To the Church, from a Convert
It’s taken me too long to write this.
About three years ago, I converted from a tradition that emphasizes individuality to one that champions the authority of the Church. I think I overreacted.
That’s not to say that I don’t still believe in the claims of the Catholic Church. But when I made the decision to submit to Rome, I had only experienced one excess: the doctrines of Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura, which have contributed more than any other beliefs to the relativistic attitudes that permeate our culture. If you disagree with me on that, fine; I’m not writing to convince people about intellectual history. Suffice to say that from my perspective, submission was paramount.
As a result, as some of you might have noticed, I try to avoid criticizing anything from the magisterium of the Church. Ill-advised papal remarks, troubling Vatican directives, unfaithful bishops and liturgical abuses all escaped my comment. Braver souls than I raised their voices in opposition. I silently hoped that they would win the day, but merely observed the unfolding conflict.
I know that I’m not alone in that. The best Catholics I have met have often adopted similar attitudes. I would guess that our motivations have been similar. The Church is the way to God; the Pope is the Vicar of Christ; the Magisterium is infallible in faith and morals. If these statements are true, as we believe they are, then it is a frightful thing indeed to condemn ecclesial leaders. Only in situations when the need is most dire, when the evidence is crystal clear, are we willing to stand up and say, “no more.”
Here’s the problem: that means that when evil does come, it will create crises every time. If the most faithful and obedient Catholics will only involve themselves when the hour is late, then the Church will never be at peace.
The recent evidence of sexual abuse is enraging beyond all consolation, but it isn’t even surprising. The Church has become a dark joke since the Boston case at the beginning of the 2000s. We preach sexual morality, but our priests prey upon innocent children and use them to satisfy their most satanic passions.
The news that the clergy protected their own is, again, unsurprising. I don’t think we have sufficient evidence either way to determine the truth of the Vigano letter. But besides the sweeping call that Francis step down, the most impressive thing about the letter is how completely believable it is. Cardinals playing down their crimes and those of their friends? A large section of the College of Cardinals knowingly protecting their own? Most people would have guessed as much before the Archbishop penned his note.
What is slightly more surprising is how utterly tone-deaf the accused clergy have been. Cupich, one of the alleged suppressors of evidence, gave a recent interview that was so disastrous, rambling, and deflectory that no one could be blamed for assuming his guilt. So much for charismatic, moderate clergy presenting a media-friendly face to the world. Even the utterly charming Pope Francis, usually so adept at using the world’s attention to make a point, has become unwilling—or unable—to speak powerfully to the recent crisis. He refuses to comment on the truth of the Vigano letter and painfully pivots to plastics in the ocean and environmental stewardship.
Perhaps most discouragingly, Pope Francis seemed to surreptitiously condemn the Catholics who are calling for a full investigation of the cover-up claims in a recent homily—”With people lacking good will, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family — (respond with) silence, prayer,” he said. Perhaps this wasn’t meant as a jab at his critics, but if it was, its inadequacy is obvious. The faithful are not seeking out scandal and division; scandal and division came upon them. Silence in the face of its own sin has never been the way of the Church because it isn’t “the high road,” as some media outlets have suggested. In the context of abuse and lies and power struggles, there’s a more fitting idiom for silence: turning a blind eye.
All of this has made me realize that reform is desperately overdue. The voices that have decried using the abuse crisis for ideological gain have a point. If traditional Catholics claim that conservatism is the solution to sin, then we will inevitably discredit ourselves with our own hypocrisy. Conservative clerics have committed the same crimes as liberal ones. But usually, the same people who make this point have their own ideological commitments, ones diametrically opposed to the history of the Christian faith. They are as dedicated to defending their preferred clergy as the so-called “arch-conservatives” are resolved to attacking them.
I typed that last paragraph with some reserve. The media (and even some good Catholics) have resorted to political language to discuss the ongoing rupture in the Church over doctrine, liturgy, and practice. I dislike this language because it often clouds as much as it clarifies. Catholics that believe in all the historical teachings of the Church, that oppose behaviors that the Church has identified as sinful, and that practice their faith according to the canons and laws of the Church are not animated by a “right-leaning” ideology. They are motivated by obedience and belief in their own religion. In older times, their stances would merely be called “orthodoxy.”
Among the orthodox, there is admittedly a spectrum of approaches to Catholic practice. This is perhaps most visible with regards to the practice of the Latin Mass. The Catholics that regularly attend the Tridentine form participate in an ancient practice of worship that is well worth our admiration and continued support. Other Catholics, who are deeply faithful on matters of faith and morals, receive the great graces available at the celebration of faithful Novus Ordo (a vernacular and somewhat “modernized” Mass instituted after Vatican II) masses. There is something to be said for both parties, as well as the many Catholics, like myself, who fall somewhere in-between. The mere fact that different preferences exist in this area does not compromise the universality of the Church or make other believers “lesser.”
