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Catholic Orthodoxy Sinking In Liquid Modernity

How did the 'Spirit of Vatican II' swamp the legacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI?
The sea's revenge

Rocco Palmo, the well-sourced chronicler of the Catholic Church, can hardly believe what’s happening at the Amazon Synod:

As trade-offs go, it would be one for the books – after traditionalist opponents of the Pope stole the much-ballyhooed statues of Amazonian women from a Roman church early yesterday and tossed them into the Tiber, actual Amazonian women could just emerge from the “river” of this Synod clad in the stole of Holy Orders.

With the draft of this weekend’s Final Document now in discussion among the gathering’s 12 language-based workgroups, a report earlier today from Chris Lamb of the London-based Tablet said that a proposition for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate in Amazonia has made it into the current stage of the all-important closing text.

While unsurprising given the explicit openness to the idea from a majority of the circuli minores in their Friday reports, that the sheer prospect of ordaining women would be contained in a Vatican document – even in preliminary form – is staggering to a degree that, on this beat, few things genuinely are. Yet even as the ultimate product lies in the hands of the 13-man drafting team led by the Relator-General, the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes OFM, you can bet the house that nothing would be put on the table without Francis’ implicit approval… and even so, the notion of extending the priesthood to married men in the Amazon – and, for that matter, the admittance of women to the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte – suddenly doesn’t feel so big after all.

That said, as discussion on and proposed amendments to the draft Final continue from within the small groups, there’s still a long way between now and Friday, when the finished proposals – usually over 100 in all – are presented in the Aula before Saturday’s voting, where each proposition must receive two-thirds approval from the 185 clerical members (i.e. 124 “placets”) to pass. And again, given the now-explicit possibility that the Pope can simply ratify a Synod’s Final Document as a text of the Magisterium at will, the stakes are higher than most would’ve anticipated.

Read his entire post.

A friend — a conservative Evangelical — brought that to my attention earlier tonight. He texted (I quote this with his permission):

You know, I have never believed that the claims of the Church of Rome were true, but I have always taken a certain comfort in the belief that Rome would hold firm to its ancient convictions. And now the Ancient Faith is being transformed into the Episcopal Church before my eyes — the dismantling could be completed in less than a decade of this papacy. Of all the amazing things happening around the world this is surely the most amazing. How could anyone doubt the “liquid modernity” thesis after this?

“Liquid modernity” is the concept that the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman came up with to describe our present condition. An explanation:

In the 1980s and 1990s, Bauman was known as a key theorist of postmodernity. While many theorists of the postmodern condition argued that it signified a radical break with modern society, Bauman contended that modernity had always been characterized by an ambivalent, “dual” nature. On the one hand, Bauman saw modern society as being largely characterized by a need for order—a need to domesticate, categorize, and rationalize the world so it would be controllable, predictable, and understandable. It is this ordering, rationalizing tendency that Max Weber saw as the characteristic force of modernization. But, on the other hand, modernity was also always characterized by radical change, by a constant overthrowing of tradition and traditional forms of economy, culture, and relationship—“all that is solid melts into air,” as Marx characterized this aspect of modern society. For Bauman, postmodernity is the result of modernity’s failure to rationalize the world and the amplification of its capacity for constant change.

In later years, Bauman felt that the term “postmodern” was problematic and started using the term liquid modernity to better describe the condition of constant mobility and change he sees in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society. Instead of referring to modernity and postmodernity, Bauman writes of a transition from solid modernity to a more liquid form of social life.

For Bauman, the consequences of this move to a liquid modernity can most easily be seen in contemporary approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, constructing a durable identity that coheres over time and space becomes increasingly impossible, according to Bauman. We have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.

What my Evangelical correspondent means is that what was once solid no longer is. The thing that seemed most solid within Christianity — the teachings of the Catholic Church — are now revealed to be made not of rock, but lava. My friend continued:

Remember when all the trad/conservative Catholics were confidently claiming that JP2 and B16 had transformed the church through their wise appointments and driven out the “Spirit of Vatican II” once and for all? So what happened? Why didn’t it work out that way? I have looked for answers and haven’t found any.

