The Bourgeois Church of Spectators and the Crisis of Morale in the Priesthood

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“What does the word bourgeois actually mean? … The word designates a spiritual state, a direction of the soul, a peculiar consciousness of being.”

“The bourgeois, even when he is a ‘good Catholic’, believes only in this world, in the expedient and the useful; he is incapable of living by faith in another world and refuses to base his life on the mystery of Golgotha”.

Nicholas Berdyaev

I like to watch”

Chauncey Gardiner

Section One:Why another blog post on bourgeois Catholicism?

I have written on this topic many times before so some of my readers might wonder why I am revisiting this issue yet again.  This iteration of the narrative was provoked by some shocking news I received the other day that an old seminarian classmate of mine, a man who was a dear friend, now a priest, was arrested on charges that he possessed and shared child pornography.  This was a man I considered beyond reproach and who I would never have guessed in a million years could be capable of such things.  Yes, he is innocent until proven guilty but the evidence I have seen presented in public so far indicates with a high degree of probability that he is guilty. I pray that this will all be proven a big mistake and that someone else is the guilty party, but it has still created within me a deep question:  if he is guilty how could such a thing happen? Is it just a singular moral failing on his part? Is he just one more pious fraud plying his perversion in secret while posturing as a “good Catholic” in public?  Or is there another set of factors at play here? Like so many others, I have followed with growing despair the rolling nightmare of the priest sex abuse crisis since 2002.  In fact, when the scandal first broke I appeared on the now cancelled Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” around twenty times as a theological commentator on the crisis (Bill O’Reilly is a jerk by the way, but that is a story for a different day.) And having been in the seminary for many years I had a front row seat to the parade of perverts that were not only allowed into the seminary but also who got ordained – – men I wouldn’t trust to wash my car, let alone run a parish.  I have also known other priests over the years who I thought to be decent men who were arrested for various sexual offenses of a sordid nature.  And so I am no naïve waif, fresh off the turnip truck, who is easily shocked by yet another priest I know engaging in acts that make the stomach turn.  

Most of the priests who are guilty of sexual abuse are merely morally bad men who entered the priesthood precisely for the purpose of indulging their sexual fetishes through predation on the vulnerable.  In seminary I knew such men and dreaded their inclusion into the holy priesthood of Christ.  But such men have always been in the priesthood as any casual perusal of Church history will attest.  But ours is also a Church that hides its miscreants from public view, since saving the appearances is all we have left these days it seems.  In an earlier era we hid our malefactors in order to protect the Church’s reputation as the ark of holiness.  In our era we hide them because we are simply embarrassed by the nude crazy uncle in the attic and afraid of litigation should he escape and kill the neighbor’s dog. And that Church of episcopal hiders has done almost as much damage as the sexual abusers themselves.

But the sexual abuse crisis has also had the negative consequence of sucking all of the air out of the room as we fixate on it and posit our various solutions. I am of course concerned with it as well, but I also think that it has caused us to lose sight of the silent hell so many of our best priests are enduring – – men who are not moral miscreants, but thoroughly decent and sincere men who are, nevertheless, undergoing a slow and silent crucifixion in an unserious and existentially inauthentic Church of role-playing, spectators. More on that in a bit.  But we are all in this together and if there is a crisis of morale in the priesthood it is because, as Pope Benedict has forcefully stated, there has been first, and far more constitutively, a crisis of faith in us all, me included. I write what follows therefore as an act of thanks to the 98% of priests who are not abusers, but who are currently undergoing a slow crucifixion for reasons I will make clear.

Section Two:

The Ernstfall

“Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also”

The quotes highlighted above by Berdyaev on the topic of bourgeois Christianity were written long ago but are still pertinent today because the Church in the West has, over the past century, doubled-down on the bourgeois modernity he speaks of and has turned itself into a Bed and Breakfast for traveling Laodiceans.  Is that snarky and sarcastic? Yes it is. But it is also true.  I have written before on this topic and yet many readers still seem to think that I am criticizing our perfectly normal, and morally good, desire to enjoy the good gifts of this world.  But that only goes to show how difficult it is for modern Christians to understand that when Saint Paul condemns “σάρξ ” (the flesh) he isn’t condemning the created, material world as such or embracing some kind of Manichean dualism. Saint Paul is merely pointing out that there is a difference between a healthy love for God’s creation and the pleasure we find in its many blessings, and an unhealthy idolatry of material well-being and comfort when such things become our most pressing preoccupation. The goods of this earth, no matter how good they are, stand as penultimate values in the life of any true Christian and when they become our ultimate value we have veered in the direction of a religion of Mammon rather than the Gospel of Christ.  Ours is a form of Christianity that seems to have amnesia when it comes to recalling Christ’s trenchant and uncompromising warnings about the dangers of making material well-being an ultimate value.  Of course, few of us would ever claim that such pursuits are our ultimate value, but our actions speak louder than our words.  As Christ puts it: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  

But what Christ means by “Treasure” is about more than pecuniary largesse, unwisely used. Indeed, it is not ultimately about money at all, or even a more generalized condemnation of the vice of greed.  To be sure, Christ’s words do have in view, at least in part, those who horde their wealth and do not use it to help the poor. Nevertheless, it is all too convenient to read his words as a simple condemnation of those “dadgum awful and selfish rich people,” and to stop there, comfortable in the knowledge that I am not in their ranks and hopeful that one day the rich will be brought low and made to wallow in some kind of retributive and hellish zone of abject poverty, while the rest of us “poor folks” watch from a celestial distance with a squealing glee, tossing celebratory confetti from the balcony. In other words, what I am claiming here is something Girardian. Namely, that our ideologically constructed vision of “divine” judgment is nothing short of our own unfilled mimetic desires writ large and come to life. In reality, the skanky moral truth beyond such constructions is that the only reason I am not rich is that I am not rich.  Such shiny baubles simply never came my way, but if they had I most likely would have accepted them.  And so there is a not so hidden violence in my vision of a divine judgment that is nothing more than my own mimetic jealousy dressed up in biblical buzz words.  And the net effect is what was implicitly intended all along:  that these condemnations from Christ have nothing whatsoever to do with me since I am not rich and are targeted instead at those mangy money-grubbers who must now suffer for the good of the whole.  That will put things right. Then we will have peace.  

