Eric Hodgens. Catholic Culture Wars.

Jan 30, 2019

Culture Wars are a feature of today’s political life. The Catholic Church has likewise been through the wars. Here are some features of the last fifty years.

A clash of cultures was graphically dramatized in 1968 when Paul VI published Humanae Vitae. It was a major moment in a tumultuous year. Europe was split over the Vietnam War. Student riots paralysed Paris and alarmed a young theology professor in Tubingen, Joseph Ratzinger, into retreat to a fearful conservatism. The baby boomer generation was rejecting old certainties and exercising new freedoms, especially sexual, that alarmed their elders. Paul’s condemnation of contraception was accepted or rejected along the lines of this cultural divide.

The repercussions are still being felt 50 years later. And the focus of the debate is sex. Negativity on sex, which has dogged the Church in various ways from its earliest days, took centre stage again.

The papal voice has never had the same authority since Humanae Vitae. It was Paul VI’s seventh encyclical in four years– and his last. Ten more years without encyclicals.

Seeds of division were sewn in the Church during Vatican II. The open-up group won hands down at the council, but the stay-closed group bided its time. Paul could not cope with confrontation and shuttled between promoting the new and pacifying the stay-puts. This slowed, but did not stop, the reform.

The 1978 arrival of John Paul II reversed the flow. Restoration replaced the reform. This widened and consolidated the division. And, unlike Paul VI, he was a warrior who would act on his opinions. Culture warfare had arrived within the Church.

Sexuality was one of JP II’s dominant preoccupations. He re-asserted opposition to contraception and began a six-year exposition of his Theology of the Body at his Wednesday audiences. This was an exercise in apologetics – an attempt at rational explanation for his position on human sexuality.

He set up structures for the battle. First, he established the Pontifical Commission for Marriage and the Family to promote his views in the public forum and in political institutions like the UN Conference for Environment and Development. Here, public policy on issues like family planning could be influenced.

Next, he established the Institute for Marriage and the Family as an apologetics institute to develop his ideas. It was to provide academic justification for papal sexual doctrine and to develop the philosophy of bioethics along papal policy lines. It was to produce tertiarily qualified warriors to help hold the papal line in public debate – to protect “God’s truth” against secularism and relativism.

Apologetics influences public debate by using dialogue. But it risks slipping into ideological monologue. Ideology starts with the conclusion and promotes it with propaganda. JP II was no stranger to this practice having lived under Communist Russia – a master of propaganda.

Australia has had strong connections with the Pontifical Commission and the Institute. Cardinal Knox was Archbishop of Melbourne for seven years before being called to Rome to be Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. But then, in 1991, John Paul II appointed him President of the Pontifical Commission for Marriage and the Family. He held that position till his death in 1993.

A Melbourne priest, Peter Elliott, spent some years on the staff of the Commission under the presidency of the shadowy and controversial (condoms don’t stop Aids) Cardinal Trujillo. Elliott was a friend of Cardinal George Pell. So, he had two patrons for promotion. Pell recalled him to Melbourne to head up a restoration of old style catechetics texts in schools. He then became Pell’s auxiliary bishop.

George Pell, who was ideologically aligned with John Paul II, established a campus of the JP II Institute in Melbourne when he was archbishop. He appointed his protege Anthony Fisher, as its first director. Pell oversaw Fisher’s rise to Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Bishop of Paramatta and, now, Archbishop of Sydney. Fisher is still a champion of the ideology of the JP II Institute. Peter Elliott was his successor as Director of the Institute in Melbourne.

Another of Pell’s protégés, and, like Fisher, an ethicist, is Peter Comensoli. He has post-graduate degrees from St Andrews and Edinburgh universities. His path was like Fisher’s. First, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney then Bishop of Broken Bay and, now Archbishop of Melbourne.

