‘Theological minimalism’

March 4, 2010

Dr. Jeff Mirus over at Catholic Culture has a great post up regarding the loss of a corporate sense of Catholicism and theological minimalism.   Theological minimalism is a term Mirus uses to refer to those who reduce the Catholic faith to a few certain points - for instance, those who reject the Church’s doctrine on abortion, contraception, divorce, and other moral issues, but who “believe Jesus was a great guy who loves us all, that we are called to unconditionally love each other,” and who “really love the faith/church.”  This term can apply to modernists or traditionalists - for instance, those traditionalists who reject the Second Vatican Council, and even to the extreme of the sedevacantists.

An excerpt:

The result of all this is a truncated form of Catholicism, characterized by theological minimalism, even among the most traditional of Catholics. The Modernists began it with their arguments in favor of fusing Catholicism with the prevailing attitudes of the Western world. By now Modernists are pretty far away from anything but a frank contempt for Catholic doctrine, but for a long time the Modernist method was to insist that only the great dogmas were essential objects of Faith. Thus Modernists often concentrated on reinterpreting these as necessary, but they did not deny their importance. But everything that wasn’t a great dogma was simply dismissed on the grounds that it did not require the assent of Faith.

Thus the characteristic stance of Modernism is that one is a good Catholic if one minimally adheres to a few very basic points. Within that rather nebulous and sketchy framework, one is free to unroll the form of Catholicism one prefers. For Modernists this typically creates a religion more or less based on “what everybody knows”—a religion congenial to our cultural elites. This same stance was adopted by a great many bishops who, having become freelancers in their individual churches, figured they had to pay attention to only a few minimal points of Catholic unity while largely running their local churches as they saw fit.

Increasingly the rank and file learned that there were only a few immutable points about Catholicism (none of them, apparently, moral), and that anyone could claim the name of “good Catholic” as long as he described himself as caring about the faith, believed that Christ loves all of us, and affirmed that the Church is “very important in my life.” Based on theological minimalism, who could judge among the competing forms of Catholicism? The case against contraception? Not a dogma! Opposition to abortion? Mere politics! Soon, in fact, it became widely apparent that only those who did presume to make such judgments could safely be described as bad Catholics.

Such minimalism has also afflicted those who, rejecting ecclesiastical chaos and infidelity, have erroneously concluded that this crisis was caused jointly by the work of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent popes who have defended it. Desperate to preserve their own peace of mind as believing Catholics, such persons have been psychologically compelled to argue—like the Modernists they hate—that, fortunately, only a very few dogmas and definitions require our assent and obedience. The idea here is that everything thought to have contributed to the ecclesiastical collapse can be proved to be non-authoritative, and so it can be safely ignored. Way too much of what it means to be Catholic is reduced to the question of infallibility. On this basis, the whole thrust of an ecumenical council can be dismissed as a “bad option”, and it becomes possible to embrace and affirm a contrary Program of Our Own.

Go read the rest.

We can all fall prey to this.  But this is more than mere tribalism, of which I am sure many would accuse me.  This is reducing the faith, and the beliefs you are willing to accept, to a narrowly defined set whose chief characteristic is that they appeal to you.  I’ve had to deal with this - there are areas of Church teaching where I’ve had to come around quite a bit.  Unfortunately, some of our Church leadership has also fallen into this habit of perhaps preferring some aspects of Catholic doctrine over others, so that they may push an angle, be it anti-abortion or pro-social justice, to a degree that tends to minimalize other aspects of Catholic belief.

It’s an interesting read, and something to think about this Lent. I think the points on the loss of a corporate sense of faith are especially poignant - while we like to think of the Church as One, to some extent, it’s become fragmented.  There is probably less unity of belief among rank and file Catholics than at any other time in the last 5-600 years, at least.


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