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An Open Letter to the Manly Seminary Staff

I was saddened to discover from AD 2000 [a Catholic monthly published in Australia] the general tone and content of your book, The New Catechism: Analysis and Commentary, compiled and published in your role as faculty members of the Catholic Institute of Sydney. The citations in the review show that most of you are far from accepting the Catechism of the Catholic Church as that “sure norm for teaching the faith” which Pope John Paul II declares it to be in the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum.

This saddens me, as I say, because, like all Australian Catholics, I cannot but be conscious of the long and illustrious history of that splendid edifice overlooking the northern Sydney coastline. It has been the “mother” of all institutions in our country dedicated to the advanced study of Catholic truth and to the formation of our national clergy. That Manly [St. Patrick’s Seminary, which takes its popular name from the Sydney suburb of Manly, is the oldest seminary in Australia and is that country’s only pontifical institution of higher education.] has set her face against the authoritative teaching of the Successor of Peter can only bring sorrow to every loyal Australian Catholic heart.

Furthermore, I know most of you personally. Having studied with you and under you for three years, I know your gifts and intelligence and admire many of your personal qualities–all the more reason for sadness at your participation in what AD 2000 rightly calls the continuing “rebellion.”

Nevertheless, your attitude toward the catechism is hardly surprising. Those who know your well-established positions would have been surprised if your attitude toward this magisterial landmark had been one of grateful assent and acceptance. After all, a major part of its raison d’etre is to help repair the damage done to the transmission of the faith by the tidal wave of theological dissent which has flooded and emptied seminaries round the world in recent decades–seminaries like Manly.

Almost equally predictable, given the recent historical trajectory of the Catholic Church in Australia, was the decision of the present Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney to entrust scholars such as yourselves with running catechism in-service sessions for teachers in Catholic schools.

Such an egregious case of setting the fox to guard the chickens would seem to imply one of three possible explanations. First, it might be that the Archbishop, while being aware of the conflict between your views and the teaching of the catechism, considers those views legitimate for Catholic theologians. This would call into question the sincerity of his solemn professions of loyal submission to the See of Peter. Second, he might be unaware of the extent or gravity of your public dissent, in which case he would seem to be open to a charge of negligence (CIC 1325). Finally, he might be neither unorthodox nor ignorant, but simply dismayed at the further implications of not entrusting you with the in-service sessions. After all, his own admission of your doctrinal unsoundness would commit him, logically and morally, to far-reaching, highly unpopular, and deeply stressful reforms in the Catholic Institute of Sydney. If His Eminence is daunted by such a prospect, he should recall the scriptural exhortations to fearlessness in preaching.

(My own bishop, chancellor of the university in which I teach, closed down its entire theological faculty for a while in the 1970s and stood his ground as “a pillar of iron and a wall of brass” [Jer. 1: 18] against the indignation with which dismissed professors and their supporters denounced his “pre-conciliar intransigence” in enforcing the letter–and therefore the authentic “spirit”–of Vatican II.)

I will not presume to judge that elderly shepherd for his indulgence toward your dissident teaching, for the grievous harm it is doing to the lambs entrusted to his care, and for the emptiness of his semina ry. But theology teachers such as yourselves and myself will also be judged by the stern and awful criterion of the Gospel saying about millstones and scandal to the little ones (Matt. 18:6-7). What are we saying to justify before God and our consciences the contrasting kinds of teaching we provide for our respective students–warm acceptance of the new catechism on the one hand and cool disdain on the other? For me there is no problem. Peter has spoken authoritatively yet again, repeating in substance what the Church has consistently affirmed, century after century, as truths of faith and morals “to be held definitively” (Lumen Gentium 23).

Your own objections, I suspect, are based on the whole hermeneutical matrix within which the catechism has been composed. Like the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, it is rooted in what “progressive” Catholic thinkers such as Bernard Lonergan and John Courtney Murray have described as the “classicist” world-view. The fact that their scornful dismissals of this “classicism” are long on rhetoric and short on reasoned argument only underscores the fact that the object of their attack appears to be nothing other than what the Church has called the “perennial philosophy.”

It is, after all, hard to find real arguments against this philosophy, because it is basically nothing other than a development and application of the fundamental principles of reason itself. It includes such elements as the law of non-contradiction and the awareness that, after all allowance has been made for changing circumstances and historical conditioning, it is possible to formulate true propositions about religion, history, metaphysics, and ethics, and the meaning of those propositions is not only immutable, but accessible and intelligible to people of all times and cultures.

In my seminary days, those of us whose hearts warm to this language of unchanging, transcultural, propositional truth were disparaged as “right-wingers” or “ultra-conservatives” in the common-rooms and classrooms of Manly. I suspect little has changed since I lived among you. But the use of mere labels or rhetoric does nothing to refute our position. Let me try to summarize it.

The Catholic Church claims to be an authority that is perennially reliable, century after century, regarding those propositions of faith and morals which she teaches with firmness and constancy to be true. If in fact she is not perennially reliable in such matters, she is nothing or, rather, worse than nothing: a colossal impostor speaking falsely in the name of God.

There are two ways in which the above claim could be disproved: first, if one or more of those constantly taught propositions were demonstrated to be in conflict with scientific, historical, or moral reality by sources independent of the Church’s own magisterium; secondly, if the magisterium itself ever fell into self-contradiction by teaching the opposite of one or more of those propositions.

