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Worse Without Them? The Tumultuous Papacies of John XXIII & John Paul II

CC Rob Sheridan

Richard H. Bulzacchelli - published on 07/22/13


On the other side of it, though, were the secularizers who promoted a form of liberation theology that was eventually condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  John Paul II once publicly scolded a priest for lending his support to such movements, which reduced the Gospel to Marxist, secularist, and worldly eschatological concerns.  What’s more, the Church had attempted to correct what it saw, in the time between Pius IX and Pius XII, as an overly constrictive and protectionistic approach to theological inquiry.  The twentieth century was a golden age of theology, and the best contributions were at risk of suppression because they didn’t fit the tightly formulated contours of the Church’s Neo-Thomistic presuppositions.  People like Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) all faced difficulties from overly zealous defenders of the theological status quo.  Of course, part of this was motivated by the perceived threat posed by secularism–a motivation clearly based in reality.  But that doesn’t mean that their answer was the right one.  So when John Paul II became Pope and Joseph Ratzinger became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Magisterium became much more reticent to silence theologians than it had been in the past.  It tended to avoid composing syllabi of errors and just let theologians do theology.  Perhaps, though, it wielded too light a touch.

It was at this time that theologians began publicly to dissent from the Church from university posts.  And it was only the most high profile among those dissenters (like Hans Küng, who had been a colleague of Ratzinger and a former peritus at the Second Vatican Council along with him) who faced censure.  The rest essentially got away with it, even as documents came forth from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and from the pope himself, condemning the ideas they were promoting.  With no mechanism for enforcement, rather than reforming their teaching, these dissenters would hold public colloquia critiquing the Magisterium’s interventions, and the divide became deeper all the time.  In the end, Ex corde ecclesiae was too little, too late, and had little effect but to provide a brand for the few institutions left that wanted to remain really firmly Catholic in their approach to higher education.

I don’t think at all that John XXIII or John Paul II intended these problems, nor that they are culpably at fault for them.  I think, instead, that the twentieth century was just a really difficult time – and we’re still in that really difficult time today.  It’s impossible to imagine that they would have known just what to do to prevent the avalanche of modern culture from wiping out great swaths of Christendom.  But without these great men, it’s my contention that things would have been a good deal worse today than they are.

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