longer seen or felt....

Therefore the whole and entire Catholic doctrine is to be presented and explained: by no means is it permitted to pass over in silence or to veil in ambiguous terms the Catholic truth regarding the nature and way of justification, the constitution of the Church, the primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, and the only true union by the return of the dissidents to the one true Church of Christ. It should be made clear to them that, in returning to the Church, they will lose nothing of that good which by the grace of God has hitherto been implanted in them, but that it will rather be supplemented and completed by their return. However, one should not speak of this in such a way that they will imagine that in returning to the Church they are bringing to it something substantial which it has hitherto lacked. It will be necessary to say these things clearly and openly, first because it is the truth that they themselves are seeking, and moreover because outside the truth no true union can ever be attained. (Instruction on the Ecumenical Movement Proclaimed by the Holy Office on December 20, 1949; emphasis mine)

Note well what the Holy Office of 1949 says of the emphasis on what unites Christians separated from the Catholic Church: It is a "false pretext" which carries with it a great danger of indifferentism. But in 2001, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor insists the contrary: "While other Christians do not share everything in common with us.... how often we say, 'What unites us is so much more important than what still divides us.'"

Unfortunately this is not merely his private opinion. He gets it directly from Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, who echoes the about-face expressed by Pope John XXIII just a decade or so after the Holy Office issued its warnings: "This is what Pope John XXIII believed about the unity of the Church and how he saw full Christian unity. With regard to other Christians, to the great Christian family, he observed: 'What unites us is much greater than what divides us'" (#20).

This raises serious questions. Our shepherds are now explicitly paying more attention to the points on which we agree than to those on which we differ from non-Catholic Christians. And yet, the Holy Office in 1949 dubbed this a "false pretext" headed toward indifferentism. How has what was formerly false become true? And is there really no longer any danger of indifferentism, "especially among persons whose training in theology is not deep and whose practice of their faith is not very strong"? I would suggest that a poll at any Catholic parish of your choice would find the vast majority of professing Catholics thoroughly indifferentist in their attitudes toward non-Catholic denominations and religions.

On the other hand, Dominus Iesus (DI) issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on June 16, 2000, with the Pope's approval, stated that there is only one Church of Christ, the Catholic Church, that "the unicity and the unity" of the Catholic Church "will never be lacking," that other Christian communities suffer from "defects," that those who do not have a valid Episcopate "are not Churches in the proper sense," and that the "fullness of Christ's salvific mystery belongs" to the Catholic Church (#16-17). This would imply — though it is not stated explicitly — that Christian ecumenism requires some kind of return to the Catholic Church. While Kasper was sharply critical of DI, the Pope went out of his way on October 1, 2000, to affirm DI, saying that it "is close to my heart" and "was approved by me in a special way." So where does John Paul really stand? Who knows? It's a mystery, one that engenders confusion in the Catholic faithful.

The eventual untangling of the confusion must be left to others to whom the authority is given, but I submit that in the meantime it is dangerous for the faithful to change their faith and practice to conform to current fashions.

Honoring Heretics, Praying With Pagans

This change in orientation with respect to non-Catholic Christians even by the Roman Pontiff comes to be expressed in any number of public actions that further confuse the faithful. For example, the Church has repeatedly taught that, apart from the Eastern Orthodox (and certain Old Catholics), the Sacrament of Holy Orders does not exist in Christian bodies separated from the Catholic Church; Pope Leo XIII declared in his 1896 encyclical Apostolicae Curae that Anglican "orders" to the priesthood and bishopric are "absolutely null and utterly void." In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's commentary on John Paul II's apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, it was pointed out that what Leo XIII declared was taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (Origins, July 16, 1998). Of Lutheran "orders" there has never been any question as to their invalidity.

And yet Pope John Paul II regularly appears in public with Lutheran and Anglican "bishops" (including women), conducting joint liturgies with them and treating them as episcopal equals. Indeed, the Holy Father has presented the last two Anglican "Archbishops of Canterbury" with pectoral crosses, a symbol traditionally given by the Bishop of Rome only to Catholic bishops. And the Holy Father kissed the "episcopal" ring of Rowan Williams, the Anglican prelate most recently installed at Canterbury, despite the fact that Williams sees nothing wrong with sodomy, has knowingly ordained practicing homosexual men to the Anglican ministry, favors lowering Britain's legal age of consent for sodomy to 16 years, strongly favors priestesses and bishopettes (including lesbians), and considers the Virgin Birth an open question.

