Devils and the Depths of the Unconscious
A look at diabolical possession, heavenly apparitions, speaking in tongues and imposter popes will give us a concrete way to gain some sense of the hidden dynamics that are the subject matter of this book.
Interest in diabolical possession has been on the upswing in the Catholic Church for some time, and this has been attributed to the charismatic movement as well as a return to traditional forms of spirituality favored in conservative circles.1 The underlying sentiment to be sometimes found among those who have a practical interest in possession appears to be that while the secular world and their liberal church counterparts ignore or ridicule the possibility of diabolical activity, the truly devout are more sensitive to the working of Satan and his minions, and devils attack them with more alacrity as greater threats to the kingdom of darkness.
This fascination with the devil had earlier received a boost with the publication of The Exorcist in 1971, and then the movie based on the book in 1973. One of the movie’s priest consultants, who also played a minor role in it, later recalled some of the turmoil stirred up across the country. People called, “looking for an instant fix – pleading with me to expel their own demons, their kids’ demons, even their cats’ demons.”2 This fascination with the demonic got another impetus in 1991 when ABC’s 20/20 aired the exorcism of a 16-year-old girl with the help of a New York archdiocesan priest, James LeBar, who defended the show as a demonstration of the existence of the devil in the world, claiming it had the value of letting people know that help was available for those afflicted by demons, arguments that presumed the very thing that needed to be demonstrated, that is, that the girl was actually possessed. It is hard to imagine what reasons could be advanced to justify the exorcism of a minor on television, especially when insufficient care was taken to keep confidential the identity of the girl, although it was managed in the case of the exorcist, himself. We become even more amazed at the lack of psychological understanding shown in the whole affair when it turns out that the girl had been under treatment for psychosis both before and after the show. But even this fact does not appear to have given LeBar much pause: “She’s spiritually normal today.” And her psychosis? “That has nothing to do with the demons.”3
In 1993, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the official exorcist of the diocese of Rome, helped found the International Association of Exorcists, which then had 6 members, and by 2000 had grown to 200. Similarly, the number of exorcists in Italy went, according to Amorth, from less than 20 in 1986 to more than 300 in 2000. Amorth tells us he asks for a medical history, and when he thinks it advisable, consults a psychiatrist. The whole process might, however, go on once a week for 4 or 5 years. And he claims that only the exorcism, itself, demonstrates whether a demon is present or not, and “an unnecessary exorcism never harmed anyone.” The pope, himself, Amorth states, has conducted three exorcisms starting in 1982. During the 1982 exorcism, Amorth, according to Reuters, said, “This girl was rolling around on the ground. People in the Vatican had never seen anything like it. For us exorcists it was run of the mill.” In a more recent event he reports: “(A)t his weekly audience at St. Peter's, a young woman from a village near Monza started to shriek as the Pope was about to bless her. She shouted obscenities at him in a strange voice. The Pope blessed her and brought her relief, but the Devil is still in her. She is exorcised each week in Milan and she is now coming to me once a month…” Another version of this story had Amorth exorcising her the day before, or the very morning she encountered the pope.4
Rufus Perea, an exorcist in Bombay with a global ministry, felt that personal experience had led him into this kind of work. Two women had come to him complaining of possession, and he began to pray for them. One was flung to the ground, and the evil one began to speak through her, glaring at the priest with eyes full of hate. The possessed woman wanted to jump at his throat, the priest said. He began to pray in tongues. Suddenly the woman’s face became angelic. Perea says in regard to whether a particular case is a matter of possession: “I have no time to make this distinction.”
The Greek Catholic exorcist Gregory Planchak thinks that other spiritual beings besides demons can possess souls, and he illustrates this belief with the following story. A girl came to him for confession, and he felt that the confession was starting to go bad. He began to pray over her, and a spirit manifested itself, and so he started an exorcism. The demon said his name was Viktor, and Viktor turned out not to be a devil, but someone who had been married to another woman, but loved this girl so much that he finally slept with her. Then she rejected him, and he killed himself, and entered into the girl. The priest prayed over her, and in ten minutes Viktor was gone.5
When Tom Hoppes, executive editor of the National Catholic Register, set out to write an article on possession for Crisis magazine he thought it would “be fun – a spooky thrill. I’d write the article, warn about being too preoccupied with the subject matter, and be done. Instead, I got sleepless nights, horrifying conversations.” He writes principally about James who at age 10 had his first encounter with the devil and cried out, “The lunatic is in my head. There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”6 Another person, “a well-known Catholic leader respected for his pragmatism,” sees figures out of the corners of his eyes, and images of crows and carpets of spiders. And all those attacked by the demons feel someone is looking at them. Hoppes characterizes these victims as “anxious or depressed, disoriented in their spiritual lives or slowly losing their minds – always wondering if the thoughts filling their heads are really their own.” The demons themselves, far from being fallen angels of great intelligence, appear to be “working on some kind of animal instinct.” In a nauseating image Hoppes describes them as highly developed malevolent insects that hate you yet want to be with you forever.
Are we faced with an epidemic of diabolical possession? I don’t think so. Instead, we are confronted with the first of the substitutes, or counterfeits of faith, that we will be examining. It is normal and natural for us to go about imagining that our psyches are identical with our everyday consciousness. Therefore, everything that is not the result of our conscious thought or volition strikes us as if it is due to some outside agency. In a religious context, our reasoning can go like this: “I certainly didn’t cause this interior event to happen. Thus it must be due to someone else, either God or the devil.” This kind of reasoning, however naïve it may first appear when it is first articulated is, in fact, quite resistant to even a considerable theoretical knowledge of the psyche. We could call it a God, ego, devil view of the psyche in which we imagine ourselves as identical with our egos, and God and heavenly beings are above us, and devils below.
But this interior cosmology is oversimplified, and therefore incorrect. There are at least four dimensions we need to take into account: God, ego consciousness, the psychological unconscious, and the devil. The unconscious is a whole inner world of the psyche that lies beyond the boundaries of the ego and its awareness, and has a structure and dynamism of its own. Jung called the structural elements of the unconscious archetypes, and explored how the energy they generate profoundly influences ego consciousness. We can liken these archetypes to partial personalities, or even a bundle of semi-autonomous personalities that interact with each other, and with consciousness. Thus, the unconscious possesses features that under the conditions of illness or stress can gain in energy and make themselves known in such a way that they appear to be separate personalities.
The revision of the rite of exorcism, issued by the Vatican in 1988, states that exorcists “first of all, must not consider people to be vexed by demons who are suffering above all from some psychic illness.”7 But that is hardly what we are seeing. From a psychological point of view, the account of Viktor is a frightening story, and not because of Viktor, himself. Rather, it exhibits a striking lack of awareness of the power of the psyche to generate these kinds of phenomena. The girl who came to confession was already in a state of psychological distress, and the priest intensified this by praying over her: “There was a manifestation of a spirit, so I started the prayer of exorcism.” Obviously, no time was spent considering the possibility of natural causes for this phenomenon. We can ask whether, in a certain way, the priest did not evoke Viktor out of the girl’s unconscious by his own behavior which intensified the state of tension the girl was in, and thus, energized an element in her unconscious which then appeared as Viktor.
One can then only agree with Joseph Mahoney, a Catholic chaplain in Detroit, who believes that exorcism can be extremely destructive when practiced on people with undiagnosed multi-personality disorders. One study, he tells us, concluded that exorcism could create new personalities.8 I think it would be possible to generalize Mahoney’s comments and say that even in healthy people the unconscious is filled with semi-autonomous factors, or archetypes, and exorcism can energize them and lead to psychological problems. Exorcism has the destructive potential to activate and evoke “demons” out of the unconscious and betrays in the cases we have been seeing a serious and dangerous lack of psychological awareness. It is also interesting to note that in the cases mentioned above, it was celibate men exorcising women, a fact which has the potential to intensify the psychological dynamics involved.
Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty gives us a detailed account of the contemporary diabolical landscape, and while he strives to be both objective and sympathetic, the overall picture he paints is not reassuring. Some of the people, for example, who are in a position to observe supposed cases of diabolic possession have seen a great interest in possession – which Cuneo attributes in part to the media – but these observers agree that they have seen no evidence of actual possession. Cuneo, himself, writes in regard to the existence of devils: “More than fifty exorcisms later I’m still in no position to pass judgment on this. All I can say is that my fifty-plus exorcisms turned up no definitive evidence of their existence. And right now this is all I have to go on.”9
As exorcists gained more experience over the years, one might argue, they have become more sophisticated in distinguishing the possessed from the mentally ill. James LeBar, for example, says, “In most cases, people with serious mental illness are not at all possessed by the demon... To treat the mental illness, as we treat exorcism, there would be no results at all, no good results. Mental illness needs to be treated as a mental illness, not a spiritual malady.”10 But when asked how this discernment was carried out, his response was less reassuring: “It just sort of comes to you by experience. There's not any strict form or regular thing that happens. Sometimes a person speaks a lot of things in a strange language. Other times they may be struggling and have to be restrained.”11
Gabriele Amorth says, “It is essential not to confuse demonic possession with ordinary illness. The symptoms of possession often include violent headaches and stomach cramps, but you must always go to the doctor before you go to the exorcist. I have people come to me who are not possessed at all. They are suffering from epilepsy or schizophrenia or other mental problems. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only a hundred or so have been truly possessed.” But how does one tell? “By their aversion to the sacrament and all things sacred.” But when further questioned whether a mentally ill person could, as well, act in this way, his reply is chilling: "We can sort out the phony ones. We look into their eyes. As part of the exorcism, at specific times during the prayers, holding two fingers on the patient's eyes we raise the eyelids. Almost always, in cases of evil presence, the eyes look completely white. Even with the help of both hands, we can barely discern whether the pupils are towards the top or the bottom of the eye. If the pupils are looking up, the demons in possession are scorpions. If looking down, they are serpents.”12
While it is certainly true that the question of possession could be taken up from a theological perspective rather than the psychological one that is being employed here, there is reason to doubt that the theology of the exorcists would be much more reassuring than their psychology. At a meeting of the International Association of Exorcists there was serious debate whether the dead who died in sin could possess the living, as we saw in the case of Viktor.13 And Amorth tells us, “For a demon to leave a body and go back to hell means to die forever and to lose any ability to molest people in the future. He expresses his desperation saying: ‘I am dying, I am dying. You are killing me; you have won. All priests are murderers’.” “The vast majority of cases of possession,” he says, “come from curses as in witchcraft, and because of this he was greatly upset when the new Roman ritual for exorcism forbade it in these cases. The new ritual also failed to meet his approval when it restricted exorcism to cases when there was certainty the devil was present. “That is ridiculous,” Amorth retorts, “It is only through exorcism that the demons reveal themselves. An unnecessary exorcism never hurt anybody.”14
We ought to feel compassion for people suffering from these afflictions, but there is little in these stories that would lead us to believe that they are suffering at the hands of demons. We have entered a world akin to, if not identical, to the one in which UFO aliens abduct people and conduct experiments on them. This world, however, is not in outer space, or the infernal region of demons, but in the psychological unconscious which hatches both these demons and aliens.
None of this relocating of demons to the human psyche should be taken as denial that devils exist and can interact in some fashion with human beings. But we are far from a genuine theological inquiry about these issues in what we have been seeing which, in fact, clouds such an inquiry rather than providing raw material for it. Evil certainly abounds in this world and in our hearts, but to attribute it to what in all appearances are unintegrated parts of our psyches does little to deal with real evil.
We came to a rather negative assessment of the cases of diabolical possession we saw, but this should not be taken as a confirmation of a psychological reductionism in which an over-credulous faith is countered with a denial that says all spiritual phenomena are nothing but manifestations of the psychological unconscious. What we are moving towards is a more nuanced and interactive approach in which even genuine spiritual graces are received and conditioned by the psyche. Let’s look at what Karl Rahner has to say about how these genuine graces reverberate within the psyche and produce visions and revelations.
A vision, Karl Rahner tells us in Visions and Prophecies, (1963, NY: Herder and Herder) “is a kind of overflow and echo of a much more intimate and spiritual process.”15 “The imaginative vision… is only the radiation and reflex of contemplation in the sphere of the senses, the incarnation of the mystical process of the spirit.”16 Because an interior grace underlies the vision, we can understand why a certain deep humility, as well as other virtues, were looked for as signs that the vision was genuine, but even in the case of a saint who is receiving genuine contemplative graces, his or her visions are a compound “of the divine influence plus all the subjective dispositions of the visionary.”17 We can imagine the interior grace received deep in the center of the soul, as it were, and then echoing or reverberating throughout the psyche of the seer, and therefore being received by the psyche which expresses the grace to itself in the form of the interior vision according to the visionary’s education, historical situation, particular temperament, and so forth. Therefore, we can say that “imaginative visions are as a rule only indirectly caused by God.”18 Subsequently it becomes extremely difficult for any outside observer to distinguish between what part of the vision could be said to be a direct result of the interior grace, and what part is the result of this grace’s reception in the psyche. Even the visionary who can experience the authenticity of the interior grace is in a similar position. There is no way for the visionary to decide with complete certitude what part of the vision comes from God and what is coming from the psyche.
As bold as this thesis may first appear, Rahner abundantly supports it by turning to the lives of the saints, and illustrating that even when we can presume the sanctity of the person receiving the vision or revelation, that person can be mistaken about its import. St. Vincent Ferrer, for example, thought his visions taught him the end of the world was close, while St. Catherine of Siena believed Our Lady had told her she had not been conceived immaculately. St. Frances of Rome had visions that told her about the nature of the heavens, but which, in fact, were incorrect. St. Magdalene of Pazzi, St. Brigid of Sweden and St. Elizabeth of Schoenau all had revelations about the lives of Jesus and Mary, but contradicted each other.
The yet-to-be-canonized have not fared any better. Josefa Menéndez was told by Jesus that the robe Mary had made for Him grew as He grew, and Lucía of Fatima learned from an angel a prayer that was theologically unsound. In short, “Even in “genuine” imaginative visions human powers are creatively at work.”19 From the perspective of these interactions between grace and the psyche, other questions could be examined, Rahner tells us, like the fashions in visions that have appeared through the ages, and the interplay of visions with psychopathological influences, or how the vision may interact with parapsychological gifts, or how a genuine vision might be followed by more human ones, for “true visions produce a habitus and may so foster an inclination already present that this will sometimes set the psychic mechanism operating even if there is no divine motion.”20
Clearly we might imagine that these interactions between sanctity and the psyche would be of great interest to those who are charged with examining the candidates for sainthood. This, unfortunately, does not appear to be the case. In Making Saints, Kenneth Woodward touches on the psychological knowledge of these examiners. While trained in spiritual theology, they are rarely educated in depth psychology. One clerical consultant told him: “You cannot mention Sigmund Freud at the Vatican. You cannot mention Carl Jung, either, because they are considered atheists. You can, of course, make use of their theories, but you must be guarded in what you write.”21
This is highly regrettable. Some of the cases examined cry out for psychological analysis. In one case that Woodward reports, a Portuguese visionary, Alexandrina Maria da Costa, undergoes various childhood traumas, including an attempted rape, which leads to total paralysis. Then she turns to religion and is free of the paralysis during her passion ecstasies. The consultant in this case considered that her visions and revelations – which contained a significant amount of psycho-sexual material – could be of divine origin and don’t appear effected by “a mental illness to which her extraordinary manifestations could be attributed.” They have doubts, however, about her protracted bouts with the devil and her feeling that the devil has turned her body into an instrument of lust. “We don’t know of any other example in the whole of hagiography like the experience suffered by Alexandrina.” Hardly. Such cases appear both in the spiritual and psychological literature and can be manifestations of the autonomy and power of the archetypes, especially when they have been cut off from normal conscious expression.
Rahner’s theological reflections about visions are far from being simply theoretical when it comes to Marian apparitions, either. This can be illustrated by turning to the case of the visionaries of Medjugorje where coming to a judgment about their authenticity seems to resist the obvious conclusions of hallucination, fraud, or completely genuine visions. Scientific testing, for example, appears to indicate that the visionaries at the beginning and end of their apparitions looked more or less simultaneously at the same point in space. They were also impervious to loud noises and bright lights during their visions, and passed other tests, as well, to rule out epilepsy, sleep or dream states, as well as pathological hallucinations. One investigator told Paris Match: “The phenomena of the apparitions of Medjugorje cannot be explained scientifically.”22
Paranormal, or parapsychological events appear to have accompanied the visions, as well. The visionaries raced up the rocks of the local holy mountain at great speed, leaving athletic men far behind. At the rectory where they received their visions, hundreds of birds noisily gathered, only to go eerily and absolutely silent when the apparitions began.23 A number of well-documented miracles are to be found among the pilgrims to Medjugorje. In one particularly dramatic case of an American, Charlene Vance, her crushed ankle, which had been run over by a tractor, was restored.24 Then there are the unsung moral miracles of conversion and amendment of life, and even John Paul II seemed to favor the authenticity of the apparitions.
