Ross Douthat delivers the 2015 Erasmus Lecture
Let’s begin with a story. It’s one I’ve heard many times; it’s one I’ve told more than a few times myself. It’s a story about the Catholic Church in the second half of the twentieth century, and it goes something like this.
Once, fifty years ago, there was an ecumenical council of the Church. Its goal was to reorient Catholicism away from its nineteenth-century fortress mentality, to open a new dialogue with the modern world, to look more deeply into the Catholic past in order to prepare for the Catholic future, and to usher in an era of evangelization and renewal.
This was not intended to be a revolutionary council, and nothing in its deliberations, documents, and reforms was meant to rewrite doctrine or Protestantize the faith. But the council’s sessions coincided with an era of social upheaval and cultural revolution in the West, and the hoped-for renewal was hijacked, in many cases, by those for whom renewal meant an accommodation to the spirit of the 1960s, and the transformation of the Church along liberal Protestant lines.
Soon, two parties developed: One followed the actual documents of the council and urged the Church to maintain continuity with Catholic teaching and tradition, and the other was loyal to a “spirit of the council” that just happened to coincide with the cultural fashions that came in its wake.
The second party had its way in many Catholic institutions—seminaries and religious orders, Catholic universities and diocesan bureaucracies—for many years. The results were at best disappointing, at worst disastrous: collapsing Mass attendance, vanishing vocations, a swift erosion of Catholic identity everywhere you looked.
But fortunately for the Church, a pope was elected who belonged to the first party, who rejected the hermeneutic of rupture, who carried the true intentions of the council forward while proclaiming the ancient truths of Catholicism anew. And while a liberalized, accommodationist Catholicism failed to reproduce itself and began to (literally) die out, the Catholic witness of this pope and his successor inspired exactly the kind of renewal the council fathers had hoped for: a generation of bishops, priests, and laity prepared to witness to the fullness of Catholicism, the splendor of its truth.
And by the turn of the millennium, it was clear to anyone with eyes to see that this generation owned the Catholic future, that the liberal alternative had been tried and failed, and that the Church of the twenty-first century would embody a successful synthesis—conservative but modern, rooted in tradition but not traditionalist—of conciliar and pre-conciliar Catholicism, the Church of two thousand years of history and the Church of Vatican II.
The story I’ve just sketched is the master narrative of conservative Catholicism in the West. It’s the story that was waiting for me when I became a Catholic in the late 1990s, late in John Paul II’s pontificate but while he was still hale and firmly in command. It’s a story that seemed confirmed by developments outside the Church and outside the United States—the collapse of Mainline Protestantism and the emergence of a kind of “Catholic moment” in American politics and culture; the growth of Catholicism in Africa and the faith’s clear fade in northern Europe, the home territory of the hermeneutic of rupture; and more. And when Joseph Ratzinger succeeded John Paul as Benedict XVI, “spirit of Vatican II” Catholicism seemed all but defeated, the triumph of conservative Catholicism seemed all but ratified, and the story I’ve just told, all but confirmed as true.
But now it’s a story in crisis.
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