The deeper spiritual significance of Christ’s condemnation of “Mammon,” therefore, goes far beyond a simple disapproval for those who possess vast sums of wealth, and challenges us all to look beyond this superficial protuberance and toward the superstructure out of which it grows:  the ordered hierarchy of values inherent in the quest for upward social mobility in a kingdom oriented toward the maximalization of material well-being and security.  The problem isn’t wealth. The problem is the ordo established in its name and in its service.  Christ places his conversation on wealth in the context of the impossibility of “serving two masters.”  So it is clear that he is not finger-wagging at some petty personal vices that don’t pass Kingdom muster.  He is speaking of the servant/master relation which meant far more in the ancient Roman world than it does in ours.  And here Christ is pointing our attention at two rival “masters” whose interests are irreconcilable, at two rival “ordos” with competing myths of origin, soteriologies, and eschatologies.  One is rooted in Christ and his kingdom-busting-Kingdom of transformational, transpositional, leavening grace, and the other is rooted in the kingdom logic of the Imperium and its established ordo of structured and sanctioned violence in the service of the libido dominandi.  

Christ’s warnings therefore, which are an elaboration and development of the Old Testament’s “two ways” theology (the contrasting ways of life and death,) now applied to himself, make it clear that the form and structure of Christian existence must never take on the coloration of that rival Kingdom.  Nor is this a new kind of “puritanism.” The tares will remain in the wheat and sinners of all stripes, myself included, are welcome in the Church’s field hospital of mercy.  But allowing with great compassion and mercy the tares to continue on with the wheat is not the same as celebrating the weeds as a joyous “diversity” of plants, encouraging their growth through fertilization, and then declaring the whole affair to be a horticultural victory in cross-species co-existence.  Christ speaks often and with insistence about the need to keep our distinctions sharp and his insistence that the path of the Gospel is incompatible with the path of worldly social values is no hyperbole.  There are only two paths. One goes toward the Amor Dei and the other goes to the Libido dominandi.  People can wander to and fro between both paths and traverse them both in various and often conflicting ways.  One can hop and skip merrily between the paths and can run either forwards or backwards on each.  One can adorn both paths with the idiosyncratic accoutrement of one’s own “journey.”  But what one cannot do is confuse the two paths or, which is worse, to reverse their valuations.  In 2020 I  planted 350 pounds of potatoes.  But Covid came and our volunteers went away.  Soon I was overwhelmed with how many weeds sprang up, so I decided to just let the weeds grow and harvest as best I could later, only to discover that eventually I couldn’t find most of the taters at all.  The Church cannot be a Church of tares.  It can be a Church that contains tares.  It can be a Church that works around the tares.  But it can’t be a Church that celebrates tares.  

And when we make distinctions in matters pertaining to Christ and his Kingdom we must of necessity make choices.  We must often, and with tenacious determination, choose. We must choose to accept some values as good and to reject others as evil.  Many folks in the history of the Church have rejected this kind of thinking as “fundamentalist.” They say, “existence is full of gray areas that must be accounted for.”  But in my experience life always seems hopelessly gray when you have no principles that are simply non-negotiable.  Life is difficult. We are sinners. We fail.  We need help.  And our circumstances often get messy and complicated.  A good pastor is aware of all of that.  But “complicated” is not a synonym for “obscure” nor is “failure” a synonym for “acquiescence.”  If there is one thing that the New Testament makes clear it is that before all else Christ is “He who provokes a choice.” And he provokes this choice because he clarifies the stakes.  And the choice he provokes is the Ernstfall that Balthasar references.  It is not a single “crisis moment.”  It is the very warp and woof of our Christian existence which is marked through and through by the pattern of Christ’s redemption. And the fact that we fail in this effort more than we succeed is not a repudiation of this effort. It is instead an even greater affirmation of its necessity.  We must choose the path of life and no matter how often we veer over to the path of worldly death we must choose over and over and over to return to the clear path of redemption.

Section Three:

The attenuated Church of bourgeois spectators

In light of this discussion of Christ’s admonition to “treasure” only that which has real value, my claim is that the Church in the West treasures worldly acceptance and approval more than it treasures the fullness of the Gospel. It is a Church whose heart fibrillates with excitement and whose knees grow weak with joy whenever its virtue signaling to our dominant secular Liberalism is met with praise.  It is also why the Church rarely squanders its treasure on any message that might run afoul of such approval in any truly alienating way.  Yes, it tosses a few pro-life coins into the Trevi Fountain of public discourse now and then, but like a savvy tourist at the Fontana, it tosses nickels and not silver dollars.  