That’s a very good question. I don’t have a good answer either, only some intuitions. I’ll throw it open to you readers.

For one, I think conservative Catholics — I was one of them, as you know — were victims of wishful thinking in a particular way. We thought that because the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy, having a strong, orthodox pope at the pinnacle would cause reform to flow down and out to the peripheries. We didn’t count on the fact that liberals staffed the Church’s bureaucracy, and had a lot of staying power.

Second, the kind of conservative Catholics (CCs, from here on) prone to believing this, and talking about it, were intellectuals. I came into the Catholic Church at age 26, and was genuinely shocked by the chasm between the actual, existing parish churches, and the Catholic Church as reflected in the writings of contributors to First Things magazine, Crisis, and the other CC publications I devoured, as well as the many writings by converts and apologists.

To be fair, I had the starry eyes of a convert, and was ready to be talked into buying the narrative. I became serious about Christianity at the same time I felt called to Catholicism, and I remember thinking that all these other churches are either surrendering to the spirit of the Age, or eventually will — but not the Roman Catholic Church! It seemed like such a solid thing. Anyway, intellectuals are prone to believing that if you think clearly, everything will get sorted. Looking back, it’s easy to see how those wonderful encyclicals by JP2 made people think that a new day was dawning, and that there would be no turning back.

Third, JP2 and BXVI did not appoint stellar bishops across the board. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but something to keep in mind is that the bishop-making system is designed to produce yes-men and managerial types. And, though the pope names bishops, he typically chooses from a handful recommended by the local bishops’ conference. It’s not possible for any pope to know everything about episcopal candidates. He has to rely on those he’s delegated to give him good advice. You could blame JP2 and BXVI for poor episcopal appointments, or at least not-great ones, but you also have to consider what they had to work with, and the constraints under which they labored.

Fourth, there is the matter of keeping up appearances. A Catholic friend back in the late 1990s repeated to me the substance of a conversation a leader in one of the lay movements had with a curial cardinal. The layman wanted to know why the pope (JP2) was not governing with a stronger hand against dissenters. The cardinal said that the pope well knows that the Catholic Church is in a state of undeclared schism, and he hopes to keep everything together long enough for the dissenters to age out. I had no way to verify that anecdote, but it sounded plausible.

Along those lines, there was this in 2012 from the traditionalist Catholic writer Christopher Ferrara:

The answer is revealed by an incident of which I was reliably informed during a recent Ignatian retreat at the Retreat House of the Society of Saint Pius X in Ridgefield, Connecticut. During an audience with the Pope, Bishop Fellay found himself alone with the Pope for a moment.  His Excellency seized the opportunity to remind the Pope that he is the Vicar of Christ, possessed of the authority to take immediate measures to end the crisis in the Church on all fronts. The Pope replied thus: “My authority ends at that door.” (Castel Gondolfo August, 2005)

Again, that’s a secondhand story, but it sounds plausible. I was told a few years back by a priest who knows Benedict XVI personally that the reason he resigned was because he concluded that he was a figurehead, blocked on all sides by the curia, without actual power. He hoped that the Holy Spirit would send a pope who had the strength and the capability to defeat the curial evildoers. That, as we know, is not how it all came down. But that was BXVI’s hope, or so my source said. (I have heard versions of this basic story repeated by others since then.)

What does it mean for an absolute monarch whose office has exclusive, God-given powers, to have little effective control over his kingdom? This is not a question that faithful Catholics, especially conservatives. were eager to ask, because it could call the entire system into question.

It is also the case that both JP2 and BXVI were fated to lead the Catholic Church in a time of widespread dechristianization in the West, even apostasy. Here’s a quote from Roberto Suro, who covered JP2 for the Washington Post, and who was interviewed by the PBS Frontline documentary series for a film about him (transcript here). The part I’ve highlighted below is what came to mind just now as I was thinking about my Evangelical friend’s question, but the entire quote is so good that it deserves reproducing:

I think if you’re going to try to judge John Paul’s legacy, it has to be on his own terms, as a spiritual figure, as a religious leader. Not as a worldly man. Not in terms of his impact on culture or politics. But he is someone who clearly believed that this time in the world’s history that there was an opportunity for great spiritual reawakening, for a new understanding for humanity in spiritual and moral terms. A time for the ascendancy of Catholicism, in the demise of Communism and Capitalism. It didn’t happen.

