Conservative vs. Orthodox

by Nicholas Frankovich

Over the weekend George Weigel wrote that “Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs” are inadequate to meet the challenge of postmodernity. To Matthew J. Franck it’s clear that he meant only the bad traditionalists and that only someone looking to take offense would think otherwise. I think otherwise — like these readers — although, as I indicated in a Corner post on Sunday, I don’t claim to read Weigel’s mind. I can only read what he wrote. Franck thinks I misread him. I hope he’s right.

The grand sweep of Weigel’s vision is stirring: Outgoing, apostolic, infused with the Holy Spirit, the Church sheds it fortress mentality and goes forth to deliver its kerygmatic message to the world. Springtime, open windows. This is evangelical Catholicism, which Weigel defines against the Counter-Reformation Catholicism it’s purportedly growing out of. The purpose of the old book, the Pian missal, is to serve and inform the new book, the Pauline missal, he explains in Evangelical Catholicism. The new book is what is now operative, the ground on which “the evangelical Catholic liturgical renewal of the twenty-first century will be built.” We continue to learn from the old book, but communities that cling to it “retard, not advance” the work of the Holy Spirit. They’re “exhausted.” They’re “dying.”

In Weigel’s view, the “traditionalist” and the “progressive” expressions of Catholicism are siblings, variants of “the same Counter-Reformation, rule-based, catechetical-devotional Catholicism.” His blueprint for the Church of the future looks a lot like Conservative Judaism, an attempt to borrow the best from Orthodoxy (traditionalists) and Reform (progressives) while rejecting the extremes of both. Insofar as traditionalists and progressives “both remain stuck within the Counter-Reformation model,” they’re over, history, “like fossils in amber”; to evangelical Catholicism alone belongs the future.

That’s an intra-Catholic version of supersessionism. If preferring the old missal to the new one makes me as a Jew to Christians, I’m honored, although I think the theology that understanding is based on is wrong. The Holy Spirit is able to work in all rites and all forms of rites, even in ways that contradict our assumptions, ignore our well-laid plans, and defy our ability to supervise Him. Consider the surprising growth of Orthodoxy in Judaism worldwide in the past half century. It wasn’t supposed to happen. The effort to channel Catholicism in the direction of Conservatism will bear fruit if it’s of God. If it isn’t, as Gamaliel observed in a different but related context, it won’t. Meanwhile, liberty in non-essentials. In all things, charity.