Therefore, this is a Church that has “chosen” the treasure of social approval by accommodating itself to the idols of our age and it isn’t about to raid that treasury and to empty its vaults in the interests of the Gospel lest the upper east side cocktail party invitations stop coming, and Hillary decides not to show up for the next Al Smith dinner. We leap back in horror at the thought of “weaponizing” the Eucharist, but blink not once at our nation’s literal weaponization of nuclear technology under the genteel banner of “deterrence.” A “press release” is not a prophetic expenditure of internal capital. And “ad hoc subcommittee” reports are merely the bureaucratic shrubbery meant to hide the cracks in the masonry.  Far from being at least “some attempt” at Gospel witness, such half-hearted gestures are instead a passive and back-handed way of larding the treasury of social approval with even more nutritionless secular candy. Releasing a de-clawed and toothless Lion into the gladiatorial arena is a way for the Emperor to curry favor with the masses, even as he makes it clear to the gladiators that he isn’t serious about the whole “life and death thingy.”  And of course the joke is on the bishops since their actions are transparently adolescent in their preening Peacockery. The seculars, in point of fact, want nothing from us, care not one wit for us, think we are superstitious simpletons and uneducated dullards, find us detestable, and accept our praise for their revered causes like a bored and disinterested Kindergarten teacher accepts a child’s crude portrait of her in crayon on a page from a “Big Chief Tablet.”  

One of my favorite Catholic theologians, the Australian Dr. Tracey Rowland, has also taken the measure of the modern Western Church as a Church of bourgeois compromise.  Of course, the word “bourgeois” here does not simply mean “middle class” but denotes, as I stated earlier, an entire social ordo oriented to a set of values where the reality of God is eclipsed and replaced by more penultimate realities.  She puts it as follows in an interview on her new book (access here):

“Today, for example, it is fashionable to be concerned about the environment, so some Christians are more than happy to talk about the Church’s ideas about environmental ethics but they will go very quiet about other Christian teachings. Newman had quite a lot to say about this problem and he called it the tendency of Christians to promote the religion of the world or the religion of the age rather than the undiluted Christianity of the gospels. The German authors speak of a “bourgeois Christianity”. They do not mean literally a Christianity of middle class people, but a Christianity that is narrowed down to something that won’t challenge the upward social mobility of members of the middle class – a Christianity that won’t cause social embarrassment.”

The modern Church in the West, with the sword of the Gospel grown rusty in its scabbard of time, is a tired, spent, and bored Church whose accommodation to the ordo of bourgeois modernity has created within it an acedia on steroids that militates against a deep penetration of the Gospel into her life of faith.  Another way of saying this is that it is a Church that lives on the surface of things like a cork drifting in the ocean, pitched to and fro, and which drifts in whatever direction the currents of modernity might take it.  And like the cork, it sits over an abyss it does not comprehend.  It is Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Stone” making compromises with the “Mystery Tramp” in the vain hope that this will help it make its way in the world but which is, in reality, a mere shuffling of the same deck of insouciant play acting.  Lacking a real faith in the transformative power of grace, the Church has nothing left but “role playing” at Christianity, with all of the outward trappings of its totems of spirituality still in place, but now pressed into service as mere props for its sacramental Kabuki theatre stage show.  And like all good stage actors it has an inner eye for observing itself precisely as “acting,” self-consciously aware of itself as an imitator of realities it no longer embodies.  This is often a cynical affair engaged in for worldly ends and purposes, but it need not be and is often just the last sincere effort to do something, anything, to hold off the abyss. Such role playing may also be just a degraded version of Pascal’s wager with the hope being that if we can at least continue acting like “Church” we might just start to believe in it again.  But it is all a fragile house of cards and what the priest sex scandal shows us is that the slightest provocation can bring it to ruin in an instant, exposing its fraudulent spiritual quackery.

What I am laboring to say here is nothing profound.  The Church mirrors the anomie of the bourgeois cult of pragmatic indifference to deeper realities.  The bourgeois soul is content to live on the surface of things and will even grow hostile to any attempt to direct its attention to more profoundly existential questions.  I once asked a friend why he never sang anything at Church.  He responded that it was because he did not want to appear to be “too religious.” “After all”, he said, “I am not a nerd.” For him, and many like him, “churching” is a hedging of spiritual bets, a contractual whistling past the graveyard, but is not anything we should get “fanatical” about by singing loudly or acting as if we are “too pious.”  And so our liturgies become a collective act of mimetic indifference riddled with boredom.  We are in general a culture of spectators whose chief preoccupation, outside of work, is living in the digital world of fleeting and ever-changing images.  And even at work we are immersed in a world of digital connections that follow us everywhere, including our bathrooms at home.  We would rather watch someone fishing on a screen than actually to go fishing. And as the ubiquity of pornography shows us, we would rather watch folks having sex than to do the deed ourselves, which seems to many to be dull by comparison.  

Marshall McLuhan and his disciples (e.g. Neil Postman) rang the alarm bell decades ago and their warnings were more than the usual jeremiads against techno-somnambulance.  What they saw was a culture of bobbing corks and a society of “watchers.”  Like the character Chauncey Gardiner in the brilliant Peter Seller’s movie “Being There” we “like to watch” and our lives, like his, are a role-playing imitation of what we see and little more.  We have become a Church of spectators and “watchers” whose mimetic cadences still bear the outward mark of sacramental seriousness, but which in reality have devolved into empty gestures of cul-de-sac piety.  The Mormon or Jehovah Witness missionaries who come to our door annoy us, not just because we do not believe in their religion, but mostly because they represent a spatial category error since religious things do not belong on my front porch next to my potted petunias and porcelain gnome. They have dared to violate the unwritten rule of our civil contract concerning matters “religious”:  keep it trivial baby.  The blown bubbles of our religiosity must pop and disappear once they reach three feet from the Church doors.