According to perennial Catholic teaching, these men (and now women), no matter how sincere they might be, are nevertheless false shepherds, pretenders to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and teachers of innumerable false doctrines and gross immoralities that threaten the eternal souls of those who look to them as leaders. And yet the Vicar of Christ, in the name of a new "ecumenical orientation," publicly extends to them the honors due to legitimate Catholic clergy. One could conceivably consider them mere acts of courtesy, but they are acts that cause confusion among faithful Catholics.

We hear incessantly today about the need for dialogue. And yet one is hard pressed to understand how the Catholic Church can maintain meaningful "dialogue" — let alone religious collaboration — with those who are so obtuse as to deny that a pre-born baby is a human being or that sodomy is evil. Surely the Holy Father believes what he and the Church teach about Catholic morality, but when he consorts with and honors pro-abortion and pro-sodomy leaders of all religious stripes, faithful Catholics are left wondering how firmly he stands for Catholic morality.

Recently I called the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., to ask why a pro-abortion Jewish rabbi had been invited to the cathedral to participate with Bishop George Lucas in an "Interfaith Worship Service" entitled "Neighbors Mirroring the Image of God." When I asked how the diocese could, at a gathering so-titled, honor someone who doesn't even believe that pre-born babies bear the image of God in sufficient measure to protect them from arbitrary execution, I was read a statement by Bishop Lucas stating that he is following the example of the Holy Father by maintaining lines of dialogue even with people with whom he has disagreements.

Indeed, the principle of dialogue is invoked to explain and excuse all sorts of public behavior on the part of high-ranking Church officials that would have been grounds for deposition in any century before Vatican II. In the name of inter-religious dialogue Cardinal Law enters an Islamic mosque and prays to Allah (Boston Globe, Nov. 25, 2002), Cardinal George participates in a pagan "cleansing ritual" (The Wanderer, Aug. 8, 2002), and the Holy Father kisses the Koran (Catholic World News, June 3, 1999) and invites pagans of all stripes to Assisi to pray to their false gods for world peace.

The Assisi prayer gatherings of 1986 and 2002 are particularly disturbing. Nowhere in the history of the Catholic Church, nor even in the documents of Vatican II, has it ever been considered permissible — let alone salutary — to pray with non-Christians, much less to invite them to pray to their false gods for worldly favors. Fr. Brian Harrison notes the grave seriousness of such a situation:

What other impression than a verdict of "more-or-less-good-and-praiseworthy" is left when the Roman pontiff invites Jewish, Islamic, pantheistic and polytheistic religious leaders to come and practice their respective forms of worship inside Catholic churches and religious houses, offering to each group space and facilities for that purpose? How does such an invitation escape the charge of formal cooperation in the objectively sinful practice of pagan worship? How will it in any way help to persuade those invited non-Christians, and their millions of followers, that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour? (letter to Inside the Vatican, April 2002)

Surely we cannot emulate this example, even though it was enacted by our current Pope.

Liturgical Abuse

Faithful Catholics are rightly put off by the spectacle of priests and bishops breaking even the Church's much-relaxed liturgical norms, turning the Mass into a veritable showcase of liturgical abuse. All faithful Catholics are rightly repulsed by prelates dressed in rainbow-colored vestments, liturgies featuring dancing girls in defiance of a 1976 Vatican ruling, clergy sitting by while lay "ministers" distribute Holy Communion, and various pagan rituals incorporated into the Mass. And yet, sad as it may be, these and other liturgical anomalies are frequently in evidence even at papal Masses. What recourse is there in the fight against liturgical abuse when liturgical norms are not even upheld when the Pope celebrates Mass before hundreds of thousands?

Another factor that has bedeviled attempts to set the liturgy back on a sane and solid footing has been the repeated willingness of the Holy See to reward liturgical disobedience. We all know the examples: Mass said facing the people, Communion in the hand to standing recipients by lay people of either gender, Communion of both species given at every Mass, the priest ad-libbing prayers, female lectors, female altar servers, etc. Experience has taught liturgical abusers that if they hold out long enough and make the abuse sufficiently widespread, the Vatican will eventually legalize the abuse. All too often, the abuse-now-turned-legal later comes to be officially trumpeted as a great boon to the Church. For example, one would wish that it was only with the greatest reluctance and with a continuing disapproval that the Holy Father broke with a 2,000-year-old continuous Catholic tradition of male-only altar service, reversing the direct condemnations of several popes, including his own in Inestimabile Donum. But it appears not to be the case. Rather, in his Angelus address (Sept. 5, 1995) the Holy Father affirmed:

