By Charlie Johnston
Monday, Sept. 23, marked the second anniversary of what I consider the most important sign in the skies of my lifetime: The Revelation 12 sign. Earlier that year, a total solar eclipse moved diagonally across North America from the northwest to the southeast. It caught my attention both because of the unusual sweeping nature of it (going across America like the first bar of a giant “X”) and because it occurred on August 21, 2017, the fifth anniversary of the date I had concluded my pilgrimage across the country. The second bar of the “X” will come in just a few years, on April 8, 2024, sweeping from southwest Texas to northeastern Maine. The center of the X formed by these two eclipse paths separated by seven years will be near Belleville, Illinois, where I lived when revelations of the sexual abuse scandals in the Church first broke out in 2001.
I have always regarded great, visible heavenly signs less as road maps showing us what God is going to do and more as road signs, signaling us to watch for the divine hand in seemingly ordinary events. I regarded the eclipse as something of a prelude to the Revelation 12 sign to come a month later.
Within a couple of weeks after the appearance of the Revelation 12 sign in 2017, the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, opening a floodgate of revelations of sexual misconduct and abuse by the false moralists in Hollywood, the media and (largely) left-wing politics. Last year, in the month and a half both before and after the anniversary of the appearance of the sign, Archbishop Vigano revealed his damning allegations of the enabling of sexual abuse at the very highest levels of the Church hierarchy; the attempted coup through the Russian collusion hoax was in full melt-down; and the hysterical left had weaponized fallout from the verified accusations of sexual abuse by its heroes to target Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a veritable boy scout, with demonstrably false smears of the same nature.
This year, we are on the cusp of seeing whether any of the Russian collusion coup plotters will be held to official account for their treasonous crimes, while Democrats (in an impeachment frenzy) are frantically trying to sentence Donald Trump first and find a crime later. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood and the Culture of Death are shuddering, rocked by revelations of the hideous and plain infanticide common to their standard operating procedures.
Most ominously, perhaps, the Catholic Church may be hurtling towards the third major schism in its history with the run-up to the Amazon Synod scheduled for late October at the Vatican. The invited Bishops are heavily stocked with those who wage increasingly open warfare against defined doctrine (defined doctrine includes Scripture and the Universal Magisterium – that which is formally infallible). The Amazon Synod seems primed to replace ancient Christian faith with a formal resurgence of pagan tribalism. Some Bishops leading the charge against defined doctrine seem to visualize themselves as all-powerful witch doctors in the new paganism they seek to impose on the faithful.
Pope Francis says that, while he does not want it, he is not afraid of schism in the Church. Archbishop Carlo Vigano, along with some other key thinkers, believe that, in fact, Pope Francis is trying to provoke a schism. I agree with them. I suspect the Amazon Synod is designed to be the catalyst for that schism – and now the battle is an effort to declare those who are orthodox to be the aggressors.
That means we must walk very carefully, being very deliberate in all we do as this perilous October reveals the contours of a great battle inside the hierarchy. A few things to keep in mind so we do not degenerate into shrieking harpies, more desperate that our own ideas prevail than that God’s will be accomplished:
- Do not confuse doctrine with discipline. For example, however firmly you may believe that unmarried Priests are the right thing, that is a matter of discipline, not doctrine. The Pope has the right to declare that Priests may marry. If you call him a heretic because of such an exercise of his legitimate authority, you reveal your own ignorance and discredit your own public discernment. Take pains to know what you are talking about before speaking – especially at top volume.
- Wait to see what happens. This could be a head fake. Cunning politicians sometimes signal that they are about to do something they have no intention of doing in order that they may lure their opponents into jumping into disqualifying and erroneous histrionics. React to what happens, not what you think is going to happen (though you may safely analyze the options that are coming into view).
- Do not allow your despair to lead you into setting up shop for yourself. Some, such as sedevacantists, have already done this. They are not faithful; merely an exotic and dishonest variety of Protestant. Remember, Martin Luther began as a genuine reformer. It was vanity that led him to set up shop for himself rather than to give thanks and come home when the legitimate reforms he championed were adopted.
- Do not be deceived by sophistry on any side. Some defenders of the Pope maintain that he is accountable to none but God for his sins, so the Church has no jurisdiction over him. To the contrary, according to the Decretum of Gratian, Canon 6, that the Pope can be judged by no one, except for straying from the faith. (The Decretum was the basis for canon law). This was confirmed by Pope Innocent III, who said that, “God was his (the Pope’s) sole judge for other sins, and that he could be judged by the Church only for sins committed against the faith.” The Pope is liable to judgment by the Bishops for external heresy. Their only remedy is to declare him no longer Catholic or Pope. The equal and opposite error is to assert that the Pope automatically ceases to be Pope upon public promotion of a heresy. If that were the case, there would be no hierarchical structure and each man would judge for himself. It is Jesus Christ who set up the hierarchical structure – and if we overthrow it, we disobey Christ. Though it has not yet been used against a Pope while he lived (Pope Honorius was only posthumously declared a heretic) the Bishops must formally adjure the Pope to reject any heresies he has embraced – and most think it must be done more than once. My fundamental point here is, do not leap ahead of yourself in grasping at means to disqualify a Pope who dismays you. Take the time to learn something about Church law and tradition before jumping – and then take time to examine those that undermine the position you are emotionally drawn to. Any other method makes you a rank partisan, not an analyst. Take the next right step with deep deliberation – fear and trembling, you might say.
