“We cannot be sure whether Eric’s theological position is typical of a liberal or a radical Protestantism. But as an exercise in loyal dissent it moves beyond the limits of orthodox Catholicism…”
To pell is to pelt; to knock about, is what mell is to beat with a mallet; to hammer… And yesterday Cardinal Pell hammered retired Australian priest Eric Hodgens and his unorthodox ethos of Vatican II, a spirit responsible for much of the difficulties and challenges the Catholic Church faces in the world today.
The brouhaha down under began with Hodgens bitter critique of the Church [Time to speak – and act] followed with Pell’s sharp rebuttal [Some Gaudium and No Spes] The Swag… Both exchanges follow in full:
Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne priest ordained in 1960. He has had parish appointments for all of his ministerial years except for two years of full-time study at Melbourne University. He was Director of Pastoral Formation for Priests in Melbourne for seven years while setting up a new parish. Eric has the most extensive set of statistics on secular priests in Australia and writes occasionally on Catholic and other matters. Further articles can be viewed on his blog www.catholicview.typepad.com
Time to speak – and act
A large section of Catholic priests are at odds with the public stance of the Church. The issues which disturb them include:
- the displacement of the main game of spreading a message of life, hope, compassion and forgiveness by overstressing, moral issues;
- foreclosing on moral issues which need revisiting – eg contraception, IVF, divorce, homosexuality;
- World Youth Days which feed the personality cult of the pope to the detriment of the local church and which have not reversed the flow of youth from the Church;
- the autocratic, non-consultative management style of many bishops – themselves unsuitable and unwanted and appointed without consultation;
- the promotion of reactionary, authoritarian and fundamentalist movements such as Opus Dei, Legionaries of Christ, Heralds of the Gospel, Communione e Liberatione as real, effective responses to the challenge of faith in a secular world;
- the non-consultative and politically motivated superimposition of a new, defective translation of the liturgy. This one has the potential of sparking a people-power revolt as a growing parade of liturgical experts list the bad policy and the abuses still being perpetrated under its banner;
- The discomfort these priests feel ranges from embarrassment to outright disagreement.
Yet, we priests do not speak up much. Why?
We were trained not to speak up. In our earlier years we were afraid to speak up because the bishop was too awesome a figure. The rank gradient was steep. Remember “My Lord”. Remember genuflecting and kissing the ring. And bishops learned the trick of controlling the pack by showing anger or displeasure at the first sign of disagreement.
We were also trained to put the Church institution first. Rocking the boat in public was disloyalty and self-aggrandisement.
More recently priests worked out that it was useless to talk up anyway. Bishops generally were impervious to criticism, especially on issues of Roman policy.
The Diocesan Council of Priests became a waste of time in most dioceses. So, why waste your psychological energy? Just go back to your parish and do your own thing.
Finally, there was always the promise of obedience which imitated the antique oath of fealty to the liege lord. “Do you promise obedience and respect to me and my successors?” Priests took this literally and seriously.
This policy will no longer do. It is time to speak up and to act. The matter is urgent. Why?
The church in Australia and the west is in serious trouble. Church-loving laity know it, priests know it. The symptoms are clear: a drought of priests, dropping Mass attendance, the loss of the younger generation and a walking away from membership by the worn down hard core.
So, what is the cause and what response is needed?
In Europe and its offspring, membership of the Church was overwhelmingly a matter of inheritance. The baby was christened and all presumed that it would stay a Church member for life. Most European states had an established religion. They were confessional states. Even after the arrival of the secular states the denominational sub-groups remained relatively large and strong. Christian identity remained confessional – ie I belong to this church, believe what it believes and practice religion the way it does. Membership qualifications were clear and the group’s boundaries were clearly defined.
Two rules of membership provided continued existence. Firstly, you christened your children and inculturated them into the group. Secondly, there was strong group pressure not to defect.
Since World War II the social cohesion of religious groups has weakened leaving christened members freer to think and act for themselves. A lot of this is due to a massive expansion of knowledge — scientific, psychological, sociological, historical, critical. Combined with a massive expansion of education, the result is much more freedom of thought. In this new environment long assumed facts have been turned upside down. So many accepted beliefs and practices are seen as dated and irrelevant. Bemoaning the scene is no help. We must revisit the core message of the Church and re-work the way we present it in the light of the new knowledge in this new social context. One term used to describe this process is recontextualization.