Now, it may well have been that he was struggling against something that was overwhelming. Twentieth century culture with its materialism, its immorality, in his terms, –the force of ideology–were too great for him to overcome. But you know, had he done what he set out to do, he would have been another Saint Paul, a Luther, a man who transformed humanity’s understanding of itself, transformed Christendom certainly.

Instead, I think he ends up a smaller figure than that–a Lincoln, a Thomas Jefferson, a St. Thomas More. A man who stood for great value and had a tremendous impact on the world, but maybe didn’t change it as much as he believed possible, or as much as he believed was necessary. Now whether that was his failing or ours, is a much more difficult question.

…I think the pope has to be a prophetic figure, somebody who changed humanity. What he offered, what he suggested, the road laid out, if followed, would have transformed humanity in a spiritual sense. He was calling at the end of the twentieth century for a spiritual life to become the center of man’s humanity, for all men, and certainly for all Catholics and all Christians to rediscover spirituality as the guiding force in their lives. If he had accomplished that, he would have been a millennial figure, not the man of the century. Somebody who produced much grander changes than that.

Instead he is a historical figure, he’s somebody who lives within the period of time, who had a message that had impact, that changed events, that changed lives, but did not nearly reach the dimensions that were the ambitions that its author set out.

At the end of the day, when you look at this extraordinary life and you see all that he’s accomplished, all the lives he’s touched, the nations whose history he’s changed, the way he’s become such a powerful figure in our culture, in all of modern culture–among believers and not–taking all of that into account, you’re left with one very disturbing and difficult question. On the one hand, the Pope can seem this lonely, pessimistic figure–a man who only sees the dark side of modernity, a man obsessed with the evils of the twentieth century, a man convinced that humankind has lost its way. A man so dark, so despairing, that he loses his audiences. That would make him a tragic figure, certainly.

On the other hand, you have to ask, is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who became Benedict XVI — was JP2’s right-hand man for his entire papacy, so what is said about JP2 can also be said to some degree about Ratzinger. To the extent they failed, it was because it would have been impossible for anybody to succeed in these times.

Nevertheless, the system they left in place, in which every cardinal who voted on BXVI’s successor had been named either by JP2 or BXVI, was supposed to be fail-safe. It was not supposed to produce a revolutionary figure like Francis. But it did. And he’s tearing down JP2’s and BXVI’s legacies, in substantive ways (e.g., what the pope is doing to Pontifical John Paul II Institute).

Those are my thoughts. I agree with my conservative Evangelical friend: it is beyond astonishing that the Catholic Church is being transformed into the Episcopal Church right before our eyes. It is one of the most important religious stories of my lifetime or anybody’s lifetime. It is one thing when the parish down the street is a hotbed of theological revolution. It is quite another when the Vatican is.

I would really like to hear from Catholics and other Church watchers willing to offer non-ranty, serious answers to my friend’s questions, which I’ll repeat:

Remember when all the trad/conservative Catholics were confidently claiming that JP2 and B16 had transformed the church through their wise appointments and driven out the “Spirit of Vatican II” once and for all? So what happened? Why didn’t it work out that way? I have looked for answers and haven’t found any.

Serious comments only. If you just want to take potshots at Rome, or at Rome’s critics, save yourself the trouble, because I’m not going to post your remarks.

One thing is for sure: the kind of appeal that conservative Catholic apologists made to potential converts like me — that Rome was a solid rock in a world of theological shifting sand — is no longer plausible. Francis has turned that to rubble.

UPDATE: Readers, please try to answer the question. Give us your analysis for why things fell apart/are falling apart. God bless you for having faith in the face of all this, but please help us understand, from your point of view, why what JP2 and BXVI stood for is now being swept away. What forces within, and outside of, the Catholic Church made this happen?

