The Papal Kiss

Joseph Sobran
Catholic Family News
April 2003

One of the most amazing symbolic acts in the history of the modern Catholic Church occurred on May 14, 1999, when Pope John Paul II, when receiving a delegation from Iraq, publicly kissed the Koran. It is hard to imagine how "ecumenical dialogue" can go further. This is not your father's Catholic Church.

The papal kiss seemed to me far less likely to bring Muslims into the Church than to drive Catholics out. Surely the Vicar of Christ was aware that the Koran has taught untold millions to deny Christ's Divinity and condemns believers in the Trinity to Hell. Personal charity to Muslims is one thing; honoring their holy book is another. For the Pope himself to do so, in this public manner, was not only without precedent, it was stunningly contrary to all Catholic precedent. As he himself also knew. No Pope before the Second Vatican Council could conceivably have done such a thing.

Since the Council, the Catholic Church has certainly entered a new and extremely troubled phase in its long history. Doctrines, liturgy, discipline, architecture, vocabulary, and demeanor have all changed profoundly. Mass attendance has plunged. So have vocations to the priesthood. Priests, nuns, and theologians [of those who remain within the Church at all, that is] openly defy the Vatican-----often appealing to the spirit of the Council itself. The laity routinely ignore Church teaching on contraception, one of the few things that haven't changed. [There is a widespread feeling that if so many other things can be discarded or disregarded, so can this.] Many Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Shocking sexual scandals, implicating bishops [and forcing one Cardinal to resign his Archbishopric], now appall even Catholics inured to horrors. The Church has apologized to the world for everything short of damaging the ozone layer. And the Pope himself has publicly kissed the Koran.

All these things, in their various ways, are results of Vatican II. The debate rages over whether [and to what extent] they are direct results, or indirect and unintended consequences. Dissidents who appeal to the spirit of the Council often flout its letter. Some argue that the bad results are mere abuses of the Council's reforms. The trouble is that the ordinary Catholic-----encountering, say, altar girls or bizarre new liturgies-----can't always tell which results are reforms and which are abuses. In today's Church, anything can happen.

Is the Council to blame for the current turmoil in Catholicism? Yes, say two "traditionalist" Catholics, Christopher A. Ferrara and Thomas E. Woods Jr., in their book The Great Facade [just published by the Remnant Press in Wyoming, Minnesota]. They condemn "the regime of novelty" in the Church. They don't deny the authority of the Pope and the Church; on the contrary, they insist on the authority of the Pope and the validity of the Council. They are neither sedevacantists [who hold that St. Peter's chair is empty, that there has been no true Pope since 1958] nor schismatics; they agree that the Council left intact the central Catholic teachings, despite the strenuous efforts of liberals. But they nevertheless contend that the Council was an "unmitigated disaster".

One can argue that the Council changed only mere nonessentials. This in fact is the view of most orthodox Catholics. But Ferrara and Woods reply that there is nothing "mere" about such "nonessentials" as the old Latin [Tridentine] Mass. Replacing it with an entirely new liturgy has proved deeply unsettling; so have most of the conciliar reforms. The Council's adoption of such Sixties neologisms [or buzzwords] as "ecumenism" and "dialogue"-----never adequately defined, say the authors-----has caused general confusion as to the status of the Faith itself. Is this the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, or not?

It certainly doesn't act like it. When the Pope holds interfaith dialogue at the Vatican with Protestant and even female "bishops" [who, in traditional Catholic understanding, are mere laymen, lacking Sacramental Ordination], treating them as his peers, never mind what the formal doctrine says. The Church's new body language can only create doubt in the minds of believers. Nor have all the ecumenical powwows since the Council produced results in the way of reuniting the Churches; today they are further apart-----and further from Catholicism-----than ever.

Some Catholics are embarrassed when the Pope kisses the Koran, but the gesture springs from the ecumenical enthusiasm of the Council. It will hardly do to argue that the Pope doesn't understand the Council's true message. He is, after all, the Pope, and he participated in the Council himself. Who is better qualified to understand it than he?

