By Charlie Johnston
As regular readers know, I am adamant that this is NOT the end. Rather, it is a renewal that feels in some ways like the end. Thus, I maintain that there is no Antichrist just around the corner – and also that we should not hunker down so much as we should step up (though situationally, there are moments where, as a tactical matter, we should hunker down).
That being said, both Scripture and Salvation History are layered like an onion, with one layer often mimicking another. God seems to love to foreshadow definitive events with lesser but similar events beforehand. Why He does this is a question for another time, but that He does it is clear. I focus on Revelation 13 and 14 as foundational to my meditation today.
Revelation 13 describes the rise of the two beasts – and how almost everyone bows down to the beasts. I have long interpreted this to represent an anti-God ideology. After the rise of the beasts, in Revelation 14, three angels appear, each with a proclamation. The first angel proclaims that contrary to the beastly ideology, all power and authority resides in the sovereignty of God. The second angel proclaims that Babylon the great has fallen – that is, the worldly humanistic philosophy of materialist supremacy. The third angel proclaims that all those who swore fealty to the beast and did not repent before these angelic proclamations will be cast into eternal torment. Now I insist that this is not the end – but I also think it is a pretty good dress rehearsal. I want you to note the sequencing between these two chapters. In 13, God is quiet, letting the offenses pile up. This is critical in separating the sheep from the goats. The goats calculate which side looks to be winning – and shift their alliance to that side. God has no need for sunshine soldiers. Instead, He wills that they reveal themselves to the world as such. Then in 14, after all have chosen, the angels come to proclaim the eternal truth that God reigns. Woe to all those who thought they cleverly were choosing the winning side while God was silent. God IS love – and those who would be His children hold fast to Him because of love, not malleably switching allegiances because of transient events in order to try to be on the winning side.
The battle is heating up dramatically in this dress rehearsal – and a whole host of folks, particularly in the hierarchy, are in danger of the judgment. Whether it is good or not, I do not care about those religious authorities who actively wage war on the faith and the Magisterium. They will repent or perish. But too many otherwise good clerics are in deadly spiritual danger now because they keep trying to straddle what they think is expedient and what they know to be true. Collegiality, which is normally a good thing, is being used now as a snare by the devil. Otherwise honorable Bishops find themselves offending Christ to avoid offending other Bishops. This is a time when Jesus comes not to bring peace, but a sword – that we may once again find peace. Woe to those who let their cleverness lead them to the wrong side of His terrible, swift sword. Now IS a time of fulfillment.
Formal authority is often mistaken for moral authority. Formal authority is what is given when an entity employs, elects or appoints someone to a position of trust. It can help facilitate action. Moral authority comes from having a reputation for courage, honor, justice and prudence. It is the heart of real authority – and comes primarily from devotion to living as God calls each of us to. When an official starts to squander his moral authority, he often tries to compensate for it by exercising his formal authority more arbitrarily and coercively – which further dissipates his moral authority. A good man can thrive while never having any formal authority of note. No official can survive for long having no moral authority, except by raw terror – and that only extends the time before full revolt.
Alas, too many Bishops are trying to accomplish “collegiality” by vigorously going after orthodox Priests for the smallest of infractions – while ignoring the deep offenses of such as Fr. James Martin and others who are pushing an anti-Catholic agenda on marriage and family life. They are almost literally, like the Pharisees of old, straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel. If it was just the Bishops who are actively waging war on the faith and the Magisterium, I would not care. They have their reward. But too many Bishops who are basically orthodox are falling into this trap, hoping they can buy peace by appeasing the more aggressive, but effectively anti-Catholic, Bishops. You cannot appease men in hopes of buying peace without inflaming the wrath of God. Do not be deceived that God lets the offenses pile up for now – just as He forewarned us He would do before re-asserting His sovereignty. Those who have made themselves enemies of God and His Word are fully earning what they get. But my heart cannot but pity, to an extent, those who will be counted with the goats simply because they were timid – and didn’t want any trouble. Two sites which are doing a marvelous job of chronicling the offenses are Church Militant and LifeSite News.