Rome lays the blame on secularism and relativism and calls for a new evangelization. John Paul II started this call. Benedict has followed it up by establishing the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. The problem with this is that there is no intention to review the articulation of faith and moral teaching, nor an intention to try out new approaches to liturgy, nor to experiment in inculturation. Look at the favoured new movements, the new translation of the missal, the catechesis offered at World Youth Days – all reasserting the old model which is not working.
The foreclosed answer is reconfessionalisation, not the recontextualization needed Recontextualization entails accepting, even welcoming, secular and pluralistic culture. We rearticulate our core faith so that it makes sense in that context.
We rearticulate our concept and imagery of God so that God is the unseen, transcendent core of being rather than the string puller and button pusher of a puppet world. Jesus becomes the face and voice of the unseen God and the channel of God’s faithfulness and love. Salvation is the hope that we can justifiably hold on to in the face of death – a hope reassured by our faith in Jesus risen.
The recontextualized articulation of the central message of Christian salvation is well under way. Scripture scholars like Ray Brown, Joe Fitzmyer, John Meier and Eugene La Verdiere have shown us how faith develops and its articulation grows. As Jesus became larger than life in the belief of the early Christian communities they told larger than life stories. Under their guidance the scriptures make sense.
Karen Armstrong has lucidly shown the distinction between logical and mythological discourse. If you want to have meaningful faith conversation in the modern world you must understand the power and meaning of myth.
Theologians like Roger Lenaers and Roger Haight rearticulate the core of Christian theology in a way which is credible in the modern world. Michael Morwood and Philip Kennedy have done a fine job of popularizing this recontextualized theology. But their efforts are not appreciated by Rome. Haight has been silenced. Tissa Balasurya and Jaques Dupuis were both pursued by the CDF for recontextualizing Christian faith in the face of religious pluralism.
The Catholic Church had a great chance to meet this challenge at the start of the 20’h century. The response was Pius X’s campaign against modernism with mind-numbing results. We were not alone. At about the same time the US protestants answered the challenge with their fundamentalist tracts. We got another chance with Vatican II and Gaudium et Spes. The non-converted curial remnant got busy and won the post-conciliar battle especially under John Paul II. Gaudium et Spes was dismantled. The result is our unpreparedness for the current collapse. It is now the 11th hour. The matter is urgent.
It is precisely because so many priests have taken steps along this econtextualizing path that they are in disagreement with Roman policy as it recycles the old confessional model. Many priests have already very thoughtfully modified their pastoral practice. They are already recontextualizing their own faith journey. They have replaced the simplistic faith of their youth with a more fluid faith borne out of experience, more mature and reflective appreciation of the scriptures and a more vital, dynamic theology.
Our promise of loyalty was made to the Church in the person of the bishop. If the bishop is wrong, a loyal priest speaks up. In the light of relentless alienating Roman policy, made acutely specific in the current imposition of the defective translation of the liturgy, we have the responsibility not only to speak up but to act.
Cardinal Pell responds:
Some Gaudium and No Spes
By George Cardinal Pell
Father Eric Hodgens’ piece on the Gaudium et Spes priests gives us plenty of food for thought. It is well written and provocative, as you would expect of a priest who described his own cohort as possessing “the biggest proportion of intelligent, educated and competent leaders”. But it is unbalanced, misguided, selective and sometimes inaccurate.
Recently I have been concerned by the theological extremism of some Swag contributions, and am grateful for the opportunity to state the case for the orthodox mainstream. I am not ordering anyone to “withdraw to the fortress and sing the old song”, but my best lines are still from the New Testament with its ancient truths and melodies.
Eric sees himself now as “a presbyter called and ordained by the Church – the People of God” rather than as “a priest called and consecrated by God”. It is difficult to know exactly what this means, but it might point us to a number of fundamental issues.
More cards have been laid on the table than in Father Hodgens’ earlier writings. While it would be interesting to know whether he still has any jokers up his sleeve, it is more important to recognize that many of the cards cannot be identified accurately. We do not know, for example, his answers to the nine questions he lists. We do not know the limits to his hostility to some ancient devotions such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and veneration of Our Lady. We do not know whether his opposition to the papacy and episcopate touches these institutions themselves or simply the style of recent incumbents. So too with priesthood and traditional Christian teaching on marriage, divorce and sexuality.
We cannot be sure whether Eric’s theological position is typical of a liberal or a radical Protestantism. But as an exercise in loyal dissent it moves beyond the limits of orthodox Catholicism.
