The extraordinary importance which attaches to gestures of informality in the postconciliar Church – priests appearing in sports clothes, public speakers ostentatiously removing their coats and ties, nuns in shorts, the compulsory use of first names even to people one scarcely knows, exaggeratedly warm greetings – reflect that same cultural style. They serve as rituals which, consciously or not, attempt to substitute for the Church’s now discarded sacramental rituals. The high point of their religious life is for many the “greeting of peace” at Mass, entered into with such gusto and for such ever-lengthening stretches of time that it becomes the emotional climax of their worship. There is a strong tendency to confuse these quintessentially American cultural excrescences…with genuine charity and to assume that those who engage in them are thereby revealed as more open, more loving, and more sensitive than those who do not.

Ironically, a Church so many of whose leaders strive to make it relevant to worldly concerns is probably, in many ways, less relevant now than it was twenty years ago, precisely because it has no distinctive voice with which it speaks, no special wisdom to contribute to the common fund.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

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Traditional Catholicism, through its division between lay and religious life, attempted to accommodate both the heroic and the ordinary. While many lay people led heroic lives, often anonymously, it was the religious who sought to give public witness to that possibility. Certain types of “reformers,” of whom the early Protestants are the best examples, have found this distinction invidious and have insisted that all Christians are called equally to lives of holiness. Yet, however appealing this might be in theory, in practice it led eventually to a general lowering of standards for everyone. The fact that so many religious in the postconciliar Church find their vocations troublesome is directly related to the mentality which is not even certain that a distinctively Christian form of heroism – sanctity – is desirable.

Nowhere is the intellectual and moral revolution that has swept over the Church more tellingly revealed than in the current popularity of the word pastoral, which is often simply used as a synonym for permissive. A “pastoral” solution to a problem, a “pastoral” priest or a bishop, “pastoral” needs, are now frequently the simple equivalent of endorsing whatever happens to be current practice, a refusal to lay burdens on people’s consciences.

Yet an authentic understanding of the Church’s tradition of pastoral care cannot evade the recognition that, since this care aims at setting man right with God, it cannot be simply a concession to the individual’s subjective sense of rightness.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

The therapeutic mentality has developed especially in post-Protestant America because the waning of an “ascetic” culture – a culture of authority, moral demands, and self-discipline – is its most fertile soil. It is a mentality which, virtually as a matter of principle, ceases even trying to resolve contradictions or opposing demands (the stuff of tragedy) and in effect tells people, “Live within your moral means.” Self-improvement, then, becomes the characteristic modern faith. “Prophets” arise who, unlike those who classically bore the name, preach the mechanisms of release rather than control, “liberating” people rather than placing greater responsibilities on them. […]

So complete was the intellectual victory of the therapeutic mentality that many in the Church are now unable even to conceive of renewal in any terms other than further acts of release from obligations.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

It is one of the choicer ironies of the postconciliar era that, as nuns seek to become priests, priests get married, and married people get divorced in even greater numbers. Each group regards its own “need” – for priesthood, for marriage, for sanctioned divorce – as one whose fulfillment will quiet the deep dissatisfaction which make it unhappy in its present state of life. Each thinks its salvation lies just over the horizon; none appears to reflect on whether its restlessness has roots deeper than the vocational conditions which trouble it.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

The inevitable failure of much postconciliar “reform” could have been predicted solely on the basis of the use of the world itself. Classically, in the Church, “reform” has meant a recalling of believers to a stricter and more demanding kind of discipleship. The men and women honored with the name of “reformers” in religious life preached revitalization through closer adherence to the original spirit and rules of the community, often in the face of entrenched worldliness and lay customs. Reformers like St. Teresa of Avila encountered resistance and opposition primarily from contemporaries who, being comfortable within a permissive ambience, felt threatened by the demand that they return to a stricter way of life.

Conditions fairly common in the religious life of today – the ignoring of cloister, the abandonment of the prescribed habit, secular occupations, enjoyment of worldly amusements, sexual adventures – were precisely the conditions which the great reformers of the past found intolerable, and against which they inveighed ceaselessly.”