Section Four:  The crisis in the priesthood is a malaise within us all

The crisis in the Church is not, therefore, something that can be fixed with bureaucratic solutions. In fact, the more we go down the path of tinkering with “structures” as the solution to our problems – – synodality, parish reductions and consolidation, seminary reform, curial reform, changes in canon law, optional celibacy, et. al. – – the more we actually compound the problem.  These things might all be good things in their own way, including optional celibacy, but to pin our hopes for ecclesial renewal on them is a pseudo gesture of “action” that will do nothing to move the ecclesial needle if they aren’t accompanied by serious attempts to overcome our collective acedia.  There are many excellent prelates that see this too, but their efforts so far are lost in the cultural inertia that continues to pull us in the opposite direction. And in general, and with due regard to those brave prelates, priests, and lay people who are fighting the good fight, the Church in the West continues to seem clueless in the face of the cultural tsunami that is sweeping over us. Indeed, there seem to be many re-empowered refugees from the sixties and seventies in places of high authority who are intent on calling the tsunami a “rad wave dude” and are turning the ship of the Church to ride it to shore.  

And lest people think I am arrogantly sneering at all of those “others” who do not meet my ecclesial expectations let me just say that the reason why I dwell on this topic and come back to again and again, like a dog to its own vomit, is that the spiritual acedia I am droning on about is my chief vice.  It has dogged me my entire adult life despite my best efforts and I taste its bitter wormwood toxin every day of my life.  I see it in others because I know it first in myself.  My words on this page therefore are not an accusatory denunciation of faults in others that I do not think I possess myself.  These words are an impassioned cri de couer to my fellow ward mates to rise up and realize what is happening to all of us before we sink into the abyss.  Like Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” I am, despite an outward appearance of sanity, the craziest of the crazies. But perhaps it takes nut-jobs like me to raise the alarm and to catalyze an escape.  

In the Church of spectators I have described the danger resides in the fact that certain outward markers of health remain, but have been hollowed out from within. The life of grace is still there, of course, but it flows off of the hardened surface of the Church like paint rolling off of stainless steel without penetrating.  There is an outward “stain” of grace, a patina, a veneer,  but the petrified wood beneath resists its deeper coloration.  Like a Disney animatronic President things still move and talk and gesture, but it is not the real deal.  I myself am a living example of a Catholic animatron who is really good “on stage” but a colossal flop in reality.  I am good at “watching,” at “play acting, and at “imitation.”  But ask me to drive you to the airport and suddenly I have Ebola.  As one priest friend once said to me, “people still come to Mass, but nobody seems to really believe in anything anymore. And that includes the priests.”

And in a Church of spectators the priests too are affected as their youthful zeal is drained out of them and they eventually end up as burned out “watchers” going through the sacramental motions devoid of enthusiasm.  A receding tide lowers all boats, including the clerical ones.  I tend to think therefore that we lay folk get the clergy that we deserve as we ourselves are the chief breeding ground of the contagion. How many people reading these words know a priest who was once filled with zeal, but after ten years of parish work is now on a mental health sabbatical?  How many know of a priest who began with great enthusiasm only to leave the priesthood within the decade of his ordination utterly burned-out, jaded, and filled with resentments? The long hours of thankless toil for a largely indifferent parish, the crushing and debilitating loneliness of single priest rectories, the circuit rider exhaustion of caring for three dying parishes, clueless bishops who bar you from making traditional liturgical changes that might actually have some effect all the while presiding over a diocese that has no problem with “Pride Masses” complete with rainbow flag vestments, all take their toll.  A Church that is role-playing at Catholicism ends up with role-playing priests who finally just give up and either settle into the anesthesia of booze and fine food, or worse, retreat into the silent hell of pornography. We can point fingers all we want and accuse such priests of being cry-baby snowflakes who need to “suck it up Nancy” and take one for the team.  But these are human beings we are talking about and not ecclesial robots and the martyr’s crown we expect them to don has been fashioned from the thistle bush of our own play-acting mediocrity.  

  It is time to admit frankly and with brutal honesty that our current parish system is just not working.  In all that I have written here I am NOT saying that most active parishioners are bad moral agents and horrible Catholics. I am not here, as I have said, to call-out those “others.”  Because I am part of that group.  I am saying that our current way of doing “business” is not working to counteract the baneful influences of our culture and seem instead designed to not rock any cultural boats, to save the appearances, to preserve what is left of the status quo, and to pretend that all is well so long as each parish meets its diocesan assessment on time.  I am not saying that our current status as a Church of spectators is something deliberately chosen but is rather the result of a gradual drift. And the failure of the Church as a whole, especially in her leadership, to recognize the crisis at hand which our culture has provoked, is the chief pastoral deficit of our time.  Only when we realize this fact will we come to an honest accounting of why Catholics are falling away from the faith in droves with “ex-Catholic” now being one of the largest religious identifiers in our country.  We can tinker with new bureaucratic procedures all day long but it will not staunch the hemorrhaging so long as we maintain our blinkered tunnel vision that blinds us to the abyss that is below.

We will still have entities called “parishes” of course but the future parish, if it is to remain viable and to be effective, must be a different sort of animal than what we have now. Do I have a positive proposal for such a parish? In a word, no. I don’t think anybody does right now. Perhaps it is something that will simply grow out of the ashes of our current parish system and will take on a form that we cannot as yet imagine. But I do have one positive prescription: future parishes must be intentional communities of evangelical faith. They must act as “islands” of a new, counter-cultural form of discourse that embodies the inner ethos of the Gospel narrative. They cannot be as they are now – – mirrors of the broader culture – – and must be places of nurturing warmth combined with vibrant expectations. And it must be led by priests who are loved, appreciated, supported, and encouraged. We get the clergy we deserve and the clergy need us. More than I think the average lay person understands. Of course, none of that is especially insightful, new, or profound. But it is the best I got right now folks.

