An open letter to Prof. Swidler

Dear Len,

I may call you Len, right? (Since you addressed the Holy Father by a familiar diminutive of his birth name in a public letter, I shall consider formality to be ceded ground.) Anyway, your letter has some problems. I’m just going to get out The Red Pen—as a professor, I’m sure you’re familiar with it—and dig straight in.

Dear Joe [“Most Holy Father” if you please!],

Some years back when you were still the head of the Holy Office (“of the Sacred Inquisition” is, as you know, stilled chiseled in stone over its dark building [Len, you seem to have mistaken the yellow offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for Barad-dûr. Are you hoping that the casual reader will infer that the CDF is the kind of organization that lurks in buildings susceptible to the adjective “dark”—will think of dungeons, the KGB, the Tal Shiar, and so on? Perhaps. But all you’ve done is  to convey within your first sentence that this is an op/ed in epistolar form, not an open letter. Your real audience is the man in the street, who might be taken in by that description, not the Holy Father, who, as you know, won’t be.

Moreover, if you’re proposing to rebuke people for preconciliar sympathies, it would seem an odd play to address the CDF by its preconciliar title. As you and I know—but as the man in the street at whom you have told us this op/ed is really directed will likely not—the Holy Office was renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Paul VI’s December 1965 Motu Proprio Integræ Servandæ. And as you and I also know, it was never called (as you imply, although you artfully avoid saying it outright) “the Holy Office of the Sacred Inquisition.” (Until 1908 it was called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Roman Inquisition, at which time St. Piux X’s Apostolic Constitution Sapienti Consilio renamed it to the “Congregation of the Holy Office.”) Look, Len: I understand. I really do. You want the casual reader to know that they should regard the CDF, and Card. Ratzinger by association, as the bad guys, and what better way to do it than by letting readers know, with the professorial subtlety of a tarantula on a marshmallow, that the congregation is the heir to the inquisition? I’m just saying that it doesn’t work. The man in the street doesn’t care, and for those of us who know better, it just makes you seem conniving, disrespectful, and manipulative. You’ve thrown away any goodwill for which you might have hoped—and the epistolar disguise—in your opening sentence. And for what?] immediately next to St. Peter’s square) I wrote you an open letter concerning the role of women in the Catholic Church. [No prizes for guessing what that letter said, right?]

I am disturbed that[,] especially of late[,] you have been giving signals that are in opposition to the words and spirit of Vatican Council II [If I may, Len, my experience with those who rely on the “spirit” of Vatican Council II is that they have only the vaguest what the council’s documents say, and their impression of its spirit coincides with their own preferences. In other words, the council is used as a sock puppet. One of the best indicators that a person is referring to this ersatz council rather than the actual council, the “historical Vatican II,” is that they give no specifics, and I notice that after the preceding sentence, instead of fleshing out the point, you simply move on. Never mind mere sock puppetry: That seems more like using the council as artillery: Invoke it (vaguely), hurl it at the enemy, and move on.], during which you as a leading young theologian helped to move our beloved Catholic Church out of the Middle Ages into Modernity. [Owing you fraternal candor, I must tell you that anyone who would characterize the preconciliar Church as an artifact of the middle ages has no real love for the Catholic Church, and a person who fetishizes “modernity” is flirting with idolatry.] Further, while a professor at our Alma Mater University of Tübingen, you, along with the rest of your colleagues of the Catholic Theology faculty, publicly advocated 1) the election of bishops by their constituents, and 2) limited term of office of bishops (see the book Democratic Bishops for the Roman Catholic Church). [I doubt that this is correct, but even if it is, it proves nothing and reminds us of nothing more than the fact that young men generally lack the wisdom that comes from age and perspective.]

Now you are publicly rebuking loyal Catholic priests for doing precisely what you earlier had so nobly advocated.  [Note the distinction: It is one thing to advocate the doing of something. It is something else entirely to actively and disobediently press ahead and do it. Indeed, there are even distinctions to be drawn within the former: Context matters, and academic discussion is not the same as rabble-rousing, just as private and public dissent are not equivalent.] They, and many, many others across the universal Catholic Church, are following your youthful example, trying desperately to move our beloved Mother Church further into Modernity. [Lenny, they are trying to conform the Church to the spirit of this age. That is not a boon; it is not wise; it is not Christian (cf. Rom 12:2). It is, and they are, desperately misguided.] I deliberately use the word “desperately,” for in your own homeland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, the churches are empty [And how was attendance before Vatican II and the destruction wrought fraudulently in its name in the following decades, Len? Even if it was true that Benedict is trying to go back to the days before the council, which he is not, I don’t think you would profit from a truthful and honest examination of the desirability of such a move.], and also are so many Catholic hearts when they hear the chilling words [the gospel  is “chilling”? The exercise of the petrine ministry within its wheelhouse is “chilling”?] coming from Rome and the “radically obedient” (read: “yes-men”) bishops. In my own homeland, America, the birthplace of modern freedom, human rights, and democracy, we have lost—in this generation alone!—one third of our Catholic population, 30,000,000, because the Vatican II promises of its five-fold Copernican Turn (the turn toward 1. freedom, 2. this world, 3. a sense of history, 4. internal reform, and above all, 5. dialogue) have all been so deliberately dashed by your predecessor, and now increasingly by you. [Do you really believe this poppycock? Do you really believe that the collapse in American Catholicism can be attributed to what (for sake of argument we can stipulate) wasn’t done to implement the council rather than what was done in its name? Do you really believe that people left because they hoped for more change than they got? The patient was healthy; the surgery was carried out; the patient died. Is the fault in the surgeon not going far enough? I think that it’s far more plausible that the changes that were carried out drove some people away and did such harm to the faith that many more fell away over the course of successively diluted generations.]

. . . .

An instructive companion piece might be this one, from Robert Royal, which urges those who have already become protestants in fact—I call them “sixth sense catholics”: they don’t know they’re protestants!—to become such in name. To come out of the closet, in other words. I think they might be happier if they did.

Post facto:
MP: The democratic fallacy (May 1, 2012)

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