By Rev. Robert Barron
This past year, we have witnessed the deaths of a number of prominent commentators on things Catholic. William F. Buckley, who died last spring, was, of course, primarily a political observer, but he also frequently and incisively weighed in on ecclesial and theological matters. Tim Unsworth, who passed away several months ago, was a long-time writer on religion for the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter. And within just the past few weeks, Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus—stalwarts on the Catholic right—went to their maker. The deaths of these major players in the religious commentariat prompts some reflections on the changing nature of the Catholic intellectual conversation in our country.
For the coterie of Catholics that is now fading from the scene, the dominant fact was the Second Vatican Council. That coming together of bishops, abbots, theologians, and members of the press was, as John O’Malley recently argued, “the greatest meeting of all time,” and historian Barbara Tuchman characterized it as the most significant event of the twentieth-century, surpassing in importance the two world wars and the dropping of the atomic bombs. It is not surprising in the least, therefore, that it preoccupied the minds and hearts of an entire generation of Catholic intellectuals. Vatican II has been described as the council of the church, for ecclesiology and liturgy were its major themes. How does the church worship? What is the nature and purpose of the church? How is the church governed and structured, and what is the correct manner of its relationship to the modern world? These were the central questions that beguiled the minds of the council fathers. Some have argued that Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae was even more determinative of the Catholic conversation than were the conciliar documents themselves, but discussions of that famous letter often turned on the fundamentally ecclesiological question of the range of the magisterium’s authority.
And so, in the wake of Vatican II, the commentariat turned with enthusiasm to a range of ad-intra questions: women’s ordination, the possibility of married priests, changes in the liturgy, developments in regard to the exercise of episcopal authority, sexual ethics, the nature of Catholic marriage, the adjustment of Catholic practices to modern styles, etc. To be sure, there were a variety of views on these matters, from hard left to hard right and every possibility in between, but the focus was on the household of the church. I remember these arguments well, since they dominated the years that I was coming of age. I recall the church of the late sixties and seventies as a community at war with itself, struggling to get its own affairs in order. But through all of this, the members of the Vatican II generation—whether on the left or the right—seemed to hold to the basic narrative of Catholic Christianity. There did not appear to be major disagreement in regard to God’s existence, the Trinity, the sacraments and the eucharist, redemption, Mary and the saints, eternal life. The center held.
But my growing conviction is that, as the Vatican II generation fought with itself over intra-ecclesial matters, the basic story became less and less convincing to the culture. As the commentariat bickered about the household of the church, they, perforce, spent little time presenting a compelling, coherent version of Catholicism to a world grown increasingly skeptical, secularized, and materialist. Mind you, I’m not suggesting for a moment that the questions they debated were unimportant or that they themselves were anything less than serious in their endeavors, but I am arguing that something extremely important was allowed to slip on their watch.
And therefore I believe that it is the task of the coming generation of Catholic intellectuals to offer a convincing apologetic for the basic narrative of the faith. To a scientific culture, we have to show how only a properly transcendent and intelligent cause can explain the contingencies and intelligibilities of the finite world. To a materialist culture, we have to show that, in the words of our present Pope, Logos is more metaphsyically basic than mere matter. To a skeptical culture, we have to show that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is intellectually coherent and historically defensible. To a bored culture, we have to demonstrate that life in the Spirit is a high adventure, corresponding to the deepest longing of the human heart. The new Catholic commentariat has to return, I believe, to the style of the first preachers and teachers of the faith, those who were trying to beguile the bored and materialist culture of their own time with the impossibly good news of a God who raised his son from the dead.
As we say farewell to a generation of Catholic intellectuals, we realize that for the next generation, important work remains.