Let’s suppose all these things are true, as they appear to be. Have we ruled out fraud and hallucinations, and are left with the conclusion that these are true visions of Mary? There are some entries on the negative side of the ledger that can keep us from rushing to a positive assessment. There is, for example, the unprecedented number of apparitions over many years in a variety of places. There is also some confusion about when the apparitions were supposed to end, and what signs were to be given to authenticate them. And there are the threats supposedly uttered by Our Lady against the local bishop who needed to be “converted,” “before it was too late.”25
Then we have the messages of Mary, herself. We are told that this multitude of messages is in harmony with Christian doctrine, and therefore this serves as a sign that the visions are genuine. But this line of argumentation is less impressive than it first appears, for the content of the messages, while of undeniable importance calling people to conversion and prayer, are repeated over and over and over again. One can almost be led to the point of asking why the Blessed Virgin would need to appear so many times, and insist on the importance of these messages, given their content.
The complex interactions that Rahner described that can be involved in visions find echoes in the fact that several observers argue that the visions of Medjugorje might not be all of one piece. According to a priest deeply immersed in the local scene at Medjugorje, “Well, I exclude hallucination and human invention. Absolutely. After eight years here, I feel certain that the visionaries are in touch with a spirit entity. But is it the Mother of God? … I know I haven’t spoken clearly about what I believe it is. It’s almost like I’m afraid to say it out loud. To say I believe that this entity is not the Mother of God but an evil spirit, one that comes as though benign but leaves a bloody mess on the ground.”26
Randall Sullivan, whose account of Medjugorje we have been following, put it like this: “After all this time, I was still utterly unable to reconcile my belief that what I had seen and heard and experienced in Medjugorje was true, with my equally embedded conviction that it wasn’t definitively true, that it was, in fact, as much a phenomenon of human nature as of divine will.”27 His interviews with the Dominican, Gabriel O’Donnell, and the Capuchin Benedict Groeschel, both experienced in the investigation of the supposedly miraculous, produced similar responses. O’Donnell, without addressing Medjugorje in particular, found most troubling the cases in which “these things begin as authentic and become something else, because the visionary somehow confuses or even co-opts the message.”28 “A person who has had the experience of the door opening from the other side can, through some process of the subconscious much like Jung described, re-create the experience.”29
Groeschel speaking about Medjugorje said, “It would seem to me that there very well may have been an original supernatural phenomenon, perhaps a very powerful one… Whatever it was at the beginning, though, I’m inclined to believe it changed into something else.”30 His own experience with the woman who was the author of The Course in Miracles had taught him that “these things can be both real and imaginary, paranormal and spiritual, divine and diabolical. And that when you enter the world of the supernatural, the worst mistake you can make is to impose a ultrarealist point of view.”31 He tried to sum up Sullivan’s position and his own: ““It’s obvious to me that you are convinced a major supernatural phenomenon, a breaking of God into this world, took place in this situation… You are not so sure it continued, however, and in fact strongly suspect that it got altered or corrupted or lost or replaced by something else.” This was not so far from what he himself believed, Groeschel added, “except that, unlike you, I am willing to say I think that what goes on now, and has gone on for some time, may be a form of hysteria. A deeply devout hysteria, to be sure, almost a positive kind of hysteria, because it’s an echo of the original event. Or it could still be real but somehow not pure and so not real in the same way. Not wholly real.”32
Our goal is not to try to come to some definitive opinion about Medjugorje, but only to see how difficult it can be to come to a clear judgment about it. The complexity we are witnessing here can help us move in the direction of a more comprehensive and nuanced view of the interactions between genuine graces and the human psyche. The charismatic practice of speaking in tongues, said to be given by the Holy Spirit, gives us a third way to look briefly at this same interaction.
Speaking in Tongues
“Pentecostalism,” writes one of its Catholic advocates, “provides unmediated access to God. Anyone can receive the gift of tongues… Pentecostalism is based on personal experience rather than words. That’s what makes it so potent. The experience of God is considered much more important than dogma or doctrine.”33 But it is not hard to see the unexamined assumption that is operating here, which is whether, indeed, something like the gift of tongues can be said to be an unmediated direct gift of the Holy Spirit. It is much more reasonable to assume that speaking in tongues follows the pattern we have been seeing in which even genuine graces – in this case a genuine grace of conversion and a calling to a deeper life of prayer – interact with the psyche so that the resulting phenomena like speaking in tongues is at best a mixture of the two.
This issue should certainly be the central one in any evaluation of the Catholic charismatic movement, but it does not appear to have taken center stage either with the charismatics, themselves, or with the church authorities who have praised the movement. Such an evaluation would need to raise both theological and psychological questions. From a theological point of view, for example, speaking in tongues is often seen in Pentecostal circles as a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but the whole idea of a baptism of the Holy Spirit distinct from baptism, itself, and confirmation has been called “exegetically unsound, theologically confusing and risky pastorally.”34 Also, it appears clear that the original outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in which the Apostles spoke in tongues that were understood as actual languages bears little resemblance to what happens in the contemporary speaking in tongues. While the tongues spoken today imitate the patterns of actual language, they are not composed of real languages, nor is it clear, though this is a more difficult case, that the tongues spoken about by St. Paul ought to be identified with this modern phenomenon without a careful scriptural and historical examination. Or if they are to be so identified, how St. Paul’s admonition about restricting the public use of tongues is complied with in modern charismatic assemblies.
The psychological objections to tongues as a direct manifestation of the Spirit are just as daunting, if not more so. Tongue-speaking is most often a learned experience, and even an induced one, quite at odds with the sovereign freedom of the Holy Spirit. There is no reason to believe that people cannot learn to speak in tongues outside of a Christian framework, and that these tongues would be very difficult or impossible to distinguish phenomenologically from those spoken by charismatics.
There is no doubt that many people have received genuine graces through the charismatic movement and the speaking in tongues, but this does not demand that the tongues, themselves, have to be seen as miraculous gifts of the Spirit. In fact, it is precisely this insistence that they are due to the direct working of the Holy Spirit that at once attracts potential charismatics, yet is fraught with difficulties for the movement itself. If the tongues are a direct manifestation of the Spirit, how can one not desire them, and then what can one think of those charismatics and other Christians who don’t receive them? And if a person receives them, how are they going to deal with the fact that their desires for them vary in intensity, or with the possibility that the tongues might disappear? It is an even greater challenge to avoid the temptation of wanting the tongue-speaking experience to become even more intense. The problems that individual charismatics face are mirrored in the movement as a whole. If tongues are a direct gift of the Spirit, then how can the Catholic charismatics come to grips with the falling away of members, or a certain loss of the initial enthusiasm of the movement, and avoid the temptation of moving in the direction of ever more intense experience? If a certain intensity of experience is taken as a guarantee that the Holy Spirit is acting, then we can begin to enter a world where direct access to the supernatural is seen as a hallmark of holiness. This is a world that can easily become preoccupied with demonic influences, miraculous apparitions, and a fascination with the end times, but all these things are shaped by the interaction between grace and the psyche that we have been examining.
The Catholic charismatic movement has been deeply involved, as well, in demonic deliverance. Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens, a champion of the movement, was so concerned about what he saw that he wrote a cautionary book about this dangerous involvement. There, with some reluctance, he indicated the kind of beliefs that exist in both Catholic circles, and in Protestant ones that have influenced Catholic charismatics. They include the conviction that many illnesses, e.g., insomnia, epilepsy, cramps, migraines, asthma, deafness, etc., etc., are sometimes of demonic origin.35 Charismatic “demonologists” claim a rather exact knowledge of their subject matter: how demons leave the afflicted, for example, “a demon of nicotine leaves with a cough or a hiccup,”36 or schizophrenia is the work of 15 or more devils, or demons can possess fetuses and infants who therefore must be delivered, or how a victim’s vomiting can help expel a demon, or the exorcist’s yawning hastens its departure. “We even learn that a cat underwent a complete personality change after being invaded by a host of evil spirits.”37
We have begun to enter a world of conscious orthodoxy, or even ultra-orthodoxy, too narrowly drawn, and too identified with familiar forms, which gives rise by way of interior compensation to lush vegetation in the unconscious where faith is confused with the exotic flowers that bloom in this other-worldly garden. What then arises is a spirituality that E. Fouilloux characterizes as one of “dubious Marian apparitions, stigmatizations not officially acknowledged, sulphurous types of sanctity.”38
Nothing, for example, could convince Nicholas Gruner of the Fatima Crusade that the consecration of Russia to the immaculate heart of Mary, requested by the Blessed Virgin at Fatima, had been properly carried out, despite the efforts to do so by Pius XII and John Paul II. Even when faced with a statement by the Fatima seer, Sr. Lucía, herself, that the consecration had, indeed, been properly carried out, Gruner argued that Lucía had been brainwashed, or even that she had been replaced by an imposter.