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

Within an unimaginably brief period of time, the attitude of many Catholics towards their past recapitulated modern Western cultural history. Beginning with an enthusiastic desire to “purify” the traditions, such people at first allowed themselves a rather cautious stance of “objectivity” towards the Church of which they were a part. This detachment, experienced in a characteristically modern way as implying “liberation,” tended to give way in time to cynicism – regarding the “institutional” Church and its traditions as merely oppressive, almost as historic conspiracies against personal freedom.

In this understanding, the essence of Church life becomes power relationships, and renewal ceases to have much to do with the things of the spirit (which are naive and distracting) and begins to focus on strategies whereby power can be redistributed. The demand for “empowerment” now raised by women’s groups and various racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities within the Church, as well as by self-designated spokesmen for lay people’s rights, priests’ rights, deacons’ rights, etc., often betray the absence of any real concern for the Church’s inner nature and mission. It is power alone which seems real and worthwhile.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

Young Catholics of the postconciliar period drifted away from the Church in immense numbers, an unanticipated event of the “renewed” Church and one usually explained in terms of the Church’s failure to change fast enough. But there is an even more obvious point – these young people grew up in a period when literally no one could offer them a strong and coherent account of what it meant to be a Catholic. […] Few young people of the past fifteen years have had sustained contact, during their crucial formative years, with firmly orthodox, serene, self-confident adult Catholics of the kind that every parish and school used to provide in abundance. Parents who have tried to create such an atmosphere in their homes have often found their efforts undermined in the Catholic schools, many of them dominated by church professionals suffering from crises of faith and vocation.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

The Catholic idea of intellectual growth has always meant deeper penetration of inexhaustible mysteries, not breaking free of those mysteries. The Church has maintained an organic concept of doctrinal development, in that sometimes quite bold new theories can be entertained to the degree that they are not contradictory of past formulations. The scholar or theologian has been defined as a participant in the full life of the Church, taking nourishment from that life, not an outsider subjecting the traditions to a sterile and “objective” scrutiny. But the concept of the Catholic intellectual’s function changed drastically within a few years’ time [after the Second Vatican Council], as many people came to think of themselves as precisely capable of evaluating and judging the Church’s traditions from some superior stance – Scripture, scholarship, or the demands of modern culture.

It must be acknowledged that every age tends to distort the Christian traditions in terms of its own culture and that there is, consequently, no wholly pure period to which the believer can look (although some ages are certainly purer than others). Thus the need for reform is perpetually present, and the traditions can never simply be accepted uncritically.

However, at no time in the past did churchmen, no matter how corrupted their understanding may have become in certain ways, fail to acknowledge the existence of some authority superior to their own judgment, whether Scripture, tradition, the general councils, or papacy. Every age maintained in principle the ability to correct itself in terms of authentic doctrine. The postconciliar period is the first in the long history of the Church when certain influential have claimed liberation from all the authorities of the past. Thus this age is also the first in the history of the Church to render itself in principle irreformable; it recognizes no source of correction outside itself.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

It is a judgment on the architects of the renewal that none of them even dimly foresaw the emergence of the charismatic movement as the single greatest religious phenomenon of the postconciliar era. That movement, with all the uncritical allegiances and hostile criticisms which it inspires, is, in terms of the familiar colloquialism, the only game in town. It is a standing rebuke to the process of Catholic renewal because it alone has seemed able to speak to the spiritual needs of large numbers of people at a time when a good part of the Church’s leadership seems determined not even to acknowledge that such needs exist.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

Nowhere perhaps does the modern Catholic draw a stricter line between acceptable and unacceptable religion than over the matter of joy and hope (the title, in fact, of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on The Church in the Modern World). Yet in the process the nature of these things for the Christian is badly misunderstood. The “gloomy” saints of the Church’s rich history demonstrate the true nature of Christian joy and hope and the fact that, ultimately, these are not dependent on happiness as the world understands happiness, nor are they necessarily manifested in ways which the world will immediately recognize. For Christians life has meaning beyond earthly disappointments. The perspective of eternity, if taken seriously, makes all the difference.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)