Many average Catholics who might read this blog post will perhaps say that it is all too scorched-earth and that they do not recognize their parish in what I describe.  But perhaps that is because we have grown too accustomed to the life of the average parish as something banal and unchallenging. Perhaps that is how we like it to be and see it as “normal.”  But something has to account for the disaffiliation of so many and the crisis of morale that is so endemic to the contemporary priesthood.  Something is deeply wrong and everybody knows it who is paying attention.  Church weddings are way down, as are baptisms and confirmations.  Church attendance has dropped off precipitously even among the affiliated.  Religious vocations are still few and far between.  I once met a female congregationalist pastor whose “assignment” from her superiors was a “ministry of closure.” And what that means is that her job was to act as the pastor for any congregation that was in the process of closing up shop.  Her job was to help them with the grief over their loss of their historic church which was no longer sustainable. I remember thinking, “the poor liberal Protestants. Thank God the Catholic Church hasn’t reached that state.”  But it has.  And so we need to acknowledge that reality and make a collective decision, together as one, lay and clerical, to do as God commanded St. Francis: “rebuild my Church.”

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

40 comments

  1. “There was long life and health, material prosperity, growth of population and the tranquillity of daily peace, yet while the world was flourishing in itself, in their hearts it had withered away.” Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospel 28

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The crisis in the Church is not, therefore, something that can be fixed with bureaucratic solutions.

    Sincerely,

    Father Donato Infante Vocation Director Diocese of Worcester

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I have written on this topic many times before so some of my readers might wonder why I am revisiting this issue yet again.

    Not me. This topic of our modern stumbling blocks to the spreading of the Gospel is the most important there is.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If I were asked to name the most spiritual, holy and charismatic priest that I met personally it would Father P.
    For over 20 years for me and many others he was a model priest unlike others who behaved more like Church officials rather than shepherds and spiritual guides. He was different, God spoke to him and he knew God’s will for each of us.
    This year it came up that he was a sexual predator, rapist of several women.
    The biggest shock was not that there are people like him among the clergy but that he seemed to be the exact opposite of what he managed to make us believe about him.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Section three brought to mind a sentiment expressed by a friend. He is a diocesan family life director and is very aware of my wife and my pro-life activities. I was wondering out loud as to why we see such pushback in our ministry from within the Church. He said that our work is focused on things that are not popular or even accepted in the secular culture: natural families, natural family planning, valuing the unborn as highly as other vulnerable persons in our world, a conjugal view of marriage and the belief that all other claims to marriage are illusory. We are a bit of an embarrassment to the bourgeois Catholics who, as you point out, inhabit too many of our pews. It’s easy and popular to proclaim the importance of reducing one’s “carbon footprint,” that Jesus loves you, that racism is evil, etc. – all perfectly in line with our Church but also widely acceptable in the secular context (even atheists seem to be OK with “Jesus loves you” since it puts no onus upon them to either believe in him or act accordingly). I’ll admit that it would not be difficult for someone to find the same fault in me, that topic on which I am more comfortable with its secular popularity than the actual demand by Christ to live contrary to the prevailing world view.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Larry, Jim Stack here. Great article. Let us pray for each other. I was terribly grieved to hear about Jackson. I too was friends with him, played a few rugby games at the mount together. Keep up your good work. Pax Tecum, Stackman

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  6. I know JP2, when writing about the problem of the millions of embryos created for IVF that just sit there, frozen, said something like we are waiting for a saint to tell us what to do.

    I think the same is true for problems in the modern church and in particular the problems in the modern parish. We all recognise the boredom within them – but we need a saint to lead us out of the morass.

    Like

    1. Ben,

      We all recognize the spiritual boredom within the modern parish, and we are looking for a saint to lead us out of the morass in some way, but how many who are looking are willing to be those saints? We are watching in a sense(as Larry argued) for someone else to become the saint instead of taking it upon ourselves to be the doer. Are willing to “commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God?” (Divine Liturgy).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As the people–and now, specifically, children–are being injected with a genocidal potion, a tiny minority of bishops have come out against “mandates.” And the vast majority have refused even to do that. In every diocese, children are now being injected, and there is nothing but silence or encouragement from the bishops–with only mild, inconsequential exceptions.

    This is the bourgeois church, reaching a new level of passivity, and complicity with crime.

    Like

    1. Calling it a “genocidal potion” really is silly. For starters, if the aim were genocide, you’d think they’d get something a little more effective at killing people. Secondly, if it was genocide, then the only ones left afterwards would be those who didn’t take it – the exact opposite of what those in power would want 😂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “genocidal potion” – the problem is that we don’t know this. The authorities tell us it’s safe. There are things online alleging that the vaccines are unsafe, or that there will be serious problems that don’t show up immediately, but how do you decide what to trust? Would holiness make a difference? Would Padre Pio have an insight into the vaccines that a beige bourgeois bishop wouldn’t have? My normal assumption is that Padre Pio wouldn’t have this insight – that the holiest saints still have to work with the information available, and try to reason things out as much as any sinner must.
      On the other hand some parts of scripture suggest God will keep his people safe from “the arrow that flies by night”, and I recently heard that St Theresa thought that God had protected her from evil during her childhood/adolescence. He obviously didn’t protect her from the disease that killed her.
      Since the leaders of the Church have no expertise in epidemiology or vaccination, and no charism to support such expertise, why accuse them?

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  8. As unpleasantly Darwinistic as it sounds, I think there something to the idea that hard times create strong mean, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.

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    1. @Calvin. This idea predates Darwin by centuries at least. A medieval writer said something along the lines that the first generations of monks worked hard in the wilderness until their monasteries became comfortable and prosperous, and the comfort and prosperity led to later generations of monks being comfort-loving and lazy.

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  9. Larry, please keep writing on this topic. It is encouraging to hear someone say plainly what so many of us feel. It is also appropriate that you summon the laity to step up since we are very much to blame for the current state of affairs in the Church.