Yes, an argument can be made that the "essentials" of the Faith haven't changed; but it's an increasingly strained argument. The authors call this position "neo-Catholic," impugning neither the orthodoxy nor the piety of those who hold it. The position, unfortunately, requires that the Pope be defended at every turn, that even his casual and personal utterances be treated as authoritative [if not virtually infallible] declarations, that every racking change in the Church, so long as it is properly authorized, be regarded as part of Catholic tradition.

If liturgical forms are so inessential, the authors ask, why not dispense with them altogether? The priest could simply consecrate the bread and wine, pass them out, and send everyone home. Obviously the Church has always attached great gravity to the rites, through which most Catholics have their most intimate contact with God on this earth. It is vital that the rites feel holy, and it is very hard for any novelty to seem holy.

Yet the Council's defenders, including the Pope himself, have had to keep repeating that it did not represent "a rupture with the past". As the authors say, "It is remarkable that a Pope would even have to make such protestations about an ecumenical council." Never before has a council's continuity with Catholic Tradition been in question. Avery Cardinal Dulles has even tried to show that the Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom is compatible with Pius IX'sSyllabus of Errors.

The neo-Catholic is, or tries to be, by his lights, an obedient son of the Church, and he wants to believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit at every step. But according to Catholic teaching itself, God protects the Church from error, not necessarily from imprudence or outright folly. The authors contend that Vatican II committed no substantive errors, but much folly. And it urgently needs to be corrected.

With many citations, the authors show that many earlier Popes have condemned many of the very things the post-conciliar Church has adopted. In particular, those Popes condemned liturgical innovations and ecumenical "dialogue" with heretics and unbelievers. They were suspicious of innovation in general. "Far, far from our priests be the love of novelty!" said Pope St. Pius X. But a liturgy formed by centuries of gradual change was abruptly traded in for a new model, and further local innovations have proved impossible to stop. As the authors remark, any Pope before 1960 would be utterly horrified by the Mass as celebrated today. Of all the changes, the one that disturbs me most-----it still shocks and horrifies me-----is the change in the mode of distributing Communion. The old altar rail at which we knelt in awe and humility has been torn out. Instead, the communicants stand, taking the Body of Christ in their hands almost as if it were a snack. To me this will always seem sacrilegious.

And real sacrilege is common. At an outdoor papal Mass in Des Moines, one witness recalls that Hosts were passed through the crowd in cardboard boxes: "A group of Hell's Angels helped themselves to Holy Communion. I saw them washing down the Body of Christ with cans of beer." And this was a papal Mass. But discipline is not altogether defunct: the post-Conciliar Church has cracked down hard on the traditionalists who want to restore the Tridentine Mass, while even the most extreme liberals haven't suffered excommunication. Many bishops are openly hostile to the old Latin Mass.

John Paul II has hailed the recent reorientation of the Church as "an utterly new way, quite unknown previously, thanks to the Second Vatican Council". But is it really desirable for the Church to embrace the "utterly new"? These words have never been a recommendation to Catholics before. Even such important doctrines as the Immaculate Conception, papal infallibility, and the Assumption, were in the air for centuries before they were made binding dogmas.

As John Henry Newman wrote, one sign of a genuine development, as opposed to a corruption, is that it emerges gradually and naturally from all that has gone before. It can't be entirely unexpected, or "utterly new". The difference between a development and a corruption is roughly the difference between growing a beard and growing a tumor.

But Vatican II took everyone by surprise. Liberals, heretics, and outright enemies of the Church were delighted, even though they had hoped for even more radical change. In Why I Am a Catholic [published by Houghton Mifflin], Garry Wills writes scathingly of the Church throughout history; he urges the abolition of the priesthood and denies transubstantiation in the Mass; but he has only praise for Vatican II-----and its results.

Liberal enthusiasm for the Council, even more than the [too few!] conservative qualms, should have been a warning. Looking back, it seems obvious-----to me, at least-----that the Council was conceived and conducted in the heady optimism of the early Sixties. This mood affected, or infected, even the Church's hierarchy. The reforms came without the caveats and restraints that, as we see now only too well, should have accompanied them if they were to be adopted at all. Does anyone still believe in the ecumenical movement that was one of the Council's great hopes? Like the Great Society, it now seems an old dream from which we have sadly awakened, amid much ruin. The Pope and other Catholic spokesmen still struggle to explain that the work of the Council was good, despite the wreckage of "reform". If all that wreckage was due to "abuses," then at least very strong precautions should have been taken against abuse. The Council should have warned us most sternly that misapplications of its reforms might produce such evil that it would have been better if the Council had never been convened at all: massive defections from the Church, weakened faith, immorality, sacrilege, confusion, and, above all, the damnation of countless souls.

