Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Father Robert Henle, S.J., and the Crisis in Catholicism

In his paper at the recent Scarpa Conference, Patrick Brennan (here) bracingly argued that the Church is in crisis, engaged in a process of “autodemolition . . . through relentless novelty,” a process that has been ongoing since the Second Vatican Council through to the papacy of Pope Francis.  In his paper Patrick noted how even Pope Paul VI recognized this crisis, concluding that “the smoke of Satan had entered the temple of God.”  Patrick urged Catholics today to eschew the "spurious optimism" that so often greets the facts that demonstrate this crisis.

My assessment of the Council may differ somewhat from Patrick’s (e.g. it has, I believe born genuine fruit) but this is not to deny that the faith has been in crisis during the post-conciliar era, and this notwithstanding the remarkable efforts of Paul’s successors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  A variety of factors account for this crisis, the most significant of which is (I believe) the catastrophic failure in catechesis that took place in the wake of the Council – a failure that affected both those directly subjected to it and their progeny.

Paul VI was not the only one to recognize that a crisis was in the works.  In conducting some archival research for our book on the history of Catholic law schools, Lee Strang and I came across a newspaper article reporting on a speech given by, Rev. Robert J. Henle, S.J., president of Georgetown University, to an alumni dinner in early 1971, an article that was circulated among Jesuit university administrators.  Father Henle’s remarks plainly indicate that Catholic educators knew they were dealing with a crisis:

When we accepted freshman in our Catholic colleges 20 years ago, we assumed they were, for the most part, solid in their faith.  They were Christians in practice and belief, and they recognized sin even whey they committed sin.  Our problem in the colleges and universities was to put intellectual substance into their belief, to ground it and found it rationally, to give them an intellectual control over their internalized system of values.

But we can no longer do this.  We have to assume that it doesn’t make any difference what Catholic high school they come from or what Catholic homes they come from.  We have to assume that the majority of our freshman come to us already with a crisis of faith.

Our task is not to elaborate the faith into a rational system, to give it substance, to expand it, or increase it.  Our problem is a missionary problem: to reestablish the faith, reestablish their belief, to help the young people find and internalize a sound system of values for themselves.  The present problem of Catholicism with regard to most of our young people is to reestablish some belief in fundamental values and to work toward some kind of a basic consensus with regard to values.  The conflict which our young people have seen in their parents between a secular set of values, money, the good life, the Playboy philosophy, and a religious set of values (Mass on Sunday, Christian words, statements) has been devastating to many of our young, and they move in both directions.

So we have in this country, and in the Western world, a real crisis with regard to fundamental convictions.  I doubt very much that we can find any period in history in which this was true to the same extent.  It is perfectly true that in the middle of the 16th century the confusion about religious faith, due to the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, was widespread in Europe.  But even underneath that kind of difficulty were some fundamental Christian and moral acceptances that Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists, Presbyterians and Anglicans would all accept.  I don’t think we have any kind of unified acceptance anymore.  This is one of our very basic problems that is going to haunt us for a long, long time and for which none of us has yet found an adequate counter-ploy.  We are working at it, there is hope, but we really haven’t found a way to handle this position.

It appears that, in 1971, Father Henle attributed the crisis primarily to cultural forces rather than to the innovations introduced by the Council, but he still saw it as a crisis that undermined the practice of the faith.  To recognize the crisis is one thing.  It is, however, worth pondering whether the steps taken by Georgetown and other Catholic universities in response to this crisis (the “counter-ploy” to which Henle refers) were well chosen:  the method of “dialogue” that Patrick bemoans in his paper in contrast to the clear but loving presentation of the faith in its integrity together with the intellectual tradition that supports it.  And indeed, it is well worth pondering whether the choice of methods now practiced work to correct this crisis or to sustain it.


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