21 October 2009

Simply Catholic: Cardinal George on the liberal project

In 1966, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, read a paper at a conference held at Johns Hopkins titled, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences."  Thus was the American academy introduced to the corrosive influence of deconstuction's radical skepticism about the ability of language to convey truth.  The history of the liberal arts in the U.S. since 1966 has been a long, sad story of decline into relativistic chaos and left-wing political manipulation.  Deconstruction is essentially (no pun) a machine of critique.  It is conceptually incapable of building anything.  It can only destroy.

In 1998, Francis Cardinal George stunned a congregation at Old St. Patrick's with this line delivered in his homily:  "Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project."  Later, he was asked to elaborate and did so at a Commmonweal forum held at Loyola University in 1999.

An except from his elaboration:

"We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this country. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life."

What started as a much-needed critical review of Church doctrine and practice in the late 19th century, peaked in the documents of Vatican Two, and found its most strident voices in the 70's and 80's has become the sterilizing practice of postmodern dissent and heresy.  The "necessary critique" of manual Thomism and semi-Janenist moral practice in the Church is indeed now "parasitical."

Just as deconstruction demolished the absurd pretenses of liberal western culture and literature with its relentless attack on language, and now sits like a bloated toad on the university quad poisoning everything in its reach, the Spirit of Vatican Two refreshed a moribund institutional Church only to find itself haunting a decimated and demoralized body of believers.

Lest we think the cure is nostalgia, Cardinal George quickly adds:

"The answer, however, is not to be found in a type of conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ."

We cannot rebuild the Church if the only vision of the Church we can see and communicate is the Church as it was in the 1800's.  The liberal project (exemplified by Newman) pushed the Church to engage the world in terms foreign to its basic philosophical foundations.  In taking on this challenge, the Church gained an incredibly fruitful means of evangelization that saw amazing results in the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council.

Then, like most good things, one good thing was taken to be the only thing and aggressive, unrelenting critique became the mark of being a Catholic intellectual.  Left aside were the pesky admonitions of tradition, ecclesial authority, reason, and just plain good sense.  The only thing that came to matter was opposition to alleged oppression and the failure to be radical enough in one's take-down of the Church.  This is the intellectual equivalent of deciding to renovate your kitchen by demolishing your house and killing your family.

What both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been trying to communicate to the Church and the world is this:  the time for critical demolition is over.  That project is done.  It is time to retire the dynamite, return the bulldozer, fire the demolition crews, and start to rebuild on the foundation left for us by the apostles.  At the very least, this means a return to the documents of Vatican Two, read and implemented through their continuity with the tradition and reason.  They are not calling us back to an uncritical embrace of Baroque Thomism and manual moralism.  Nor are they asking us to live in the illusions of a warmed-over 1950's nostalgia.  All they are asking the Church to do is start in the present, look back to where we came from and forward to where we are going without getting lost in the bitterness and cynicism that a life of complaint and opposition engenders.

Is that so hard?


  1. Anonymous3:20 AM

    This is one of the best elucidations I have ever seen on this sad dynamic. Welcome home, Father Philip Neri. FrM

  2. Amen Father Amen!!!

  3. Anonymous8:52 AM

    Dear Father,
    Your writings on so many subjects make me proud that our Dominican intellectual tradition is alive and well.
    God bless you.
    Sister C

  4. Fr. Philip Neri:

    Nice, thought provoking words.

    My reaction is here.

  5. After years of seeing the conciliar Popes textually waterboarded with blue Trad-koolaid, my motto is:

    Long live Vatican II, God save the Pope.

  6. i once took a literature criticism course which the professor freely and honestly confessed was essentially "Post Modernism 101."

    i don't recall much mention of Derrida, but Foucault, Nietzsche and several of the other ususal suspects got plenty of class time.

    It was a tough semester for me, but one positive which came out of it was my brother's recommendation to read GK Chesterton as an antidote to the assigned readings. Another was that my education in post-moderism also included an education in the modernism to which the post-modernists were reacting.

    My final paper for class was an assessment of what the course had done for me. My thesis was that i had discovered that i disagreed with both modernism and post-modernism. i'm still figuring out what that makes me, but i think your blog entry has some useful ideas on that score.