    I find the confusion of the Bishops about the Eucharist as a depressing affirmation of everything you have written here. The Church teaches that the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. The Church also teaches – as St. Paul did – that anyone who eats and drinks the body and blood of our Lord unworthily, eats and drinks judgment on himself. These are both shocking teachings. As you noted: “If there is one thing that the New Testament makes clear it is that before all else Christ is “He who provokes a choice.” And he provokes this choice because he clarifies the stakes.” Despite the fact that the Church and St. Paul are very clear about the choice before us – life or death – when it comes to the Eucharist, many of our Bishops seem to worry very little about the judgment about which St. Paul wrote. They seem to worry much more about how many supporters of a particular political party might be offended to learn that a choice to receive the Eucharist necessarily means a rejection of other values they hold dear. As you know, a great many Bishops even wrote to Chairman Gomez to ask him not to even address the Eucharist at the Bishop’s meeting last June. To Gomez’s credit he ignored that request and kept it on the agenda, but the fact that so many Bishops are wetting the bed on this issue is telling. Church leaders who are afraid of the implications of the Church’s own teachings are not going to be able to lead Christ’s followers through the hellish landscape of modernity. In the end, to avoid offending anyone, our Bishops will have a committee at the USCCB write anodyne material about the Eucharist rather teach us the truth. The truth would require from us repentance and conversion and a rejection of worldly values. The truth would provoke a choice.

    In this regard, the laity are in part to blame because we have told our Bishops implicitly and explicitly that we do not want the truth; we are very happy with our lifestyles and politics and our Sunday rituals and do not want them disturbed. I am among the guilty here. I trust, however, that if we laity live a more faithful and radically devout life that we can give the Bishops the courage they need to teach the truth and lead the Church during these challenging times.

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    1. I asked a my Archbishop why he had not published a list of credibly accused priests, religious and laity. He said to me that he had decided not to do that. His reasons for his decision were uninspiring and bureaucratic. He believed publishing such a list would be difficult to define and would create more problems than it solved. I asked him (respectfully) to reconsider his decision. He went silent and the moderator changed subjects.

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  10. * “Lacking a real faith in the transformative power of grace, the Church has nothing left but “role playing” at Christianity, with all of the outward trappings of its totems of spirituality still in place, but now pressed into service as mere props for its sacramental Kabuki theatre stage show.  And like all good stage actors it has an inner eye for observing itself precisely as “acting,” self-consciously aware of itself as an imitator of realities it no longer embodies.”*

    The clearest evidence of this in my experience: as a seminarian, I was expected to practice giving homilies in a small room with a wall-to-wall mirror. I talk about it with my friend Kale Zelden in an episode of my podcast.

    https://weightofglory.buzzsprout.com/996733/7159222-a-conversation-with-kale-zelden

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  11. I think what is most terrifying is the idea that God might be withholding grace, which appears in Scriptures numerous times (cf. Ezekiel 10). At such times, one can expect there to be no transformation, no life. The one who prays or meditates will be left in aridity, and furthermore, will keep failing. As Flannery O’Connor said through a preacher character, “I’m a member and a preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”.

    I must emphasize that this isn’t the whole story and I agree wholeheartedly with your earlier posts supporting von Balthasar (and Bishop Barron) while taking a dim view of the enthusiasm for the “massa damnata” doctrine among (some) traditionalists. But I do think we need to take seriously the possibility that some manifestations of grace (i.e., anything that gives the Church or Christian leaders any credibility) are being withheld. This leaves us in the helplessness of sin. We are unable to shake it, now matter how much we pray, confess and exert resolve. It is also crucifying to our pride and our very sense of identity at a time when Pride and Identity are among our culture’s favourite slogans.

    Which is perhaps the point. Far from being a time to scold and envision hellfire for the many, it might more be a time to mourn and yearn. There is an interesting hadith (saying attributed to Muhammad) in Islam that goes something like this: “At the time of the revelation, the one who breaks one tenth of the law shall be doomed. But in the end times (or time of decay), the one who keeps one tenth of the law shall be saved”.

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    1. @hogtowner

      I think what is most terrifying is the idea that God might be withholding grace,

      Bingo. I think this is most likely where the money is at. Too many people bemoaning the loss of faith fail to recognise this dimension of the crisis. God is simply assumed to be passive, doling out Graces like a soda fountain to all and sundry, because the “loving” God sees past peoples faults and blesses them all. Yet a cursory look at the Good Book will show this is not how He operates.

      One of the reasons why I feel that the Church is withering at the moment is because it is seriously theologically diseased:We are essentially in a period of heresy.

      Let me illustrate what I mean.

      What’s interesting about the sexual abuse crisis is that it was global; in other words, it wasn’t the fault of a few bad eggs, rather it seemed to be an systemicproblem in the Church. The problem itself needs to be divided into two components; the individual priests who committed the abuse and the institutional response to them. By far the worst aspect of the crisis was the institutional response which, depressingly, was globally similar. One one hand there were the usual institutional reasons for covering the abuse up, but by far the worst element of this crisis was a mindset (theologically informed) which prioritised Mercy to the perpetrator above justice to the victim. This is an inversion of the traditional understanding of the relationship. It is also the line of thinking that Francis and JPII have been pushing with regard to the the death penalty. (The fact that this change did not really get that much pushback should tell you how deep the rot is.)

      The worst part about this abuse crisis is that It was the upright priests, forgiving the perpetrators -while praying for the victims and doing not much else–that did the most damage.

      Now what kind of loving God would put his sheep into the care of such “shepherds”. Hence the lack of Grace. God may think that secular society, with all its faults, may be healthier than the clerical community.