The great temptation that I see in Catholics who prefer the celebration of the Latin Mass is an undue association of faithful Novus Ordo practice with liturgical, doctrinal, and moral abuses. These “hardliners” are, in some cases, guilty of spiritual arrogance, but their more fundamental sin is against Catholicity. The Church, as St. Vincent of Lerins observed in the 400s, is characterized by universality across time and space. If our understanding of orthopraxy leads us to conclude that the vast majority of the Church’s ecclesial practice is wrong, not merely in execution, but also in form, we have crossed the bounds of Catholicity and taken the first step towards schism. Especially hardline practitioners have made just this move; partially, in the case of the SSPX, or completely, in the case of many Sedevacantist communities.
Of course, this is not the great error of our time. Far more common, and at least as toxic, are those who trespass Catholicity by discouraging the Latin Mass, the Church’s defining Eucharistic celebration for centuries. The association that Latin hardliners draw between the Novus Ordo and heresy is only strengthened by the fact that their critics often do blur this line for their own twisted purposes. Thus, a true Catholic is obliged to draw a line where neither reactionaries nor “progressives” do: she must defend Catholicity across both time and space. She must assert that varying rites and forms do not justify infighting. She must oppose heresy and heteropraxy without totalizing her own preferences. She must play the role of St. Irenaeus when he brought peace to a Church injured by the Quartodeciman controversy.
Beyond the legitimate spectrum of faithful Catholic practice, a vast legion of unfaithful awaits. Among these are many Cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity that actively oppose the historical teachings of the Church. Dissenters from the Church’s teaching on contraception, gay marriage, communion to non-Catholics, and many other unalterable dogmas are abundant. We have had patience with these “Catholics” for far too long. If they will not repent, they should face increasingly strict penalties without exception. The fact that self-identified Catholics proudly enable abortion and celebrate gay sex undermines the Church’s witness, and our toleration does nothing to aid the souls of these lost individuals.
However, we must remember that doctrinal ignorance is far more common than rebellion. The Catholics I describe in the above paragraph are actively aware of, and even proud of, their heresy and sin. For every one of these Catholics, however, dozens of laity go about their lives without any idea of what the Church teaches. Unlike the sin of the rebels, the faults of the ignorant are borne by the teaching authorities of the Church. Those who knew the truth but did not evangelize these Catholics will be punished in their place.
This starts with catechesis at our local parishes. Last year, I taught sixth grade religious education and was dismayed to learn that the children I was speaking to were not even aware that they were Christians. Bible memorization was utterly foreign to them, as was basic theological fact. They knew how to get along well enough at Mass—cross themselves, repeat a few route prayers, and wander upwards to receive Communion—but the rest of their week, they lived like they did not know God. Because they didn’t.
It’s a bit of a cliche among formerly Protestant Catholics, but the Church needs to learn a thing or two from evangelicals. For starters, we need to expect holiness and wisdom from our children. Kids are more than capable of learning Scripture, understanding the Church, and loving God—as the witness of many holy Catholic families has shown, both now and in the past. Unfortunately, many parents believe that their parish will teach children everything that they need to know about the faith. That is impossible. Even if the parish was somehow able to instill all the necessary knowledge to form a Catholic adult in a single hour a week, the children’s hearts would end up none the better for it. The witness of faithful parents is the only way to the heart of a child.
Adults need to take more responsibility for creating a healthy Christian community for themselves and their families. Most parishioners are in a hurry to leave the Mass, many even before Mass has actually ended. But the end of mass should be the beginning of Christian fellowship. Conversations with the people next to you, the formation of Catholic prayer groups and Bible studies, are deeply important means towards our own sanctification. Without encouragement from Catholic friends, the soul withers in the painful pursuit of perfection.
Preachers must abandon the deeply trite sermonizing that has somehow become prominent in parishes across the country. Personal stories that end in a moralism are not the point of a homily. Every sermon should exposit the Word of God, lest the seeds of the Scriptures fall without benefit in the hearts of the faithful. Most parishioners will not retain the truths of the Bible if they are not made evident through faithful teaching. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
There are many other similar lessons that Catholics could learn from Protestants. Hymns and evangelism also come to mind. But there are also some lessons that we could stand to unlearn. The simplification and uglification of Church buildings is a prime example. Very few people want to go to a Church because it has a stripped-down appearance or takes its blueprint from a museum of modern art. A study in England recently found that young people are most often brought back into Christianity through visits to ancient Churches. The medievals, unsurprisingly, are still converting more heathens than we are today.
