It has now been almost sixty years since the Second Vatican Council and the Church still seeks to find its bearing in the midst of turbulent cultural and ecclesial waters. The turbulence is felt from without, that is nothing new. But the intensity with which it is felt from within has become alarming to many. Generalizations are, of course, always inaccurate; but some truth does lie in framing things in terms of “traditionalists” versus “progressives.” What is alarming, however, is that those whom some call “regular conservative Catholics” have found themselves forced to enter into this binary, either in reality or in appearance; thus furthering the politicization of ecclesial categories and of theology itself. The Traditionalists and their new recruits criticize the Church in general and the council in particular (and I’m not yet weighing in on the veracity of their criticisms). They will tell us that “the council fathers expected a new springtime, a new Pentecost; but what we got is a desiccated landscape and a hemorrhaging Church.” To which is added resentment and anger toward the Church, whose optimism is blamed for the lack of concern toward the faithful orthodox Catholic in the pew, drowning amidst the attacks of secular paganism.
Before and after his elevation to the See of Peter, Joseph Ratzinger, and other like-minded theologians, readily admitted that the convergence of hopes which followed the war created an explainable but unrealistic optimism in the Church’s expectations. And yet Ratzinger’s theology, in the deepest sense, was and remained to the end of his life a theology of the Council. What baffles me is not the fact of this unrealistic optimism, but, quite frankly, the sheer foolishness of a sick Church (and yes this means you and me) blaming the historical gathering of the episcopal college sub et cum Petro for its own sickness. A sickness which led to the realization that a council was needed.
Henri de Lubac, in his seminal work “Catholicism,” writes that the place of the upper room brings together both the Word’s gift of self in the Last Supper and the Spirit’s setting of the apostles ablaze with the fire of charity and unity at Pentecost. From this fire the Church was sent out on mission. But we spit at our mother for telling us that the fire has been reduced to insignificant embers and that its warmth and brightness need to burn and shine again in order to mediate the light of Christ to the nations. “That’s too darn optimistic!” we hear. “Look at what came instead!” and “the council caused this mess!”
Yes, the council fathers should have thought more about implementation; yes, they should have been more realistic; and yes, they were wrong not to be. But the fact that we have lost the ability to share the blame for the crisis we are in, and to listen to the council for its remedy, is a sign of the continuation of this sickness. Psychologists tell us, and I know this from personal experience, that what irks us the most in others (the Church in this case) is almost always what reminds us of what is in fact wrong with ourselves (worldliness).
Our current Holy Father is silent when he ought to speak, and when he speaks, he perplexes us. Yes, a mess has been created. And yes, it will have to be remedied. But most of us are caught up in pseudo-armchair-YouTube theology which gives us a false sense of self-satisfaction vis-a-vis our orthodoxy. The sheer inanity of the critiques of the pope, especially those accusing him of being a heretic, makes me embarrassed to be Catholic. I am not a fan, to say the very least, of what clearly has become an ecclesio-political (and infantile) attack from progressives which seeks to reduce everything to political and sociological categories. But the reaction of the supposed “orthodox” wing has been to levy stupendously imbecile responses which throw out the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub, the toilet, and the darn sink!
“Oh yes we’ve had bad popes, but we can account for that” is what used to be said (and I want to clarify that I fully assent to Francis's magisterial teaching and reject anyone saying otherwise). But as soon as a pontificate which creates confusion arises (which, again, the so called “orthodox online Catholics” have exponentially contributed to) people completely lose their minds, and plumet into vitriol, cynicism, and depression. That is simply yet another sign of the de facto practical atheism present in “orthodox Catholics.” Who are we kidding thinking that we can escape the suffocating atmosphere of secular modernity?
But lest I’ve lost readers at this juncture, I want to add—notwithstanding the developments in social media and its hand in the crisis—that it is a fact that Benedict’s reign fostered an atmosphere of communion, and that this pontificate has come with much heartache to say the least. So I in no way intend to place blame due to others at the feet of those upset about real problems. But those responding to the problems need to take some ownership—publicly—and be more careful with their darn words.
