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)

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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)

Traditional Catholicism is variously patronized , derided, condemned, or ignored by self-consciously modern Christians, on the equally various grounds that it is outdated, narrow, inhuman, or incredible. Yet behind these sundry forms of rejection lies an unacknowledged fact: a firmly transcendental religion, a deeply held belief in the eternal God, is a constant threat to the humanistic Catholicism so skillfully fashioned in the past twenty years. To take seriously the Absolute, to endeavor sincerely to see all of life under the aspect of eternity, is to impose great inconveniences on the comfortable arrangements which advanced modern Christians have made with the world. Thus the priest or the nun is tolerable in his or her role as “minister,” that is, as a professional specialist applying skills to the facilitation of community life. But the priest or the nun as representative of the sacred, as ambassador of God, cannot be tolerated. For the same reason not only are classic conversion stories no longer told, but those converts who entered the Church because they experienced the call of the absolute and unwavering God are sometimes the objects of hostility.

The “relevance” of Catholicism has always lain in its power, not its contemporaneity, that is, in its ability to communicate to the individual a sense of God’s majesty and unchanging will, along with the concomitant promise of eternal life. It is this which is now, under the misnomer of “triumphalism,” rejected by so many Churchman who enjoy strategic influence. The Church’s crisis is not primarily intellectual, as it is often stated, not primarily the question whether its doctrines are any longer credible. During the supposedly intellectually barren period between Modernism and the Second Vatican Council, the Church did not cease to attract or keep highly respectable individuals from the artistic and intellectual worlds – Maritain, Gilson, Claudel, Peguy, Waugh, Greene, Rouault, Mauriac, Marcel, and Chesterton, a few among the many, along with others like Bergson and Simone Weil who were attracted but never formally converted. There is no even remotely comparable record of distinguished adherents to liberal Protestantism, despite the most strenuous efforts to make Christianity intellectually respectable and up-to-date. The crisis of the Church is not primarily intellectual and probably never was. It is personal and spiritual, a crisis of fundamental self-understanding and will. It proceeds from the failure of nerve, not the perplexities of the intellect.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

It was not merely the inconveniences of religious life – the possibly uncomfortable clothes, celibacy, obedience to rules – which understandably rankled. It was in fact the whole special character of the religious identity. The religious habit was discarded not simply because it was out of date or unfunctional but because of its symbolism, its marking the wearer as an ambassador of God in the world, a responsibility the wearer no longer wished to discharge. […]

Numerous priests and religious announced, during the postconciliar crisis, that they no longer wished to play a special role, that the burdens of living up to what the Church expected of them were now intolerable. Humanly such feelings were quite understandable. Yet unnoticed was an implication of the most profound theological significance – no longer was the religious vocation treated as a call from God that might or might not coincide with the individual’s own wishes. The possibility that God might will certain people to assume tasks they would rather shirk was implicitly denied. The entire Judaeo-Christian understanding of the ways in which God deals with man was being silently rejected.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)