While Archbishop of Sydney, Pell also fostered the development of Notre Dame University in Sydney. It has an Institute for Ethics and Society. It is aligned with the Theology of the Body corpus of ethics. One of its Visiting Scholars is John Haldane of St. Andrew’s University, Edinburgh under whom Archbishop Comensoli studied. Tracey Rowland, formerly director of the JP II Institute in Melbourne, is now on its staff. Archbishop Comensoli’s recently appointed Policy Advisor, Nigel Zimmerman, did his doctorate on JP II’s Theology of the Body at Edinburgh University. He comes to Melbourne from being a lecturer at Notre Dame. He is on the seasonal faculty of the JP II Institute.

The JP II culture is disbursed world-wide. It is focusses on a wide range of single issues. From a starting point of opposition to any form of sexual liberality, including contraception, it holds a conservative line in debates on bio-ethics. It sees same-sex attraction as “objectively disordered” to use the language of the Catholic Catechism. It holds its conservative positions passionately and argues them vigorously in public. Because it holds its policies as absolutes, it believes they should be state-enforced. It campaigned against same-sex marriage and dying with dignity.

Emboldened by decades of papal and episcopal backing, it claims to be defending the teaching of the Church. But that teaching is not received by many well-informed Catholics who disagree with, or have more nuanced views on, many of their moral stands. Catholicism is not a monolithic culture any more.

Pope Francis has brought a major change to the culture of the Church. Pastoral care is his top priority. He has changed the balance in the culture wars. Law and Order is still necessary, but must help, not hinder, pastoral care. The law is made for man, not man for the law. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is very quiet these days.

To implement this change he has set up a new dicastory (Vatican Department) of Laity, Family and Life. This has absorbed the Pontifical Commission for Marriage and the Family. To what extent this will temper the culture wars remains to be seen.

Meanwhile clerical sexual abuse and the disastrous handling of the problem by bishops has deauthorised them especially any on their views on sexual morality. This issue is rapidly growing bigger as state authorities publish numbers.

A consequence of this culture war is the loss of many Catholics. It is a pity if the Church alienates so many because of the intransigence of a few who have the final say. Yet that is the scenario as the JP II/Pell cohort stands kitted for a war which, at best, can only lead to Pyrrhic Victory.

Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest based in Melbourne.

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13 thoughts on “Eric Hodgens. Catholic Culture Wars.

  1. To the Moderator.
    I could not find a “contact us” button, so I am using this to reach you. The final comment in this article made by Dr Herrick is very questionable; it is at best an esoteric interpretation, at worst, plain wrong. It contains a slur against the opinion I had expressed. I wrote a reply in order that her opinion not be left unanswered as if it were true, but you have not posted it. I take this seriously; I am a former priest, and an academic for 25 years, so I am known to thousands of people, especially my colleagues from the seminary days. The implication Herrick has made that my opinion “allows by default for the minimization of the seriousness of adult clerical sexual abuse…” is a slur, and in no way represents my opinion. It should have been moderated out. So I am disappointed with Pearls&; what would be the point of reading any story, if serious alternative comments are ruled out. The least you can do, but probably too late anyway, is to post the reply to her that I sent last week.

    1. ‘Let us not get mired in semantics.’?
      Let us, please, not take our wonderful selves too seriously?
      What the H—
      Is S.T.L.?

  2. Eric….an enlightened window into the sprawling vista of ecclesiolgy in action.Interesting to notice the coalescing of ‘mates’ sharing common ideology themes about SEX !…and associated apologetics. It has been said with truth: ‘Down through the years the Catholic church has had a fixation on sex…and, now sex has brought the Catholic church to its knees’. Maybe an acknowledgement of this reality may be a stepping stone back to the reason why the church exists viz. ‘To be the transforming presence of Jesus in the world’

  3. Eric it’s a real shame that John Paul II’s ideology is still being promoted in high circles. They conveniently forget that as pope he shielded the founder of Legionaries of Christ Fr. Marciel Degollado who was a sexual predator known to prey upon young seminarians. Even in 2010 when Richard Sipe (priest and psychologist) posted an essay on priests blog about priests sexuality called “The Cardinal McGarrick Syndrome” the successor Pope Benedict did nothing. They conveniently turn a blind eye to sexual crimes in their own midst.
    Why have they replaced Christ and his teachings with their own ideology? Jesus challenged religious leaders with this statement: “In vain do they worship…. teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” ( Matthew 15:9).

