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Authority - Yes, Authoritarianism - No

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 Contents - Feb 1992AD2000 February 1992 - Buy a copy now
The Pope's agenda - overcoming the obstacles - Michael Gilchrist
Authority - Yes, Authoritarianism - No - David Quinn

David Quinn is a Catholic layman of the post-Vatican Council generation who has lived in Australia since leaving Ireland in 1986. He is involved with a number of Catholic lay groups in Brisbane with a special interest in apologetics and in the philosophical presuppositions Of our modern era which he sees as drawn largely from the secular 'Enlightenment.' He presents an alternative view of the post-Vatican II era in the Catholic Church.

It is something of a cliche these days, but true nonetheless, to say that we live in a time of rapid and tumultuous change. Western society of 1992 seems only remotely connected to that of 1900. And while the most visible and obvious changes have been technological, the shift that has occurred in social attitudes and norms is almost certainly of greater significance.

Foremost amongst these changed attitudes is our view of authority. Indeed the chief hallmark of modernity is its view of authority. What is this view? Put as briefly and as simply as possible, and at the risk of being simplistic, if the pre-modern era was punctuated by a submissive attitude to authority, whether it be that of parents, teachers, priests, etc., then the modern is punctuated by rebellion against authority. If in the pre-modern era we were taught not to question, in the modern era we question all the presuppositions of our forebears, although not, alas, our own presuppositions. If in the pre-modern world authority all too often slipped over into authoritarianism and the rule of fear, in the modern era all forms of authority, with the possible exception of the natural sciences, have been undermined.

Tracing the causes and effects of this radical shift is beyond the scope of this essay. However, few would doubt that many of the presuppositions of our time can be traced back to the 18th century Enlightenment of Voltaire and Rousseau, including the belief that all claims to authority are relative. While the Western avant-garde imbibed Enlightenment ideas decades, even centuries ago, the shockwaves sent out by that intellectual earthquake did not hit the popular culture full-force until the 1960s. (If "Brides of Christ" did nothing else, it showed some of the effects of this impact. If Sr Catherine was nothing else she was a fullblown child of the Enlightenment. Sr Agnes, by contrast, was a product of the pre-modern world).

Was this rebellion necessary? In many ways yes. Our old attitude to authority was immature and childlike. The demise of authoritarianism was hardly something to be mourned. Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed: "Man has come of age." However, the rebellion against authoritarianism very quickly became a rebellion against authority per se. Philosophies such as existentialism exhorted us to take full advantage of the freedom won by this rebellion. We were told that we were even free from claims to absolute truth and morality. We could now create our own values. Many religious teachers today seem to view their role as being to help children do precisely this. The usual result is that Catholics uncritically imbibe their values from the culture around them, or emerge from the schools without any values at all.

The opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 coincided almost perfectly, (providentially?), with the sea change in social norms and values which occurred in the 1960s. The Council was the Church's experiment with a little glasnost and perestroika. It was an attempt to jettison much of the baggage carried over from the pre-modern model of the Church. It was an acknowledgement by the Church that it was often guilty of the authoritarianism which was a hallmark of the pre-modern era. Above all it was an attempt to bring the Church to some kind of terms with the Enlightenment, and, to a lesser extent, the Reformation.

Bringing the Roman Catholic Church to terms with the Enlightenment must seem to many an effort in squaring the circle. If it claims to be anything, the Catholic Church claims to be an authority on absolute truth and morality. But what was the Enlightenment about if it was not about rejecting, both in theory and practice, such claims to authority? How can the Church come to terms with such an attitude without in effect committing suicide and becoming a form of liberal Protestantism?

The answer to this question is absolutely crucial, and to a very large extent decides whether a person is to be considered a 'liberal" or a 'conservative.' (1 use these terms somewhat loosely). Conservatives have answered this question by declaring that in this conflict of ideas, the Church is right, and we must resist attempts to reconcile it to the modernity which is a child of the Enlightenment. Liberals on the other hand have declared that, on balance, the Church is mistaken in its attitude to authority, and that if we are to have any credibility then it must come to terms with modernity. (Coming to terms with modernity will usually mean severely limiting the authority of the Bible and the Magisterium).

In view of the above, it is no surprise to find conservatives stressing the Council's emphasis on continuity with past traditions and doctrines, while liberals stress its innovative aspects. With the battle lines thus drawn, both sides appear to have settled down into their entrenched positions. Ecumenical dialogue is absent where it is most needed. It is easy, of course, to be ecumenical about ideas which are of no importance to you.

