The reader is apparently expected to nod his head in solemn agreement with these statements of the obvious as if they were deep insights into ecclesiology beyond the comprehension of traditionalist blockheads. But is our nuanced Catholic thinker not revealing here an embarrassing literal-mindedness? Can it be that Weigel, the self-vaunted public intellectual, is unable to distinguish an equivocal from a univocal expression in Michael’s hortatory appeal to fellow Catholics?
Or is it rather the case that Weigel knows quite well that neither Michael Matt nor traditionalists in general view the Church literally as “ours” but precisely as Christ’s, and that they grieve over what has been done to the Bride of Christ since Vatican II—including a “collapse of the liturgy” lamented by Cardinal Ratzinger as a primary cause of “the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves”?
If the latter, then Weigel is simply indulging in the usual cant, looking to score cheap points rather than exert himself by attempting to develop a reasoned argument against the traditionalist position (if one were possible). It is, of course, the latter.
More cant: With a ponderous rhetorical harrumph, Weigel disgorges the neo-Catholic chestnut that traditionalists have the same rebellious mentality as Protestants/liberals/Modernists. According to this nonsensical argument, traditionalists are like Protestants when they object to the Protestantization of the Church, or like Modernists when they object to the Modernist errors infecting the Church, or like liberals when they object to the Church’s liberalization.
Weigel cites the example of one Sister Betsy Conway, an ultra-liberal nun who once told a syndicated columnist that “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” See!, says Weigel, that liberal nun wanted to “take back” the Church, and now traditionalists want to do so the same. This compelling evidence proves the existence of a “strange symmetry at the opposite poles of the twenty-first-century Church” which “is neatly demonstrated by the messaging tactics of this brief video.”
For the sake of a few lazy layups in front of his neo-Catholic grandstand, Mr. Nuance has entirely dispensed with nuance, along with the logical requirement that a conclusion follow from the premise. That two different parties happen to utter the same phrase on different occasions and under different circumstances—for example, “I’ll kill you!”—hardly establishes that both parties intend the same meaning and have the same motive. The progressive nun surely used the phrase “take back the Church” in the sense that the Church literally belongs to “the people” and is made by them. But, as Weigel surely knows, traditionalists understand this idea of “taking back” the ecclesiam in an opposite sense: a taking back from those who do think the Church is their personal possession and have abused their authority, with ruinous results, precisely by treating her as such.
Moreover, having dispensed with nuance—because, in truth, he is not a nuanced thinker —Weigel is not about to draw the necessary distinctions between possession in the proprietary sense and possession in the sense of custody and membership.
First of all, the Pope, the hierarchy and the faithful have all been given custody of the Church that Christ founded according to their stations, and they are all bound, according to their stations, to hand down intact what they have received. In this sense, the Church really does belong to her members as a gift entrusted to them for safekeeping—and not just the bare fidei depositum as a set of verbal propositions but rather the entire ensemble of doctrine, dogma and praxis as an integral whole not subject to arbitrary mutations or amputations according to a false dichotomy between “dispensable” ecclesiastical tradition on the one hand and Apostolic tradition on the other.
This integral understanding the Church—derided as “integrism” by shallow polemicists like Weigel—is reflected in the Professio fidei Tridentina (1565) of Pius IV, promulgated in the midst of the emergent Protestant rebellion: “The apostolic and ecclesiastical traditions, and all other observances and institutions of that same Church I most firmly admit and embrace…. I also receive and admit the received and approved ceremonies of the Catholic Church used in the solemn administration of all the aforesaid sacraments.”
Secondly, membership in the Mystical Body confers a possessory duty in respect to the health of the ecclesial organism, as each member’s acts and omissions affect the whole Body. Weigel alludes superficially, and inaptly, to Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans while ignoring his teaching in 1 Corinthians that “you are the body of Christ, and members of member” so that “if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it…” Membership in any organization entitles the member to say that it is “his” organization. All the more so the Holy Catholic Church, in which, as Saint Paul teaches, “in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body…”
Never exerting himself to rise above the hackneyed, Weigel pursues his sophistical “symmetry” argument with the cliché that just like the Catholic left, which is nostalgic for the 1970s, “those who made the Remnant TV video manifest a deep nostalgia for the Catholic 1950s, which they, too, seem to imagine can be recreated, and not just in bunkers and catacombs.” But it is Weigel who is saddled by a defective, time-bound conception of the Church if he thinks the traditionalist movement has anything to do with “recreating” the 1950s.
What traditionalists defend and seek to restore wherever it has been lost or disfigured by latter-day iconoclasts is the diachronic whole of Church teaching and practice, which spans every era of ecclesiastical history in unbroken continuity, growing organically and almost imperceptibly like a tree, not by reckless innovations suddenly imposed from above, as has happened over the past half-century of ecclesial turmoil. This organically developed, diachronic whole continues to exist intact today in thriving traditional Catholic communities that have not adopted dissolvent novelties first invented in the 1960s and 1970s in the name of what Benedict XVI called a “virtual Council,” which has caused “so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, the liturgy trivialized…”
In this connection, Weigel makes a weak attempt to extend his faux symmetry between progressives and traditional Catholics: “The Catholic left,” he writes, “has long indulged in the conspiracy-theorizing encoded in secular progressivism’s DNA; the unstated but unmistakable subtheme of ‘Catholics Rising’ [the theme of the Catholic Identify Conference] is that malign and clandestine conspirators have hijacked ‘our Church.’”
