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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