What this storm has further drawn out is that it is easy to talk about authority and unity, and how Protestants and others were so wrong to split from the Church… until one feels like the Church is in fact "being unfair to me right now." Maybe the Church is being unfair now, and maybe she has some guilt to bear for things in the past as well. And yet maybe, just maybe, unity and authority can still be an important component of the dialectic. Traditionalists and others lament what they felt was a false irenicism toward non-Catholic Christians in some of the Church’s teachings at the council and since the council. And surely there was a lot of falsity in the way things were done on the ground. But the current sense of being unfairly treated should inform us about what last century’s theologians were speaking of in this area. The 16th century reformers and the 18th century Jansenists come to mind particularly. [Anecdotally, the printing press massively contributed to the polemics of the reformation; similarly, the internet is now doing the same in today’s ecclesial polemics].
In a work well worth reading for those who find criticizing Nostra Aetate to be an amusing pastime, Joseph Ratzinger writes that “the mystical capacity of the human mind needs to be strengthened again. The capacity to renounce oneself, a greater inner openness, the discipline to withdraw ourselves from noise and from all that presses on our attention, should once more be for all of us goals that we recognize as being among our priorities. We find Paul pleading that the inner man may be strengthened (Eph 3:16). Let us be honest about it: today there is a hypertrophy of the outer man, and his inner strength has been alarmingly weakened.” It is incumbent upon us to take these words seriously.
When God seemed to have gone back on his promises, when Israel was stripped of its land and cultic worship, when the nations had conquered and decimated Zion, then arose the third pillar of the old canon: The Ketuvim, the wisdom literature. Then emerged the real heart of Israel’s religion and the true essence of its God. The innermost reality of genuine worship.
When God seems to have gone back on the promises to his Church, when Christendom has been stripped of its prestige and relevance, when secularism has conquered and decimated the tabernacles of our churches and of our hearts, now must arise a deeper wisdom. Now must arise the real heart of Christianity, the true essence of the Christ-event. Now must our worship attain newer heights through God’s grace.
Cheap online information does not yield the needed wisdom, does not yield the necessary silence for deeper worship. Armchair theology from bourgeois-living, self-inflated, and self-appointed “experts” is one of the devil’s instruments. It is no wonder Soloviev’s antichrist was a Tubingen exegete. Likewise the pinching of sociological incense to the zeitgeist from progressives is boring and soul-eating idolatry. But the real Babylonians are our secular hearts. The more I realize that my heart is secular and atheistic, the more I can open it to the one who sacralizes it. The more I can open my heart to the one who divinizes it through his open heart pierced outside the walls of the holy city, through his open being distributed eucharistically. He dispenses himself so radically that he becomes transition, that he becomes a living Pasch. Our categories as well as our hearts must be allowed to be exploded from within in order to discover his presence in a new way, in order to find a deeper communion.
And so the solution lies in realizing that we are powerless to undo the eclipse of God, whether through committees or online tantrums. It lies in realizing that although we are powerless, God is all-powerful. We simply do not believe this anymore because we have been infected with the malaise of secular atheism. To this point, Charles Péguy once quipped that what is distinctive of the modern Christian is that he does not believe in what he believes. It is precisely Péguy's observation here which should lead us to realize that we have undervalued the necessity of wisdom, that we have undervalued the power of philosophy. Understanding the situation is itself a liberation. In fact, Paul tells us: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Rom 12:2). And so the solution, as cliché as it is, is prayer.
In light of these observations, I would like to close my reflections with a prayer: "Lord, open me up from the inside, break down the walls of my own making, take up my will and my life. I confess my numerous sins to you, and I resolve to truly and practically make reparation for them from here on out. I have let comfort suffocate my hope. Reveal yourself to me in the midst of darkness and place within me a new heart. A Eucharistic heart, which aims to be self-communication and presence precisely where there is the abscence of God and obscurity. In this season of Advent I beseech you: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!"
__________________________________________________________________________________  Henri de Lubac, Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 110-111.  Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 159.
Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.