Converts to a communion may often display a zeal that old-timers find off-putting. In Reformed circles, we have the phrase “cage phase” to denote the over zealous and new Calvinist who expects every Reformed pastor to sound like Calvin and every congregation to be as rigorous the New England Puritans.
It turns out that Roman Catholics have their own problems with converts. One instance, largely forgotten (perhaps another indication of Vatican II’s epoch-making shift) was the exchange between Orestes Brownson and John Henry Newman. Both were converts, but Brownson, admired by some contemporary conservatives, was not impressed by Newman’s theory of development of doctrine. In fact, Brownson believed it would kill Roman Catholicism (which makes it odd that Jason and the Callers do not regard Brownson as the model convert). Here is a short sampling of what Brownson said about the idea of the development of doctrine:
. . . we could not accept Mr. Newman’s Essay, even ,if its theory were susceptible of a satisfactory explanation. It deserves to be excluded from every Catholic library for its unorthodox forms of expression, as scandalous, even if not as heretical, erroneous, or rash. Words are things, and used improperly by men of eminence, or with inexactitude, become the occasion of error and heresy in others. Not a few of the errors which have afflicted the Church have come in under shelter of loose or inexact expressions, which great and sometimes even saintly men have suffered to escape them. The vain, the restless, the proud, the disobedient, seize on them, ascribe to them a sense they will bear, but not the one intended by their authors, and lay the foundation for ” sects of perdition.” Sometimes even better men are deceived and misled, as we see in the case of Fenelon. One cannot be too careful to be exact in expression, or to guard against innovation in word as well as in thought, especially in this age, in which there is such a decided tendency to abandon the scholastic method for the rhetorical. The scandalous phraseology of the Essay is no charge against its author, writing when and where he did, but is a grave charge against the Essay itself.
Finally, we repeat, from our former article, that we object to the Theory of Developments the very fact that it is a theory. We see no call and no room for theories in the Catholic Church, — least of all, for theories concocted outside of her by men whose eyes are dim, and who have nothing but their own reason to work with. From the nature of the case, they are theories, not for the conversion of their authors, but for the conversion of the Church, — framed to bring her to them, not them to her. They can do no good, and may do much harm. It is natural for us to concoct them when out of the Church, for then we have, and can have, nothing but theories, and can do nothing but theorize ; but, if we are wise, we shall not attempt to bring them into the Church with us. The more empty-handed we come to the Church, the better ; and the more affectionately will she embrace us, and the more freely and liberally will she dispense to us her graces.
Lest anyone miss the implicit significance of this exchange for the future of Roman Catholicism and its conservative (or traditionalist) members, readers should know that some Roman Catholics believe that Newman prevailed and Brownson lost at Vatican II. Here is how one traditionalist puts it:
. . . Brownson foresaw the future danger should Newman’s theory become accepted in the Church. Unless his theory was renounced, Brownson affirmed, it would either ultimately lead Newman himself out of communion with the Church or, much worse, be wrongly absorbed into the Catholic Church (p. 1).
In fact, the latter happened. His “pioneer” work established the idea of the development of dogma as a principle later held by the Modernists. Taken up by the Progressivists, it was consecrated at Vatican II, invoked in both the Declaration of Religion Freedom and the Constitution on Revelation. (2)
Newman alleged he was simply showing that the Catholic Church of his time was in continuity with that of the Apostles and the Fathers. But Vatican II did what Brownson feared could happen – it used this ‘theory’ to justify new advances and actual shifts in doctrine, such as its teaching on religious freedom. Jesuit Avery Dulles singled out Newman as anticipating the thought of Karl Rahner “to the effect that every dogmatic proclamation is not only an end, but also a beginning.” (3)
Someone could object that this work was written when Newman was a Protestant, and, therefore, should be disregarded as irrelevant after Newman’s conversion to Catholicism. The objection would be pertinent if he had rejected its theories or buried it, as Brownson suggested. On the contrary, he offered the work to the public and continued to defend its thesis until the end of his life. Thus, the objection is invalid.
Most American Catholics have not read Newman’s suspect theological works, such as the Essay on Development of Doctrine. His fame and popularity rest on his letters and sermons on piety and religious devotion. Let those well-meaning Catholic take the time to read at least Brownson’s criticism of Newman’s Essay, and they may begin to question the orthodoxy of the “oracle from Littlemore.” They may also begin to wonder if the beatification of Newman, rightly called the Father of Vatican II by the progressivists themselves, has the underlying purpose of giving needed impetus to the Council at a time when dissatisfaction with it is significantly increasing.
These tensions within Roman Catholicism may be obscure to recent converts, as difficult to perceive as the real fault lines between conservatives and other varieties of Roman Catholic communicants. For instance, John Zmirac has wondered (a la Brownson about Newman) whether Protestant converts to Rome understand what happened at Vatican II or whether they can find their way to the genuine Roman Catholic liturgy:
7) The Novus Ordo Missae was crafted by an ecumenical committee (including Protestants) that aimed at Christian unity. In a creative compromise, the committee cut large sections from the Mass — those that made it screamingly obvious that the Mass was a sacrifice and a wedding. The committee also trimmed away many rituals designed to underscore those doctrines, adding other practices to boost the role of the laity and undercut the role of the priest.