      And note, it wasn’t the “bourgeois” priests that were responsible for this. Yes they are spiritually corrosive, but nowhere near as corrosive as their “ascetical” antis who have “buddhized” Christianity in the name of spiritual purity.

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      1. @slumlord and @hogtowner — I kind of want to get behind this variety of explanation, but I get tripped up in a couple places…

        FIrst: grace, by definition, cannot be earned by good behavior–and contrariwise, cannot be withheld due to bad behavior. We can cooperate with it or not, and we can be given different, higher graces by cooperating with more fundamental ones (the latter paving the way for the former), but grace is given as gift in every instance. God may give it (or not), but it’s not because we earned it (or not).

        “A lack of faith causing God to withhold grace” thus threatens to turn grace into wages. Instead of a soda-fountain God dispensing grace profligately (which actually seems how Jesus wants us to envision God…”makes his sun shine on the just and the unjust…” and a sower of seed who throws seeds everywhere…), we end up with an accountant God who gives grace as a paycheck according to our timesheets.

        Second: faith is itself the product of grace, right? So it’s not so much that God has WITHHELD grace BECAUSE we (or the bishops, or whoever) lack the true and catholic faith, but our lack of cooperation with the grace that has been on offer has now resulted in deficient faith, with all the attendant problems we might expect.

        To be sure, God is not simply passive in all this, dumbly spewing out the same graces to all at all times, regardless of our capacities or desires or circumstances. I think @slumlord’s comment here is particularly thought-provoking: “God may think that secular society, with all its faults, may be healthier than the clerical community.”

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      2. @colnelkataffy

        A combox reply can’t even do justice to even a cursory discussion on the subject of Grace. Still, as I understand it, God’s allocation of Grace is purely discretionary, which implies that God has the capacity to potentially withhold Grace if it so pleases Him for whatever reason. Also, from what we know about His nature, he does have a soft spot for those he considers righteous, so I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume that He frequently rewards righteousness in a discretionary and gratuitous manner. But given the discretionary nature of this reward, to think about it in a “contractural” or “accounting” based manner is to think about it wrongly.
        Indeed, the line “put us not to hard testing” should give us some pause in recognising that God sometimes makes it tough for the righteous.

        My understanding of the role of Grace in all this came about through the realisation that growth of the Church is only possible with the co-operation of God’s grace. Take away the Grace and the Church withers, put the Grace in and the Church will grow where no one expected it to. Taking a Grace-based perspective seemed to me, at least,to open up a different–and more analytically profitable–perspective to the collapse of Christianity in the West.

        Now it’s quite possible that the Church is being put through a period of “testing” by God, implying that God thinks all is right enough with the Church. On the other hand, the withdrawal of Grace may be due to God’s displeasure with it, and it’s my opinion, based on the publicly available evidence that there is something sincerely wrong with the “body” of the clergy and that the latter case better explains what’s going on.

        The bourgeois sins of the clergy don’t bother me that much, since they just show that the clergy are fallen men but they do not disturb the underlying moral order. A priest caught stealing from the till, or abusing a child is clearly recognised by all to be in the wrong.The ones that keep me awake are the “ascetic” ones. Here men and women through great piety and asceticism overcome orthodoxy, no one recognising that they are subverting the moral order. For example, getting rid of the death penalty is meant to be an example of a “purer” Christianity, yet it represents a “value shift” that was to foreign to tradition. This new approach simply means that the victim does not matter. Now I’m all for doctrinal development but when the shift is to such a degree that it ends up perverting Christianity, then the withdrawal of Grace–and the withering of the Church– may be the only sign that we have that something is seriously wrong.

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  12. There are many ideas and issues here, but I want to focus on two.
    The milieu of our current time is unique in many respects, but the Church has been through moments like this before and come through them. Where to begin is always the same. Each individual has to look internally into how they are contributing to the problems that we are encountering. There are no persons completely innocent here. People when they feel they are being judged love to quote Matthew 7:3 about the log in the eye, but we have to look at ourselves and be willing to find the log in our eye. After all, one’s vision is not too good when there is a log in your eye. How do you remove the log? Jesus does not give us the answer to that question. The culture is complicit of grave evils. When you consider how the music and entertainment industry has been selling sex, drugs and whatever popular form of musical genre is speaking to the current generation for over seventy years, it should be no surprise that we are struggling with the problems we face. It is not as if those element did not exist prior, but they became a major emphasis especially in the music industry. The problems are compounded by social media, and the lack of rational content which dominates these media outlets. After all the person on social media is looking to gain followers not come up with answers. The answer to this is actually quite simple and found in the Vatican II document on the laity. Answer the call to personal holiness. Simple enough, but we have to always keep in mind that in working towards personal holiness, we cannot make it alone. We need God in the picture and unless God is granting you some type of mystical experiences, this means that we need to be encouraging one another in the call to holiness. We need to be looking out for one another. Catholics need to depend on our brothers and sisters in the faith. We have to work together to achieve this. It must be a collective effort.
    Parish life does not need to be rethought. The problems in the parish are simple to comprehend. First, the shortage of priestly vocations means that we have parishes which are too large for the priests we have. More priests will help, but until this trend fades, it is up to the laity to step up and work in the parish with or without the support of the pastor to form lay fellowships of sorts within the parish which are small enough to allow for true Christian fellowship among those who participate. There are several ways this can be done, but it involves rediscovering the charism of hospitality in the home. Leah Libresco and Carrie Gress have been doing a great job in trying to resurrect this. The genius of femininity has a huge role to play here, but Catholic men have to step up to. Chivalry has to be reawakened. Giving of time and not counting the cost has to emerge again. These ideas capture some of the best ideas that Christianity has to offer. Focusing on the beatitudes and the works of mercy must be our marching orders. Bringing Christ back into the culture must be on the hearts and minds of every Catholic, laity and clergy alike. If Christ is the answer, then Christ must be our answer to our cultural crisis. If this were easy, everyone would be doing it. That is precisely the problem. It is not easy at all, and so too many people do not want to even try. It is much easier to pontificate and preach like I am doing now then to step out and try to address these problems head on.
    That brings me to my second point. We have to change the culture at large to make it more Christian and Catholic friendly. That means taking back the media, education, and the political scene. The culture must be transformed. Good movies, books and music need to be made and promoted to stimulate the intellects of the masses. Education needs to fought over and taken from the cultural elites who are polluting our society with filth and corrupt thinking. All Catholics should be demanding that Catholic higher education be at the forefront and taking seriously Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” The orientation of the Catholic university needs to look more like the institution St. John Henry Newman was speaking of in his “Idea of the University.” Movies should embody good themes like the ones in novels like Willa Cather’s “Death Comes For the Archbishop” and “Shadows on the Rock.” Sigrid Unset’s books could be another set of novels to look at. Movies on the lives of prominent Catholics need to continue to be made as well. If they do not make the money needed then find better ways to promote these ideas to the culture at large. Real Catholic politicians need replace the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden who are Catholic in name only when it comes to political ideals.
    we need to win back the culture and the parish problems will mostly take care of themselves.

