[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series on “Vatican II and Theological Paradigms” by Michel Therrien, STL, STD, exploring some critical issues in the post-conciliar Church, particularly the root causes of internal divisions and polarization. In this series, Dr. Therrien considers the debate over the possibility of paradigm shifts in Catholic theology. Click here for Part 2.] 

In July of 2017, I had the privilege of attending the USCCB’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America in Orlando, Florida.[1] It was a great gathering of Catholic leaders, but I would offer a couple of observations. The conversations and presentations were brimming with jargon from The Joy of the Gospel, but just beneath the surface, the basic theological perspectives represented by the various participants sounded the same notes as they had for decades. It struck me as a huge gathering of theological tribes and not quite the intended unified assembly of the universal Church. That is not a criticism of the organizers; I thought the blending of panelists was the most intriguing part of the event—the gathering represented an atypical combination of voices. What was opportune is that many folks who never come together in such a mixed gathering from across the entire theological spectrum were under the same roof. Yet it seemed to me also that people remained largely in their comfortable associations, while also embracing the rhetoric of the Joy of the Gospel. Several years later, these comfortable associations have become increasingly shrill in their rhetoric and hostility toward one another.

For several years now, and over the course of many years serving in a variety of ministerial and teaching environments, a suspicion has grown within me that we can correlate the loss of the Church’s missionary impulse to a kind of tribalism that prevails within Church life since Vatican II. We have not been able to get the Church’s mission moving forward because there are too many internal rivalries about what it means to be Catholic. There is not even agreement about the Church’s mission, without which no organization can flourish. We have fragmented identity and thus a weak sense of unity today; and as a direct consequence, we have no compelling witness. Catholics can focus too much attention on intramural debates than figuring out how to advance the mission. I would argue that the faithful are divided among various theological paradigms. We talk about mission but do not seem to know how to go out to others.

I would consider the following four post-conciliar paradigms to be the most consequential: the liberationist paradigm that arose in the 1960s as a Christian appropriation of Marxism; the Psycho-spiritual paradigm engendered by the confluence of modern psychology and eastern spirituality during the 1970s; the Charismatic-evangelical paradigm that emerged in the 1970s through the Charismatic Renewal; and finally the Neo-traditionalist paradigm that arose during the 1980s in reaction to the last three and remains to this day more popular in the US among younger and newer converts to the faith.

While it is true that the Christian faith is not itself a paradigm, it is equally true that Catholic influencers today and those they lead operate within theological paradigms that contextualize what it means to be a good Catholic. There are clear brand identities, political jockeying, and prejudices within the flock, and it has shifted the focus of attention onto internal power struggles for primacy of influence within the Church. My hunch about this is that our current state of affairs results from the profound influence “modernity” has had on Christian peoples.[2] While the faith is transcendent and universal, it is lived historically. What is most characteristic of modernity is its profound ability to dissolve unity in favor of particularism and individuality. The universal and transcendent is eclipsed by the culturally conditioned and subjectivity of experience. It should be obvious that a divided community does not grow.

Furthermore, the years following Vatican II created a political vacuum within which several theological paradigms have vigorously rivaled for ascendency and the right to interpret the meaning of the Council.[3] What ought to be the signature character of the Catholic Church, called to the unity of faith, is the way we are able to work through our differences in the spirit of charity. There is something especially scandalous about tribalism, and even worse, schism. It cuts to the very heart of what we as Christians claim for the world—social unity, the witness of divine love, and the ministry of reconciliation ( cf. Col 1:21-23).  In sum, the spirit of the modern age has fragmented the Church’s mission and thus weakened our unity of witness.

How can outsiders take us seriously, much more, be attracted to our message or perceive among us any authenticity when we so evidently cannot get along over the essential matters we claim to profess? The Church has always been the home of diversity and a whole slew of charisms. This is not the issue. The fragmentation to which I am referring is more reminiscent of watching several sets of hands tearing a garment to pieces. Catholics have torn asunder particular elements of Christian life represented by different theological paradigms, and then juxtaposed these to each other. For example, we pit law against personal experience; authority against freedom; office against charism; the new against the old and vice versa; social engagement against the interior life, tradition against progress; the living against the unborn; Latin against the vernacular; history against truth; faith against reason—and the list goes on. Where is Jesus in all of this? Is any of this about him? My conclusion is that the contentiousness is not about Jesus or his mission, since so many Catholics have just been moving along with the currents of change both within and outside the Church.

Let me delve deeper into the concept of a theological paradigm, which seems controversial to certain people.[4] Some have claimed that the Catholic faith is not a paradigm and so we ought not to speak of it in that way. The point these commentators are making is that paradigms do not apply to matters of faith and morals.[5] While I agree, it is also true that modern people contextualize their ideas and experiences through paradigms. It is one of the consequences of the scientific revolution as well as the modern turn toward subjectivity.

Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher, coined the term “paradigm shift” in his 1962 publication, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[6] A paradigm refers to a framework of understanding within a science, which enables those of a common academic discipline to systematize their principles, concepts and findings into a coherent and organized view of the reality they seek to understand. Newtonian physics, for example, provided a coherent framework for scientists for a long time and served as a framework for putting together a successful space program in the 1950s and 1960s. Quantum theory emerged as a new paradigm, however, and demonstrated the limits of Newtonian physics by better enabling scientists to delve into reality on a subatomic level.

