Why Catholic Teaching is ‘Increasingly Embarrassing’ to Church Leaders (Part 2)

“The fundamental point to make is this: we have an official theology that no longer treats the unconverted nature of the world as living under the dominion of the devil, and so inevitably in a state of spiritual war against Christ and his Church.”

Professor Thomas Pink.
Professor Thomas Pink. (photo: YouTube)

In the first part of his interview with the Register, Professor Thomas Pink explained why forgetting we live in a fallen, unconverted world of largely unbaptized people has led many Church leaders to falsely believe the Church can find harmony with the world and peacefully dialogue with it. 

In this second part of the interview, the philosophy professor at King’s College London explains how this phenomenon partly has its roots in a change in the liturgy, as well as the modern belief that grace can be imparted separate from the visible structures of the Church. 

He stresses this compromise with worldly values is happening not because the magisterium has changed, but because of an “official theology” that has departed from magisterial teaching in order to accommodate the world. The crisis, he believes, can only be resolved “by understanding the roots of the official theology, and then confronting it intellectually.”


To sum up what you said in the first part of this interview: what we have is a faulty premise, which is perhaps an overly optimistic view of human nature?

And of the Fall, really. I’ll say a bit more about that because it’s clearly bound up in, I’m afraid, the whole period of the Second Vatican Council. 

You can see the change in the new liturgy. If you look at the historical rite of baptism in the Church, it treats the unbaptized child as quite literally living under the dominion of the devil. The traditional rite involves a series of exorcisms in which the devil is repeatedly and very explicitly called upon to leave the child, to depart. Now, I think a lot of modern Catholics find that very disturbing, and these exorcisms have unfortunately been removed from the modern rite of baptism. But Catholics should realize that that these exorcisms present dogmatic teaching. The Council of Florence dogmatically teaches that, thanks to the Fall, children are born under the dominion of the devil – and baptism is the only means of escape.

The unconverted world, the unbaptized world, is under the dominion of the prince of this world. And of course, if you do see the unconverted world in those terms, you won’t expect to live in peaceful dialogue, in harmony, with it for any length of time. Of course, you have to dialogue with parts of it, to coexist, but you’re not going to see that as a long-term strategy for conflict avoidance. Aside from the fact that you owe people to remove them from the dominion of the devil.


But can grace work through an unconverted world?

Here is another related problem: the modern idea that grace will reliably operate in a way that’s anonymous – detached from the visible structures of the Church. But the problem with that is that it appears not to be true.

Now of course, it’s always hard to tell who’s saved and who isn’t. You can’t immediately tell how elevating grace is working. But the same grace that elevates, heals, repairs the damage done to human reason by the Fall. Now this healing, this repair to nature, is very visible. You can tell when it’s not working, and it’s not working where people are falling into serious error as to the content of the natural law.


What precipitates this?

People seem to fall into increasingly serious error about natural law as they move away from a participation in the visible structures of the Church that’s truly devout and proper. A proper participation means, for example, not just taking Communion in a casual way, but actually going to Confession and reforming your life through that. As you move away from that to, shall we say, the less conforming parts of the Church where people don’t bother go to Confession but make what look like casual and potentially unworthy Communions, and then outside the Church, you see ever increasing amounts of error as to the content of the natural law. 

So there is an empirical argument here against too much reliance on grace operating anonymously – on grace working independently of visible membership of the Church and properly devoted participation in the sacraments. The effect of grace we really can observe, its repair of the damage done by the Fall, seems very dependent on just that membership and participation.

Of course, once you fall for the view that grace operates quite independently of the visible structures of the Church, the visible life of the Church just becomes a sign of something that’s happening anyway and invisibly, all over the place. The Church becomes not a necessary means of salvation, but a form of salvation theatre. And that view of the Church as salvation theatre then becomes another part of the strategy for achieving harmony with the world without the world’s conversion.

So for example, you’re going to avoid seeking Jewish baptism because that involves disharmony. Why pursue something if that causes offence, if it really is theatre, dispensable to salvation itself? And you’re going to stop denying people in irregular relationships Communion because that again produces disharmony. It produces disharmony with the secular world, and even within the more misinformed parts of the Church, because you would then be applying marriage laws that people now find very disturbing. 

Why anyway would you insist on the Church’s sacramental discipline when you have ceased to believe that unworthy Communions are spiritually dangerous? Because you now think salvation occurs and grace operates largely independently of the sacramental structure. 


This kind of theology is damaging because it’s essentially saying that Church isn’t needed?

In a sense you are saying that the Church isn’t needed. Or if the Church is needed, she’s only needed as a sort of sign — a sign of something that’s happening anyway and invisibly. 

So you arrive at the idea that you should evangelize people, not to save their souls, but simply to tell them about something that’s happening anyway. So mission becomes a sign of salvation, as opposed to a means of salvation. Which is one of the frequent ways in which mission activity is explained. It’s not actually designed to save people, it’s designed to proclaim to people that they are saved, which is quite a different thing. 

There’s nothing in the documents from the Vatican II that teaches that the Church’s sacramental system is effectively a form of theatre – but official statements and policy within the modern Church increasingly treat it as if it were. And this makes the Amoris Laetitia crisis extremely predictable. 


