If the Catholic Church has given the impression that it is opposed to the modern world, that would be because for much of the last two centuries, it has been; it has been on the defensive for much longer than that – certainly since the Reformation. When one is under attack, being on the defensive is natural enough; when one is also the guardian of a rich and ancient heritage, defending it takes on an air of heroism. Indeed, one reason that self-styled traditionalist Catholics have a problem with things like the Novus Ordo mass and Popes like Francis, is that to them these seem betrayals of what so many died to defend. Such feeling are, it seems to me, natural. But to go from that sorrow to a denuncation of the ‘Vatican II Church’, as some have, is to go several bridges too far. The Church is not an end in itself; no form of liturgy is the ‘right’ one; no form of clerical dress or of orientation in terms of the altar is the single ‘right one’. All of these are cultural artefacts. That, for some of us, the culture that produced them was a richer and deeper one, spiritually, than our own, should not blind us to the fact that all of them are means to an end – the worship of God and the salvation of souls: the Church has no other purposes. It is not a branch of the social work industry, or a counselling service – or of the heritage industry either. It is the barque of St Peter as Noah’s ark.
St Peter did not, as far as we know, stand at any altar and face in any direction, and the same is true of St Paul. If you ask me whether the ancient liturgical practices express the majesty of what it is to worship God better than the modern ones, I am with you; if you ask me to denounce the modern ones sanctioned by the Church as ‘abominations’, I cannot be with you. I do not like them. I may well, privately, deplore their banality and lack of beauty, but I will not publicly denounce them; they are authorised by the Church, and I know whom it is I meet at the Eucharist – and that is all in all to me. To be pulled away from that by my feelings about forms of worship is, I consider, to allow satan to tempt me away from where my heart and mind should be.
There is much in the world to deplore – as Christ always said there was and would be until he came again. It is easy, and right, to condemn socially liberal morality from a Catholic point of view, and equally easy to forget how hard it is to reconcile Catholic social teaching with modern capitalism; we all cherry-pick. I don’t find the mindset behind the ideas Cardinal Kasper and his friends are advancing for the forthcoming Synod on the family palatable, or, in Catholic terms, convincing; but to deny them the right to say it by imputing heresy, seems to my way of thinking equally undesirable. When the Church has proceeded by closing down points of view with which it disgrees rather than arguig them out, if has seldom ended well. It was better to spend the best part of a century and a half thrashing out the Christological issues raised by Arius and Nicaea, than it was to close them down by force after Chalcedon in 451; the first method certainly caused unrest and unhappiness; the second caused a schism.
Conservative opinion at Nicaea and Chalcedon did not like some of the Christological terminology employed by those such as Athanasius and Pope Leo. They rightly pointed out that the word ‘homoousios’ was found nowhere in Scripture, and they protested this novelty, this innovation, as they saw it, as a departure from the norms of the Church. The Father, Arius argued, ‘begot the Son’ – it said it, there in Scripture, any fool could see it in Proverbs 8:22. But Athanasius argued, as did the majority at Nicaea, that that was to misread Scripture and to ignore the fact that there was no reading of how our salvation was wrought that was consonant with the idea that Christ assumed our flesh and was made man – but remained fully God. If this reading was correct, it required expressing in language not previously used. It took two centuries and a schism before this was accepted by most of the Church. And there is the point – it is the Church which decides, it decides after full, and often strenuous debate. No doubt many felt very uncomfortable during that period, but they followed, as best they could, the teaching of the Church. Those who could not accept it, accused the majority of being heretics and said they were the true Church – thus setting a trend which has continued to this day.
Neither the new nor the old are necessarily right, and there is something to be said for both. That is why the Church has a teaching Magisterium. if we elect to ignore it we are not the Church, even if we proudly suppose we are. The Church is where it always has been – founded on the rock of St Peter. We have no new revelation – where else shall we go Lord, you have the word of life?