These changes didn’t vitiate the sacrament, but they did cloud its symbolic and catechetical clarity. They also reduced its dignity, gravity, and beauty. The Dies Irae gave way to “Gather Us In.” Or, as then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “In the place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living, process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it — as in a manufacturing process — with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.”
8) The most important elements that distinguish the priest’s role from the people’s, and hence Catholic sacraments from Protestant prayer services, are the following: The priest facing the altar; the prayers of the old Offertory (which survive in the First Eucharistic Prayer); the exclusive claim of the clergy (priests and deacons) to handle the Sacrament; the all-male priesthood; and kneeling for Communion on the tongue.
9) Each practice we add to the liturgy that blurs the difference between the people and the priest adds to confusion about what the heck is going on up on the altar. It’s no surprise that after 40 years of liturgical “renewal,” only 30 percent of American Catholics still believe in transubstantiation. More troublingly, those who are receiving Communion rarely bother with the Sacrament of Penance. The old terror of blasphemy that was underlined by gold patens tucked under our chins gave way to a shrug and a smile as we take in our hands a wafer from a neighbor.
10) Dissenters from key Catholic doctrines of faith and morals took ruthless advantage of the hype surrounding the Second Vatican Council and the symbolic confusion sowed by radical liturgical changes — which seemed to signal, like a new flag flying over a country, a new regime in the Church. Maybe a new Church altogether. Some of these dissenters, like Archbishop Rembert Weakland, were also involved in creating the new liturgy itself.
11) That liturgy kept on metastasizing, “renewing” itself seemingly every year. The same bishops who pushed relentlessly for Communion in the hand, extraordinary ministers of Communion, altar girls, and standing for Communion were the men who appointed feminists and pro-gay, pro-contraception, and even “pro-choice” delegates to dissident conferences such as the Call to Action (1976). Such bishops also persecuted adherents of the old liturgy and clergy who preached Humanae Vitae. The same men repeatedly defied Pope John Paul II, who avoided a schism and decided instead to replace them as they retired with more faithful bishops. He mostly succeeded.
All of the above is simply, uncontroversially true. And in saner times, it would be none of a layman’s business. We have enough on our plates pursuing our own vocations and staying in a state of grace, and we really shouldn’t have to shop around for the least sacrilegious parish, or fight with our bishop’s religious education office against nuns who deny the Creed. But here we are, still gasping for breath as the smoke of Satan slowly lifts, and there’s no excuse for pretending the air has been clear all along. The Bride of Christ has been battered, hounded, and hunted by the Enemy — but she’s still standing, as we were promised. Now it’s our task to bind her wounds, repair the rents in her gown, and lovingly comb her hair.
Although Zmirac is no traditionalist, one Trad Catholic has picked up on the problem that Protestant converts post-Vatican II face when trying to adjust to and find a place within Rome’s traditionalism:
Catholic converts from Protestantism bring to the Church a certain mentality that can make it difficult for them to accept Traditionalist arguments in favor of restoring a lot of the discarded “externals” of our faith’s tradition. In the post I used myself as a reference point (being a revert to the faith from charismatic Protestantism) and explained how it took some time for me after my return to the Church to start seeing the beauty of Traditional Catholicism, and perceive that much had been lost by rejecting this beauty. . . . I deny that a convert from Protestantism is not as “good’ as a cradle Catholic; I did say (and I maintain) that a convert-from-Protestantism-mentality does color the way we see things once we return to the Church.
It is interesting, however, that John Zmirak . . . talks about the non-Trad confusion over apparent Trad fixation on “mere externals.” This is, I think, one of the central ideas of Traditionalism – that alleged inessentials were not as inessential as once thought.
I often wonder if Jason and the Callers got more than that for which they bargained. They have a lot to make sense of over there on their side of the Tiber. Here is how Boniface puts it:
Then why bother even pointing out the differences? Because the Catholic Church as a whole – Trad, non-Trad, liberal, mainstream, whatever – is in an identity crisis. Who are we, and what does it mean to be Catholic? What does a Catholic life look like? These questions of identity;,far from being useless and divisive, are I think some of the most important issues Catholics can examine. I tend to take the position that Traditionalism exemplifies a more perfect continuity with the fullness of Tradition than other non-Trad manifestations of the faith, and part of what I do here is defend that proposition against those who take a more negative approach to Traditionalism. We may disagree on what Catholic identity should look like, but let’s not say that these questions are not important; if only our fathers in the 1960′s and 1970′s had more of a concern for Catholic identity, we might not be in a liberal crisis.
Given Jason and the Callers’ covering their eyes to church history — ancient and recent, I am not sure they are up to the task of accounting for such developments. But they sure know they aren’t Protestant (as long as they don’t know about Brownson).