(15) The inspiration of the Spirit can be discerned in a variety of religious, political, and cultural movements which appear to be progressive. Failure to join in these movements is consequently a form of infidelity.
(19) The Church is primarily a political reality, whose value is determined to the degree that it promotes social change and progress.
(20) Action in the world is therefore the principal vocation of the Christian, and contemplation and the spiritual life are at best accessories to this. Salvation, if such is possible, is achieved through politics.
(25) After centuries of obscurity, the true meaning of the Gospel is now being discovered by progressives. ...
People who pretend to be Catholics, who assume offices in the Church, are seeking from within, under the banner of reform and progress, to destroy the Church. Completely different from these people are those who do not want to destroy the Church as such, i.e., who do not seek the disappearance of the Church, but who rather want to transform the Church into something which completely contradicts her meaning and essence. This includes all those who wish to make the Church of Jesus Christ into a purely humanitarian society, to rob her of her supernatural character, to secularize and desacralize her. They share that camouflage of the enemies of the Church which comes from using the shibboleths of "reform," "progress," and "adaptation to modern man." But they do not want to eliminate the Church. The catchwords "reform" and "progress" are not mere tricks which they use; the really believe them. ... Henri de Lubac, S.J., pointed this out with forceful and penetrating words: "One becomes conscious that the Church is confronted with a grave crisis. In the name of a "new" Church, a "post-conciliar" Church, some people are attempting to found another Church than that of Jesus Christ; an anthropocentric society, which is threatened by an 'immanentist apostasy,' and which can be drawn into a movement of general surrender under the cloak of rejuvenation, ecumenism, or adaptation."
How interesting that two of the best responses to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's recent op-ed in Newsweek, "Without a Doubt: Why Barack Obama represents American Catholics better than the pope does" (July 9, 2009), were published nearly forty years ago. What to make of it? For starters, it indicates the simple truth expressed long ago by the author of Ecclesiastes: "Nothing is new under the sun" (Eccl. 1:9). It also highlights what might seem, at first glance, contradictory facts: the beliefs of Townsend and Co. are both dangerous and dull. Dangerous because they are false and destructive; dull because they are clichéd and intellectually empty.
Dr. Hitchcock's book is both a helpful overview of the turmoil of the late Sixties and a measured, devastating critique of the flawed and, yes, heretical perspectives of progressives who sought and fought to remake the Church according to the latest leftist ideologies and fads. One of the primary themes, as the quotes above indicate, is how progressives, in employing an ecclesiology that is thoroughly secular in nature and horizontal in scope, attack and destroy the heart of Catholicism, which is a life-changing, supernaturally-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, who is King of Kings and—oh, by the way—the giver of the keys of the Kingdom to a certain St. Peter and his successors.
Dr. von Hildebrand's book, which is a companion of sorts to his earlier (and equally excellent) work, Trojan Horse in the City of God (Franciscan Herald Press, 1967), covers similar ground as Hitchcock's book, but more through philosophical critique and theological reflection. Especially notable, regarding Townsend's essay, are von Hildebrand's chapters on authority and democracy, especially "Democratization of the Holy Church," where he states, "The idea that one can make the Church more accessible to the spirit of the times by this 'democratization,' or that this 'democratization' represents an improvement, has sometimes a pernicious, sometimes a naive character—but it is always an illusion. One can call for the democratization of the holy Church only if one has lost all sense for the true nature of this sacred institution."
So, then, what to make of Townsend's piece, which is getting plenty of attention, deserved or otherwise? Frankly, Townsend's essay is not worth reading because it is worth reading, but because it is the sort of worthless reading that a wide swath of readers do actually read and, apparently, agree with to some degree or another. To put it another way: if Townsend's views actually expressed the formal, legitimate, and authentic teachings of the Catholic Church, there wouldn't be a Catholic Church. But, in fact, Townsend's views are simply a tired, dull, boring, and empty riff on the radical Catholicism exposed by Hitchcock and the collapsed immanentism referred to by de Lubac and von Hildebrand. These beliefs are so banal and naive in nature ("the drivel of heretics," says von Hildebrand) they make the recent address of the Episcopalian "presiding bishop" Katharine Jefferts Schori seem downright dazzling, edgy, and mature in comparison (Schori, after all, has the audacity to refer to "heresy," which is soooo exclusive and judgmental, don't you think?).
Here is the heart of Townsend's argument:
(As for President Obama's "pragmatic approach to divisive policy," see my previous post, "The President's hovering, morally superior political rhetoric", July 6, 2009). A key issue, obviously, is authority. American Catholics, Townsend insists, are agreed with Obama on several important matters, over against the pope, "vocal bishops and pro-life activists." The sloppiness of the argument is apparent. If the bishops and so-called activists are Catholic, then not all American Catholics are in agreement with the President. But if she assumes that they aren't really Catholic, on what basis does she make her judgment? Because she doesn't agree with them?
