By Charlie Johnston
In 2 Timothy 3:5, St Paul warns that a time will come when there are people who have a “form of godliness, but deny the power thereof.” He urges that we all turn away and avoid such men.
I am well aware that there are many who wear clerical robes who do not actually believe in God, but think the Church is a convenient path to power and influence. These seem obvious, but they don’t really fit because they lack all but a specious fig leaf of religious trapping while rejecting any actual godliness. There is a type who fits this description and is on the rise: those who think they are orthodox, survey the chaotic disorder in the hierarchy and the faithful and convince themselves the Church is on the verge of capsizing. These actually believe in God, but effectively deny He has the power to preserve His Church, despite His promise.
While we are God’s hands and feet on earth, it is seriously mistaken to think that He is helpless without us. Rather, it is we who are helpless without Him.
The Church is now roiled in serious scandals and doctrinal tumult. It is right that we should speak and act to deal with that. The first thing, though, is to know that God will prevail and His Church will emerge triumphant, whatever we do. The second thing is to soberly consider what He calls each of us to do to participate in the Triumph He absolutely guarantees. The third is to play our position, to act properly according to our station in life, considering what God calls each of us to do and not to do.
Panic over the doctrinal strife in the Church has clouded over the minds of some of the very best. I have much respect for the writing of Dr. Taylor Marshall. His latest book, “Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within,” leaves me cold and disturbed, though. Though I have only read a synopsis of it, the narrative sounds more like the sort of dark fantasy that Dan Brown, author of “The DaVinci Code,” would come up with than a serious study and critique of the issues around us. I am not as brutal in my contempt for it as Dr. Jeff Mirus is over at Catholic Culture, but only because I sympathize with the dismay that is driving some of the moral panic clouding the minds of some otherwise prudent people.
Italian journalist and veteran Vatican watcher Antonio Socci’s latest book is entitled, “The Secret of Benedict XVI: Is He Still the Pope?” Again, I have only read lengthy synopses of this book. His premise is that Benedict both is and is not the pope. Call it the Schrodinger’s Cat theory of the papacy, if you will. I just call it absurdist sophistry. A man may make an engaging case that a square is actually a circle and a circle, actually, a square. However cleverly the argument is devised, though, it is still wrong.
In politics, I used to get aggravated at candidate clients who were always restlessly searching for a “magic bullet,” a bold stroke that would solve all issues and sweep them to unanimous victory. I would (sometimes quite agitatedly) tell them there IS no magic bullet. Victory is achieved by blood and sweat through mud and tears – and the search for a magic bullet just distracts attention and effort away from the things that can and do bring victory. Now I find churchmen restlessly searching for a magic bullet to make Pope Francis go away and put everything back to what it was. I am no more enthused by that approach in the Church then I was to it in politics. It is a combination of despair and wishful thinking wrapped in feckless impotence. People seduced by this are no closer to a magic bullet than Ponce de Leon was to the fountain of youth. They are just firing blanks – while there is serious work to be done.
I deeply appreciate the work, for example, of Cardinals Burke, Mueller and Sarah. They speak bluntly about the doctrinal crises as their position obliges them to do, without trying to find shortcuts or pretending that this will be resolved by anything but a lot of hard work to defend Scripture and the Magisterium and a renewal of holiness at every level in the faith. The upcoming Amazon Synod may well become a flash point in the internal doctrinal struggle in the Church. Cardinal Burke bluntly calls the working document for the Synod, to be held in October, “apostasy.”
I deeply appreciate the quiet fidelity of all those among the laity who continue to live the faith according to the words of Christ in Scripture and the definitive Magisterium. I deeply respect those laymen who have entered the fray with prudence, criticizing honestly all assaults on the faith and standing boldly against abuse without devolving into overheated 1000-year conspiracy theories or Schrodinger’s Cat absurdities.