Theoretical paradigms are very much the product of the scientific revolution and a scientific age. The purpose of any scientific method is to create a systematic body of knowledge that provides explanatory power for the nature of various realities.  Scholars have extended the scientific method to disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, and so paradigms operate in these disciplines as well as the hard sciences. Paradigms tend to function in and through theoretical models, as well as constructed narratives, that provide a lens through which people explore certain realities such that new schools of thought arise.

Paradigms shed a certain light on reality, but the danger is that we can ascribe to them more explanatory power than they truly have. A paradigm cannot explain everything. A good example of this is the theory of evolution, which accounts for a great deal, but not everything. Evolutionary biologists might apply the theory to eliminate the need for God or attempt to make evolution explain more than it can about human behavior.[7] People can apply paradigms subjectively because of a bias or ideology. Since the modern turn to the subject and the rise of philosophical skepticism, modern people tend to think in terms of mental constructs with which they contextualize their experiences or observations.

With some degree of intentionality, we allow paradigms to become the filter of our interpretations of reality and personal experience. When we refuse to acknowledge the limits that a paradigm imposes upon reality itself, they lose their usefulness. Put another way, to reduce reality simply to what one wants the paradigm to explain is a common temptation; one might try to explain everything in terms of the paradigms he or she prefers, which might often lead to a distorted perception of reality. Paradigms easily become a mental structure one imposes such that reality is reduced to the paradigm’s limited perspective.[8] By way of a preliminary conclusion, I would suggest that much of the tribalism we see today in the Church, especially as it relates to Vatican II, is attributable to competing theological paradigms and their consequent blind spots.

Many Catholics will deny that they function within paradigms or that modernity is an adverse influence on them. Yet I would push back against this assessment, for we are mostly all children of modernity and need to acquire perspective on what that means. To some extent, it is impossible not to be. I am not suggesting that modernity is all bad, but that some influences of modernity have distorted our understanding of the Christian Gospel. The challenge that awaits us is a matter of discernment and deeper conversion for all of us, and honest self-awareness. The more I examine this problem the less I believe the demographic nose-dive of our parish registries is the fault of secularizing influences out there in the world. It is the direct consequence of having lost our missionary focus through dissipation and internal rivalries influenced by corrosive elements of modernity within the Church. While these rivalries result from over-politicizing theological commitments along paradigmatic lines, political solutions will not remedy the crisis. Decades of magisterial authority and pronouncements have only served as rallying points for the various camps.

Click here for Part 2.


[1] See conference videos at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/get-involved/meetings-and-events/convocation-2017/index.cfm. Accessed on October 21, 2018.

[2] For the most part, I will use the term modern in its more technical sense to mean the time from roughly 1400-1960. The post-modern period begins in the late nineteenth century, but only becomes culturally pervasive after the social upheavals of the 1960’s. In my view, “post” modernity is the cultural ruins of the moral and philosophical collapse of the via moderna. See Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1998), chapter 2.

[3] For one version of this story, see Ralph McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1998).

[4] The context of the controversy are the comments Cardinals Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Blase Cupich made about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia representing a “paradigm shift” on the pastoral care of marriage. Their comments stirred strong reactions among several commentators. See Alessandro Gisotti, “Cardinal Parolin: il 2018 di Francesco all’insegna di giovani e famiglia,  https://www.vaticannews.va/it/vaticano/news/2018-01/card–parolin–il-2018-di-francesco-allinsegna-di-giovani-e-fami.html#play (Accessed October 31, 2018); Michael Sean Winters, “No Paradigm Shifts, Weigel Says—but church history is full of them,” https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/distinctly-catholic/no-paradigm-shifts-weigel-says-church-history-full-them (accessed October 31, 2018); Dorothy Cummings McLean, “Scholar stumps Cardinal Cupich, asks if Pope’s ‘paradigm shift’ means ‘radical’ doctrinal change,” https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/scholar-stumps-cardinal-cupich-asks-if-popes-paradigm-shift-means-radical-d (accessed October 21, 2018).

[5] See https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2018/01/the-catholic-church-doesnt-do-paradigm-shifts (Accessed October 21, 2018). See also https://www.crisismagazine.com/2018/on-paradigm-shifts (Accessed October 21, 2018)

[6] Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[7] For a book that shows beautifully how little the paradigm of evolutionary biology explains, see Benjamin Wiker, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (Downers Grove IL, InterVarsity Press, 2006). See also, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Chance Or Purpose?: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

[8] To advance the example of evolutionary biology, see Leon Kass, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics, chapter 10: “The Permanent Limits of Biology” (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).

Image: Adobe Stock. By kentoh.

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Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the President and CEO of Preambula Group. Prior to founding Preambula Group, he served as the President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and the Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2014, he was a professor moral theology and Academic Dean at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. He taught for seven years at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA, also serving as Academic Dean from 2008-2012. He holds a B.A. in Theology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and a Doctorate in Fundamental Moral Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland (2007). Michel is the author of The Catholic Faith Explained (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

A Post-Conciliar Tribal Church
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