Townsend's argument, as it were, implicitly denies the supernatural character of the Church's authority and reduces everything to the level of politics and personal rights. (She also seems to have purposefully fashioned her approach upon the tact of Sr. Theresa Kane, mentioned in her piece, who said ten years ago that then-President Bill Clinton was doing more for social issues than the American bishops.) It is sometimes said that certain ("right wing") Catholics are "more Catholic than the Pope"; Townsend's approach is more that her Catholicism is morally superior to the Catholicism of the Pope—apostolic succession and Magisterial teaching be damned. Why worry about those things when you have polls?:
When Sen. John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, ran for president in 2004, several bishops decided to deny him communion. A poll done at the time by Time magazine showed that 73 percent of American Catholics disagreed with that decision, and 83 percent said the bishops' move wouldn't change their vote. In fact, more than two thirds said the church shouldn't try to influence the way Catholics vote at all or tell candidates—even Catholic ones—what stance to take.
Americanism lives! Pope Leo XIII described it this way in his January 1899 letter to James Cardinal Gibbons:
Yep, shaping the Church's teachings "in accord with the spirit of the age." Sounds about right. As for the various numbers used by Townsend, a closer look reveals this essential fact: Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis (that is, according to the Church's directives), are both better informed about issues and far more in accord with Magisterial teaching: "The divide between more-observant and less-observant Catholics over abortion is stark, however," notes an April 30, 2009, Pew Forum poll, "Weekly attending white Catholics overwhelmingly oppose abortion, with 63% saying it should be illegal in all or most cases and only 30% saying it should be legal. Conversely, less-observant white Catholics support legal abortion by a 61% to 29% margin." Which means—shockingly!—that Catholics who are less likely to observe Church teachings in their lives are also less likely to offer public support of the same teaching. Amazing. Who would have thought it so?
(As a quick aside, it's worth noting that in the 1980s Townsend, according to her book's website, "founded the Maryland Student Service Alliance to make Maryland the first, and still only state that requires young people to engage in community service as a condition of graduation." So, she believes students should perform involuntary volunteer work [??] in order to earn the state's approval, but she's against the Church saying Catholics need to adhere to Church teaching in order to be Catholics in good standing. That about says it all.)
Speaking of abortion, Townsend is typical of liberal Catholics who downplay the significance of the issue while claiming to be all about caring about the least among us. In a March 27, 2007, interview about her book, Failing America's Faithful, Townsend stated,
And then, in the next breath, she added:
A: The short answer is that a just society has a commitment to the dignity of every man, woman and child. We are connected to one another as children of God—who loves and cherishes each of us. It is incumbent on us to work for the common good so that work is rewarded, health encouraged, education honored, public resources treasured and families supported.
Except, of course, when it comes to the killing of unborn children and the resulting destruction of families and family life. Not surprisingly, Townsend was endorsed by NARAL and Emily's list in her unsuccessful 2002 bid to become governor of Maryland. But you may have already guessed such was the case since she comes from one of the most famous pro-abortion families in American, the Kennedy clan. Coming full circle, at least for my purposes, a recent piece about Townsend's uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who sent a private letter to Pope Benedict via the hand of President Obama, contained these interesting quotes:
Catholicism runs deep in the Kennedy clan, “as a cultural and ethnic identity,’’ said R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, said, “Among individual members, the depth of commitment to the church itself varies, as with many Catholic families. It seems clear, and it is poignant and instructive, that Senator Kennedy seeks peace and reconciliation with ‘Holy Mother Church’ as he nears the end of his earthly life.’’ [emphasis added]
Pardon my dry eyes, but I find it hard to see anything done by a Kennedy in recent years as being "poignant and instructive." Yes, I do pray that Ted Kennedy, like all wayward Catholics, will seek peace and reconciliation with the Church—preferably long before they spend thirty or more years ardently supporting abortion and other anti-life actions. But, really, isn't it about time that the mythologies and nonsense about the Kennedy clan go away forever? They aren't glamorous, they aren't obviously intellectual, they seem to struggle dramatically with basic moral teachings, and they aren't altogether Catholic, at least not based on their public actions and statements. Townsend, for her part, displays the sort of vague and confused rhetoric that is perfectly fitting for a mediocre politician, but is not terribly appealing coming from an alleged Catholic:
No, he can't. But there's no doubt in my mind that Townsend has been learning from her private pontiff, President Obama. That's unfortunate, because there is a lot that Townsend could learn about Catholicism from the real Pope.
UPDATE: A couple of interesting, if not revelatory, remarks left by Townsend on her book's blog in March 2007:
Hmmm, what a slogan this could make: "Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: Against Incompetent Wars! For Incontestable Abortion!" Or: "When It Comes to Killing Your Young, Count on a Kennedy!"
• Also see: "Kennedy-Townsend in Newsweek: Obama 'More Catholic' Than Pope", by Matthew Balan of Newsbusters.org.
• "Jesuit: Obama is 'the most effective spokesperson' for 'the spirit of Vatican II'" (Insight Scoop, June 3, 2009)
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
• Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May
• Curran's Attack on John Paul II Rebutted | Dr. William E. May
• Is Heresy Heretical? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results | Dr. James Hitchcock
• A Religion the New York Times Can Love | Donna Steichen