Let me attempt to state the issue in the most basic terms.
We find no evidence in Eric’s article that the Catholic Church is the recipient of divine revelation, “God’s message not some human thinking” (1 Thess 2.13); nor that the Catholic Church was founded by the Son of God “the Word who was with God . . . the Word who was God” (Jn 1.1), Jesus the Christ, the son of Mary with a divine as well as a human nature. If Christ is divine, New Testament teachings have a unique authority.
Eric writes with the genuine anguish of most of us older Catholics who grew up at an unusually high tide of faith and practice and lived through the radical decline which followed the social revolution of the 1960s in the First World. But some of the damage was self-inflicted.
One major point of difference is that in my view Eric’s prescriptions are a significant cause of our problems. His solutions were put into practice after the Council, to some degree in Australia, but especially in Belgium, Holland and French-speaking Canada. They emptied the Churches there.
Pope Paul VI appointed no bishops who were opposed to the ethos of Vatican II, and for various reasons the good bishops appointed in Holland were overwhelmed, tossed aside by the liberal gales. This brings me to another contemporary fact, which I never anticipated as a young seminarian in Rome during the Council or as a young priest. The now aged liberal wing of the Church, which dominated discussion after the Council and often the bishops and the emerging Church bureaucracies, has no following among young practising Catholics, priests or religious. This is not only true in Australia, but everywhere in the Western world. In these different countries dominated by a secular media and intelligentsia, liberalism has no young Catholic progeny.
On reflection we should not find this surprising, as growth is tied to Gospel fidelity, to faith, love and sacrifice. After Vatican II many of us overestimated our cultural strengths and underestimated the virulence of anti-Christian forces. You need strong Christian foundations to participate productively in “open dialogue”. Without these roots the end of the road is agnosticism.
I should conclude with a few words in defence of the four popes who were mauled, especially Paul, John Paul II and Benedict. Incidentally it is a matter of historical record that at the 1971 Synod of Bishops, Pope Paul offered to the bishops the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood and the bishops declined to accept this.
All three popes were prolific writers, while John Paul II and Benedict were professional academics with a record of scholarly and popular publications rarely if ever equalled by any Australian priest. I believe Pope Benedict is now our most distinguished living theologian.
The charges against the Holy Father do not amount to too much e.g. instituting a special year to honour priests (which was well received by priests and people), continuing with a new translation of the Roman Missal, and encouraging the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated. He did not receive back the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, but only lifted their excommunication. They are still in schism.
Pope John Paul provokes a special hostility, allegedly an abuser of power, out of touch in scripture, limited in theology, a bad listener. It is a surprise that anyone came to his funeral. In particular he is denounced for emasculating the leadership of the Church, who are clerical and compliant, “low on creativity, leadership, education and even intelligence”.
In an astonishing example of provincial arrogance, Hodgens claims that “the more intelligent and better educated” bishops (only “some” to be sure) are corrupt and have sold their soul for advancement. Me thinks he protests too much.
Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict were not hostile to intelligence, education or competence, but they have striven regularly to appoint bishops who will defend the apostolic tradition and strive to implement policies which will strengthen the Catholic position, not white-ant it.
Hodgens’ misunderstanding of the magisterium is typical of his position. The magisterium refers primarily to the teaching authority of the pope together with the bishops (Vatican II’s collegiality). The baptised faithful share in this and so do the theologians with priests and religious.
Certainly the teaching authority of the bishops was recognized early by St. Ignatius of Antioch (+107 A.D.) and St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (+200 A.D.) with his apostolic succession lists of bishops to defend the apostolic tradition. The ancient teaching chair of the bishop exemplifies this, predating by many centuries any groups of professional theologians in the medieval universities. In Pope John Paul’s 27 years of pontificate 24 individuals were disciplined for their theological views, including eight who were silenced or removed, in the worldwide Catholic community of more than one billion believers. Father Hodgens himself escaped any reign of terror and so did many hundreds of dissidents.
Eric is a bit too generous to his generation, to which I belong. Many were formidable, but we coincided with a period of decline probably unparalleled since the Reformation.
“Reflections on an ordination golden anniversary” is thought provoking. I am glad Father Hodgens has enjoyed his years of priesthood. Unfortunately much of the analysis is mistaken since his solutions, to the extent we can identify them, are less than Catholic and would make a difficult situation worse.
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