  4. Good article Eric, showing an interesting thread or should that be web, of personnel.

  5. “Ideology starts with the conclusion and promotes it with propaganda”. Well expressed, Eric. I would say it applies also to much of Christian theology. The Old and New Testaments are the starting point, and theology took a few of its concepts and has extrapolated them almost endlessly. The notion of “divinely inspired revelation” can never be proven rationally, so it becomes an assertion that must be believed. Even the Sacraments are extrapolated from minimal Gospel content. Catholic theology takes more of its message from St. Paul than it does the Gospels, and I think this is the source of so much heavy moralism about behaviour. One of the contradictions that I find bemusing is that marriage is made a sacrament, which lifts married sex to the level of increasing grace in the soul. Then celibacy is rated a higher state of grace than marriage! (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Encyclical Of Pope Paul Vi On The Celibacy Of The Priest June 24, 1967 Par 20). So a church law is elevated above a Sacrament. Yet the observance of celibacy is problematic, not only on the hot issue of paedophilia, but on all the liaisons, consensual or otherwise, that could be and have been often documented. Sex is the church’s obsession, and sadly based on a very inadequate concept of nature.

    1. Peter, it would help if you revisited “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Par 20” for what you suggest is not asserted by the actual text.

      The reference to a superior covenant is footnoted (Footnote 26). Celibacy is not being discussed in this context: rather it is a reference to Hebrews 8.6. where Jesus’ covenant is presented as being superior to the Mosaic covenant.

      Then there is a quick leap to Jesus’ own lifestyle of celibacy and Paul’s teaching on virginity – as indicated in footnote 27, referring to I Cor 7.33-35.

      Paragraph 20, along with the entire document is an apologia for retaining the discipline of celibacy for Latin Rite clergy. But no case can be made to support your claim that “….celibacy is rated a higher state of grace than marriage! “

      1. Carey, yes it is an apologia for celibacy, and that is why its claims should be examined. I tried to avoid a long philosophical argument when I commented; but I will just make a couple of points. Sacraments confer grace ex opere operato, so marriage and holy orders are on the same page. Yet in the encyclical on priestly celibacy, in Par.21 it states “This deep concern between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood.” This surely is saying that celibacy adds to the Sacrament a more perfect sharing with Jesus Christ. Maybe I should have referred originally to both Par 20 and 21; but in english (and in the latin text) it appears that celibacy is claimed to add to the Sacraments.

    2. Priests who engage in sexual interaction, usually with adult parishioners they opportunely have access to, are not in liaisons, they are in sexually abusive interactions. Why? Because power imbalance psychologically negates valid consent. So “liaisons, consensual or otherwise” is a misnomer unless the priest is sexually engaged with another priest of equal rank. Then it is “a liaison, consensual or otherwise.”

      1. Jennifer, let us not get mired in semantics. Collins dictionary states that liaison can describe a sexual relationship. You are correct to note that power imbalance is a big issue. I would add that even among people of equal rank, if not consensual, it would also be abusive. Power imbalance is not necessarily confined to rank, but can be part of a complicated psychological syndrome.

        1. Peter, please re read what I have written. I do not engage in semantics. That is not my practice. Nor do I confine abuse to only rank based power imbalance. What I am doing is calling out clerical sexual engagement, which is usually with parishioners or juniors, as being sexually abusive interactions (not relationships, a word you have substituted for my word of interaction) over against them being referred to as liaisons. The Collins dictionary you use proves my point. Liaisons are sexual relationships. Clerical sexual engagement with parishioners or underlings are not relationships, nor are they liaisons. To suggest that differentiating these words is engaging in semantics allows by default for the minimization of the seriousness of adult clerical sexual abuse.

          1. Atta Girl, DR. Jennifer.
            Power imbalance negates consent.
            End of Story.

  6. I think it’s a generalisation to say bishops are deauthorised on sexual morality. Catholics can be conservative or liberal, but the Bishops still have the right to preach the Bible to us, unless they are sacked, ie defrocked. All Catholics have a right and duty to preach the Gospels. Saying otherwise is throwin* the baby out with the bathwater. Cath.

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