For others, the trauma of the postconciliar church led them to believe that the true pope could never have presided over such a disaster, and therefore the Paul VI who sat on the papal throne was not Paul at all, but his surgically altered double, or the real pope was Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, duly elected, but unjustly deprived of the See of St. Peter. These imposter pope theories are nothing new. Mathilde Marchat between 1888 and 1894, for example, who was on a divine mission to restore a Bourbon prince to the throne of France, believed that the real Leo XIII who had approved of her work was being kept prisoner.39
Fr. John Gregory of the Apostles of Infinite Love in St. Jovite, Quebec, trumped these pope replacement theories by claiming to have been mystically designated Pope Gregory XVII, successor to another visionary who had proclaimed himself the supreme pontiff. It would be easy to hold such beliefs up to ridicule, but in doing so we would miss the fascinating lessons they may have to teach us, not, of course, about who the genuine pope is, but how faith becomes encrusted under the weight of more human substitutes. People have clung to the Latin Mass, for example, even if that meant breaking with Rome, and they have rendered homage to the apostolic succession, not by obedience to the present pope, but by various maneuvers to have one of their own consecrated as a bishop. As the postconciliar church lost its mystical aura and halo of the miraculous, the resultant vacuum did not go long unfilled. New apparitions of Our Lady “offered their participants precisely the sort of spiritual certitude and consolation that most of them have found lacking in the institutional church.”40 Even the appearances of Our Lady to Veronica Leukin in Bayside, Queens, New York, though they strained credulity with UFOs as “transport ships from hell,”41 and imposter popes, could leave her followers with a sense that they were finally understanding the turmoil in the church: “We were so unhappy,” one person put it, “with the way the faith was being destroyed after the council, and Veronica came and filled the vacuum. We all loved her for this.”42 This need to make sense of things is so strong that it can lead us to try to believe the unbelievable.It is tempting to linger in this world, but our task is a more difficult one of trying to tease out how similar dynamics, much more subtly, influence the public life of the church.43
The Rise and Fall of Thomism
The story of the rise and fall of Thomism, that is, of the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, will introduce us to the less than conscious forces that have shaped today’s church, and will provide us with a cross-section of the church’s modern history that will serve us well in what is to come.
The Genesis of Aeterni Patris
The visible beginning of modern Thomism can be dated to August 4, 1879 when Gioacchino Pecci, some 18 months into his reign as Pope Leo XIII, surprised the Catholic world by issuing his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris, strongly urging that Thomas Aquinas be taken as the Church’s sure guide in philosophical and theological matters. The pope’s action, however, was no surprise to those who knew him well. The genesis of Aeterni Patris is instructive, and part of it lay in the poor state of philosophy and theology in Roman circles.
In 1846, for example, John Henry Newman was in Rome preparing for ordination. He had been told that he would find little theology there, and he had an interview with a Jesuit and learned that he would find little philosophy, either. “What about Aristotle and Thomas?,” he asked. They were out of favor, he was told, and their places had been taken with odds and ends. That same year Guillame Meigan, the future bishop of Charlons-Sur-Marne, who was later to have a seminarian named Alfred Loisy, was also in Rome, and he wrote back home to France: “Roman theology is altogether too careless of all that happens around it. Generally speaking, rationalism is badly understood and is opposed with futility. History has not a single representative.”1
So Leo XIII’s encyclical letter corresponded to a genuine intellectual need in Rome and elsewhere. But why Thomas? The pope had spent much of his earlier life as part of a loose network of Thomist pioneers working against the odds to restore Thomism. In that same year of 1846, for example, Gaetani Sanseverino had founded in Naples an academy of Thomist studies on whose faculty was Matteo Liberatore who was soon to go to Rome and take over the direction of La Civilità Cattolica, and the future pope had been made bishop of Perugia where he reorganized his seminary around Thomist studies, and where, as well, his brother and fellow priest Giuseppi helped to teach them.
When the Jesuit’s Roman college, later to be known as the Gregorian University, was reopened in 1824, Gioacchino had, at the tender age of 14, been a student there, and Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio who directed the college had tried, but failed, to encourage his professors to teach Thomism, and he “had to be content with a quasi-secret society of fellow-enthusiasts who met quietly in one another’s rooms.…”2 P. Corci wrote of these early years: “I was deploring the Babylon to which the Roman College seemed to have been reduced. With regard to philosophy, everyone was free to teach what he liked best, provided he detested and ridiculed the so-called “Peripatus”; although nobody had ever told us what the “Peripatus” was or what it pretended to be.”3 It is hardly surprising, then, that the would-be Peripatetics, that is, the followers of Aristotle and Thomas, kept to their rooms. Later, when Taparelli was the provincial of Naples, he brought his own Thomist teacher Domenic Sordi to teach there. Another clandestine Thomist circle developed only to be repressed with Sordi sent off to do pastoral work and Taparelli going to Palermo to teach French and music.4
Therefore it must have seemed like a miracle to this intrepid band of Thomists when one of their own was elected supreme pontiff. He wasted little time, as we saw, writing his encyclical, and began taking concrete steps to make Thomist studies the norm for the Church. He didn’t neglect, either – after gentler exhortation failed – to insist that the professors of the Gregorian at long last teach Thomism.
We have reached one of the critical points in our story. The pope was not simply exhorting the Catholic world to embrace Thomas because of his admirable qualities, but he was commanding them to do so. It would be a mistake to see Leo XIII as a liberal in the modern sense of the term, sandwiched in between the more conservative Pius IX and Pius X. Whatever progressive and conciliatory tendencies Leo, indeed, possessed, played out in the context of an increasingly authoritarian, centralized and defensive papacy that had reached a certain high water mark with Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors – which certain historians believe the future pope Leo had a hand in – the decree issued by the First Vatican Council on papal infallibility, and the takeover of the papal states, a process that Pecci had witnessed earlier in Perugia. Even with the loss of the papal states the dream of a restoration of Christendom with the church holding not only spiritual, but temporal, power, still had not died. The heavy blows the church had received from the Reformation, the birth of science and modern philosophy, and the French Revolution, continued to weigh heavily. Indeed, Leo XIII still witnessed the church being attacked by the liberal European powers who eagerly looked forward to its destruction. Thomism was part of his program to reinvigorate the church so it could defend itself, and he had the newly strengthened powers of the papacy at his command to do this, and was not hesitant in using them.
What we are witnessing with Aeterni Patris could be called an experiment in the institutionalization of Thomism, or a Thomism imposed from above. If in some places like Louvain under Désiré Mercier Thomism was seen as an inspiration that could help one deal with contemporary problems, and if in other places we can imagine students serenely studying Thomas’ Summa, the picture for the rest of the church did not appear as rosy. There was a pressing need to bring students and their teachers up to speed on what Thomas said, and so enter the manuals. The better of the manuals did, indeed, tell students and their newly minted teachers what Thomas said, and in mind-numbing detail. The problem was how they did it. The Summa, itself, was often studied in an ahistorical way, abstracting from the hard fought battles that had given birth to it, but the manuals took this ahistoricity to new heights. Thomism was converted into a conceptualism, an essentialistic system from which the living questions and doubts of the students and teachers were excluded. Thomas was minced into a hyperlogical system of questions and answers that functioned like a philosophical and theological catechism.
From 1879 onward there were a number of intertwined Thomisms. There was the Thomism of those who were genuinely interested in Thomas, and who were to give birth to a remarkable Thomistic renaissance. But there was also the world of the Thomist manuals that prevented the very thing for which they were created, that is, a deep personal engagement with the thought of St. Thomas, and more importantly, with the fundamental questions and intuitions that had given birth to it. Then there was Thomism as an ideology, as an instrument of Roman power and control, allied with a Thomism with its face resolutely set against modern thought. Sanseverino, for example, has written a widely read Philosophia christiana which the Dominican and later Cardinal Zerifino Gonzáles criticized long before Aeterni Patris for despising modern philosophy, and Joseph Louis Perrier, a historian of early scholasticism, in 1909 took to task: “In its narrow-mindedness itself, it has found a multitude of followers. Too often have neo-Scholastics shared Sanseverino’s contempt for modern thought. They have not even taken the trouble to read non-Scholastic writers in their original works. Why submit, indeed, to such a wearisome task? Had not Sanseverino done the work once for all? Had he not, from the narrowness of his cell, pronounced an ultimate verdict upon modern thinking?”5 And there was yet another Thomism allied to right wing politics that we will soon meet.
