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The Restorationist Moment: Collusion of the Catholic Religious and Political Right

The Traditional Latin Mass

In what I post today, I want to respond to some valuable observations from my colleague and fellow blogger Colleen Kochivar-Baker.  On February 26 last year, Colleen posted a comment on my Bilgrimage blog that started me thinking about a shift that took place in Catholic colleges and universities during the previous papacy and has continued under Benedict XVI.  In some significant ways, this present posting builds as well on the discussion that followed my recent Open Tabernacle postings about Edward Schillebeeckx, whose theology significantly influenced the Second Vatican Council.

In that posting, I noted a catechetical shift that occurred as a result of the council, in which less stress was placed on rote memorization of dogmatic and moral formulas and more stress was placed on internalizing theological insights and ethical values, as well as on the role of conscience and discernment in the Christian life.  The discussion that followed my first posting about Schillebeeckx’s theology focused on this catechetical shift, and its implications for how Catholics are educated in their faith.

In her comments at Bilgrimage last February, Colleen notes that in her undergraduate studies, she took courses in the documents of Vatican II that were intellectually demanding and required real thought and engagement. Then down the road, her daughter took courses—same Catholic university, same professor—in moral theology in the period in which the restorationist agenda of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) began to roll through American Catholic theology departments.

She was able to pass these courses, Colleen notes, while hardly attending class. The syllabus spelled out in detail what the professor would teach. When Colleen asked about the shift in his pedagogical style—from challenging students to think, respond, and critique, to spoon-feeding them “truth”—he told her he was being monitored in class and lived in fear of being reported to the authorities for saying anything that transgressed the restorationist canon of truths.

This is a significant testimony.  In my view, a noteworthy “moment” took place in American Catholic theology in the final two decades of the 20th century.  That moment entailed a decisive shift with whose effects we’re still coping—we who had seen Vatican II as an opening to new dialogues about the significance of the Christian faith in the contemporary world.  The moment to which I’m referring is not so distant in time. It took place decisively in the 1980s and  1990s. It became particularly intense in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It had everything to do with pressure from the current pope, Benedict, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Ratzinger.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s work was, of course, blessed by Pope John Paul II, who placed him in office.

As head of the CDF, the current pope deliberately created within the academic life of Catholic universities a chill that began to affect how and what theologians thought, and how and what they wrote. This shift moved Catholic intellectual life away from a post-Vatican II engagement with contemporary society in which Catholic thinkers listen to and learn from secular disciplines as they offer Catholic insights, values, and teachings in a process of dialogic give and take. Now the model for Catholic intellectual life—and for theologians in particular—became one of receiving “truths” from on high and handing these down to anyone who cared to listen.

And that model was attended by severe punishments for those who sought to be faithful to the Vatican II model of dialogic engagement and respect for the wisdom of secular traditions, or even of non-Catholic Christian traditions and the contributions of other world religions.

Why focus on this shift? Because it needs to be remembered. History is written by the victors, and to a great extent, the restorationist agenda (and its right-wing political counterpart) have won, insofar as they now set the terms for conversations in the church.  This agenda has succeeded in determining the dominant discourse to such an extent that the center has moved decisively right. No forward movement in theological discourse is permitted now without having to run the gauntlet of stop-the-show arguments by those intent on doing what William F. Buckley once described as the quintessential task of conservatives: standing athwart history and shouting, “Stop!” By forcing those who want to move progressive dialogue forward to bow to “centrist” arguments as they try to move forward, those intent on standing athwart history and shouting stop effectively control (and halt) the forward movement of progressive conversations.

We who are committed to progressive readings of religion and politics have to struggle to remember the history from which we have just come, or we will never be able to move beyond the stalemates the religious and political right wish to produce in our imaginations and our discourse at this point in history. We also have to know this history, to tell it in all its gory detail, because if we ever do budge from the checkmate position in which the right has deliberately placed us, we will not know how to budge, where to go, because we will not understand where we come from.

