von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

May 18, 2021

Trojan Horse in the City of God
Dietrich von Hildebrand
(Sophia Institute, 1993) [1967]
332 p.

Writing shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, von Hildebrand issues in this book a passionate critique of the changes being wrought in the Church’s life in the name of the Council. He must have been one of the earliest voices to point out the marked difference between the letter and the putative “spirit” of the Council:

It would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

Hildebrand saw the Council as having the potential to enrich the Church’s life by correcting imbalances that had grown up over the years since Trent. He thought that an “ossification and legalism” had come to characterize the Church in her own life and in her relationship to the world, and that the Council was trying to correct this. He saw traditional Catholic teachings on certain subjects as needing rebalancing by complementary truths: the Church stressed the value of religious life, to the relative neglect of married life; she stressed love of God, to the relative neglect of love of neighbour; she valued supernatural goods but undervalued natural goods; she practiced certain forms of Scriptural interpretation but neglected others. There were partial truths in need of completion.

Yet a partial truth is a truth, not an error, and the proper response is to add to it, not to repudiate it. He wrote because he saw in what was then already called “progressivism” a rejection of what was true in tradition in favour of the opposite half-truth: preference for married over religious life, substitution of love of neighbour for love of God, an overemphasis on natural goods, and a neglect of sound, traditional Scriptural interpretation. Above all, he saw the Church, in the name of the Council, being captured by the secular spirit of the age:

Enamored of our present epoch, blind to all its characteristic dangers, intoxicated with everything modern, many Catholics no longer ask whether something is true, whether it is good and beautiful, or whether it has intrinsic value. They ask only whether it is up-to-date, suitable to modern man and the technological age, challenging, dynamic, audacious, or progressive.

The bad fruit of this attitude was, already in 1967, beginning to become evident, and von Hildebrand surveys its many aspects. He saw traditional Catholic philosophy being abandoned in favour of philosophies, such as relativism and historicism, flatly incompatible with the Church’s teaching; he saw the evangelical imperative to present the Gospel in a manner suitable to our time and place being perversely interpreted as a requirement to change her teachings to suit the times; he saw the emphasis on religious pluralism and ecumenism betraying the Catholic commitment to religious truth; he noted a false, and characteristically modern, view of freedom disrupting the Catholic view of the moral life; he saw a turn from a transcendent to an immanent frame of reference for the Church’s life and activity; in the Church hierarchy he saw a reluctance to condemn heresies and errors as betraying either a lack of charity or a lack of faith, or both; and, perhaps above all, he saw the Church captured by a superficial optimism that the world was, somehow, bound to improve, such that whatever was happening must be good.

In 1967 the most obvious on-the-ground effect of the Council – the replacement of the Latin Mass by the new, vernacular Mass – was still in its nascent stages. Nonetheless von Hildebrand found reason enough to decry the loss of beauty and the disruption of the sacred atmosphere of the liturgy that was being pushed in parishes. He is not specific, so it is hard to know precisely what he was objecting to, but it is noteworthy, I think, that he already felt it was necessary to sound the alarm and defend the value and integrity of the Latin Mass. Little good it did us.

Against this “progressivism”, he argues, sensibly, that every age is a mixture of things better and things worse, that the newness of something has no bearing whatever on its truth, and that by denying the value of their tradition, progressives deprive themselves of the resources and advantages that those traditions provide.

He also rightly argues that “progressivism” in Catholicism, while it might, arguably, have a certain limited role to play, cannot be allowed free run of the house.

Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith because the Church’s faith, and any true reform, is founded on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of his Holy Church. It admits no possibility of change except … the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it… This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification.

*

The book is valuable not only because of when it was written – a dispatch from the front – but by whom. Von Hildebrand is normally associated with the reformers, not the embattled reactionaries. Yet here he lays out a sustained case against the principles and ambitions that have guided the “spirit of Vatican II” in the intervening decades.

Almost all of the problems he identifies are still with us. The young priests who came of age after the Council are now our senior churchmen, and, as is well known, many of them remain fond of this silly season. In some respects the battle has died down today, sometimes because issues faded in importance, and sometimes because trenches were dug and people got comfortable in them, but in other respects the conflict he describes remains timely, though the flashpoints have changed. But the book remains relevant. It would be great if the publisher would issue a new edition, because it is very hard to find.

Von Hildebrand knew Joseph Ratzinger in Germany when the latter was a young priest, and Ratzinger’s respect for him is on record. I’m not at all surprised to learn this, because the position von Hildebrand stakes out – openness to reform, love for tradition, and mistrust of sunny appraisals of modern habits of thought – reminds me in many respects of Ratzinger’s own.

4 Responses to “von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God”

  1. Rob G Says:

    Von Hildebrand’s description of progressivism in the RCC can be applied just as accurately to progressivism in general. In its quest to right past wrongs based on partial truth, it throws out much that’s good along with the bad simply because it’s “old.” The observation that it’s conservatism’s job to add to the partial truths rather than repudiate them wholesale is a good one. Both sides have an unfortunate tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, alas.


  2. “In some respects the battle has died down today…”

    I’ve pretty much dropped out of the whole intra-Catholic debate, in part thanks (as in “thanks”) to Pope Francis, who threw gasoline on embers that I had thought were dying down. I find myself thinking along the lines of St. John Fisher–“I fear we be not the men who will see the end of it.” As I’m in my 70s now, that is certainly true for me. But I still can’t help thinking “if only they had listened to people like von Hildebrand back then.”

    It should be interesting to see what happens when those who were part of or formed by the “silly season” are all gone. That’ll be a while yet as that latter cohort reaches down into people who are now only in their 50s or so. Perhaps a more significant factor will be a general and significant shrinkage of the Church, which seems quite likely.

    • cburrell Says:

      Yes, I’ve dropped out of the fray as well, if I was ever in it. My sympathies, and convictions, are largely on one side, but the fight doesn’t reward the effort.

      I’d be unlikely to pick up a recent book like this one, but the combination of author and date of authorship convinced me that it might be worth my time. And I think it was.

      Yes, the silly season and its fallout are still with us, including, it seems, at the very top.


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