UPDATE.2: A parish priest writes:

I don’t believe the premise is correct. I know a lot of trad/conservative Catholics who were not making such claims. In fact, they were openly concerned about precisely what would happen c. 2010-2030 as we waited for the last of the pre-Vatican II generations to age-out of the highest echelons of the hierarchy.

I belong to a cohort of Catholics and of priests who were born within a few years of 1960. Given our position in the birth order of our families and the communities/parishes of our youth, we were not part of the “boomer” youth-culture. We were not attached to pre-conciliar American Catholicism or 1950s American culture and were not advocates of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s in the Church or society. We were, however, old enough to watch events unfold and to know, first hand, the mindset of the various parties to those struggles.

By the end of the 1970s the advocates of a quasi-modernist or Enlightenment reading of Vatican II (the so-called “hermeneutic of discontinuity”) had largely gained control of Catholic institutions, the seminaries, and the chanceries in Europe and the Anglo-American world. They also held control of the Roman Curia. They were at the point of having hegemony.

The coming of JP II stymied their self-declared revolution, but did not uproot them from their positions. As a seminarian from 1980-1985 I can attest from first hand experience and from other seminarians I knew that less than 10% of seminarians openly professed support for orthodox Catholic doctrine and practice. The supremacy of conscience over the Magisterium, admission of women to the priesthood, the possibility of Holy Communion for the divorced-rmarried, etc. were all being promoted. Neither JP II nor Ratzinger/B16 changed the minds of the seminary staff or the academic faculty. Although I was not in seminaries in the 1990s and 2000s, my presumption from watching priests was that seminary faculty may have accommodated themselves to the JP II and B16 eras without changing their personal opinions (and it is probable that their private counsel remained unchanged).

JP II certainly seems to have realized that his lacking power was largely the case as far as the curia was concerned. However, he knew that he had a broader authority than as head of the Roman Curia. He chose a strategy of circumventing the curia by traveling all over the world and taking the Gospel directly to the people. He also employed the curial apparatus closest to him to produce a mountain of evangelical catechesis on all aspects of Christian life.

As far as the curia goes, I know from personal experience and from statements by bishops and cardinals that the Secretariat of State and other dicasteries were entirely capable of preventing information from reaching the Pope. Plus, by their own admissions, JPII and B16 were neither managers nor prone to use sanctions. Whatever the role of curia has been in nominating bishops, it seems impossible that JP II did not realize what Kasper and Lehmann stood for when he made them bishops and cardinals or that B16 was blind to Tagle. At no point could any informed Catholics have supposed that the hierarchy was being effectively purified by JP II and B16. In fact, had the old-liberal leader Cardinal Martini not become ill, Ratzinger might never have been elected to replace JP II.

So, what we had under JP II and B16 was a type of “Cold War” or “Frozen Conflict.” Catholics who were deeply involved in Church life and who had long tenure in the struggle were well aware that the question was whether the Young Turks of Vatican II (people Ratzinger’s age who promoted discontinuity) and their proteges (the 60s generation liberals) would get another bite of the apple after JPII and then, once Ratzinger became Pope, after him.

We now know the answer, they got their bite. How big it will be and how long it will last remains to be seen. One interesting angle is that this time around we see a shift from a modernist to a post-modernist approach (or from solid to liquid modernity). Whereas the older dissenters (like Fuchs, Curran, Kung, etc.) had deployed a deep knowledge of the sources to try to create a detailed rational, philosophical, and theological structure to justify their innovations (i.e., they valued the modernist quest for order), the new approach simply asserts a new identity for Christianity without troubling to justify it through philosophical, theological, or rational argumentation. So, for example, in morality, the Gospel is reduced to an ideal which has to be made concrete in particular cases by a person’s conscience. In other areas, it is the experience of the people, rather than the pattern of Christ’s life which becomes normative.

Having said all this, it must not be forgotten that by their example and teaching, JP II and Ratzinger greatly changed the situation on the ground. In fact, they created lay and clerical foot soldiers in meaningful numbers whose efforts may yet prove pivotal. There are far more rank-and-file priests and lay leaders today who are orthodox and well-versed in the struggle for the Gospel than there were in 1978.

In any event, as painful as our present situation is today, it hardly seems impossible or even unforeseen by many, many Catholic laity and clergy.