1960s' naive optimism

Insofar as the above is an accurate picture, it seems to the writer that both camps have, understandably, but unnecessarily restricted the spirit of the Council. Few, except for bona fide reactionaries, will regret the passing of the pre-modern model of the Church. However, those who have vested capital and confidence in modernity and its promises are likely to be disappointed if they think they are the wave of the future. The reason for this is simple. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Enlightenment is coming apart at the seams.

Bonhoeffer exaggerated when he said "Man has come of age." We have perhaps reached adolescence. The nffive optimism of the sixties is nearly gone. Harvey Cox could not write The Secular City today. Rebellion is now a bit old-hat. Even the rebel yell of pop music looks distinctly jaded. We are learning that a society which disregards all claims to authority is badly dysfunctional. We cannot operate without an outside reference point - "no man is an island." Our lack of such a reference point, our attempt to be islands has led to an overemphasis on "rights" and an over-concern with "self." The result of this is rampant individualism, and, among other things, the mass breakdown in relationships we witness going on around us. We all need a guiding star. For Christians, of course, that star is Jesus.

Other dogmas of the Enlightenment are also looking badly frayed, e.g., the belief in the inevitable upward progress of mankind, and the belief in the all-sufficiency of scientific rationalism.

If the absence of any credible authority now seems harmful, if the Enlightenment has almost run out of steam, where do we go now? American theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, has called this moment we have arrived at "the Catholic Moment".

Man clearly needs to go beyond the adolescence of the modern world, to the post-modern world. As Neuhaus said, in such a world people will come to a "mature acceptance of the authoritative." Then perhaps, just perhaps we will truly have come of age. Instead of submission to authority, we will have respect for authority which has earned that respect. Instead of authoritarianism, we will have the authoritative. We will have moved from the authoritarian to the autonomous to the authoritative." For the Church, at least, instead of the rule of fear, we will have the rule of love. But it will be a "rule."

If the Church can grasp this moment, it will find itself at the cutting edge of progressive thinking. It will lead to what Hans Kung has called, "the enlightenment of the Enlightenment."

Post-modem synthesis

The spirit of Vatican II was postmodern. If both liberals and conservatives can realise this, and make the necessary adjustments in their thinking, we can possibly grasp the moment. It is crucial that liberals and conservatives do make the attempt to converge in a post-modern synthesis, and it is vital that neither liberal nor conservative should win the current battle for dominance in the Church. Should such dominance occur the Church might very well find itself permanently dismissed as a pre-modern relic, or else it will find itself aligned with an almost defunct Enlightenment. Were this latter event to occur, then the Church would effectively cease to exist. The last thing the world needs is a vapid carbon-copy of modernity.

Again, the spirit of Vatican II was post-modern. It probably did not set out to be so; it probably did not quite know what it was trying to do, or where it wanted the Church to go. For all that, it just might be the case that the spirit of the Council is greater than, and has transcended the sum of its confused parts.

If the post-modern entails a rejection of the authoritarian, but an acceptance of the need for the authoritative, this, at least implicitly, is exactly what the Council did. Our society has suffered cultural amnesia with regard to its heritage. The only significant custodian of that heritage left today is the Catholic Church. In stressing continuity with the past, the Council kept the Church, and hence society, in touch with this heritage. If we are to enter the post-modern, it is vital that we know our heritage because it can help us find the post-modern.

In rejecting the authoritarian, in unambiguously accepting and approving the existence of democratic societies, in showing greater respect for the truth claims of others, it embraced aspects of the Enlightenment, and made these part of our heritage. In placing greater importance on the role of the laity, and the study by the laity of Scripture, it embraced aspects of the Reformation which should have been embraced at Trent, and made these, too, part of the heritage we can pass onto future generations.

Vatican II did not go too far, as some would have it. Those who say that it did not go far enough are also mistaken. Instead it is we who did not go far enough. The spirit of Vatican II is somewhere ahead of us all, beckoning the Church into the post-modern world, so that we can lead society into the post-modern world. If we can leave at least some of the utterly debilitating arguments presently dividing us behind and embrace the spirit of the Council, we can do something of inestimable value for society.

As the editors of AD2000 will doubtless be aware, this magazine is often accused of being 'reactionary`, and of being out of step with Vatican II. Admittedly, AD2000 does not defend any area of doctrine, morals or liturgy which was not affirmed by the Council. But this will do little to deflect such criticism. By using such an argument in its defence, all AD2000 does is to emphasise one aspect of the Council's teaching, i.e., its affirmation of traditional Church teachings.

AD2000 might banish such criticisms if it were seen as unambiguously rejecting past authoritarianism, and acknowledging past excesses on the part of the Church while clearly embracing the Council's innovations. These are positions which I presume it holds, but which it needs to make more explicit.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 5 No 1 (February 1992), p. 12

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