Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Church's Cold War

I was reading today about Raymond Aron's post-war work Le Grand Schisme. Aron was a leading French intellectual who stood not for any extreme but rather for a secular (in the French sense), moderate consensus. This was at a time when many of France's leading intellectuals were either tainted by association with the hard-right, Nazi-collaborating Vichy government of the war years or else cosy-ing up to Soviet Communism like the myopic Jean-Paul Sartre. In any case, Aron came up with one of the formulae that helped define the Cold War at the end of the 1940s, and it went by way of this delightful juxtaposition: paix impossible, guerre improbable.

The Cold War made for an impossible peace. Many of the protagonists on either side of the Iron Curtain, at least when Aron forged his expression, were resolved to oppose implacably the ideas and efforts of their enemies. Let's indulge in a little schematisation for the sake of brevity. The Soviet bloc wanted to see the proletarian revolution spread everywhere; the West, on the other hand, having just defeated one dictator, were not about to embrace another dictator of a different stripe. Paix impossible.

And yet at the same time it was unlikely they would actually go to war. Indulge in a little skirmish via client states? Yes. Agitate and aggravate the other side? Well, of course. But actually initiate the steps for an all-out conflict? Not likely. The costs were too high in reality, and nobody who had survived the Second World War would have been inclined to disagree with the virtues of an uneasy peace. Or, in this case, a state of improbable war.


Having read Aron's formula, I could not help but reflect on the post-dubia situation we now find ourselves in. Is this not a case of paix impossible? Those who have doubts about Amoris Laetitia are not looking for the correction of its punctuation. The ambiguities of the text raise questions that touch the very heart of a handful of divinely revealed or Church-proclaimed doctrines. On the other side, no liberal is going to want to give up on the concessions that have just been squeezed through the Vatican approval machine. We know very well that they have no intention of stopping at the facilitating of irregular unions. All the other plethora of irregular situations (and invincibly ignorant consciences) must also taste of God's mercy so long and so wrongly denied them.

But then we also are in a moment of guerre improbable.  Francis is not going to make martyrs out of the four dubia-bearing cardinals. He still reeks enough of traditional pietism to offend large swathes of the liberal intelligentsia. At the same time he will offer no clarification that states clearly where he stands on the question or, better still, what the Church firmly and truly believes.

On the other side, I just do not believe that the four cardinals will do anything beyond offering a 'formal correction' that will probably be of the mildest kind. Cardinal Muller's recent intervention has gone some way towards spiking their guns. What kind of formal correction could carry immediate, practical weight - we know it will have theological substance but that is not the same thing - without the backing of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? This might not pertain if there are a substantial number of cardinals who associate themselves with a formal correction, but the fear of schism will ensure their numbers are small.

No, to me, it looks set not for a cathartic denouement with movie-style resolutions and relief all round, but rather a long, slow burn of confusion; a state, as Aron said, of guerre improbable.


Paix impossible, guerre improbable.  Fasten your seat belts, but not because it is going to be a bumpy ride. More because it will be an interminable traffic jam, and we might just fall asleep at the wheel.

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