I deeply appreciate the work of those clerics – Bishops, Priests and Deacons – who are honestly trying to find their way through the doctrinal minefield the hierarchy has become. I know many who are seriously trying to balance their legitimate filial duty with their shepherdly duty – and I know this is not as formulaically simple to get right as some of the loudest voices think it is.
I deeply appreciate the work of those Religious Communities – many of which are under assault right now from, of all places, the Vatican, if they dare to be orthodox. I am not supposing this: I spend a good chunk of time each year visiting with the women and men in our religious communities – and they are suffering enormously these days – if they are orthodox. How I admire and love those who have chosen to stay the course, trusting in the Lord of Hosts to vindicate their fidelity.
My friend, Bishop Rene Gracida, who I much admire, is leading the charge to get the results of the last Papal Conclave invalidated over what he asserts are serious technical deficiencies. It is the proper role of Bishops to raise such questions, so I respect that he is playing his position. I respectfully disagree with the substance of his argument. The great historical issues are not settled by technicalities – nor should they be. On the rare occasions when they are, it resolves nothing and unsettles everything, as partisans begin restlessly searching for their own technicalities to exploit. If the effort to invalidate the last conclave were successful, every pope in the future would have to waste time wrestling with a multitude of attacks on technical grounds. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was advertised as settling the issue of slavery in the territories once and for all. No doubt its advocates thought it would. Instead, it ensured that the controversy could only be settled by war, a war it helped precipitate. People will never accept a technical solution to a fundamentally moral question. That applies to the Church as well as the larger society.
Some are calling for a complete and mandatory return to the Latin Mass. I have friends and family members who are devoted to the beauty of the Latin Mass. I hold Bishops who try to forbid its celebration, in defiance of former Pope Benedict’s edict, in contempt. Yet this is to confuse form with substance. This, too, is not the simple cure-all, the “magic bullet,” if you will, that some hope it will be. It is as pitiable as a 60-year-old woman, finding she has late-stage cancer, relentlessly wearing her favorite dress from when she was 25, reasoning that everything was good then.
Now, some faithful Catholics are self-selecting into Latin Mass enclaves. It is an understandable retreat. Yet, in the days when the Latin Mass was the only available option, some of the ugliest sexual abuse was occurring in Europe. As a dear friend likes to tell me, some 40 percent of those Latin Mass Catholics were contracepting. Priests were much more authoritarian and nobody dared question a Priest. Thus, the faithful were less familiar with Scripture, less capable of defending their own faith, and the ground was being cleared for substantial clerical abuse AND doctrinal confusion. If you attend a Latin Mass because you love the beauty and worshipfulness of it, I stand with you (even though I prefer the Novus Ordo celebrated ad orientum and using communion rails). If you think it is the palliative that will solve our problems, you deceive yourself and are destined for deep disappointment, even were you to succeed.
The sexual revolution had already gathered gale force before Vatican II started. The Jesuits, a marvelous asset of the Church when their intellectual rigor is tempered with humility, had been suppressed several times before Vatican II when that rigor gave way to ideological pretensions. Does anyone really think that the large number of dissident Priests who abusively misinterpreted Vatican II would have been gentle lambs without it? We were caught up in a cultural convulsion that had been building since the Enlightenment – and began to crest concurrently with the opening of Vatican II. It is its own sort of blessing if we can fit into our favorite outfit from when we were 25. But however soothing it might be, it will not cure the cancer that has infected our faith. I often tell people in my presentations not to look back to what seems safe and familiar, a lesson I lived on my pilgrimage. That will only paralyze our progress. Go forward into the unknown with good courage, determined to be heralds of Christ. The Latin Mass will always be a part of the Church’s rich treasure. It is part of our past, present and future, but it is not the answer to what ails us, however comforting that thought might be. We must resolve to be holy anew as Our Father in heaven is holy. Until we live that resolution by acknowledging God, taking the next right step, and being a sign of hope to those around us, all our prescriptions will fail. Once we do live it anew, everything healthy will be restored to us.