And as soon as these results began to appear, the Church should have moved, with all its might and energy, to counteract them immediately-----even if tha meant reversing the Council's reforms. Yet there were no such precautions, warnings, or counteractions. Apart from a few papal encyclicals, the Church's hierarchy have acted oblivious to the confusion within the Church and to the sexual revolution in the entire Western world. This isn't merely a Catholic concern. With the decline of the Catholic Church, the West as a whole has lost its moral center of gravity. There s no longer a huge, adamantine conservative institution to exert the restraining influence the Church once did. Before the Council, nobody in American public life dared to advocate abortion, and even in private life people were ashamed of fornication and contraception. Since the Council, madly centrifugal forces have prevailed everywhere. No wonder many people feel that Satan is at the wheel.

Even the verbal style of official Church pronouncements has changed. The pre-Conciliar Church spoke in the language of Aquinas, definite and defining; the post-Conciliar Church speaks in a Hegelian idiom of flux, in which nothing is yet complete, no tradition is fixed, and nobody is quite a pagan or heretic. Not only are the Council's own statements often ambiguous; they have created confusion about the status of the Church's older teachings, with which they sit uneasily. Many Catholics have the impression that those old teachings have been superseded-----or that they may be discarded in the future. Nothing could be more unsettling to Catholics' faith than this uncertainty about the permanence of all Church teaching.

The Council's own teachings, insofar as they are new, are rather ambiguous, and Catholics no doubt may safely ignore most of them. But conservative Catholics are loath to do so, while liberals enthusiastically embrace the Council, even as they reject or minimize earlier teachings. Never has such confusion reigned in the Catholic Church.

A few years ago, in San Francisco, I was struck by an arresting yet fittingly symbolic contrast. I passed the new Catholic cathedral, an ugly monstrosity of modern architecture, with no hint of piety or holiness about it. Down the street was a small Unitarian church-----a humble stone building in the quaint Protestant style, but at least it looked like a place where someone might pray. The Unitarian joint was trying to pass for a church, while the Catholic joint was trying not to. How perfect. John Paul II, now sadly aging and frail, will be remembered as one of the towering figures of the 20th Century. His is a powerful, magnetic, inspiring personality. His life has spanned Nazi and Communist tyranny in his native Poland, the Second Vatican Council, upheaval in the Church, and of course a unique-----one might almost say utterly new-----papacy. His elevation to the Chair of Peter in 1978 brought to conservative Catholics the kind of rapturous hope the Council brought to liberals. They hoped and expected that he would end the post-Conciliar abuses, excesses, and scandals in the Church and restore the magnificent dignity and order of traditional Catholicism.

But it hasn't happened. During his long and exciting papacy, the state of the Church has only gotten worse. Since 1965, when the Council ended, faithful Catholics have become inured to horrors: With each new scandal their reaction is "Oh no-----what next?" For Catholics this has practically become a way of life. As I write these words, Cardinal Law has been forced to resign as Archbishop of Boston because of the still-unfolding homosexual and pedophile scandals. Does John Paul himself bear any responsibility for his derelict and corrupt bishops? The question has become unavoidable.

The Pope's defenders speak as if it were unthinkable to blame the Pope at all, even after a reign of nearly a quarter of a century. His authorized biographer, George Weigel, predicts that he will be remembered as John Paul the Great. This is an understandable tribute to a man whose combined courage and charm inspire respect, affection, and even adulation around the world. But is the title really deserved?

With all due respect to the Holy Father, I think not. I can only see his papacy as a great tragedy. Like many tragic figures, the Pope has meant well. But his reigning passion has been to salvage the work of the disastrous Council in which he played an important role. He has tried, by the sheer force of his personal charisma, to reconcile the ancient Faith with the Council's novelties-----especially liturgical "reform" and "ecumenical dialogue," both of which have proved worse than fruitless. The new liturgy has weakened, not strengthened, the faith of ordinary Catholics; efforts at reconciliation with unbelievers have produced only momentary goodwill, followed by outrage and new demands for capitulation.