  7. A fascinating connection between Deconstruction and the "Spirit" of Vatican II (as opposed to the actual documents of the council) is found in the fact that many of Derrida's ideas on language and texts are derived from medieval Jewish mysticism. Apophasis is also found in mystical texts of the Christian middle ages and concepts found in "negative Theology"--human language is utterly unsuited to talk about God, and therefore we can only say what God is *not* insofar as God is beyond any human concept embodied in language. Language fails in trying to express mystical encounters with God.

    So the inability of texts to communicate is a real and central concern when dealing with apophatic mystical writings. But this concern is only there because of Who these writings are about.

    What Derrida did--and he was called out on this very issue at a conference in the 1970's--was take this methodology and apply it to all forms of human discourse. Deconstruction is a mutated form of mystic discourse.

    So too, much of the "Spirit" of Vatican II can be traced back to specific concerns, as Fr. Philip has so beautifully shown. But taken out of the context that made them necessary, they become warped.

  8. There is something missing in the Vatican II critiques and the “Spirit” of Vatican II.

    I’ll break this down:

    1. The actual council documents interpreted through the eyes of Tradition.

    2. The actual council documents interpreted through it’s ambiguity in the eyes of dissenters.

    3. The “Spirit” of Vatican II which gives rise to things that were not in the council BUT can be tied in with number 2 because it also entails manipulating the ambiguity in the council’s texts (yes its real, people working in and around the council admit to it and we have a clear example of it from the Lumen Gentium episode where it was discovered that the “liberals” at the council intended to manipulate the ambiguity in it).

    And this is the problem. It is not so two sided as we want to believe. It is not just liberals and modernists who hijacked a perfectly fine council versus the faithful who uphold the true teachings of the council. There is sometimes a problem with the texts of the council itself; vague and in need of interpretation – hard, clear and forceful interpretation from the top.

    Returning to the documents of Vatican II requires recognizing the fact of its ambiguity. One cannot simply return to Vatican II as if it is clear cut as that mean old Thomism (nice jab at so-called “Baroque” Thomism, its superior anyway).

    I cannot tell you how many times I run into good people who interpret the council in direct contradiction to past Church teaching. They are not liberals, they are not dissenters, they are not for women priests, etc. etc… they are trying to be faithful and they cannot read certain parts of Vatican II and interpret them correctly. And some of these people are well learned, not just typical laymen.

    It is also outrageous to declare the Holy Father John Paul II as someone who put a stop to all the destruction. JPII has done both good and bad things; one cannot simply ignore the bad and think it does not affect the Church. JPII allowed the usage of so much novelty which he could have slowly eliminated that goes against organic development.

    The list is as follows (some of these things are banned in certain countries and indults in others):

    1. Communion in the hand (which to JPII’s credit he disliked yet never tried to eliminate).
    2. Altar girls (again, he calls them an abomination and yet never stopped their legalization).
    3. The priest facing the people.
    4. Massive legal usage of EMHC.
    5. Communion standing.
    6. Total vernacular liturgies.
    7. Ambiguous ecumenism where there was no explicit mention of the need to convert to the Catholic faith in order to be saved.

    Other actions that directly affect the faith caused by JPII, which no corrections were made if they were mistakes on his part as to subside scandal:

    1. Kissing the Qur'an (which people have died rather than do).
    2. Kissing the ring of pro-abortion “bishop” Rowan Williams and giving him a pectoral cross (a sign of authority, which he doesn’t have because he is Anglican).
    3. Inviting pagans to Assisi where he gave them space on sacred Church ground to worship their gods which Scripture calls demons.
    4. Multiple appearances of scantly clad women before him (like circus performers).
    5. Asking St. John the Baptist to protect Islam (on the Vatican’s website)
    6. Suggested that schematics can be martyrs (Ut Unum Sint) even though they cannot witness for the Catholic faith.

    I guess could go on, but I won’t.

    These actions clearly aid in the scandalizing and harming faith and morals in some way.

    On the positive side he did stop the Dutch Catechism, Communism, and at least gave some effort towards dissenters unlike Paul VI and much more. But he is a mixed bag and can certainly not be pointed to for a person who is trying to stop the destruction completely.