The progressive revolution’s continued control of the ecclesial narrative

Dr. Larry Chapp is a retired professor of theology. He taught for twenty years at DeSales University near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He now owns and manages, with his wife, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania. Dr. Chapp received his doctorate from Fordham University in 1994 with a specialization in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He can be visited online at “Gaudium et Spes 22”.

What we are witnessing today is nothing short of a wholesale recrudescence of old guard, post-Vatican II progressivism, now linked to ever more transgressive attempts at revision, with a special focus on moral theology in particular.

(Image: Sean Ang/

Vatican II was unique in the history of councils insofar as the crisis it was called to address was not a specific and well-defined theological heresy. Rather, it was called to address the crisis presented by modernity to the credibility of the entire Christian narrative tout court. The secular world looked at the Christ of the Church like an ancient palimpsest, in which an original manuscript had been written over with the layering of something new. In this case, the claim was made that the “historical Jesus” had been glossed over and hidden away as the Church painted something new, which was a distorted image of Jesus as the divine guarantor of the Church’s power over even mundane terrestrial affairs.

Therefore, the challenge of modernity to the Church’s faith went far beyond this or that specific doctrine. It was instead a radical rejection of the very core of the Church’s narrative of who Jesus of Nazareth was and is and, therefore, of the very core of who God is—if He even is—and of what the Church is.

Therefore, and considering this totalizing challenge, Pope John XXIII, in calling the Council, did not task it with updating any particular doctrine in the light of specific theological challenges. Instead, he called on the Council to re-interrogate the entirety of the deposit of the faith and to propose that deposit in a new form, stripped of turgid baroque ecclesiastical language, and in a manner more Christological and evangelical.

To my knowledge, such a project had never before been attempted by the Church. And it does not take a great deal of perspicacity to see that the risks and potential rewards in such an endeavor were huge. Succeed and the Church might just yet reinvigorate her credibility as an authentic interpreter of who Jesus was; fail and the entire ecclesial edifice might collapse into a ragtag flotilla of lost refugees in uncharted waters. In many ways, therefore, Pope John’s mandate was the equivalent of a high-stakes gambler going “all in” with a poker hand that was not a slam dunk.

Pursuing this agenda, the dominant conciliar theology, in my view, was the Christocentric, theological anthropology of the ressourcement school, exemplified in Henri de Lubac’s masterful book The Drama of Atheist Humanism, which found expression in the famous line in Gaudium et Spes 22: “In reality, it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.”

The reinterpreted goal of the Council (and the linchpin as well of the entire pontificate of Pope John Paul II) was the trumping of modern secularism’s co-optation of the mantle of true freedom and of true humanism, by presenting to the world a deeper concept of freedom, grounded in a far more expansive and dignified Christocentric anthropology. It was no accident that Pope John Paul’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, was precisely an articulation of this expansive theological anthropology. And this more expansive view included a deeper and more authentic existentialism that emphasizes the natural human thirst for God—even as modernity seeks to explain this thirst away as the epiphenomenal flotsam and jetsam of our neurochemistry.

Like all great and truly consequential ecumenical councils, it is taking time for this essentially ressourcement theological project of Vatican II to take root. One huge reason for this is that the very essence of the Council was an attempt at an interpretive theological retrieval of Jesus Christ as the Revelation of God. But this exercise in theological retrieval opened the door to a flood of alternative theological proposals—e.g. transcendentalist, liberationist, feminist, and political theologies, et al—which were far less traditional and far more accommodating to modernity than the ressourcement theology of the Council and its Christocentric project.

This brings us to where we are now as a Church. Ever since 1962, and in light of the Council’s interpretive theological project, the dominating and overriding issue has been, “Who is in control of the narrative of modern Catholicism?” Who is in control of this project of theological reinterpretation?

Sadly, Vatican II failed to truly energize the Church. It led instead, and despite what it actually said, to all kinds of gnarled secular vines choking everything holy within the Church, mainly because, in the immediate aftermath of the Council, it was the progressive wing of the Church that succeeded in controlling the narrative of what the Council was all about. They had the advantage of a compliant and enthusiastic secular media world, the support of a Catholic theological guild seeking secular praise and approval as real members of the academic elite (thanks for nothing, Father Hesburgh!), and average Catholics of the post-war era eager to embrace and enter the new economic and political order of the liberal West as fully mainstreamed moderns.

It seemed, for a time, that the ressourcement camp had regained the upper hand in the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict. But their efforts were undermined and their success was only partial, since the theological guild remained mostly in the hands of the progressives (with some noteworthy exceptions). Furthermore, many priests and prelates continued to drift with the current mood of our cultural social contract. The strategy of the progressives was to lay low, say the right things, and bide their time until the reins of Roman power were in the hands of a different pope.

If you were in the Catholic academy during this time, as I was, you heard this sentiment expressed in a thousand different ways but always with the same inflection: “The conciliar project of modernization has been ‘interrupted’ by reactionary popes stuck in the past, but the curve of history is on our side and our day will come.”