1875-1878. Alfred Loisy, in this still pre-Aeterni Patris age, is studying theology, and what is going to be a finely-honed critical mind is awakening and struggling with questions about the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. A self-directed plunge into the Summa of St. Thomas does not help him. He later writes: “The speculations of St. Thomas on the Trinity… had upon me the effect of a huge logomachy… (and) left, as it were, a void.”6 He turns his energies to the study of Hebrew and finds that more rewarding. This line of studies will lead him to Protestant biblical scholars and thorny questions about the historicity of the Scriptures.
In England in the wake of Aeterni Patris George Tyrrell, an Irish convert turned Jesuit, is reacting, in what was to become his usual combative manner, to the poor state of philosophy at the scholasticate, and he turns to the newly proclaimed Thomas to study him directly. He is sent off to exile in Malta, and his affection for Thomas is not going to endure.
1893. Maurice Blondel, a devout Catholic philosophy student, publishes his dissertation L’Action, or Action: Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice, and later his Letter on Apologetics, and in these works he argues that an examination of life, itself, shows that there is a dynamism within it that leads to transcendent questions. Our inner aspirations can lead us to the brink of faith. He is creating an apologetics of immanence. His approach is criticized by his masters at the Sorbonne who have no interest in philosophy leading to religion, and by the neoscholastics because it reeked to them of Kantian subjectivism. The Dominican M.B. Schwalm led the Thomist attack on Blondel’s work with a series of articles in the Revue thomiste starting in 1896.
Loisy, Tyrrell, and Blondel, along with others like the polymath Baron Friedrich von Hügel, the fiercely anti-scholastic Lucien Labertionniére, the scriptural scholar Marie-Joseph Lagrange, and fellow spirits in Italy, are coalescing into a loose network that is, ironically, somewhat reminiscent of that of the pioneering Thomists. They are held together, not so much by a common doctrine, as by an openness to modern scholarship that is anchored on one end by Loisy and the use of the historical-critical method, and on the other by Blondel with his appreciation of the interior starting point of modern philosophy. But they have something else in common, as well, which is an aversion to the reigning Thomism, and this is an aversion that is going to be reciprocated. By 1903, with the death of Leo XIII and the ascension to the throne of Peter by Pius X, a colder wind begins to blow from Rome. The exploratory initiatives of this new band of scholars is seen in a more negative light. Under increasing pressure, fissures will eventually appear among the group, with Blondel, for example, accusing Loisy of historicism, while he brands scholasticism as extrinsicism. In 1907 Pius X issues the decree Lamentabili sane exitu and the encyclical letter Pascendi domenici gregis condemning these scholars, without naming names, and blending the differences between them and accusing them of concocting a synthesis of all heresies. It would be a daring theologian who, even today, would want to defend all the things that Loisy and Tyrrell eventually would say, but a short-sighted one that would imagine that the genuine questions they raised were adequately addressed. What we are seeing is an ahistorical and authoritative Thomism meeting a growing Catholic desire for more openness to contemporary thought and a sense of history, and in the resultant repression the doctrinal issues at stake that might have profited by a careful and irenic discussion were obscured.
The decrees of 1907 appear to be big guns, indeed, for bombarding this small group of scholars. In the aftermath of the condemnations, the modernists were in disarray, and hardly seemed to pose a real threat to the church universal, and here our story takes an unexpected but revealing turn. Blondel, somewhat insulated by being a layman, now chose with care the topics about which he would publish. Lucien Labathoniére, after several of his books were put on the Index, was restrained from publishing by his fellow Oratorians. Later Gilson would meet him on a street car on the way to the Sorbonne, and listen to his tirades about how Thomas Aquinas had ruined the church. Loisy seemed to retreat to ever more radical positions, and was excommunicated. And Tyrrell, cast out of the Jesuits and the church, will die a lonely death with only his friend Maude Petri at his side.
Whatever threat these men had posed, the thunder of 1907 had more than dealt with it, but what happened next goes to the heart of the psychological dimension of the rise and fall of Thomism. Instead of a calm falling on Rome, the blows that fell on the modernists seemed to excite certain minds to redouble their efforts to destroy them and to root out the least trace of their influence. It is as if the repression of 1907 activated some deep place in the psyches of those in power, and stirred energies that searched for an outlet.
C.G. Jung, inspired by the laws of physics, suggested that the psyche functions like a closed system of energy in which a fixed quantum of psychic energy circulates through the conscious and unconscious. What is repressed is not thereby willed out of existence, but falls into the unconscious, takes on a negative cast, gathers to itself the emotions of rejection, and seeks to make its way back to consciousness, in the form of projections that demonize people as subversive spreaders of the damned doctrine. The essentialistic grid of the anti-modernist Thomists, like a Procrustean bed, cut off everything that did not fall within it, but the result was not tranquillity but a growing fear and loathing of the modernists and all they stood for that appears to have gone far beyond what the facts warranted. These forces in the underground of the Roman psyche begins to people the world with modernists lurking within the church waiting for the opportunity to seduce young seminarians’ minds. The condemnations of 1907, therefore, could not be the end of the matter. In 1910 a modernist oath is promulgated to be sworn by all those who hold official positions like seminary professors, and special bureaus are set up in every diocese to search out and report on modernist activities. A witch hunt is on which one historian of modernism likens to the search for communists in the McCarthy era,7 and leads to a dark chapter of this contagion that another historian will label pathological.8 What he has in mind is the unsavory episode of Msgr. Umberto Benigni and his Sodalitium Pianum, or Sodality of Pius V which went by the nom de guerre of La Sapiniére, or the Piney Woods. Benigni, with a passion for intrigue replete with code words, and in collusion with high figures in the Vatican, forms a network of collaborators to track down the least hints of subversion. No one is safe. Mercier is accused, as is the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. Benigni will not be reined in by the Vatican until 1921 when documents, seized by the Germans in Belgium in 1915, finally surface in the press,9 and he will go on to work for Mussolini.
This repression casts a deep shadow over the development of Catholic theology. Even those who escape censure suffer from the limitations on what they can write. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, despite his traditional Dominican Thomist nurturing on the Summa and his loyalty to the church, must navigate carefully to safeguard his scriptural work and his École biblique. But he still suffered silencings, exile and refusals of permission to publish his Old Testament studies. Karl Rahner suggests that Romano Guardini was profoundly affected by his own brush with the anti-modernists, and thereafter might have carefully selected areas of theology to avoid.10
The anti-modernist Thomists in France were connected with the right wing politics of Charles Maurras and his Action française. Maurras, who was an unbeliever and who rallied his forces with the cry, “Politics first!,” nonetheless found many Catholic followers by asserting that in a restored traditional France the Catholic Church would have a privileged place. This was so much the atmosphere of early French Thomism that Jacques Maritain, under the influence of his spiritual director the Dominican Humbert Clerrisac, allowed himself to drift with this conservative current until he awoke under the condemnation of the Action française by the pope in 1927, and started to focus on what was to become his social and political philosophy. Yves Simon in 1941 in a fervor of indignation caused by what he felt was the betrayal of France from within, wrote to his philosophical mentor and good friend, Maritain: “I am the only sans-culotte who, since 1922, has tied himself to you and your philosophy – despite your affinity for the Action française and those horrible characters who would come to shake your hand at the end of your lectures at the Institut Catholique.”11 Maritain’s mentor, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who had his own conservative political sympathies and who was teaching at the Angelicum in Rome from 1909, met the condemnation of the Action française with a tightly worded acceptance that didn’t admit its validity, and then kept silent, while the famous theologian, Cardinal Louis Billot, who had formerly taught at the Gregorian, was forced to resign from the College of Cardinals.12
When in 1934 the Anglican historian of modernism, Alec Vidler, summed up how he saw the future of the Catholic thought, he wrote: “It has not been possible to point to any signs that a second modernist movement is likely to develop shortly or that, if it did develop shortly, its fate would be much different from that of the first. Ultimately, no doubt, the Roman Church will be unable to maintain its intransigent attitude to all that conflicts with its traditional teaching… Sooner or later the doctrinal and disciplinary absolutism, in which ultramontanism has issued, will have to undergo radical change.”13
On the surface the Modernists had been pulverized, but the victories born of repression can hardly be said to be secure. Vidler had prophetically indicated the two topics that we now have to briefly address: the nouvelle théologie, and the Second Vatican Council.
