Shining in the Sun

A pre-publication review of Theological Cautions — A Doctrinal Analysis of the Church in France and Elsewhere by Father Paul Toinet, translated from the French by Father Michael J. Wrenn, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1982, $10.00.

Since much is required of those to whom much is given, the French understand that the world must exact from them the heaviest tithes. In this economy, for example, there is a certain poetry about the presence of a neo-classical French cultural center in the baroque heart of Rome. The culturally disadvantaged may find in this book by Paul Toinet new significance for the homophony of gaul and gall.

Father Toinet, Dean of Studies at the Seminary of Paray-le-Monial and formerly Professor of Theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, wrote a remarkable study for the Revue Thomiste (1980/2) and another for Nova et Vetera (1979/4) which make up the two sections of this book under the titles The Protestantization of the Church? (and the question mark is essential here) and Conflicts and Dialogue in the Church. Because the virtues and misadventures of “the Eldest Daughter of the Church” (a laurel conferred on France by the same largesse which styled Henry VIII “Defender of the Faith”) are to Catholics in the United States roughly what the example of Lafayette was to Washington, it is fortunate that what Father Toinet says so well can now be read by Americans.

The theses of Father Toinet reinforce those of Monsignor George A. Kelly, James Hitchcock and Ralph Martin and make them more convincing by adding the accentgrave. The speculations of a Richard McBrien of “selective obedience,” for instance, seem quite more transparent when filtered through the sophistication of a Moignt, as does the positivism of Avery Dulles when traced in the breathtaking relativism of Delumeau and Legaut. In analyzing this eclectic assembly, Toinet speaks with little invention but with the explicit corroboration of Henri de Lubac who comments on modernist commitments to a paracouncil abstractly created to replace the difficult passages of Vatican II. Such is the “Spirit of the Council” conjured like some Ghost of Endor to utter things quite contrary to the Council itself.

The situation has become more intense under a Pope whose synthetic exegesis stuns so many by repeating what the council actually said. It is hard to imagine why the Holy Father, who is as systematic a thinker as has appeared since the Angelic Doctor, should be called inconsistent or unpredictable unless those who do have ill-perceived the work of the council at which Bishop Wojtyla was a laborer.

Toinet traces the divergence between the teaching of the Church and many teachers in the Church to two problems. One is a relativism admitting of an instinct which invariably locates prophecy in the Reformation and juridicism in Trent. He is concerned to promote a fruitful ecumenicism according to the vision of Cardinal Bea and the guidelines of the decree Unitatis Redingratio. The “Protestantization” against which he warns means a reduction of the Church’s dogmatic patrimony, a subjective and autonomous personalism, a diminishing of universal sensibilities which are the ground of the Vincentian Canon, and an erosion of apostolicity as it functions through episcopal authority. With regard to the last, Toinet cites the commentary of Cardinal Gouyon which lends credibility to Monsignor George A. Kelly’s treatment of leadership in the American ecclesiastical scene.

Anyone familiar with post-war developments in Protestantism should be able to discern two emerging strains around which we may expect to see two main sectarian tendencies coalesce once the fragmentation of traditional denominational borders and the decline of classic confessionalism are complete: one is a neo-Arian Church constituted of the remnant liberal Protestant groups and one is a neo-Gnostic Church composed of literalist and pentecostalist groups. The stability of Catholicism will be required to resist the influence of these developments on latent sympathies for both extremes within itself. Toinet, though not pursuing this in precisely these terms, gives evidence of it in the French experience with uncertain confidence in the resilience of Catholic theologians who are ambiguously committed to Petrine guidance.

The “neo-Gallican subcongcious,” which Toinet attributes to that defective influence running from Philip the Fair to the Law of Separation, shares with the heresy of Americanism a rejection of historicity and a predilection for indigenous culture as the measure of which metaphysical truths can be accepted (and this acceptability is as weighty a consideration as the content of what is only symbolically called a truth). A widespread ignorance of history and the development of dogma help explain how easily things divinely revealed get supplanted by what is culturally received, for although there are no new heresies and only new heretics, what should be deja vu for the wise is novelty for the theologians whose relativism is actually a discreet kind of provincialism. So one hears that Christ did not transcend his first century Jewish “bias” and that his Vicar is dismissable as a “Polish Pope.” An American theologian told this writer that his peasant Irish grandmother and John Paul II thought the same way; I asked him how it was that his grandmother had been a phenomenologist. But one learns, as Toinet’s book attests, that the prophets of unfettered joy are remarkably lacking in humor. It may be that one sin worse than the Pharisaism which these prophets detect in every corner of sacred tradition is the sin of being Pharisaic toward the Pharisees.

Of course there is no “Vatican II Church” but only the Church which met in Council at Vatican II, in the same sense that there is no American Catholic Church but the Catholic Church in America. Unless this is realized, voices from theological consortiums will continue with the timbre of Squire Weston who firmly believed that the twelve apostles were Church of England vestrymen. In the final analysis, any ecclesiology or philosophical theology divorced from historicity will not only lead to error but will rob cultures of their vitality. The constitutional Gallican Church produced a Gregoire and a wreck of Talleyrand but no Louis IX, Joan of Arc or Cure of Ars. A whiff of Paul Claudel in Toinet’s book, remarked by the translator, is a reminder of a golden apologetic treasury which can still be the seed of eloquent renewal. Catholics alienated de radiceby false radicalists can easily forget, or perhaps be required to forget, the seminal voices. One can actually encounter seminarians who have no idea of who St. John Vianney was, a lacuna marvelous as Hank Aaron unaware of Babe Ruth or Menuhin oblivious to Paganini. Holy Pope John wrote an encyclical commending the Cure of Ars as a model for a renewed presbyterate. There are those who will answer that this was not the spirit of “good Pope John” conjured at Endor.

*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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