Particularly incongruous have been the Pope's apologies for the Church's historic conduct toward Protestants, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and even Muslims. Can even a Pope "repent" for other people's putative sins? Doesn't such "repentance" amount to an accusation against his predecessors, who can't defend themselves from the grave? Is this not presumptuous and unseemly? And, most important, doesn't it clearly have the effect of convincing the Church's enemies and detractors that they have been right all along-----even if they give this Pope "credit" for admitting it? What other effect could it have? Has John Paul really thought he was converting souls by this approach? It has certainly never been the approach of any previous Pope; perhaps for good and obvious reason. Yet this Pope clings stubbornly to the ecumenical optimism of the Sixties.

This ecumenism has gone to bizarre and appalling lengths with respect to the Chinese puppet Church, the openly schismatic Catholic Patriotic Association, founded under Mao Zedong in 1957 and vigorously condemned by Pius XII, who called its illicit consecration of bishops "criminal and sacrilegious". This pseudo-Catholic body expressly disavows loyalty to Rome and supports the State's policy of forcing women to undergo abortions. Meanwhile, Catholics loyal to Rome have been fiercely persecuted and forced underground. And Rome's response? Since the Council it has courted the State "Church," seeking "rapprochement"! It professes vague concern for the persecuted Catholics, while treating the Communist puppets as true Catholics too. This ecumenical spirit has not been reciprocated. When the Pope canonized 120 Chinese Martyrs in the year 2000; the Patriotic "bishops" angrily denounced him.

Loyal Catholics who want to believe that the Pope can do no wrong should observe that this Pope has told the world that his predecessors have done many great wrongs. And if that is true of previous Popes, it may also be true of this one. In spite of his own piety and good intentions, shared, perhaps, with those previous Popes, he may be inflicting grave objective harm, both on the Church and on the world she is ordered to convert. Nothing in Catholic doctrine forbids Catholics to make such a judgment, though they should of course do so only with hesitation, respect, and charity. In principle, we can all sin and err-----even priests, bishops, and Popes. And we have recently had plenty of reminders that this is more than an abstract possibility.

But what about the Second Vatican Council? Should it simply be discarded? Ferrara and Woods argue that it should. They point to another disastrous council-----the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. Called to reconcile Monophysites to the Church, it produced such muddled compromises that it merely aggravated the divisions that already existed. It promulgated no positive doctrine, and therefore no error, but it was quickly recognized as a blunder, and its decisions were allowed to lapse. The same could be done with Vatican II. Or might have been done; the question is whether the changes the Council wrought are so embedded by now that they are practically beyond reversal. The job might take more than a Pope; it might require a new council, for openers, followed by a long period of genuine reform and return to pre-Conciliar ways.

The authors also offer a hopeful sign which may serve as a model for the recovery of the Church. A traditionalist order of priests, the Society of St. John Vianney in Campos, Brazil, now works and thrives independently of the local bishop. It even has its own bishop. Though the order was formed without papal authorization, it has received the Pope's permission to carry on. Minor differences with Rome have been quietly reconciled. 1

The Pope's defenders, God bless them, remind me somewhat of those political conservatives who deplore the condition of the U.S. Government, while loyally exempting Ronald Reagan from any blame. Surely this is as unreasonable in the one case as in the other, though understandable in both. Reagan, unlike John Paul II, came to power without a burning hope of bettering the world; but he too had great personal and symbolic appeal to people who did remember, and hoped to restore, a better world. And in both cases their most ardent followers were left disappointed. But Reagan's failure lacked the grandeur of tragedy. In that respect, he too, differs from John Paul II.

Editor's Footnote: 1 - It is still too early to ascertain whether this "reconciliation" will be beneficial or detrimental. There are many reasons to be wary. For example, Vatican theologian, Father George Cottier stated that he looks forward to the day when Society of Saint John Vianney members will "concelebrate" in the New Rite. (JV)

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