As the preceding paragraph suggests, the move against Vatican II—the move to the right, the deliberate dumbing down of Catholic intellectual life and the punishment of critical thinkers that have been part and parcel of the restorationist agenda—is not merely a religious phenomenon. Restorationism is tied to a similar thrust within political life and culture to stop critical reflection from progressive standpoints, and to force progressive theological and political thinkers into a right-leaning ideological conformity. The restorationist movement has been part of a broader (and very deliberate) dumbing-down process in culture at large, which is intended to reduce complex political and cultural discussions to simplistic soundbites, and to present iconic political and religious figures of the right (e.g., Ronald Reagan and John Paul II) as demonstrations of the apodictic virtue of the right-wing soundbites to which political and religious conversations are reduced by restorationism.

And so the watchdog groups monitoring what Catholic theologians teach and write today are hardly confined to the Catholic religious right. The political right has also taken a keen interest in suppressing critical thought in Catholic life and a continuation of the project of Vatican II because the dialogical engagement with the world and with secular intellectual traditions has the possibility of retrieving the many critical strands in Catholic tradition that stand against neoconservative political and economic commitments. The right does not want this to happen, and will not tolerate it happening.

As I say, the right has won in both culture and church, insofar as it has succeeded in normalizing its right-leaning presuppositions as centrist presuppositions we all must engage now when we put together religious, cultural, political, or economic arguments that move in a direction other than the direction canonized by the right. The only thing that will effectively halt such tragic diversionary wastes of time and energy within faith communities now being used as tools of the political and economic right is the choice of individual members of those communities who resist the right-wing cultural captivity of their churches to stand up, stand together, and insist that it is their church, too. And that the captivity to the political and economic right is betraying all that we stand for and believe in, and have stood for and believed in for centuries, with the best of our traditions.

Energizing that conversation of resistance (or, to use Frank Cocozzelli’s marvelous provocative term, that tradition of remonstrance) is, in my view, what Open Tabernacle is all about.  The passages facing the human community at this point in its history are too perilous for us to permit the most creative energies of our communities of faith to be bound up any longer in fruitless non-conversations controlled by a center whose primary concern is self-protection, rather than applying the creative energies of communities of faith to social, cultural, and political challenges that threaten to bring about the demise of the globe.

(Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 27 February 2009, with editorial changes.)

The graphic for this posting is a 19th-century illustration depicting the celebration of a Tridentine Mass, which is now being used once again in some Catholic parish bulletins in the U.S.

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3 Responses

  1. […] occasionally offer ELCA tidbits, keeps spinning out one exceptional article after another.  Today, Bill Lindsey critiques the conservative retreat of the last two popes from the progressive reforms o….  His post is directed at Catholics and Catholicism, but it occurs to me that there are parallels […]

  2. Bill,

    I have quoted extensively from your post and applied it to the parallel conservative retrenchment of Lutheran CORE vis a vis the ELCA. Thanks for the guidance.

    “Consider the following words of Lutheran CORE / WordAlone spokesmen. Listen for a rejection of hard thinking–spirit led thinking, conscience bound thinking, reflection in dialogue with scientific disciplines–in exchange for a clear set of rules, a cookbook of moral recipes, handed down from on high. Hear the Lutheran CORE call, if not for an infallible pope, then for infallible (and unambiguous) canon, creeds, and confessions. Listen for the CORE promotion of their assumptions, their interpretations, their fossilized traditionalism–unquestioned and unchallenged by science or reason or conscience. Certainty instead of ambiguity. Learn the rules and don’t worry about moral discernment.”

    • Obie, thanks. Your input is extremely valuable, since it shows that what links these movements across denominational lines is not so much theology as it is a shared political objective. If theology were the core link, then we wouldn’t expect such solidarity among religious groups each of whose theology is exclusionary.

      It seems to me that what drives much of the resistance to progressive thought within the churches today is a fear of what will happen if patriarchy is dismantled. And powerful economic and political groups know how to massage that fear in faith-based communities, to divide those communities and dilute their witness to the really significant ethical values of our period–which have to do far more with how we use wealth than with sexual morality.

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