UPDATE.3: A different priest comments:

I am sorry for the longish post, but I have all sorts of thoughts, some of which could be completely off, but ….

Conservative Catholic is a funny term, and seems to me, especially at the time you entered the Church, to have covered a wide range of “conservative” views.

Though born when Paul VI was pope, I only remember John Paul II. We loved him, but, perhaps with chagrin at times, admitted his failings. I grew up in a conservative Catholic household that appreciated tradition without being traditionalist, and I went to a conservative Catholic college where the administration and a portion of the faculty were cheerleaders for John Paul II and all he did, hailing his great achievements, and I do not wish to take away anything from his goodness, even greatness. They invited people like Novak, Neuhaus and Weigel (NeuGelVak, as we called them) to speak to us. I remember Weigel telling us that John Paul had returned the papacy to its apostolic roots as opposed to the authoritarian papacies of popes like Pius XII.

But many of us compared John Paul to saintly people like St. Francis and St. Alphonsus Ligouri. They were holy men who were terrible administrators. John Paul II spent his pontificate going around the world with the intent of influencing those outside the center of the Church, and to a degree he was successful; but while he was away, the rats at home ran amuck, and he never really did anything to address the core of that rottenness. Hoping to outlast the problem is not a good solution.

With time, surrounded by solid Catholic friends, receiving a solid Catholic undergrad and graduate education, I sort of came to believe he might be successful, especially when Benedict XVI succeeded John Paul, even though Benedict, while personally holy, did not appear very strong.

I was in formation at the time Benedict was elected, and while there was hope for the future, there were constant reminders that many of our professors had not really changed how they thought, and they made life miserable for us; the Apostolic Vision had come and gone, and nothing had changed. Moreover, the idea that seminarians and student brothers our age were uniform or monolithic in our views was the illusion of older men who were afraid of the future and the young. If I had any illusions about that myself, they were totally crushed by three classes I was forced to take at the Jesuit School of Theology, in particular the class in sexual ethics.

It was a large class, and almost all the young students, lay and religious, planned to serve the Church in some capacity after their time at their respective theological schools. We had a lot of arguments about everything from Plato, Paul Ricoeur, and Benedict XVI to the article we were forced to read about the goodness of masturbation. At some point, in the midst of these arguments, a young Jesuit spoke up, saying that the members of the class did not share the same ecclesiology, something with which I finally agreed. He went on to quote St. Paul, reminding us that nothing, not persecution or illness or whatever, could separate us from the love of God. When I responded that, while true, St. Paul allows that we, in a sense, can separate ourselves from the love of God by our own will, he said he did not believe that. I knew for sure, then, that though we outwardly belonged to the same Church, we were in reality the members of two different churches.

Ultimately, the reasons why the reforms, if you can call them that, of John Paul and Benedict did not succeed are manifold. It is always easier to tear down than build up, and what had been torn down would take longer to rebuild than either John Paul or Benedict could possibly live. More importantly, they delegated too much power to untrustworthy men in the Vatican or too often abdicated their responsibility at home, hoping rather to change the Church by the force of their personality or, at least in the case of Benedict, opening the door to changes that, in many ways, he himself did not outwardly embrace.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, was also the very conservative Catholicism embodied by Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel. At least Weigel, whom I remember more clearly, seemed like the liberals we fought to view the Church and tradition through the prism of Vatican II rather than viewing Vatican II through the prism of history and tradition. I believe that, in terms of philosophical and theological underpinnings, such conservative Catholics had cut their own legs off at the knees and ceded the ground upon which the argued to the left. In both cases, albeit in different ways, Vatican II was a rupture with the past. If that is the case, then everything is, as Cardinal Ratzinger once observed, up for grabs. That sort of conservatism didn’t have a chance of making a lasting change, and it is dead or dying.

Moreover, from the simplest laymen all the way to the pope, the Church is not immune to the stream of time and thought through which she is moving. To a greater or lesser degree, for good or ill, the Church is affected by the world around it, and no single person, even the pope, has ever been able to right the Church alone. It has always taken a confluence of events and reform movements. And of course the grace of God, which is ever present.

