The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 43, No 2, March-April 1990

Theology for the Laity

Todays Crisis of Faith

By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

How often in recent years have we heard the question: "What has happened in the Church in the past few decades? What has brought about the religious crisis on the part of many who were brought up in Catholic families, but no longer practice their faith? What has brought about the conflicting opinions we hear expressed in dogma and morals, opinions not always in keeping with traditional doctrine and practice.?"

As Pope Paul VI stated: "We thought that after the Council there would be a day of sunshine for the history of the Church, and instead we found storms." The years that followed the Council have seen the rise of divisions within the Church and dissent from its teaching authority. What is the source of this turmoil, this confusion?


While the celebration of Vatican II might have been the occasion of the outbreak of these problems, it was not its cause. The causes (they are many and complex) go back many years before the Council. We will look at a few of them.

While some of the changes brought about by the Council were disturbing to "old time" Catholics, e.g. in the liturgy of the Mass, those changes did express the mind of the Church (I speak of the changes allowed, not the abuses that followed). Yet along with these, there came gradually and almost unnoticed some changes, especially in the field of morality, that did not express the mind of the Church. New opinions of morality began to be taught and new practices accepted, which not long before were recognized as against the law of God.

There is nothing in the teachings of Vatican II that could be the source of the errors that cropped up in the years following the Council. However, when Pope John XXIII called for an "opening of the windows of the Church in order to let in fresh air," that seemed to signal a certain freedom of thought in the expression of theological matters; and freedom always brings with it the possibility of being abused. As Fr. Hugh OíConnell commented in his book "Keeping Your Balance in the Modern Church:"

    "In the days before Vatican 11, there was actually a very considerable amount of theological speculation and innovation; there were battles quite as heated as those going on today. The only difference was that such ideas were quietly presented in theological journals, and were subjected by experts to analysis and investigation, to weighing of reasons pro and con, to a more or less general acceptance or rejection by qualified theologians before they ever came to public attention."

With the new climate of freedom, however, the Council, in its desire to update the expression of the Churchís liturgy and practice, seemed to open the door for the appearance of new ideas many of which were not in line with the official teaching of the Church.


Around the beginning of this century, Pope Pius X issued an encyclical "Pascendi Gregis," in which he condemned a number of errors of his day that are referred to as the heresy of Modernism. It was referred to as the "synthesis of all heresies," as it affected the fields of philosophy, theology and scriptures. It was an outgrowth of the agnosticism of his time, and belief in a form of evolution called vital immanence. It rejected, among other things, the idea of a transcendent God, rejected absolute unchanging norms of truth and morality. God is identified with His creation, and manifests His truth through the constant change that is going on in the universe. His revelation to man does not come from without, but from within, through personal experience. Thus religion consists in an interior experience, as awareness of manís relationship with God.

Along with the publication of the Encyclical in 1907, there was published a summary of 65 erroneous Modernist teachings rejected by the Holy See. While this helped to assure the clergy and laity of the official Church teaching, the sparks of the heresy did not entirely die out, but kept smoldering - only to resurface again later in the century under what present day theologians refer to as Neo-Modernism.

That such ideas have not disappeared is evident from a present day educator, who, along with others of his school of thought, has had considerable influence on modern catechetics. Brother Gabriel Moran, for whom the basis of theology is not supernatural revelation but experience, wrote in his book "Catechesis of Revelation:"

Since these opinions were expressly condemned by Pope Pius X in 1907, how true are the words of G.K. Chesterton:


Msgr. Eugene Kevane, in his book "Creed and Catechetics," sees the well known "Dutch Catechism" as being heavily infected with the remnants of Modernism. "The characteristics of its Neo-Modernistic catechetical approach, its ambiguities, its omissions and its outright doctrinal errors, live on in many . . . programs of religious education, and in teaching aids which implement them." (p. xvi)

Commenting on that Catechism, Fr. Edwin C. Garvey, in an article in the HOMILETIC AND PASTORAL REVIEW entitled "Process Theology and the Crisis in Catechetics," wrote as follows:

It was precisely to emphasize the elements being passed over in many modern educational systems, or being incorrectly taught, that Pope Paul VI issued his 'Creed of the People of God.'