- Remember that Christ, Himself, set up the hierarchy and gave it governing authority over His Church and the faithful in matters of faith and morals. If crisis is provoked, if we are to enter into a battle between Church and anti-Church, I will carefully watch those Bishops who are orthodox – and largely follow their lead. Whatever opinions I may express I will hold subordinate to the leads of such men as Cdls. Burke, Mueller, Sarah and Brandmuller; Bishops Schneider and Gracida; my own Archbishop Aquila and others who are publicly faithful to Scripture and the Magisterium.
- Remember that no person, cleric or lay, can prevent you from living the faith with fidelity – and that the infidelity of even the most powerful cleric does not relieve you of your duty to live fidelity to Christ, His Gospel, and His Church’s Magisterium.
Consider the ecosystem of the Church and the hierarchy as we go barreling into the Amazon Synod this Sunday.
- 1. German Bishops are going off into their own synod, openly considering matters that are contrary to faith and morals. Though they have been warned by the Vatican against this, they are going ahead anyway. The Vatican has taken no action to enforce its warning. Sadly, this is typical of corrupt officials – to warn offenders against provocative illegal acts while giving them a wink and a nod to go ahead without fear of any real consequences. I am deeply pleased to see that my own Archbishop, Samuel Aquila, called the German Bishops to task for their provocation. I was most pleased with a brilliantly subtle, but lesser noted comment he made in the same remarks: “One only need look at the history of those Protestant communities that are constantly splitting from each other over doctrine to see the impact of replacing the faith with societally acceptable beliefs.” The central assumption underlying this statement is that adherence to Magisterial teaching, by definition, cannot be schismatic. Only attacks on defined doctrine can be properly defined as schismatic.
- A month ago, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, called for a redefinition of life, itself. He said that the Pope, “warns us that it is risky to look at human life in a way that detaches it from experience and reduces it to biology or to an abstract universal, separated from relationships and history. Rather, the term ‘life’ must be redefined, moving from an abstract conception to a ‘personal’ dimension: life is people, men and women, both in the individuality of each person and in the unity of the human family.” In short, Paglia and the Pope think we must move away from objective standards defining life and substitute subjective feelings. Not only could this phrase be used to ‘baptize’ abortion on demand, it could have been used to justify the mass child sacrifice of the Incas and of Molech.
- The Vatican just over-ruled Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson’s decision to revoke Catholic recognition of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School over its refusal to fire a teacher in a same-sex ‘marriage.’ These sorts of reversals of an effort to enforce the orthodox law of the Church have been common under Pope Francis. The most famous case was the lifting of restrictions placed by Pope Benedict on then Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a credibly accused serial sexual predator shortly after Pope Francis took office. Restrictions placed on another prominent heterodox Cardinal Archbishop by his successor were removed by the Vatican after Francis was seated. Many times, when something your Bishop did to uphold the faith is reversed, it is by the often silent, but brutal, hand of the Vatican.
- Pope Francis does not just disagree with those orthodox faithful who think Scripture and the Magisterium are binding; he drips with venomous contempt for them. Just over a week ago he denounced the rigidity of young Priests, “all stiff in black cassocks and hats in the shape of the planet Saturn on their heads.” He has little mercy for those who believe Christ’s commands are true and binding.
I have long been convinced that the primary means God is using to bring us back to Him is to reveal all things and then make us declare openly who we will serve. I think we will
erupt into schism because it is the one thing that will force all Bishops to declare themselves. That is what I believe God intends.
I have said that great historical moments are not decided by technicalities. That is true, but there is a codicil. Sometimes a technicality is trotted out as the fig leaf covering a larger issue that is inconvenient to discuss overtly. In the split between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox at the beginning of the second millennium, deep political disputes had come to a head. Rather than acknowledge that this was a political dispute, the fig leaf of the “filioque” controversy was adopted to give theological weight to the political split. Basically, Catholics believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Orthodox believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or, at best, from the Father through the Son. It is more than a technicality – but not by much.