The U.S. Bishops’ moral authority took a body blow when they were prepared to deal candidly with the latest round of sexual scandals in the hierarchy at the 2018 Bishops’ Conference in Baltimore, but then saw Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich cut them off at the pass by getting the Vatican to cut it off. The Bishops who want to enfeeble the Magisterium got what they wanted, while the better Bishops, through their timidity, came off looking like a bunch of eunuch. The fumbling mishandling of the Covid scare where so many Bishops eagerly accepted – and even exceeded – draconian governmental edicts that hampered (or even denied) the faithful access to fundamental sacraments further tattered confidence in the pews that these shepherds will defend the faithful. Few Bishops asked critical questions of public health and governmental authorities. They just claimed to be “following the science” even as they acceded to counter-scientific nonsense.
Are there legitimate issues with the orthodox Priests who are being cancelled? There could be in some cases. I know I admire Abp. Carlo Vigano, but also think his grief at the scandals in the Church have sometimes made him intemperate and led him to some errant conclusions. I understand, though: when the upper levels of the hierarchy resolutely will not hear or respond to your concerns, you almost have to start shouting. Here’s a reality check for the whole hierarchy: when the only people you vigorously punish for real or imagined offenses are those clerics who actually give voice to the concerns of the laity that you refuse to hear, you absolutely collapse your moral authority. Worse, you start to spark suspicion that you are not engaging in any real discipline at all, but simply persecuting those who would give voice to the faithful. Do that and you make yourself the enemy of the faithful – the wolves you are supposed to protect the faithful from. If you have chosen to be an enemy of the faith, so be it. But if you are an otherwise faithful shepherd who just doesn’t want any trouble, what a pitiable thing to risk your soul for!
I pray often that Gideon intercede for those Bishops who are honorable but timid. Read Judges 6 through 8 to meditate on the story. When first we meet Gideon he is hiding on a threshing floor to avoid his enemies. Not only did God demand that Gideon “man up” in defense of Israel, but that he take only 300 soldiers to defeat an army of Midianites over one hundred times that size – some 32,000. It demonstrated that, no matter how things seem, the battle is always in God’s hands. Had Gideon continued to cower and avoid his duty, he would not have saved his life, but have lost it.
And yet, as is very often the case in God’s economy, even as the darkness surrounds us, there is a growing group of Bishops in the USCCB who are not only stepping up to defend orthodoxy, but seem to be doing so in an increasingly systematic way. Abp. Joseph Naumann of Kansas City has been the premier advocate for life. Abp. Jose Gomez of Los Angeles raised the issue of whether communion can be allowed for Catholic politicians who brazenly and persistently publicly defy the Church on fundamental teachings. Abp. Salvatore Cordileone has expanded that by the call for teaching and instruction on “Eucharistic coherence.” Denver’s Abp. Samuel Aquila has become the architect laying out the intellectual framework for the whole project of defending orthodoxy. Just recently, he jumped into the fray against the German Bishops’ call for “synodality,” which looks to many of us like a call to smash what unity remains in the Catholic faith. What is striking to me about these items is that it looks like a real plan for orthodox coherence is rising instead of discrete one-offs. It is the beginning of renewal – and now we have a rising tide of Bishops willing to give voice to the deep concerns of the faithful. Of course, Cdl. Cupich ran off to the Vatican again to try to cut this expression of orthodoxy off at the knees – and certainly received the nervous seconding of a host of the timid. I don’t think it is going to work this time. Next week, The Bishops are going to discuss the criteria for public figures to receive the Eucharist. I don’t think it likely that the orthodox position will prevail – but I also don’t think the issue will be smothered like the effort to address sexual abuse was three years ago. Standing for orthodoxy is not a passing fancy for this growing group of Bishops: it is the heart of their vocation, an expression of intentional discipleship. May the rest of the timid get off the threshing floor and get to work renewing the Church in God’s own image.
Jesus Christ is the source of all authority on heaven and on earth. May all those in authority embrace this before God once again proclaims His sovereign authority to all the nations. And do it before the angels sing.
Fr. Richard Heilman and Doug Barry typically record their podcast on Monday evenings. Alas, a situation has arisen where they will not be able to tape on Saturday while our conference is going – and we can’t tape on Monday. So that aspect of the National Conference will have to be deferred. We will replace it with a session where attendees can ask questions of the speakers and national committee chairs – and it will be part of the video package available after the conference.