As we have already pointed out, after the Council there was a growing acceptance of new ideas of morality, where certain practices began to be accepted, which not long before were considered sinful. What is this "new morality", and where did it come from? Without doubt it did not come from Vatican II, nor from any branch of the teaching authority of the Church. The weakening of the faith of many Catholics by Modernism paved the way for it, but the more immediate source from which it sprang was existentialism, a system of thought rejected by Pope Pius XII, that is based on the premise that there is nothing that is absolute and unchangeable, that all things are in continuous evolution. Applied to human activity, it holds there are no absolute, universal moral laws. (Humani Generis, 6)

The new morality is known by various names. Sometimes it is called "existential ethics," but more often it is known as "situation ethics." It does not obligate one to rely on the Church for guidance, but allows one to rely on conscience alone in determining oneís course of action.

Situation ethics maintains that moral decisions should no longer be based on universal moral laws - such as the 10 commandments, that objective moral standards or laws are of little value in such decisions, because moral problems are personal and unique. Thus they hold that moral decisions should be based on oneís personal judgment in a given particular situation (hence "situation" ethics). They reason in this manner: since each situation is different, the individualís conscience alone must determine what is morally right for him, apart from any universal principle or law. It is a matter between the individual conscience and God. If one is sincere and conscientious, that is all that God asks. Christians must learn to take the responsibility for their own acts, instead of relying on external laws as a guide. Such (they say) is Christian maturity.

Without going into further details as to this system of ethics, it might help to a better understanding of these matters if we contrast the traditional theology on which the Church has relied over the centuries, and the so-called "new theology," or "new morality" of which we have been speaking. While all dissenters from the magisterium may not do so in all of these ways, the following are some of the major areas of conflict.

  1. TRADITIONAL THEOLOGY stresses God as the center of all things; while the NEW THEOLOGY makes man the center. Their attention is mainly on man. God is not denied, but love and service of God is reduced to love and service of neighbor. Love of neighbor becomes the first and principal commandment. Commenting on this, Pope Paul VI said that while love of neighbor is essential, and on it we will be judged, "to give priority of place to humanitarianism leads to the danger of transforming theology into sociology, and of forgetting the basic hierarchy of things and their values." (Allocution: July 3, 1968)

  2. TRADITIONAL THEOLOGY stresses that truth is eternal and changeless, based on the changeless nature of things, and ultimately on God who is eternal and changeless Truth. The NEW MORALITY claims that all things are in constant evolution, so there are no absolute norms that apply to all situations.

  3. TRADITIONAL THEOLOGY stresses that God gave man an interior guide - conscience, but also an exterior guide - the Church, which was established by Christ to safeguard and interpret divine revelation. The NEW MORALITY stresses that conscience alone need be our guide in following Christ. They would not do away with the norms found in Scripture, but with any guidance of the Church in interpreting them, so that the conscience of the individual would be the absolute master of his own decisions.

    This, said Pope Pius XII, is the central weakness of the new morality. It was to the Church, and not to individuals, that Christ gave his revelation; and it was to the Church that Christ promised the divine aid required for avoiding error. "The autonomy of the individual conscience," said the Pope, "cannot be reconciled with the divine plan, and can produce only poisonous" (Radio Address, March 23, 1952).

    This same rejection of the Church as guide in interpreting Godís revealed word is found in many who seek to apply Liberation Theology to the social problems of today. In line with Marxist thinking, they claim the Church is influenced by capitalistic ideology which colors its interpretation of the gospel. The gospel, they say, must be read from the standpoint of the poor, the oppressed. Only the poor, they believe, and those who take the side of the poor and fight for them, can understand its true meaning.