Some have adopted a reflexive, formulaic position that they think answers all questions. There are those who, forsaking the Magisterium and the commands of Christ, determine to do whatever a Pope, Bishop or Priest tells them on anything – even if the commands of the three are conflicting and incoherent. That is equivalent to a mindless, magical incantation. It is also as ineffective. Others think if they restlessly attack, seeking out error with the grim relentlessness of a heat-seeking missile, it will solve all ills. Nah, it will take out a lot of chaff – but also a lot of wheat in the process, something Our Lord expressly forbids.
There is a more practical reason, still, to avoid formulaic reflexiveness. If you use it to replace considered deliberation, you become very predictable and easily manipulated. I always watched to see what an opponent reflexively jumped on – and used that knowledge to lay traps that would ensnare them. (My traps were craftily designed to avoid snaring the innocent; only mindlessness or malice could lead you into them. But I damaged or destroyed the credibility of a lot of opponents that way). The next right step must be deliberate. We must be like water, pure and deliberate while ever adapting ourselves to the unique circumstances we find ourselves in.
We are entered into the Lord’s winnowing fan. The Pope is called to be guardian of the Magisterium and defender of the faith promulgated by Jesus Christ. Bishops are called to do the same as head of their Dioceses and to consult with the Pope in setting the course of the Barque of Peter. The laity are called to live that faith with resolute fidelity, obeying the lawful orders of the hierarchy on faith and morals – and objecting, whether privately or publicly, to unlawful orders or efforts to usurp the primary prudential responsibility of the laity in temporal affairs. We will all be called to account to the Lord for how well we lived our particular duty to Him and to our fellows.
All around us a great storm continues to rise to ever greater violence. Even now, there are many otherwise good people, both among the laity and in the hierarchy who think if they just keep their heads low all of this will pass them by. Not this time, I don’t think. The Lord is revealing all the rot at the heart of our culture and in our hierarchy. He will not rest until all have declared themselves. All must choose what they will serve, whether it be the world or the Lord, and then declare themselves.
It will go hard for those clerics who seek to conform the Church to the world, rather than seeking to conform the world to the faith. It will go hard for those laymen who seek through blind servility to betray the Gospels which they are called to uphold. It will go hard for those laymen who seek through blind malice to conform their neighbor to a gospel of their own devising rather than that given by our merciful God. It will go hard for those who are miserly in bestowing on their fellows that mercy which they, themselves, have received in such abundance from above. We are all called to defend the faith, hearten the faithful, and defend the faithful. Everything we do must be tied to that. We must reason together, correcting our brothers in charity, accepting a brother’s correction with humility, and defending the faith and the faithful against all who assault her. Different tactics for different situations, all deliberately chosen to obey Christ as best we can understand.
The fact is that God wins. The critical question before us is not how we will win for God, but whether we will comport ourselves through these trials in a manner that inspires Him to call us to share in His victory. Everyone of us is now standing in the docket before God, giving witness of what is in our heart, with the satan desperately trying to inflame what is worst in us. Be steady and deliberate.
When fear and confusion start to get the best of me, I usually turn to my favorite Psalm, the 27th. (I have mentioned that I prefer the King James translations for the Psalms, both for their poetry and acuity – and so that is the translation I use here). The Psalm begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” What a wonderful place to begin, as the Psalmist goes on to relate his severe trials and afflictions. At verse 11, understanding that the assaults of his enemies both inflame and demoralize him in ways that can affect his behavior, the Psalmist asks, “Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies.”
It is in the final verse that the Psalm reaches great majesty and wisdom as the Psalmist exhorts himself and the reader while making a bold and profound statement of faith: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.”
Back in my mid-20s I was having a doctrinal crisis of faith that had been building for a few years. At the apex of the crisis, this bracing line jumped out at me and ended the trouble altogether. When we are shaken to our core, when fear threatens to overwhelm us, when we are tempted to either strike out rashly or retreat in despair, this is what we should do: wait on the Lord: be of good courage and he will strengthen our hearts: wait, I say, on the Lord. He is our light and our salvation – our only light and salvation.