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The Transformation of the Church

Honesty in the Church

by Daniel Callahan
Scribners, 188 pp., $3.95

The Third Session

by Xavier Rynne
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 399 pp., $4.95

When the cake of primitive custom is broken the range of possibilities open to a people is immeasurably wider. As social anthropologists know very well, there is no guarantee that this wider range will be viewed as a positive opportunity, soliciting new experiences and new achievements. On the contrary, there may be symptoms of withdrawal, of psychic sickness; and people may even die of the experience. When a man is plunged into a landscape in which the very configuration of the hills seems bizarre, for they no longer have the friendly function of symbolizing the anatomy of the soul, in which the heavenly bodies are no longer familiar lamps, in which the wind and the thunder no longer speak to man, this change must be the most terrifying of all experiences. That space is infinite was not what Pascal found terrifying; what terrified was its silence. The ineffable music of the spheres no longer sounded.

The Catholic masses are being plunged into an experience not unlike that of a primitive people suddenly catapulted into a civilization founded upon natural science and the technology that goes with it. The concrete cultus of religion has hitherto been for them a single interacting pattern of culture which has existed side by side with the culture of modern secular society. Where there has been a real interaction between the two cultures the result has commonly though not invariably been that the Catholic culture has simply dissolved. This is the situation of the proletariat in the great industrial cities of Catholic Europe. The situation of the Catholic masses in Britain and the United States is quite different. Here, for a variety of historical reasons, Catholics immersed in industrial society have contrived to preserve their unity as a worshipping community and have, simply as such a community, resisted the normally secularizing impact of modern civilization. The price paid for this has been high: a separation of religious from secular culture that has impoverished both.

It is clear that Catholics are now engaged in the daring and risky experiment of breaking up the concrete unity of Catholic culture. The first part of the experiment is the change in the mode of public worship now established in the United States and elsewhere. The priest within the sacred enclosure, engaged in an intricate symbolic dance and speaking or singing in a hieratic and, to the mass of the faithful, unknown tongue—this is an immense part of the human past and speaks to men at levels below the fully conscious. The new liturgical reforms are designed to purge public worship of the mysterious, that the Christian mystery, the encounter of God and man in sacramental worship, may be more clearly perceived and grasped. To be effective, such reforms demand a simultaneous process of education in which the intellectual and emotional life of believers is given a new style, one in which the roles of habit and tribal loyalty are diminished and the reflective awareness of what it is to be a believer and worshipper is increased.

Mr. Daniel Callahan’s book is one out of a vast number now appearing, all of them directed to increasing the self-consciousness and the critical powers of the Catholic clergy and laity. He dwells upon a specific problem, that of the past neglect of, and the present need for, the virtue of honesty in the Church; but in fact his topic is much broader and his book is rather a sustained reflection upon a variety of cognate concepts: honesty, truth, freedom, sincerity, and so on. He argues that the Church needs to be candid about the facts of her history and her contemporary life; and that individual believers should be allowed “to bring out into the open their most secret anxieties, dilemmas, and concerns.”

The difficulty is that most of those who are likely to read what Mr. Callahan has to say are already at least half-way to his point of view. They are culturally alienated, from the Catholic masses, who are much closer to the sentiments of the kind of speaker likely to be cheered at a communion breakfast of the New York police than they are to Mr. Callahan and his public. These latter are deeply affected by the liberal and romantic cult of sincerity—it is about sincerity more than honesty that Mr. Callahan is deeply concerned—and are to some extent entangled in the confusions and weaknesses of this tradition. Mr. Callahan is for the most part too sophisticated to fall into the more obvious traps; but his book has a pervasive tone of warmth and optimism, very engaging in itself but somehow suggesting that the enormous and cruel problems created by the attempt at an aggiornamento of Catholicism are more tractable than perhaps they are.

This comes out in his treatment of the topic of authority. He finds, as do most perceptive Catholics, the external trappings of the papal monarchy and the episcopate distasteful. One suspects that in part—and why not?—the distaste rests upon aesthetic grounds. There is something ludicrous about the appearance of a petty baroque court, both as an expression of earthly power and as an expression of the ministry of service in the Christian community that, theologically speaking, ecclesiastical authority is. To see one who is at once a prince of the Church and a successor of the apostles disguised as an aged dowager prinked out in lace is irresistibly comic. It is more than comic; something sinister stirs behind the external appearance, if all this cloaks a foolish and unworthy policy. But the problem is not so easily solved as Mr. Callahan seems to suggest. Men are embodied creatures, not spirits, and authority in society has in some way to be rendered perceptible. This will involve, there is no help for it, forms of external behavior that will always be suspect if all that matters is that one should at all times manifest one’s thoughts and feelings with total sincerity. But this is not the point of social rituals. They are not designed to express the momentary thoughts and feelings of those who participate in them but to manifest the continuity of social attitudes and to represent symbolically those things of which there can be no direct or, so to speak, prose transcript. What matters, and this is of course Mr. Callahan’s principal point, is that we should not be so enchanted by the public spectacle that we carry over into other situations the attitudes, gestures, habits of deference, that get their rationale from the part they have in the public sphere. But, unless we are to be Tolstoyan anarchists, authority everywhere has to be given public expression of a dignified kind: and there cannot possibly be an effective safeguard against self-deception in those whose role is symbolized by the rituals of authority. And what is true of the symbols of authority is true of all other social symbols. One sees how difficult the “grammar” (to speak in Wittgensteinian terms) of such concepts as honesty and sincerity is if one asks what it is to wear a wedding ring sincerely or rise with honesty in the presence of a lady.