Finally, in order for the Church to right itself, it has always taken some sort of tremendous upheaval, either internal (Protestant revolt) or external (Islam sweeping out of the desert), almost as though, by his permissive will, they were God’s means of shaking the Church out of whatever stupidity she had wandered into.

I believe wholeheartedly in the indefectibility of the Church and of the pope to not err in faith or morals, and I would die for those beliefs; and I believe that the Church will finally come through this time of difficulty. But I have no confidence that popes will not be weak or even wrongheaded about all sorts of things. In a way we live in a time as difficult time as the Arian controversy, when, after Constantinople, “The world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian.”

UPDATE.4: This comment from Father Steve Mattson:

I am a late vocation parish priest, born in 1962. I left the Catholic Church at 18 for Evangelical Protestantism and returned at 36 after much study, which convinced me of the truth of the Church’s claims about herself. I entered seminary in 2000, and was ordained in 2005, persevering despite the scandal that marked my time in seminary. Despite the scandal, JPII and Benedict XVI were and remain heroes of mine and almost all the men with whom I was formed in seminary. I can see why you would ask why “what JPII and Benedict stood for is being swept away,” but I don’t think it is being swept away. It is alive in the hearts and minds of JP II and Benedict priests, as well as the faithful who are blessed to have them as shepherds.

The problem that is coming clearly into view is the fruit of failure to form and to preach during the 70s and 80s.

At the time I entered seminary and after I was ordained, it was clear that few parish priests and bishops embraced the truth of the Church’s teaching (marvelously proclaimed, among other texts, in Veritatis Splendor and Dominus Iesus). Truth was even less often taught authoritatively to the faithful at Mass.

JPII and Benedict XVI confirmed me and countless seminarians and lay faithful of the Truth we find in Christ.

When priests ordained around my time expressed frustrations, my former bishop often said of the men in formation in the 70s and 80s, “You can’t blame them; they were never formed.” That’s sadly true.

The typical content of preaching was bland encouragement to love more, which, though good advice, does not feed the soul. In fact, my entire family had left the Catholic Church because of very poor preaching. Homilies lacked prophetic punch and often seemed “mailed in.” We need only consider how the majority of clerics dealt (or failed to deal) with the sexual revolution, which was accelerated by easy access to artificial contraception, about which almost no priests spoke.

Along with many who were ordained with me, I was committed to be a voice of truth, encouraging Catholics to come to know and love the Lord and to be salt, light, and leaven in the world. My prophetic voice was puzzling (if not troubling) to many priests my age, but it was refreshing to many of the lay faithful who were hungry for truth.

I see the current pontificate as a severe test and trial for the Church, but I take comfort in Pope Benedict XVI’s prophecy in 1979 about the Church losing power and influence, and becoming smaller and purer. That’s what I expected, and see on the horizon. My task is to be faithful, and to do all I can (following recommendations you, Rod, have made in the Benedict Option and your blog) to preach the truth in season and out of season, and to help others come to know and love the Truth.

St. John Henry Newman is also a great comfort, especially with regard to the Seventh Note of genuine developments of Christian doctrine: We have arrived at length at the seventh and last test, which was laid down when we started, for distinguishing the true development of an idea from its corruptions and perversions: it is this. A corruption, if vigorous, is of brief duration, runs itself out quickly, and ends in death; on the other hand, if it lasts, it fails in vigour and passes into a decay. This general law gives us additional assistance in determining the character of the developments of Christianity commonly called Catholic.

So, if what JPII and Pope Benedict XVI taught and lived is “being swept away,” it is only, for a season, however long it may be.

If the Synod approves innovations that St. John Henry Newman (and I) would consider corruptions are approved by the Synod, Newman’s reading of history tells him (and us) that they will not last. And, if they do last, they will eventually die out, because the Lord’s promise holds: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13). This promise is not made to me or to you, but the Church as a whole. Come, Holy Spirit, guide us into all truth!

JPII and Pope Benedict XVI formed me as a priest, and by their prayers, and the prayers of countless saints before them, I along with many other priests today remain committed to offering the faithful and the world the unalloyed truth of the faith, come what may.



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