Catholics and Modernity
Somewhere on the far side of what Tom Wolfe called the Halusian Gulp, Father Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R., is reading the July 11 Washington Post and groaning — if, that is, his purgatorial purification has been effective.
For it was Father Murphy who, covering the Second Vatican Council for The New Yorker under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne,” concocted the cowboys-and-Indians hermeneutic of all things Catholic that has plagued the mainstream media’s reporting and commentary on the Catholic Church for two generations: There are good-guy Catholics, known as “liberals” or “progressives,” who want to make the Church relevant to contemporary society and culture; and there are bad-guy Catholics, known as “conservatives” or “traditionalists,” who want to retreat into catacombs of intransigence because of their inability to grasp or comprehend a modern (and, latterly, postmodern) world they regard with horror.
Now, to be sure, a writer like Murphy, trying to explain the 21st ecumenical council in history to the generally secularized readership of The New Yorker, had a problem on his hands. How could even a gifted and witty scribe (which Murphy/Rynne was) explain, let alone make exciting, arcane debates over doctrine, often conducted in a strange vocabulary, for people who regarded “doctrine” as a synonym for “mindlessness” and “intellectual immaturity,” and in a culture where pragmatism and “technique” had conquered all? Murphy/Rynne had excellent inside sources in Rome, where he had long worked; what he needed was what would now be called — cue fingernails scraping down blackboard — a “narrative.” So Murphy/Rynne hit on a brilliant strategy, perfectly adapted to the Sixties and the middle years of Kennedy Camelot: treat Vatican II as a political contest between the forces of light and the forces of reaction; run everything and everybody at the council through those filters; and then watch readers acclaim, with one voice, “I get it!”
So, beginning 50 years ago this coming October, “Xavier Rynne”/Francis X. Murphy set in analytic concrete an interpretation of the Catholic Church, its internal affairs, and its engagement with public life that is ubiquitous in the 21st-century mainstream media — and not only in the United States. Here too in Poland, the cowboys-and-Indians hermeneutic dominates the national media, although the preferred good-guy/bad-guy categories are “open Church” and “closed Church.” The same nonsense prevails throughout the rest of Europe, even as the European Catholicism that most enthusiastically embraced the “progressive” or “open Church” model shrinks into ecclesial and public inconsequence. [More]