Bishop Rene Gracida has taken the leading role in trying to get the Bishops of the world to declare Pope Francis’ election invalid because of technical deficiencies in Pope Emeritus Benedict’s resignation. I link to his latest piece on the subject here. If we lurch into schism, I expect his efforts to get a lot more attention. I admire Bishop Gracida and have been blessed to count him among my friends. I appreciate that he has kept narrowly focused and precise in his efforts (unlike many of his enthusiasts). He does not just throw anything anti-Francis against the wall and hope it will stick. While I respect the discipline of his effort, I still disagree on the substance. I fear if it were successful, it would expose every Pope who follows Francis to an unending search for technical deficiencies by which they could be suddenly deposed. I don’t like the instability I am convinced it would introduce into the Church. Beyond that, I just don’t like fig leafs. I like to get to the heart, the central issue, otherwise I feel a bit cheated. Does anyone think that this issue would have even come up had Pope Francis been a faithfully orthodox Pope who was notable for his defense of Scripture and the Magisterium? I don’t.
If we get to crisis. I think the more telling effort will be that led by Fr. Aidan Nichols charging Pope Francis with heresy. Fr. Nichols is one of the most heavy-weight theologians in the Church today. The fact is that Pope Francis has not, himself, openly expressed heretical views. The closest he came was when Bishops in Buenos Aires adopted an heretical interpretation of Amoris Laetitia and the Pope told them, in a private letter, that their interpretation was correct. Fr. Nichols and his fellow signatories maintain that it is not just words that determine heretical beliefs, but actions as well. They document his promotion of heresy through his appointments and promotions of Bishops and Priests who are openly opposed to the Magisterium. The letter makes a compelling case. I encourage you to read it fully and deeply. Some orthodox high authorities have disagreed with some or much of it. Well-known Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin wrote a piece completely dismissing it. I normally respect Akin’s work, but I was startled at how superficial his arguments were, how he deployed straw men to avoid the heart of the signatories’ efforts, and was downright offended at how dismissive he was of the qualifications of the signatories. I respect Akin’s work, but on matters of theology, he is not in the same league (or anywhere near it) of Fr. Aidan Nichols. Heaven knows I have disagreed with people who are more knowledgeable than me in certain areas, but when I do, I take great pains to make a clear and precise argument. Above all, I do not condescend to such thinkers.
I suspect that, in the aftermath of the Amazon Synod, November will begin a period of prolonged and intense controversy in the Church. I would like us here to stay focused on broad principles that we hold. I know there will be much commentary – and that is how we reason things out together. But if you pretend to a mastery of subjects that you do not have, you will be called up short or your comment not published. I am very interested in the broad outlook of both mechanics and heart surgeons. We all have something to contribute. But if a mechanic starts authoritatively opining on how my heart surgery should be performed, I will cut him off. If a heart surgeon starts authoritatively opining on how my car’s engine should be rebuilt, I will cut him off, too. Express honestly your concerns and opinions without pretending to expertise you don’t have, and we will be fine.
I am deeply concerned about those who think the Church is in danger of foundering. To me, it betrays a failure of faith. We have dead serious problems and issues headed our way – and that is scary. Remember Pope Emeritus Benedict’s conviction, “…that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” When the unknown, the unprecedented, overtakes me, I do not panic that God has abandoned me. Rather, I think God has challenged me to prove that I will stay steady, solid, and follow all His commands, rather than just pick among those that seem convenient to the controversy at hand. In fact, when God casts us out into the deep unknown, it forces us to rely on him all the more. If we do not, we will sink regardless of how clever we think ourselves to be. The Church will not capsize. Jesus is asking you, as He did Peter, “Do you love me?” As St. Peter writes in his first Epistle, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
In the early Church, many of the controversies that roiled the Church for a time were unprecedented. Now we will likely live such a division. We are not the first. Remember, also, that each such pitched controversy ended in a genuine refinement of doctrine. (Again noting that doctrine can and should be refined, but can never be contradicted).
The image of Our Lady of Tepeyac (or Guadalupe) on the tilma of St. Juan Diego is a miraculous image representing the “woman cloaked with the sun” from Revelation 12. After she appeared to St. Juan in 1531, incredible and miraculous consequences followed. Within a decade, over 10 million Mexicans converted to Christianity – and the murderous cult of Quetzalcoatl, which featured human and child sacrifice, was ended. They did not go without a fight – but they went. The religious, cultural and political life of Mexico was almost completely transformed and renewed in the space of a mere decade. If this miraculous renewal of a portion of the world followed the appearance of the image on earth of the woman cloaked with the sun, how much greater the renewal following the appearance of her image in the heavens? Gird your loins, stay steady, and I encourage you to keep in mind one of my favorite prayers over these next few years: Lord, lead me in a plain path. Let me veer neither to the right out of fear or to the left out of anger. Lead me in a plain path.
Then war broke out in heaven…