A noted theologian of my acquaintance, on hearing the news the other day of the Pope’s crackdown on dissenting theologians (he is himself a fairly notorious example of the breed), fairly exploded with rage, pouncing in particular on a sentence in Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary reaffirming the invalidity of Anglican Orders as yet another instance of “Vatican intolerance.”
“Doesn’t he realize the crass insensitivity of saying that on the eve practically of a world-wide Anglican Synod of bishops?”
Come to think of it, I don’t suppose that Cardinal Ratzinger had sufficiently taken their feelings into account when sitting down to write his commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem (“To Defend the Faith”). Would he not have shown greater tolerance, I wonder, by simply keeping silent, muting as it were our differences? In a society where not infrequently the most taxing moment of the days turns on the choice between paper and plastic at the local supermarket, it must be something of a stretch having to make up one’s mind about anything. God, for instance. Or His Church. What a taffy pull those must be!
To believe or not to believe...who can stand it? It sounds so, well, final. Perhaps that is why so many of us have fallen prey to the tyranny of passing fashion, to sudden centripetal seizures of political correctness. What are we afraid of? That an idiosyncratic streak will betray us to the nearest thought police? Is that why we remain so eager to conform, signing on with every shibboleth the culture parades before us, from reproductive freedom in the womb to death with dignity for the tomb? “Progress might have been all right once,” wisely observed Ogden Nash, “but it’s gone on too long.”
How dangerously fetishistic we have become on the subject of tolerance! Mind you, this is not the sort of tolerance that once enjoined a man to suffer what he could not change. The image of the long suffering wife comes to mind, constrained to bear the indignities of a faithless husband because of a promise made long ago to burn one’s bridges. And, until very recently, that pretty much conveyed the sense of it. Being tolerant meant a willingness to steel one’s nerve in situations characterized by an incapacity to overcome evil or suffering. The act of enduring what could not be helped was typically the usage given the term in all standard dictionaries of the language. Now that the problems of marriage can so easily be taken care of by no-fault divorce, the word itself has undergone strange permutations. In fact the current definition enshrines the very opposite of what it used to mean. A look at almost any dictionary these days tells one that to be tolerant means an attitude shorn of bigotry, or any lack of permissiveness towards people whose opinions or practices differ from one’s own. Cannibalism? Call it an eating disorder if you must, but for heaven’s sake do not show your intolerance by saying so in public.
In other words, practicing tolerance under the new dispensation allows one positively to revel in the rejection of any number of core convictions which once proved so pesky, so downright burdensome to uphold in the past. How very convenient. What could be simpler than never having to appear too openly disapproving of sin, one’s own especially? As moral universes go, this one looks about as tight as a tick. The syllogism goes like this: attitudes of uptightness invariably lead to judgmentalism, which can cramp the style of a free and pluralistic people; therefore, we have to become more accepting of aberrant behavior, our own included. Only then may we all rejoice—-guilt-free at last!—-about things our benighted ancestors would, in their Victorian quaintness, have found utterly abhorrent, i.e. intolerable. For instances? Well, things like killing defenseless babies in the womb. (Or, for that matter, waiting until birth to snuff them out, then back to the Senior Prom to dance the night away.) Bland approval of buggery between consenting adults. Horrific violence and fornication on film. Soft porn on TV. Blasphemy every where. The list extends, alas, as far as the evidence of sin itself.
By today’s unbuttoned standards these have all become simple life-style issues, subject therefore to taste not truth. Whether your neighbor sleeps with his own wife, or covets yours, is no longer morally interesting. What is really important is the fact that the three of you are able to sit down and work things out like mature and caring adults. Have you got that? Again, the issue here is choice, no greater good than which can be imagined, especially where it concerns my pleasure.
But beware the mindless bigot! His kind must not be allowed to impose its uniformities of belief and behavior on the rest of us. Here marks the limit of our society’s tolerance: it may not extend as far as the committed Christian. Indeed, in a world where, more and more, tolerance has come to mean the practice of people who do not believe in anything, the virtue of those who scorn virtue, what is to be done with the so-called enemies of tolerance? They must be stigmatized, scapegoated by a society the very oppressions of whose tolerance now forbid its exercise on behalf of any who would limit our liberty to say or do what we please.
And so we are no longer surprised, for instance, to see The New York Times rush to defend award-winning playwright Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi,” a thoroughly squalid and despicable story in which a Christ-like protagonist regularly sodomizes his twelve apostles, declaring before Pilate that he is “king of the queers.” To celebrate that particular icon of literary expression, never mind the repulsiveness of its premise, it has now become necessary to ridicule and discredit Christians offended by it. How otherwise, our taste makers argue, are we to encourage the young Tolstoys in our midst?