The “unstated” subtheme is unstated because it doesn’t exist. Like the nonexistent “symmetry” between those who would destroy the Church and those who would defend and restore her Tradition, the unstated subtheme of the Catholic Identity Conference is a creature of Weigel’s indolent imaginings, which take the place of serious engagement with what traditionalists are really saying. There is nothing clandestine about the manner in which the post-conciliar “reformers” have acted, nor is anyone in a position to assess their inner malignity, which is for God alone judge—especially where the conciliar popes are concerned. The catastrophic results of their travesty of ecclesial reform, however, are evident to any Catholic in possession of his senses. They are evident even to Weigel, who cannot admit what is self-evident because to admit it would be to admit that his anti-traditionalist polemic is an intellectual fraud.
Finally, Weigel’s lazy rhetoric leans on what I call the Goldilocks Argument. According to Weigel, progressives and traditionalists alike are:
locked into the same meta-narrative of Catholicism and modernity, in which the paramount question is, “How much should the Church concede to modern culture?” The farther reaches of the Catholic left are willing to surrender a lot, to the point where Catholicism fades into the dull incoherence of liberal Protestantism; the farther reaches of the Catholic right aren’t willing to surrender an inch. Neither side seems much interested in the real question, which is, “How does the Church convert the modern world and the post-modern world—like it converted the world of classical antiquity, similarly beset by the collapse of ancient truths and venerable institutions?”
In other words, the Catholic far-left is too liberal (too “hot”), while traditionalists are too conservative (too “cold”), but Weigel’s thinking is just right in its accommodation of the Faith to the constantly trumpeted but never explained exigencies of modernity and post-modernity. Weigel offers no explanation of what his bowl of just-right ecclesial porridge contains. But that is because Weigel is a specialist in empty rhetoric. He really has no idea of exactly what he means.
At any rate, Weigel neatly extinguishes his own position by asking: “How does the Church convert the modern world and the post-modern world—like it converted the world of classical antiquity, similarly beset by the collapse of ancient truths and venerable institutions?” The answer, which mysteriously eludes Weigel even though he himself has just intimated it, is precisely a restoration of the ancient truths and venerable institutions that have indeed collapsed. Welcome to the traditionalist movement!
In a letter to his flock, Saint Athanasius the Great consoled the faithful who had followed him and had indeed “taken back” their Church—in the name of its Founder, Jesus Christ—from the Arians who had denied or undermined the dogma of Christ’s divinity and had seized control of the Church almost everywhere. Wrote Athanasius:
May God console you! ... What saddens you ... is the fact that others have occupied the churches by violence, while during this time you are on the outside. It is a fact that they have the premises – but you have the Apostolic Faith. They can occupy our churches, but they are outside the true Faith….
You are the ones who are happy; you who remain within the Church by your Faith, who hold firmly to the foundations of the Faith which has come down to you from Apostolic Tradition. They are the ones who have broken away from it in the present crisis…. And we believe that God will give us our churches back some day.
Had George Weigel been alive at the time of Arian crisis, he might well have defended the Arian heresy or at least the semi-Arian compromise, which appeared to have the approval of almost the entire hierarchy and even the tacit approval of a Pope in exile. He would have been seen mocking Athanasius and his faithful Catholic remnant for believing that their Church had been invaded by enemies but that someday “our churches” would be restored according to the divine will. He would have ridiculed their nostalgia for the early 300s, before some form of Arianism had achieved acceptance throughout the Church. He would have mocked the traditionalist remnant’s “conspiracy theory” about an Arian takeover of the ecclesial establishment. All is well, he would have argued in the midst of a calamitous Arian occupancy of most of the visible Church.
In God’s good time, the Arians and their errors were swept away, and with them their dominance over the Church. So will it be with the neo-Modernists in ascendancy today, when the Church is undergoing a crisis even greater than the Arian. And when the history of this crisis is written, long after it has ended, polemicists like Weigel might be worth a footnote concerning a symmetry that really did exist: between them and the lay defenders of the Arian status quo.
ADDENDUM: As this article appears, the news arrives that the Pope’s just-published book on education, “Learning to Learn,” features a preface by one of Italy’s foremost “LGBQT” advocates, who has introduced legislation for “gender education in schools to counteract violence against women, stereotypes and discrimination against people of all sexual orientation and gender identity.” Let us see what anodyne explanation Weigel might propose for this development, the latest in the ongoing Bergoglian debacle that is the most acute stage yet of the ecclesial crisis Weigel pretends not to notice.
Catch Chris's regular column in the Print/E-edition of The Remnant.