Beyond their evangelistic function, however, beautiful Churches also serve as didactic tools for the believer. Perhaps the best way to drive home this point comes through a counter-example. A parish I sometimes attend comes to mind. The front is covered with stain glass that is utterly uninterpretable. One can make out the vague appearance of human persons in the glass, but who they are would be anyone’s guess. A child looking up at a stain-glass scene from the Gospels might venture to ask their parents who is up there and what is happening. A child looking at the glass I am thinking of will ask no questions, because the answer is apparent: no one in particular is up there, and nothing in particular is happening.
Finally, the beauty of a Church is a ministry to the soul. Well-educated Catholics will look upon the saints, angels, and crosses and be reminded of the realities that they signify. Even newcomers are often overwhelmed by a sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of ancient Churches. Human persons need beauty as much as they need moral goodness and truth to live a fulfilled and Christian life. We ought not deprive them of such experiences.
Another lesson we ought to unlearn—and cannot unlearn fast enough, in my opinion—comes from the corporate world. Even well-meaning Catholics have been suckered into a reliance on PR teams and slick presentations. The ongoing sexual abuse crisis has shown just how hollow these means are. The Church should not be interested in impressing visual designers or comms experts. Pastors especially need to focus less on public image and more on shepherding their flock.
I’m well aware that I’ve indulged in generalizations and assumptions in the last few paragraphs. This is partially because I think that there are legitimate debates to be had on the margins of some of these changes. I will leave it to more well-informed persons to debate what exact artistic styles can create a sense of magnificence or what remaining use public relations might have. But the general direction that I wish the Church would go in, I think, is deeply obvious to a Catholic that has a good sense of his own tradition.
If we recall our history, Catholics will know that this crisis is far from the first incursion of sin and corruption and even doctrinal waywardness into the Mother Church. As I said earlier, an emphasis on “conservative” personnel is not the solution. The answer to the crisis, however, will not be found without a traditional perspective. We cannot solve this problem tabula rasa, without reference to the previous reformations that the Church has undergone. There, I think, we can find many of the cures to our current ills.
Above all, we must be comfortable making a mess. Sin flourishes in the dark, each crime neatly locked into its own drawer, with a willing enabler who will throw away the key. Great reformers—St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Catherine of Siena, to name a few—took an ax to the cabinet. They were respectful of Church authority and offices, and especially of the person of the Pope, but they did not hesitate to speak out where sin was likely. This balance takes wisdom and prayer, but it also incorporated common sense. Wherever we encounter seeming impropriety, we have a responsibility to look further. Merely trusting authority when crime or heresy is possible is not a Catholic heritage. In fact, it might be better to speak where there is no sin than to not speak where there is—in the former instance, you are merely a troublesome fool. In the latter, you are an enabler.
Second, we should encourage lay participation in reform. This is not merely a lesson from Catholic history—it is, at the moment, a political necessity. The magisterium’s power is quite concentrated, and very self-protective. Clergy who speak out face grave consequences. In that kind of situation, it is the laity who possess the greatest power. We cannot be robbed of our livelihoods and influence by corrupt leaders; our power is independent of the clergy.
It strikes me that there are some common sense reforms that the laity should insist on especially. First, I see no reason why children should be required to spend time alone with priests or bishops for any length of time. Parents should refuse to allow these occurrences and demand the reform of current practices so that these situations are no longer necessary in any way.
Second, we should demand the release of all documents pertinent to the current abuse crisis. The Eternal Church has nothing to lose from the truth, even if certain Church leaders do. Whatever done in darkness will be shouted from the rooftops—let us make our own confession from the rooftops, rather than have it foisted upon us at the day of judgement, where the penalty for silence will be far worse.
Third, we should demand that the magisterium defrock and excommunicate all known sexual abusers. Paul says that he excommunicated faithless Christians “that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Excommunication is meant to strike fear into the souls of the sinners. If it does not, then these priests deserve their final punishment. If it does, then we will have taken the first step towards saving deeply lost men.
There are many other reforms I could speak of. Conditions in seminaries, and the requirements for entering the seminary, may need to change. But only the laity have the power to consistently call for these changes wherever they are necessary without fear of retribution—at least without the level of fear that faithful clergy have been instilled with. None of this, of course, excuses silence on the part of otherwise good clergy. But we must be pragmatic and recognize where we have a comparative advantage.
I’ll end this: God is still in control. The Catholic Church is not beyond repair, and in fact it cannot be so. As long as Christ lives, we have hope that holiness and justice are within reach. Let’s not grow slow to act in the face of a problem that seems far larger than we are. The Solution is far larger than the problem, and He is with us always.