La Nouvelle Théologie
No matter how extensive the attack on modernism was, it was as if its very repression was a guarantee of its continued existence because the fundamental questions it was trying to address had not been answered. More prosaically, Maurice Blondel continued to write, and to have an influence on the next generation of Catholic philosophers and theologians. In the early 1920s, for example, Henri de Lubac was passionately reading bootlegged copies of L’Action and La Lettre at the Jesuit scholasticate on the Isle of Jersey where he was studying philosophy. At the end of 1931 we find Blondel asking de Lubac if his ideas went too far, and de Lubac responding that he is being too timid: “I admire the painstaking care by which you criticise yourself and I am saddened by the thought that this might delay future important works, that we await with such impatience.” Blondel writes in return: “It is now over 40 years since I started tackling these problems, at which time I was not sufficiently armed. At that time, Thomistic philosophy was reigning intransigently.”14 De Lubac’s fellow Jesuit Henri Bouillard in the 1930s was also reading a carbon copy of L’Action while studying theology. This apparently was a tradition that went on among the Jesuit scholastics for a long time. He recalled how he had been deeply disappointed with scholastic philosophy and apologetics, which were “badly taught, or taught without conviction by professors who were also, themselves, fascinated by the “modern philosophy”.”15
Hans Urs von Baltasar also shared this aversion to scholasticism: “All my studies in the course of my formative years in the Jesuit order constituted a fierce and bitter struggle with the desolation of Theology, with what men had done to the glory of Revelation… I would have wished to strike out left and right with the fury of a Samson.” But a remedy was at hand, for “by chance and to my consolation Henri de Lubac lived in the same house with us. He was the one who, besides our scholastic study material, referred us to the Fathers of the Church and used to lend us all (to Bouillard, Jean Daniélou and von Baltasar himself) his very own studies and notes.”16
Therefore when in the September 1947 issue of Theological Studies Philip Donnelly gave the American theological community an excellent orientation to the debates that had broken out in Europe since the end of the war, and were to go under the name of the nouvelle théologie, it was the report of the surfacing of a movement long in gestation. This visibility had started with the publication of Bouillard’s Conversion et grâce chez S. Thomas d’Aquin in 1945 which was but the first volume of the Sources chrétiennes directed by Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou. Daniélou set forth the spirit that animated this series in an article that appeared in Études in 1946 in which he boldly stated that the legitimate aspirations of the modernists had not been addressed. There was need for a return to the scriptures, fathers and liturgy and an openness to modern currents of thought like Marxism, existentialism and evolutionism. And Teilhard de Chardin is brought forth as an example of the kind of openness that he is talking about. Scholasticism simply lacks the sense of history that animates much of modern thought. The questions that the modernists had struggled with had mixed with the advances of Catholic philosophy and theology between the wars and gained enough energy to reemerge in a mildly combative mood.
The Dominican M.-M. Labourdette was not tardy in replying to Daniélou in an article in the Revue thomiste, and when Bouillard stated that eternal truths were necessarily expressed in contingent concepts, Garrigou-Lagrange in an article in the Angelicum, “Where is the New Theology Going?” saw this as an attack on the perennial truth to be found in conciliar pronouncements, and answered his own question. It is going back to modernism, and the work of Blondel, and showed a neglect of St. Thomas, and he invoked “notre maître” Père Schwalm of the 1890s articles against modernism. He went on to link Bouillard’s work with certain anonymous manuscripts that had circulated since 1934 on original sin and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist which he compared to ideas of Teilhard de Chardin. It is entirely likely that he knew very well that some of these essays had, indeed, come from Teilhard’s pen.17
The champions of a return to the sources – which, of course, allowed them to break out of the scholastic straight jacket – had some defenders, in some cases Thomist ones. Jacques Maritain, who after the War was the French ambassador to the Holy See, hosted Cardinal Saliège who gave a talk supportive of the new theologians. Maritain, himself, at the instigation of Étienne Gilson, made initiatives to help M.-D. Chenu, who had fallen afoul of the authorities by writing a brochure on the theological method of Le Saulchoir, regain permission to teach, but without success. Gilson recounts how he approached Msgr. Montini about the matter, who responded in impeccable French: “Le propre de l’autorité c’est de ne pas se justifier,” that is, authority does not have to explain itself.18 We should probably take this, not so much as Montini’s own attitude, but his cryptic way of saying that higher authority had tied his hands. For his own part, as substitute Secretary of State, he had written to Blondel on Dec. 2, 1944 praising his work. This letter was then sometimes looked upon as coming from Pius XII, himself, thus giving Vatican approval to Blondel’s work, but in actual fact it didn’t speak for the pope, himself.19
Maritain’s own relationship with Garrigou-Lagrange had deteriorated markedly with Maritain’s outspokenness on the Spanish civil war in which he said that the atrocities committed on Franco’s side could no more be overlooked than those committed by the republicans. Garrigou-Lagrange was a fervent supporter of the Vichy regime in occupied France, and went so far as to claim that support of de Gaulle was a mortal sin.20 Msgr. Baron, rector of the French College in Rome, wrote: “The air has become unbreathable here. Capitalists + Spain + Action française + defenders of true doctrine, “their” doctrine, i.e., have been unleashed and regularly break like tidal waves over the city.”21 And Maritain wrote to Garrigou-Lagrange in 1946: “If there is at the present moment a crisis of Thomism in France, if many young minds seek their nourishment in new theologies, you can be sure that one of the causes of this disaffection is the fact that since the quarrels of the Ralliment… we have seen defenders of sacred doctrine let themselves be taken in completely by outrageous illusions in the domain of national politics.”22
There is no need to go into detail about the interesting theological questions that these debates of the nouvelle théologie brought to light, for example, the controversy surrounding Henri de Lubac’s 1946 Surnaturel in the series Théologie. But unfortunately other important issues like the proper employment of the historical-critical method were resubmerged along with the “legitimate aspirations of the modernists” in the passions of a second modernist crisis. Once again we have a rigid Thomism well allied with the Roman authorities leading this time to Pius XII’s encyclical letter Humani generis which Garrigou-Lagrange was suspected of having a hand in writing. The leading lights of the nouvelle théologie were silenced. Von Balthasar put it like this: “With the advent of Humani generis, papal thunderbolts came crashing down upon the Lyons Scholasticate and de Lubac was singled out as the chief scapegoat… his books, henceforth defamed, were taken off the shelves of the libraries of Society of Jesus and withdrawn from bookstores…”23 This did not prevent, we learn without surprise, copies of Surnaturel, like L’Action before it, from now circulating among the Jesuit scholastics.
We can let Yves Congar speak for all the censored theologians when he writes his mother in 1956, “What has put me wrong (in their eyes) is not having said false things, but having said things they do not like to have said… There is one pope who thinks everything, who says everything, and the whole quality of being Catholic consists in obeying him. They want to be absolutely the only ones to think or say anything, except on a small area of inconsequential topics. It is absolutely required to repeat and orchestrate their oracles, declaiming, “Ah, isn’t this wonderful!” …They have not, of course, hurt my body; nor have they touched my soul or forced me to do anything. But a person is not limited to his skin and his soul. Above all when someone is a doctrinal apostle, he is his action, he is his friendships, he is his relationships, he is his social outreach; they have taken all that away from me. All that is now at a standstill, and in that way I have been profoundly wounded. They have reduced me to nothing and so they have for all practical purposes destroyed me. When, at certain times, I look back on everything I had hoped to be and to do, on what I had begun to do, I am overtaken by an immense heartsickness.”24
As in the crisis of modernism, one of the chief victims of the repression was a genuine theological conversation which once again had been cut short by an alliance of rigid Thomism and Roman centralized control. These conversations would not have been easy, but repression simply postpones the day of reckoning and makes it more emotionally charged. Could Teilhard, for example, have talked about his essays on original sin with Garrigou-Lagrange in the wake of Garrigou-Lagrange’s 1946 article? Teilhard had been forbidden to publish on philosophical themes in September 1947, which included The Phenomenon of Man, and wrote from Rome in October 1948: “Day before yesterday, had a meeting, I was introduced to Garrigou-Lagrange: we smiled and spoke of Auvergne.”25 Auvergne was where they both had their roots, and perhaps the chasm between them was so great that they felt that they could do nothing else but smile.
It would be a mistake to paint this kind of theological impasse in too one-sided a manner. It wasn’t just the rigidity of Garrigou-Lagrange’s Thomism that was at fault, but Teilhard’s ideas on original sin, as well, which could have profited from a conversation about their merits. Even his champion, de Lubac, would write later, perhaps a bit begrudgingly, that Teilhard’s explanations of original sin “were rightly judged to be unsatisfactory.”26
Karl Rahner characterized the old neoscholasticism like this: “One withdrew, and this withdrawal took place in a way in which courageous and genuine faith and fearful repression interacted in a peculiar way, and this was considered to be the authentic spirit of the Church. One tried to live as far as possible in an ecclesial autarchy.”27 He felt that theology began to profoundly change around the middle of the century.