    In line with this, the present writer spent eight years working with the poor in Central America, where the teachings of Liberation Theology were being applied; and the principal "liberation" that he witnessed was the liberation of those proposing these ideas - from traditional theology and from the magisterium of the Church.

  4. TRADITIONAL THEOLOGY stresses that supernatural public revelation of Godís message to mankind ended with the death of the apostles. As the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation in Vatican II expressed it: "We now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ." (Note: We distinguish public revelation [which ended with the apostles] from private revelation, which does not add to the deposit of faith, i.e. belief in it is not a requisite for salvation. E.g., the revelations at Lourdes and Fatima.)

    The NEW THEOLOGY holds that public revelation did not end with the apostles, but is still going on, something that is communicated and understood through the mode of personal experience. In this manner an "on-going" revelation is still bringing new divine truths to mankind. Consequently they donít speak of the development of dogma or of moral norms, but the evolution of them. Thus doctrines and moral norms can change from age to age.

We can see this concept at work if we examine the instructions in faith and morals given in some of our catechetical texts. The true dogmas of our faith are slighted, if not ignored; while the students are urged to discern their feelings and experience . . . which means they are to draw from their own experience and feelings - whether or not they will accept this or that teaching of the Church. A common example of this in modern education methods is referred to as "values clarification."


Since our Catholic faith is a divine gift enabling us to believe with conviction divine truths as proposed by the Church, we can see how the subjectivism of the false doctrines we have been considering will undermine and pave the way for the loss of that precious gift. No Catholic ever loses that gift of faith, except he deliberately rejects Godís revealed word as handed down by the Church.

When a heresy has to do with the very nature of God, and His relationship with His creation, it is bound to have fundamental and far-reaching effects on religion and religious beliefs. While there may be few today who publicly hold in full these erroneous religious doctrines of which we have been speaking, there are many overtones of them in some of our present day texts; and the effects of them is seen in the thinking of many Catholics. How else could there be (if the polls are correct) a considerable percentage of Catholics who reject the Churchís official teaching on contraceptives, the use of which Pope Paul VI declared is intrinsically wrong, and can never be right.

As to when one loses the gift of faith, God only knows. Externally oneís life may remain much the same . . . still going to Mass, receiving the Sacraments. One can use his free will to reject the official teaching of the Church, and no longer be guided by the divine light (faith) received at baptism. Contrary to what the "new theology" might say, faith is not a matter of the feelings.

The gift of faith (for one with the use of reason) requires a surrender of both mind and will. Hence Vatican II, quoting St. Paul refers to the obedience of faith (Rom. 16:26) ". . . an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him." (Dei Verbum, 5)

Through the virtue of faith, the mind of man is brought into contact with the mind of God Who is Infinite Truth. Thus, a condition of sharing in Godís truth is the humble submission of the mind, accepting His revealed word, not because one sees clearly the reasons for it, but on the authority of the infinite God revealing it, and on His promise to preserve from error the Church through which that truth is handed down.

St. Paul speaks of this submission of the mind when he says that by means of spiritual weapons "we demolish sophistries . . . and all that rears its proud head against the knowledge of God . . . bringing every mind into captivity to the obedience of Christ." (2. Cor. 10:4)

Pope Leo XIII applies that text to those who dissent: "They who take from Christian doctrine what they please, lean on their own judgment, not on faith . . . not Ďbringing the mind into captivity to the obedience of Christ,í . . . they more truly obey themselves than God."

This surrender of the mind does not in any way infringe on the freedom and liberty of man. It does not degrade him, but rather perfects his knowledge of Godís truth. It is a surrender, a submission, yes, but one that is freely given, and a surrender not to man, but to God. It is a surrender that does not enslave, but rather one that frees one from the doubts and uncertainties that would invariably arise if man were left to himself. It is a necessary condition to attain "the truth that makes one free." (Jn. 3:32)

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