The virtue of honesty, rightly commended by Mr. Callahan in a book marked by a finely manifested respect for this virtue, has, by and large, marked the successive sessions of the Second Vatican Council. It is hard to summon up once again the excitement generated by the early Xavier Rynne reports in The New Yorker. Xavier Rynne is now an institution; and we turn with a confidence that will not be betrayed to The Third Session. The main lines of development were already laid down before the session began. The interest of the session is to be found in two intertwined themes: the struggle of the mass of the Curial cardinals against the theological trends characteristic of a majority of the Council; and the role of Paul VI, a man of more complex personality than John XXIII and quite without the devastating charm of John.

The aims of what Rynne calls “the minority” may briefly be summed up as a determination to use the Papacy to thwart the will of the vast majority of the bishops assembled in the Council. If the doctrine of collegiality (the doctrine that the episcopate in union with the Papacy enjoys the right of jurisdiction and the right to teach) is approved by the Council—and by the Pope himself—they press the Pope to add an “explanation” of the doctrine which can be understood as modifying it. If it seems likely that the Declaration on Religious Liberty will sweep the Council they appeal to the rules of procedure and use the Pope’s desire to reconcile the majority and the minority to bring about a postponement of the voting on the Declaration. They find the decree on Ecumenism obnoxious for obvious reasons; and they procure last minute alterations in the text, alterations, made by the authority of the Pope, which the Council had no opportunity of considering. Even declarations already approved by the Council are not respected. There is, as everyone now knows, an attempt behind the scenes to tamper with the declaration on the Jews. This has been a particularly slick operation. The pressures from the Arab countries and from the Orthodox communities upon the Secretariat of State of the Vatican have never relaxed, and the threat of pogroms against the Arab Christians and the possibility of the Catholic groups in these countries going over to Orthodoxy have been exploited with great skill. There is, unfortunately, some evidence that the Pope himself has been drawn into the intrigue and is, as usual, anxious to achieve a compromise that will satisfy the minority without utterly disgracing the majority. This looks an impossible task and, one hopes, under-estimates the extent of the commitment of the American, German, French, and English bishops.

Plainly, Paul VI is a man consumed by anxiety, as well he may be. Perhaps he understands much better than John XXIII ever did the theological complexity of the matters discussed by the Council and the concrete dangers that lie in wait for the Catholic community in an epoch of radical reform. But John had the simplicity and directness, the freedom from care, of a man of pure faith. When he said to a delegation of Jews, “I am your brother Joseph,” when he claimed kinship with the imprisoned criminals of Rome on the ground that he had relatives who were imprisoned for poaching, he was not speaking for effect. This was just how the world looked to him. He was therefore able, with what seemed to the men of the Curia an unforgiveable levity, to summon the Catholic world to a General Council at which all that was stifling the life of the Church, all that was separating Catholics from other Christians and from the entire human family, could be discussed in an atmosphere of freedom.

That the aggiornamento desired by John is taking place and will continue is not seriously in doubt. What is in doubt is the human price the minority will succeed in exacting in the immediate future. They seem able at the moment to rely upon a Pope who is described by Rynne as “a man obviously torn by doubts, tormented by scruples, haunted by thoughts of perfection, and above all dominated by an exaggerated concern…about the prestige of his office as Pope.”

The irony of the situation is that the policy of making concessions to the minority in the interest of ecclesiastical peace is the policy most likely in the end to bring about the human conflicts within the Church that Paul so clearly wishes to avoid. Unless the Curia is reformed, unless, in particular, the Holy Office and the Congregation of Catholic Universities and Seminaries are reformed (or, better, abolished in the case of the former), unless the principal doctrinal affirmation of the third session, the decree on collegiality, is given some institutional expression, so that in a direct way, and not through a modification of the College of Cardinals, the world’s bishops are associated with the Pope in the government of the universal Church, the conflicts between the Roman bureaucracy and the critically minded sections of the Catholic world are certain to be severe. It is just not possible, without disaster, to let loose in the world a document so potentially explosive as the Constitution on the Church approved at the third session and to break the devotional habits of millions, unless at the same time the structure of the Church is modified to take into account these changes. Bishop Bekkers of Holland suggested at the third session that there was need for a continuing Council. Paul VI is determined that the fourth session shall be the last. The minority, entrenched in the Curia and having the ear of the Pope, would not be human if they did not cherish the hope that once the Council has dispersed everything will be more or less as it was before it was ever convoked. They are sadly mistaken. The words of the Council are as much a part of Catholic history as the words of the Council of Trent; and will in the end be similarly effective. But the immediate future is obscure.

One slightly disconcerting note is from time to time struck by Xavier Rynne. He suggests that the majority failed on some issues because, compared with the minority, they were political innocents. This is the glory of the majority. Nothing became so well the North American bishops as their reaction of frank indignation and their direct protest to the Pope over the postponement of the declaration on Religious Liberty. The last word is with Mr. Callahan. Honesty is the best policy. But honesty is also a grace rather than an achievement. No one is more concerned to be honest than Paul VI; and the tormented impression he makes upon observers is the fruit of his ceaseless struggle to be honest. The honesty of John XXIII was no more an achievement than the color of his eyes; but it subdued the world.

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