The concern of “right-wingers” is that you generals of the Church’s intellectual army have become all but blind to the second of these potential dangers, as a result of your one-sided and exaggerated fears regarding the first. By dispatching all our theological forces to the left, in order to adapt our faith to the “findings” of the empirical and behavioral sciences, you are exposing our right flank to a withering attack from the more fundamental science of logic.

You are making Catholicism seem incoherent by neglecting that elementary truth which clearly undergirded the composition of the catechism: The Church’s credibility as the bearer of divine revelation depends on her never contradicting in one age what she has taught solemnly in another. In other words, since Vatican II the Church’s liberal academy has been trying to push and prod the Roman magisterium toward a door marked PLAUSIBILITY IN THE MODERN WORLD, while failing to realize that the door opens onto nothing but an empty e levator shaft about fifteen floors above street level! For the papacy to step inside that door (something the Holy Spirit will never allow to happen) would be a leap of suicidal self-contradiction.

It is obvious, for instance, that the Church traditionally has taught with firmness and constancy the personal existence of the devil, the historical fall from grace of our first parents, the historical contraction of original sin by generation, the absolute immorality of contraception (and of other specific classes of sexual conduct which many of you want the Church to permit), the impossibility of women’s ordination, and the disciples’ true seeing, touching, and eating with the risen Christ.

Since theologians like yourselves are openly questioning or denying these and other doctrines, none of which has been disproved by sources of knowledge external to the Church, we feel obliged to protest, because in the measure that your opinions gain currency and de facto respectability in the Church, they undermine her rational credibility. As AD 2000 has more than once recalled, Oxford’s Professor of Logic, Michael Dummett, has warned that the widespread tolerance of dissident theology is in danger of making the Catholic Church “a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world.”

Your attempts to gloss over your contradictions of definitive teaching by means of euphemisms (“development,” “growth,” “inculturation,” “insights gained from ongoing human experience,” “going beyond” the old position, or giving it a “hermeneutically valid framework”) we can only regard as sophistry. Such “reinterpretations” of doctrine were anticipated and rejected by the “classicist” common sense of Vatican Council I, which anathematized the nominalist nonsense of saying that sometimes, in order to keep up with the “progress of science,” Catholic dogmas may be given a different meaning from that which the Church has traditionally understood (cf. DS 3043).

You may reply that it is precisely the Vatican’s “rigidity,” and not your own “flexibility,” that is undermining the Church’s credibility today. Yet true credibility is not to be confused with popularity. Of course there are large numbers of baptized Catholics drifting away from the faith because the Church does not reflect the ideas they pick up from the mass-media, from a permissive, democratic, and increasingly feminist culture, from pop science and pop psychology, and from dissident theologians.

But the vast majority of these people are not intellectually inclined. Their faith is usually weak and ill-formed to begin with, and they neither know nor care whether Catholicism can be rationally defended as a logically coherent belief-system in competition with other philosophies and world religions. At the risk of sounding snobbish, we must say that the magisterium has to pay more heed to these “abstract” and apologetic questions than to mass movements in popular culture. “Ongoing human experience” can be a very unreliable guide to truth.

In any case, is your own “more relevant” version of Catholicism really attracting anyone outside the Church? Is your “modern” faith effectively helping to evangelize our society? Or are you for the most part a new ghetto whose message is credible only to an audience consisting of other disgruntled Catholic liberals?

In recent years the Church has welcomed a new wave of converts endowed with impressive scholarly and literary credentials, coming from Protestantism, Judaism, and unbelief, such as Richard John Neuhaus, Scott Hahn, Paul Vitz, Malcolm Muggeridge, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, Jeffrey Rubin, George William Rutler, Dale Vree, Sheldon Vanauken, Alisdair MacIntyre, and Graham Leonard.

But these are persons whose brand of Catholicism you would consider highly conservative. They have been attracted precisely by the “classicist” orthodoxy taught by John Paul II and now enshr ined for centuries to come in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Where are all your brilliant converts? Where are those scholars who are entering the Church in order to denigrate her leadership and dissent from her doctrines? Where are those first-rate non-Catholic minds being drawn into the fold by the persuasive power and “relevance” of Richard McBrien, Edward Schillebeeckx, Charles Curran, Rosemary Ruether, David Coffey, and Neil Brown? Their absence seems rather significant–like the Dog that Didn’t Bark.

You might be tempted to reply that there are plenty of them out there potentially, but that it is precisely the Vatican’s scandalous “intransigence” which keeps them at arm’s length and that the election of “John XXIV” (Hans Kung’s pipe-dream pope) would bring progressive intellectuals pouring into a truly “renewed” Catholic Church.

If that is what you are thinking, then I suggest you think again. The hard sociological evidence suggests the exact opposite would occur. The decline in morale and membership of the mainline Protestant churches has been in direct proportion to their efforts to “modernize” and liberalize doctrine in accordance with the perceived norms of contemporary culture. The defiantly counter-cultural posture of conservative churches has been winning converts galore, including some very smart ones.

So, please think and pray, long and hard, at this time when scholars such as yourselves are giving an unusually large measure of direction to the Australian Church. If the Second Coming has not yet occurred a hundred years from now, we can be sure that whatever the theologians are saying then, it will be very different from what you are saying today. We also can be sure that the Catechism of the Catholic Church still will be the standard of doctrine. You are very myopic to suppose that the catechism has “been left behind by modern theology.” The truth is that your modernist theology has been left behind by the catechism.

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