In other words, the burning question of who controls the modern narrative of Catholicism—which is the ecclesial issue of the past sixty years—never went away, despite popes John Paul and Benedict. What we are witnessing in the current torments within the Church is a struggle over irreducible, and therefore intractable, debates rooted in irreconcilable theological first principles. What we are witnessing is nothing short of a wholesale recrudescence of old-guard, post-Vatican II progressivism, now linked to ever more transgressive attempts at revision, with a special focus on moral theology in particular. In 1968 it was Humanae Vitae and contraception; today it is LGBTQ everything, but the overall project is the same: The Church must change her moral theology, with an eye toward baptizing the sexual revolution, or it will perish.

And that brings me to the current pontificate. It is, in my view, best read as an attempt to revive a version of the controlling narrative of the Council as an aggiornamento of openness to modern Liberalism and not the aggiornamento of a prophetic engagement and critique. Seen in this light, Pope Francis is a useful tool for the progressives in that bigger project, regardless of his stated faithfulness to the Tradition. He is useful so long as papal authority is required in order to undermine or even destroy episcopal authority. This explains why, in the midst of all of this hoopla over a more “synodal” and less Roman Church, we see the contradiction of increasing centralization of power in Rome as the progressives gradually gain control of the various Vatican dicasteries.

For example, we see the authority of the local bishop taken away when it comes to allowing for the Old Mass in Traditionis Custodes and its follow-up-up dubia, where Rome asserts authority even over the minutiae of what can and cannot be published about the Old Mass in parish bulletins. There is now a new Roman office for adjudicating the validity of various alleged supernatural phenomena such as Marian apparitions, which have been traditionally the provenance of the local bishop. And to cite one more example, among many possible candidates, there is the paradoxical spectacle of Rome micromanaging the machinations of the synodal process in order to insure, via the use of Roman authority, that all of our “listening” is properly curated.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that this is the agenda of Pope Francis. His words and official teachings show no evidence of this kind of institutional self-immolation where centralized authority is invoked in order to destroy centralized authority—or even, as in the extreme case of the German synodal way, the destruction of episcopal authority as such. What is puzzling in the extreme is that Pope Francis, despite the sound theology in his words, has empowered the progressive wing of the Church in very significant ways through his various episcopal appointments.

The prelates, priests, and theologians that Pope Francis apparently prefers and thus promotes, are cut out of the cloth of modern, performative transgression. The subjective categories of human “experience”, described in terms of a deeply psychologistic and sociologistic register, are now the privileged loci for where God’s Revelation takes place. They are often even viewed as standing in tension with, if not in outright contradiction to, the traditional loci of Incarnation, Scripture, and Tradition. It is not the traditional concept of the third person of the Holy Trinity that is being developed here, but rather a witch’s brew of Feuerbach, Freud, Kinsey, and pop psychology of the angel pin/dream catcher boutique shop variety. And this new “Church on the move” theology is the apotheosis of the modern, rootless, therapeutic self so ably described by Carl R. Trueman in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and as such has the double distinction of being both false and boring.

But it is also propagandistic, since this “Church on the move” theology is almost always tendentious in its census-taking of opinions, the selectivity of which leaves the distinct impression that apparently only highly secularized people whose lives are a train wreck of constant anxiety, uncertainty, and undifferentiated anger, speak for the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, this propaganda is emerging as an attempt at total narrative control via the redeployment of the slogans of the original failed Great Revolution back in the Sixties and Seventies. It also requires the airbrushing out of the enemies of the Great Revolution—Popes John Paul and Benedict, for instance—but in a manner that at least temporarily makes it seem that the Dear Leader, though surpassing them in his understanding of Vatican II, loved them very much.

An example of this airbrushing revisionism can be seen in some recent remarks from Cardinal Robert McElroy:

Pope Francis has made the pope and the papacy more immediate to people. It is not formal in the same way it had been before. Now, certainly Pope John Paul II had a wonderful way with people and engagement, but this is a different thing. This is speaking with groups, people, journalists, individuals, immediately, about the problems that exist in their lives and in the world and in the life of the Church. That sense of immediacy is a different kind of papacy. It is one of more direct encounter, person to person encounter, than it has been before.

I am so glad that a Cardinal of the Church finally had the nerve to point out that John Paul was still too “formal” in his dealing with people, and that he did not as a rule speak with personal immediacy to ‘journalists and people’ about the problems in the world or in their personal lives. These words are so flamboyantly fallacious that they could only have been written by either an Apparatchik devoted to the methodology of the “Big Lie” (my vote) or someone who was in a coma during the 25 years of John Paul’s pontificate. But it is necessary for the Great Revolution that the Dear Leader be shown in all respects superior, even to the point of not just a revision of history but a total rewriting of it altogether. That is not a tweaking of history. This is its destruction in the furtherance of the Revolution.

It is truly sad that the “case of Vatican II” and its narrative is being relitigated in this manner. The pontificates of John Paul and Benedict have given us a magisterially authoritative adjudication of the case. And if ecclesial sanity were in play then double jeopardy would apply and the case would be thrown out of court on those grounds. But there is a new chief justice on the bench, and he too wields the same judicial papal authority. So, here we are in court again.

But this is not good for the Church. Because a Church is in a constant state of flux and suspension, a Church that is an endlessly open debating society, will eventually define itself into irrelevance.