And we all know, don’t we, who the real enemies of modern freedom are, the chief obstacle in a word to the triumph of the unfettered self? That’s right: The Roman Catholic Church. How else does one account for the current campaign to vilify and destroy the one surviving institution of real dogmatic Christianity in this world? The culture cops are certainly not in hot pursuit of Unitarians, that featherbed of falling Chris tianity, as Santayana once put it. If what stands in the way of total relapse into barbarism is that bulwark of faith represented by Catholic Christianity, then it follows that the cultured despisers of religion have got to go after Rome. The only The Church in the world, said the late Lenny Bruce. It means targeting men like Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. It means going af ter bishops and priests in communion with them, the so-called running dogs of Romanism. It may even mean you, dear reader. Tell me, do you take as your point of reference an allegiance to the teachings of the Catholic Church, joined to an ardent and filial love for the Holy Father? Then there is no doubt but that great numbers of people, many of them fellow Catholics, will find you wholly mystifying and, more to the point, menacing to know.
But isn’t that finally the point? Be ware lest the world not persecute you! I mean, what does it matter my being a member of Christ’s Body if the fact itself does not reach into all that I am and do? If the faith itself has no point, no sharp edges to cut and tear with? A Church unable to make up its own mind about anything, unwilling to offend anybody, is already dead. A dead branch haplessly afloat at sea is not something a drowning man is likely to find in a gale force wind.
Here, I think, a bit of history may be helpful to know. From the beginning, even before the word Christian was applied to that which Christ came to establish, the faith of those who followed Jesus was called simply “the way.” The phrase may be found at least a half-dozen times in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Paul, for example, in his speech to the Jews (Acts 22:7-21), admits that “I persecuted this way.” If people spoke of Christ’s followers in just this way, they must have understood that having faith implied a way of living, of disporting oneself morally in a world not exactly distinguished for its high moral tone. In other words, faith was not a theory; belief in Jesus Christ did not incline one to a set of abstractions but to a way, a moral style, a praxis. How completely at variance it was to the surrounding pagan world, too. In point of fact, it was the very distinctiveness of their moral lives, the joy engendered by their faith, that so astonished the emperors determined on killing them. Of course the witness of such sanctity would shortly overcome the world, ushering in forms of Christian culture lasting a thousand years. If Christianity can no longer inspire ideals of lofty human endeavor, if its faith no longer defines a common way of living but instead drifts off into trails of vaporous vapidity, then it has ceased to be Christian in any recognizable way and we’d be well advised to leave it alone.
All this came to mind, as I say, on hearing the news of the Pope’s recent crackdown on chuckleheaded theologians, of which there are more examples than you can shake a Summa at. It is all very plainly set out in three pages of magisterial Latin entitled Ad Tuendam Fidem, where, by heaven, it looks as if he’s finally lowered the boom on these guys. Not to put too fine a point on it, what the Pope has done is more than simply draw limits on permissible dissent, especially among theologians whose travesties of the true faith have for too long been tolerated by supine Church men (while the larger culture heralded their innovative contributions). But to enforce those limits with precise canonical sanctions could well result in removing not a few highly placed theologians from their sinecures. “Those who dedicate themselves to the discipline of holy theology,” the Pope is saying in effect, not only have an obligation to conform to the truths of the Catholic Church, but their failure to do so will almost certainly result in their exclusion from that Church. Be Catholic, or face the consequences, seems to be the stern message here.
At long last, it would appear, Article 25 of Lumen gentium is to be given that canonical force of law without which it has remained so ineffectual over the years. It is not enough, the Pope is saying, merely to exhort the faithful to that “religious assent of mind and will” concerning the teachings of the Church; it is necessary as well that they be enjoined to observe their authoritative status. Thanks to the additions the Pope has made to the Code of Canon Law, those teachings “definitively proposed by the magisterium of the Church regarding faith and morals,” even if not expressly revealed by Almighty God, “must nevertheless be firmly accepted and held.” The maintenance of such teaching is “required in order piously to safeguard and faithfully expound the deposit of the faith.” Thus, the Church’s constant teaching against the evils of abortion and euthanasia, her prohibition against the ordination of women, invite the same level of assent as would, for instance, the twelve articles of faith found in the Creed. As Cardinal Ratzinger points out in the commentary that accompanies the Pope’s letter, the distinction is very clear: on the one hand, there is the truth revealed by God’s Word itself, whether in Scripture or Tradition, which the Church infallibly proposes because it is “based directly on faith in the authority of the Word of God.” That God is both One and Three, or that Jesus Christ is both divine and human, are examples of truth directly rooted in the revelational deposit itself, which it is the duty of holy Church solemnly to define. On the other hand, however, the fact that the Primacy of Peter belongs to Rome, or that a male-only priesthood is allowed, or that contraception is founded upon a lie, these are truths “based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the magisterium in these matters.” Definitive, yes, but only in virtue of that prior deposit which is God’s very Word.
What a great beginning this is to that necessary, if unfinished, work of restoring the integrity of Catholic Christian belief, the survival no less of Christ’s Church. The Pope is telling us all, but especially those of learned and longstanding contempt for the Catholic Thing, that the jig is finally up. My way—-he who is Christ’s Vicar is saying—-or the highway.
Dr. Martin is professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.