Why is that? 

Magisterial teaching about marriage — Christ’s own teaching — is very uncompromising. People in the secular world find it very difficult to live such a teaching, because of course you couldn’t live it without the help of divine grace. And it tends to produce conflict with people who are not living it, and do not want to live it. And that conflict can extend to the Communion rail. If you think that denying people Communion isn’t about avoiding spiritually damaging Communions, but you see your policy in relation to Communion as more dictated by avoiding disharmony, then of course you’re going to start handing out the sweeties. 

You can see this official theology affecting the new liturgy. According to magisterial teaching, if you take Communion in a state of mortal sin, that only adds to your damnation. Unworthy Communions are spiritual death. It’s in Lauda Sion, the Corpus Christi sequence. Now Lauda Sion is still an option in the new rite, but you’ll generally only hear it in its complete form in most places if you go to an old rite Mass I’m afraid. In the new rite people are typically denied the sequence altogether, or at least the verses that teach that unworthy Communions are death to the sinner, only life to someone in a state of grace. Just as in the new rite they are always denied precisely those verses from Corinthians on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi that teach the same thing.


So it appears you’ve got this pushing aside of that teaching just because it’s difficult?

Official theology and policy increasingly treat the actual delivery of sacraments and sacramental discipline as if they were of no immediate significance to your salvation — as at best merely a sort of sign about something that’s happening anyway. 

So, it’s not surprising that you then get Catholic clerics discussing whether to give Communion to Protestants without taking seriously the fact that Protestants do not generally go to a sacramentally valid form of confession. They may be baptized, but they’ve mostly never been to confession. Now Protestants are clearly not especially immune to the danger of mortal sin but, still, this is somehow assumed by these clerics not to matter. 

These clerics don’t seem at all concerned to insist on Protestants going to confession as a condition of being offered Communion. But it never occurs that Communion without confession might put Protestants in spiritual danger. Giving Communion has become an issue of being welcoming — of being nice to people — and the priority is now avoiding spiritual conflict and disharmony.


So again, we have old magisterial teaching pushed to one side because of this policy? 

Yes, it’s not so much that there is new magisterial teaching that explicitly contradicts the historic magisterial teaching about Communion. What we are dealing with is official policies and official explanations of those policies that effectively disregard that historic teaching – that often simply don’t mention it.


I suppose you could say pastoral practice has changed, so that it’s no longer consistent with the Church’s magisterial teaching , as some critics say of the application of Amoris Laetitia —  that there’s now this dichotomy between pastoral practice and doctrine?

But remember that the pastoral practice is still going to be accompanied by policy statements and explanations that are official and theological and that look to the unwary as if they were magisterial teaching – even if they aren’t.


It’s a way, would you say, to circumvent magisterial teaching? 

Yes. The Church’s magisterial teaching is increasingly embarrassing to many bishops and senior clergy. And of course, once this process gets going, I can see why people might get worried about apostasy on the part of the Church’s own hierarchy. For sooner or later some bishops and senior clergy stop pretending that it’s all just about changes in pastoral policy, and start openly claiming that the doctrine itself really can be changed.


Some see it as almost undeniable that the Church is drifting into apostasy because they see her going along with a world, putting forward views not backed by grace, by baptism, and so she is following a world which is not going towards salvation. Is she therefore being led astray?

Well, clearly at the level of official theology, yes. I think the reason why I avoid words like apostasy is that the Church cannot fail. The Church cannot leave the Church, which of course what apostasy is about. It’s about leaving the Church. 

So as Catholics we’ve got to see the fundamental structures of the Church and magisterial authority continuing. But we can also see that there are considerable and growing departures in official theology and policy from magisterial teaching. 


Which is kind of eclipsing magisterial teaching...

Yes. After all, the ordinary Catholic doesn’t read encyclicals, or the decrees of past councils. The ordinary Catholic simply hears what the parish priest says, what that priest has been taught to say at seminary or what he or his fellow-clergy now think he ought to say … . All that is a matter of official theology, not magisterial teaching itself. The problem now is that so much of the official theology omits magisterial teaching, or even contradicts it.

So this is a considerable crisis, but it will only be resolved by understanding the roots of the official theology, and then confronting it intellectually. I think the fundamental point to make is this: we have an official theology that no longer treats the unconverted nature of the world as living under the dominion of the devil, and so inevitably in a state of spiritual war against Christ and his Church.  The Church has historically taught that in a fallen world, human nature will degrade, in a way that must inevitably lead to spiritual conflict with the Church. And that historical teaching appears all too true – but modern official theology will not admit the inevitability of the conflict or its roots in the Fall. 


And that’s completely opposite of what, progressives if you like, put across, the world is actually getting better, things are getting better. That’s not the case. 

No, and there doesn’t appear to be some sort of invisible operation of grace in the world outside of and quite independent of the visible Church that reliably repairs the damage done by the Fall. The only really assured way of escape from the Fall to salvation is visible participation in the life of the Church according to the magisterial teaching of the Church, which is that of Christ.

(See Professor Thomas Pink's essay on this subject on The Josias website).