To a large extent, it is a question of making full use of the ample room for a lay and feminine presence recognized by the Church's law. I am thinking, for example, of theological teaching, the forms of liturgical ministry permitted, including service at the altar.... Who can imagine the great advantages to pastoral care and the new beauty that the Church's face will assume, when the feminine genius is fully involved in the various areas of her life? (emphasis mine)

This vision of an ever-evolving and inculturated (a culture-determined) liturgy which emanates from the very top of the Church's hierarchy tends materially to undermine the work of groups such as Adoremus, which seek to move the Novus Ordo Mass in a more traditional direction. While the present Holy Father is certainly tolerant of an Adoremus-style celebration of the Novus Ordo, it cannot be said that he actively promotes it as the "true interpretation" of Vatican II. The most tangible evidence of this is the way in which his public Masses are celebrated. They are frequently worlds apart from the kind of liturgical celebration argued for by Adoremus. And the "progressive" nature of papal Masses is far from accidental, given that since 1987 he has had as his Master of Pontifical Ceremonies one Piero Marini. Marini was the personal secretary of none other than Mgsr. Annibale Bugnini, the chief architect of the liturgical "reforms" that have resulted in what the great liturgical scholar Msgr. Klaus Gamber has called "real destruction of the traditional Mass,... the traditional Roman rite with a history of more than one thousand years." Marini would by any historical standard be considered a liturgical radical and yet he is given wide latitude in crafting the most widely viewed Masses in the entire Church. According to John L. Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter (June 20, 2003):

Marini...has responsibility for putting liturgical principles into practice on the largest stage in the Catholic church, both in Rome and wherever John Paul goes around the globe.... More people have watched Masses planned by Marini than by any other liturgist in the world, which gives him enormous power to shape the public idea of what Catholic worship is all about.

At times, this puts Marini in tension with some Vatican colleagues who don't share his reform-minded approach. Purists likewise sometimes complain that Marini's liturgies look too much like Broadway production numbers.

It's clear, however, that Marini has John Paul's confidence. He has been dubbed the pope's "guardian angel" by the Italian press because he is forever at his side, handing him the pages of a talk, helping him into position. Marini shares this intimacy with two other men: John Paul's private secretary Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the head of the papal household, Milwaukee native Bishop James Harvey. As a sign of their special fraternity, the three men were ordained bishops together by the pope in a special ceremony on March 19, 1998.

As an added honor, all three men were elevated to the rank of archbishop at the same time the most recent group of bishops were named as cardinals. Is it any wonder that the liturgy in the Roman Rite is in a constant state of flux, when its most public implementation has been delegated by the Holy Father to a notorious liturgical innovator?


Truly, these are confusing times in the Catholic Church. I have tried to clarify that the source of at least some of this confusion is found in a place that many orthodox Catholics have been unwilling to examine. Until relatively recently, I shared this resistance. I expect there will be those who proclaim that this is all just "Pope bashing." It is not. Any annoyance with what I've written should at least be tempered by a realistic evaluation of the concrete examples that have been presented (and, unfortunately, a great many more could be).

We must remain cognizant of the fact that not every word spoken or action taken by the Pope is done in his capacity as the Universal Pastor. In fact, the vast majority of them are not. Having said this, one must immediately acknowledge that certainly there is clearly a grave danger in falsely concluding, as the liberals do, that we can simply ignore the Pope when his opinions clash with our own, so long as he is not speaking ex cathedra. We must continue to reject and expose such pernicious error. Yet, we cannot continue to ignore the danger of the opposite extreme, an extreme which faithful Catholics are most prone to embrace in reaction to the disobedience of liberals — that is, hyper-obedience. Such hyper-obedience is, in reality, a well-intentioned but humanistic attempt to counterbalance error and is thus itself an error. We all agree, in principle, that it is wrong to imbue the Pope's every example and utterance with infallibility. Yet, in practice, it seems that too many of us are driven to precisely this mistake.

The Catholic Church is directly established by our Lord Jesus Christ and enjoys His solemn promise that "I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age" and that "the gates of Hell will not prevail" against His Church. We do not trust in princes — even sometimes the princes of the Church — but in the solemn promises of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church will never defect from the Faith — our Lord has promised this. It is on the basis of this divine promise that we can "be not afraid" to look more honestly and prudently at some of the causes of the present confusion in the Church.


David Palm received his M.A. in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1993, and converted to the Catholic Faith in 1994. He is a Catholic apologist by avocation and has written numerous articles for such publications as This Rock, The Catholic World Report, and The Coming Home Network Journal. He lives on a small farm in rural Wisconsin with his wife, Lorene, and their three children.

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