The shadow cast by the repression of the nouvelle théologie was to last until the Second Vatican Council. As preparations went on in Rome for the council, no one, I think, envisioned the revolution that was going to take place. The Roman dicasteries were busy creating schemas for the council fathers to work with in the traditional neoscholastic style. The church in the United States was in what some would later look back upon as a golden age. But an astute theological observer could have gotten some hints of the potential for dramatic change. Teilhard was one straw in that wind. He had died in 1955, and had left his works that had not been allowed to be published during his life in hands that would make sure they were published after his death. They soon began to appear, and his popularity began to soar, but on June 30, 1962, that is, a few months before the council opened, the Holy Office issued a monitum, or warning, about the “ambiguities and even grave errors” contained in his writings, and somewhat later Gilson wrote to the Dominican historian of Thomism, James Weisheipl, “In Paris, Thomas went out of fashion. The theology-fiction of Teilhard de Chardin is the new fad. They are literally crazy about it.”28 On June 10, 1963 we find Charles Boyer, prefect of the Gregorian and a determined foe of Teilhard de Chardin, writing a letter to Henri de Lubac inviting him to a Thomistic congress where he is requested to speak about Teilhard. Boyer makes it clear that in an audience with the new pope, Paul VI encouraged him to extend the invitation.29
At the council, itself, the proponents of the nouvelle théologie like Congar and Daniélou in a dizzying reversal from their previous marginalization were in demand, along with other progressive theologians like Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, as the council fathers rushed to find alternatives to the neoscholastic schemas that were being served up. Not surprisingly, the conservatives felt that this rehabilitation of the nouvelle théologie was a dangerous outbreak of modernism. The reactionary archbishop, Geraldo de Proença Siguard of Diamantina, Brazil, noted among the enemies to be combated the “Maritainists,” and the “disciples of Teilhard de Chardin.”30 On the eve of the crucial vote on the schema of the sources of revelation, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri wrote in his diary of the need to study the “historical propaedeutics” of the errors that are resurfacing. He suggests not only looking at what Benigni had to say about them, but adding “reflections on the pathology that affects theological studies when various methodologies derived from idealism, historicism, rationalism are introduced. For modernism is creeping in and is supported by historical criticism.”31 As the council began, the majority of the council fathers could hardly be said to be up to speed on the up until now suspect nouvelle théologie, but it did not take long for a latent and wide-spread discontent with the curia and Roman authoritarianism to begin to crystallize.
While the drama of the council begins to unfold with the rejection of the original schemas, the elaborate mechanism of institutional Thomism in classrooms around the world keeps grinding on, unaware of its imminent demise. Even if we were to bracket the repression carried out in the name of Thomism, the manuals, themselves, were enough to doom it. It was not going to take a series of harsh measures to eradicate Thomism from the minds and hearts of its students, and demolish the world of neoscholasticism. All that was necessary was the lifting of the hand of authority that had imposed it, and then it began to rapidly collapse like a house of cards. But the hand that had held it in place had generated all sorts of repressed energy which then came boiling out and transformed the world of Catholic philosophy and theology.In short, what does this slice of history tell us? It demonstrates that attempts at philosophical and theological renewal met with repression, and repression bred reaction. Thomism played a role as an instrument of repression, and thus suffered in the reaction. This whole story, however, plays itself out as much unconsciously as consciously. Attempts at renewal did not get an objective hearing that would have winnowed out the good from the bad, and Thomism, itself, rose and fell in ways that obscured its intrinsic merits and limitations. Now we need to explore these same kinds of dynamics more deeply by looking at how they operated at the Vatican Council and in its aftermath.
The Golden Age
Catholicism in America in the 1940s and 1950s is sometimes looked back upon as a golden age, and with reason. The churches were full for the Sunday Masses, many people went daily, and devotions like the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and novenas to the Blessed Virgin flourished. Families prayed the rosary together, and vocations flooded into the seminaries and novitiates. The parish might start off humbly, but eventually there was a school and a convent of nuns to teach in it, and the celebration of Mass moved into a new church. The pastor and his curates – and he often had curates – basked in the admiring gaze of the parishioners who fancied that they knew the individual characteristics of their priests, and therefore knew which confessional line to join on Saturday afternoon, and they considered it a privilege to have a few words with Father or Sister. Children could start off in the parochial school, or at least go to catechism class once a week, and if their parents had the financial resources, they could go on to Catholic high school and sometimes even do what their parents hadn’t had the opportunity to do, which was to go off to college, even a Catholic college.
Mark and Louise Zwick of the Houston Catholic Worker recall the vibrant energy of the best of those preconciliar times when the excitement of liturgical and catechetical renewal was in the air, and interest, at least in certain circles, in scriptural and theological study ran high. This was a time when people read Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Christopher Dawson, G.K. Chesterton, and on and on. There was Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement, the French personalists, and French writers like Mauriac, Bernanos, and Péguy.1 Garry Wills also evokes the scenes, sounds and smells of this golden age Catholicism, but he also points, as well, to what he also calls its “crystalline ahistoricity.”2 The members of the church, priests and people alike, swam in a sea of eternal truths protected from a sense of history and change.
People did, indeed, live a life of faith and grew in grace through prayer and receiving the sacraments, and thus the essential mission of the church was being carried out. But this didn’t mean that the age was pure gold, and therefore the council was unnecessary at best and destructive at worst. The upheavals that were to greet the council had been gestating somewhere in the preconciliar church. The laity, for example, admired the parish priests, but they were kept at a distance from them and did not really have a sense of what life was like for them, or the problems they faced like alcoholism or a tyrannical pastor. For intellectual sustenance those in the pews could not turn to the Sunday sermon or some form of substantial adult education, but had to search through the rack of pamphlets and in the back of the church, or read someone like Thomas Merton.
The Catholic liberals of the day might look to France for philosophy and theology, and the encyclicals of the pope for a way to transcend parochialism, but spiritual direction could hardly be said to have existed, nor was pastoral counseling, leavened with good psychological sense, easy to find. The Latin Masses were full, but Mass-goers were left to follow them as best they could in their missals if they had them, or to say the rosary. The parochial school classrooms were filled, in fact, often overfilled, and the sisters sometimes kept control by a regime of strict obedience and small reigns of terror. The question of birth control on the eve of the council was already showing itself as a serious problem, but it was still under the pastoral radar of the church authorities. The parish census would reveal couple after couple who no longer received the sacraments because they practiced a non-approved method of birth control. They suffered in silence and were estranged from the life of the church.
The church was a two or three-tiered system: priests on top, sisters lower down, and then the lay people. Theology was left to the priests, though how well equipped they were by their training was another matter. The deeper realms of piety were the domain of the good sisters, and the people could look on from a distance, caught up in the life of the church, but a church that was somehow the pope and the bishops, the priests and the sisters, much more than it was themselves. They needed to become adults in the faith, and much could be said about priests and sisters, as well.
In 1959 John XXIII, soon after he had been chosen to be an interim pope after the long and difficult pontificate of Pius XII, had an inspiration. He would call a council. This was the pope’s own idea, and it didn’t sit well with any number of high Vatican officials. There were those in the church who saw no need of a council after the declaration of papal infallibility at the first Vatican council. But both Pius XI and Pius XII had, in fact, set in motion plans for a council, perhaps to bring to completion the unfinished business of Vatican I which had dealt with the role of the pope, but not that of the bishops. Just what we might have expected from a Vatican II under Pius XII is another matter when we learn that its preparations were being directed by Msgr. Ottaviani of the Holy Office.3 In any event, if the pope could not be dissuaded, then it was up to the curia to control and minimize the damage a council could cause, and it was in a good position to do just that, for to it fell the job of preparing the schemas for the council fathers. These preparations, along with the vota or suggestions sent in by the world’s bishops, reveal the state of the church on the eve of the council. If we can lament that some 40 years after the council the church remains profoundly polarized, it is sobering to realize that this is the result, not just of the aftermath of the council, but the 60 years that preceded it, that is, the upheavals of modernism and the nouvelle théologie, and these struggles were still fresh in the minds of many of the major actors of the council, both conservative and progressive.
