A Church in Transition
Recently I read a book called Beyond Vatican II: The Church at a New Crossroads (Roman Catholic Books, 2006) by a French priest named Fr.Claude Barthe. He was at one time a member of the Society of St. Pius X and is now, as far as I can tell, a diocesan priest. This book set me to thinking about the present status of the Church and what we have experienced during the past forty years since the close of the Council. This period has closely corresponded with my priesthood, since I was ordained in 1960. So I am a pre-Vatican II priest.
There is no doubt that the Church is in a state of crisis; it is sick, it is seriously wounded. The indications of this are well known: a breakdown of authority, dissent among theologians, decline in vocations, decline in the number of priests, millions of Catholics have gone over to the Protestants or simply do not practice their religion, hundreds of seminaries and schools closed, Catholic colleges and universities that are Catholic in name only, banal liturgies in many parishes that have only a remote connection with the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and this list could go on and on.
Fr. Barthe maintains that the basic cause of this is a breakdown of faith in the Creed of the Church. Many Catholics, including priests and theologians, are openly heretics and the authorities in the Church do nothing about it. Declarations of heresy and excommunication have all but disappeared. It is almost impossible to be expelled from the Church. The Magisterium is in a state of self-paralysis. The papacy no longer uses the power of infallibility; in fact, it seems to be embarrassed by the Vatican I definition of the infallibility of the Pope.
As a result, according to our author, we have groups of Catholics holding different things regarding Christ, the Church, morals, the Sacraments and the Liturgy—groups that are like separate islands of belief. So the Church today, he says, is like a federation of sovereign states, with a weak central government.
How did it come about that a strong, unified Church under Popes Pius XI and XII is now reduced to something like a punching bag that takes many hits but does not hit back? Fr. Barthe thinks that it is the result of the invasion of the democratic principle into the Church. The Pope and bishops are now surrounded by numerous committees and councils that they must consult before making any decisions. That’s not the way popes before Paul VI operated. In those days the Pope was boss and everyone knew it. When he said “frog” everyone leaped; but not any more. For example, the Vatican has published scores of documents on the priesthood and religious life in the past forty years and they are ignored on the local level. And no one does anything about it.
In this situation, Fr.Barthe says that the Church now is ungovernable. A few years ago in Rome I heard a Cardinal say to a group of pilgrims that there is no exercise of authority in the Church. Everyone does what he pleases, he said, and nothing is done about it.
Fr.Barthe thinks that the main problem is the Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. According to him, the Church has never clearly defined exactly what it means by ecumenism and what the goal is. There is ambiguity here that has led people to think that the Church is not the only source of salvation and that heretical sects can be treated as equals to the one Church of Christ, the Catholic Church. The author thinks that this is the main cause of the present malaise in the Church.
The author is very positive about the present role of Pope Benedict XVI. He thinks the Pope understands the present crisis and is moving to overcome the divisions in the Church. He thinks we are now entering a period of transition from the conciliar Church to a Church more in accordance with the traditional Catholic Church in doctrine, discipline, morals and liturgy. In order to accomplish this the Pope will need wisdom and courage to be and act as Peter. He needs and deserves the prayers of all of us.
Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Table of Contents
Letters From Our Readers
a Comfortable Religion?
By James V, Schall
Eros and the Encyclical:
The Need for Friendship
by Stephen F. Brett
The Liturgical Theology
of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart
by Brian Dunn
Work and the Social Structure of Sin
by Cynthia Toolin
Homilies on the Liturgies
of Sundays and Feasts,
by William J. Martin and George M. Franko
by William J. Martin
The Vatican: Spiritual Fatherhood and Ordination
by Bevil Bramwell
Separating Civil from Religious Weddings
by David R. Carlin
NFP Courses: Asking Questions Can Be Helpful
by John F. Kippley
My Favorite Priest
Editorial - A Church in Transition