The curia, allied with the professors of the Roman universities, took the job of the preparation of the conciliar documents firmly in hand, and began turning out classic neoscholastic texts which, if they could be said to be creative, it was in their desire to enshrine and formalize in these documents the condemnations of modernism and Humani generis, as well as the errors that had escaped earlier notice. When the council drew close in the summer of 1962, the curia fired off a warning shot in the form of monitum, or warning, that we saw before about the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. No one should consider, it seemed to say, that the invitation to the council meant stepping outside the carefully drawn lines of the preparatory documents. Maritain, approaching his 80s, was not to be spared, and his views on the Spanish civil war not forgotten, or perhaps more to the point, the continuing influence of his ideas on Christian democracy in Latin America. He was denied an honorary doctorate,4 and Cardinal Micara, the Vicar of Rome, in his suggestions, “did not hesitate to attack openly the “theories of Maritain” and of the journal Esprit, which in his view were guilty of inciting the laity to an excessive independence of the hierarchy.”5 R. Gagnebet was put in charge of the preparatory work on the relationship between church and state, and we learn: “This choice was probably motivated by the fact that only two years earlier Gagnebet had been the chief author of a document being prepared in the Holy Office that would have condemned as erroneous a series of propositions intended to summarize the views of several Catholic authors – among them Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray – who were calling for a revision of the classic modern doctrine on Church and State. It appears that it was only the death of Pius XII that prevented the publication of this text.”6
The Lateran College in Rome was raised to the rank of a university by its former student John XXIII, and went on to appoint itself the critic of the Biblical Institute, hoping to curtail what it saw as excesses in Catholic biblical studies, and there were those who still longed to make explicit the condemnations directed at Henri de Lubac that they had read between the lines in Humani generis. The vota of Italy, Spain and parts of France were long on desired condemnations, and new titles for Mary and Joseph, and short on ways to address the serious problems of the church and the world. Occasionally bishops like Weber of Strasbourg with Yves Congar as his advisor had a more developed vision of the issues the council should address, or someone like Bruno de Solages, rector of the Institut Catholique in Toulouse, was forthright in his criticism of the curia.7 But in final analysis the bishops of the world and the church at large could hardly be said to have great expectations of change, or to have thought they would do much more than go to Rome for a short while and give their assent after some discussion to the prepared schemas.
If signs were already appearing that Thomism was heading for a crisis, the Congregation for Seminaries and Universities still wanted the 24 Thomistic species of 1914 made obligatory for seminarians,8 and the Preparatory Commission for Studies and Seminaries suggested, “With the aid of further historical and theoretical investigations, by a group of experts, these theses should be rewritten in briefer form and extended to cover other parts of philosophy (e.g., ethics, natural law, economics, philosophy of history and religion, esthetics, etc.)”9 The role of Latin as the language of the council was championed as somehow demanded by the universal authority of the pope,10 and went together with the publication of the papal letter Veterum sapientia, mandating the use of Latin in seminaries. The proponents of the nouvelle théologie, while not absent from these preparations, were outnumbered, and at times discouraged. Congar, for example, wrote, “The Romans are doing everything.”11 Karl Rahner had had his own problems with Rome, and now as the council approached rumor had it that he would be neutralized, but Cardinal Döpfner interceded with Pope John, who nominated him as a consultor to the council, but even this did not grant him immunity from the curia’s summer offensive of 1962 when he was told by his Jesuit superiors that his writings were under special Roman censorship, a decree that was in force until the following year.12
These struggles in the preparatory phase foreshadowed the larger conflicts to come in the council, itself, yet on its eve no one really knew what tremendous changes were in store. With the rejection of the pre-packaged schemas and the curia’s candidates to run the conciliar commissions, the council began to take on a life of its own. The bishops and their theologians, in place of feeling themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered, began to discover that they were, in fact, not a minority after all. The catalyst who made this dramatic transformation possible was Pope John, himself, and he began the process with his speech opening the council, Gaudet mater ecclesia: “It pains us that We sometimes have to listen to the complaints of people who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with an overabundance of discretion or measure. They see in modern times nothing but prevarication and ruin. They keep saying that as compared with past ages, ours is getting worse, and they behave as if they had learned nothing from history, which is nonetheless a teacher of life, and as if in the time of the preceding ecumenical councils everything represented a complete triumph for Christian ideas and Christian life and for a rightful religious liberty. But We think We must disagree with these prophets of doom… Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but earnestly and fearlessly to dedicate ourselves to the work our age demands of us… The salient point of this council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has been repeatedly taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all. For this a council was not needed. But from renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church… the Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a leap forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciences… The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into consideration – with patience if need be – while weighing everything in the forms and statements of a teaching activity that is predominantly pastoral in character.”13
This was a program that if it had been specifically carried out during and after the council would have spared the church a great deal of grief, but it did serve, along with the pope’s attitude, as permission for the council fathers to begin to think for themselves. This was essential. The idea of unquestioning obedience to the pope had been so ingrained in the bishops’ minds, that had Pope John invoked his authority to insist on the preparatory schemas, and the curial leadership of the conciliar commissions, they would have acquiesced. There were, indeed, conservative council fathers who were saying that the initial schemas could not be put aside without the permission of the pope. The result of this curial micromanagement was that a long-standing subterranean resentment, even on the part of some of the conservative bishops, began to surface. The council fathers looked for an alternative to what was being imposed upon them, and standing in the wings, ready to serve, were the theologians of the nouvelle théologie who had weathered the storms and kept on working during the dark years. They now came into their own and exerted great influence. But as Schillebeeckx noted, “Many bishops were less concerned with the renewal of theology than with breaking the power of the Curia, which considered itself above the bishops… which understood nothing of what was going on in the Church and in the world.”14 And past repression, as another commentator noted, had had a profound effect, and as a result, the development of this new theology “had too often remained in an embryonic state.”15 “Vatican II was not able to draw upon preexisting and mature doctrinal statements, in part because of the climate of distrust that had limited and hindered so many Catholic theological circles.”16
While council fathers from around the world began to realize that they had the duty to think, take responsibility, and act, and that they were, indeed, the church in acting this way, the diehard conservatives were not about to simply abandon the field, and they employed whatever strategies they could manage. Joseph Fenton, for example, of the Catholic University in Washington and Ottaviani’s right-hand man in the United States, took the conciliar oath as an expert, but wished it had been the anti-modernist oath instead. His fears were soon confirmed: “I always thought this council was dangerous. It was started for no sufficient reason. There was too much talk about what it was supposed to accomplish. Now I am afraid that real trouble is on the way.”17 “Since the death of St. Pius X,” he continued, “the Church has been directed by weak and liberal popes, who have flooded the hierarchy with unworthy and stupid men. This present conciliar set-up makes this all the more apparent.”18 All this was tinged with good old-fashioned American anti-Communism, so for Fenton, Pope John was a “lefty” and the council an international Communist conspiracy.19 What has been called the “zealot faction of the Curia”20 entered the council with a well-developed program: to prevent any lessening of papal prerogatives – which undoubtedly included their own so closely did they identify themselves as essential parts of the papal office – to avoid the reform of the curia by the council, and “to resist the meddling of the laity.”21 Added to this was: a sense of tradition and its immutability; the overriding importance of the magisterium, and an “ahistorical triumphalism that led them to maintain as a cardinal rule of the curia: never acknowledge faults, at least not publicly,” and “an “essentialism” that is “the predominance of abstract thinking.””22 One conservative commentator even described the council as a struggle between the essentialists and the existentialists.23 Men of this temper were impervious to the euphoria spreading among the council fathers. If they had failed in derailing the council altogether, and could not defeat the progressive initiatives on the council floor, they could still work against it in the back corridors of the Vatican that they knew so well. Cardinal Tardini is supposed to have said to Msgr. Felici: “Hold, not a real council (concilio), but a miniature council (concilietto).”24 It is not surprising that the progressives were eventually to take direct aim at the center of this kind of opposition, which they saw as the Holy Office, itself. Cardinal Frings of Cologne in the second session of the council said without mincing words that its way of proceeding “harms the Church and is scandalous to many.”25 It would not be surprising, however, if the newly minted conciliar “majority” underestimated the rigidity and determination of their foes who, far from being content to carry out the will of the majority, were driven by what they felt were higher imperatives. Could they really be expected to carry out the council’s wishes after the bishops left to go back to their dioceses?
And both the majority and the minority sorely underestimated the degree of pressure that had built up in the church over the preceding decades since the time of modernism, if not before. In the words of Giuseppe Alberigo, “The conciliar effect was thus manifested with a disruptive energy that was unexpected and contagious. Problems that had been dismissed in preceding decades moved, sometimes rather virulently, into the foreground. Mechanisms to preserve balance and retain control unexpectedly proved inadequate under the weight of a worn-out authoritarianism and outdated methods now being commonly rejected. The Holy Office and the Congregation of Propaganda in particular would pay the price.
“Hopes and expectations long hidden burst forth into the light of the sun; repressed longings found room that had not even been dreamed of. The primacy given to rote-repetition, preservation, and passive obedience was replaced by new tendencies to independent investigation, creativity, and personal responsibility.”26
The explosive reaction set off by the council which were to transform the landscape of the church came as a surprise to everyone. The bishops, with a taste of their own liberation, had now to return and face the priests, religious and laity who harbored similar aspirations. And it is in religious life that we find a microcosm of the whole church in which we can examine the problems of the preconciliar church and the rapid and dramatic changes brought about by the council.
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