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  13. Larry, I find it takes several readings of each new blog entry of yours even to begin distilling a portion of what you are conveying, so rich in ideas, language, metaphors and references are they. In this entry, I was most struck by your passing reference to René Girard’s philosophy of mimetic desire, with its dynamic of what these days is often termed “othering” for the purpose of sacrifice and affirmation/restoration of purity in the remainder. We are all implicated in this tendency to get whipped up in a crowd, however carefully we may claim self-awareness and self-control. As well as being inherently self-defeating because the expiation never fully satisfies, it is entirely negative, balkanising and exhausting.
    Allied to a preoccupation with what you term penultimate realities, little wonder it results in a “tired, spent, and bored Church … that militates against a deep penetration of the Gospel into her life of faith”, as you put it. Girard himself came to conclude that the once-and-for-all action of Jesus in his supreme sacrifice was a unique act that definitively broke the need for this cycle of mimetic desire; Christians more than any people should therefore have the wherewithal to bring about a halt to it.
    I am wondering whether the way Pope Francis is going about the preparation for the Synod of Synodality, by calling for a fresh, generous and deep approach to listening amongst and beyond all the faithful, is a new, valiant attempt to call a halt to this mimetic cycle – or at least to create a pause for reflection for long enough to make such a thing more likely. (I fully recognise that, in some people’s books, he has done himself no favours with Traditionis Custodes.) I suspect the proof of the pudding of the Synodal Pathway process will be whether the voices of the underground Catholic in China or faithful Catholic family in northern Nigeria, Pakistan or Madhya Pradesh (these are just illustrative examples) are attentively listened to by those in the Bourgeois Church of Spectators in the West, of which I imagine most of us who read your blog are part. And whether it truly changes us inside if we do.
    I have not seen or heard the Synodal Pathway couched in such anti-mimetic-cycle terms and I may of course be barking up the wrong tree entirely, but I would be interested in what others think.

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    1. I love Girard. Are you familiar with the theological works of Gil Bailie? He does an excellent job of applying Girard’s insights to the christology of Balthasar in particular. As for the synodal way… I do not trust it. If you want to know why you can scroll down and find my blog post on the topic. I have deep suspicions about the upcoming synod on synods. My gut says it will be another incoherent event designed for media optics in our secular world and little else. It will be filled with meaningless buzzwords like “dialogue” and “collaboration.” But it will lack theological substance.

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      1. No, I’d not come across Gil Bailie but have now looked him up. Thank you for the suggestion. I assume you are referring principally to “Violence Unvailed” in his popular works? As to the Synodal Pathway, yes, I had read your commentary of scepticism. I guess what I am trying to do, if its architects are not solely motivated by superficial considerations (for many this would be quite a big “if”), is to infer what the grand idea behind it really is beyond the forest of words about listening and a move of the Holy Spirit and so on. I want to think that it is an attempt to break out of the cycle of decline that much of the Church around the world is experiencing, and its tendency to internecine strife on the one hand and “othering” of aspects of the external domain on the other are what brought Girard to mind. It might feel all too much like an attempted solution on sociological or anthropological planes, but I am trying to get my head around what actual end the Synodal Pathway is a means to. Anyhow, this blog entry wasn’t on that subject anyway, so I’ll let it rest there.

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      2. I am thinking of that book by Bailie. But I like even better his book, “God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.” Lots of excellent Girard analysis and Balthasarian musings.

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  14. Dear Larry, excellent article as always! There was something I was assuming / hoping you’d note in your analysis–and I was waiting to see whether any of your other commentators might note this, but none have so far. It may be that you’ve mentioned it many times before. And given the caution that I may still be lingering in the brain-fog of my own COVID infestation, yet, I was surprised that you did not mention even once that at least one of the underlying causes, to not only “The Bourgeois Church of Spectators and the Crisis of Morale in the Priesthood” but the downhill plunge of nearly every aspect of our culture and world, is the simple fact that no one takes the devil seriously anymore–especially seminarians and seminary theologians. Paul Harvey said it well back in 1964–and nearly everything he said has come true in spades (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9NoQHgjM_0). Simply, if the devil can convince everyone that he doesn’t exist–that he’s never been anything more than a myth–than he can whisper whatever he wants into anyone’s inner ear, and convince them that they are anything but who they really are or what God intends them to be. And an otherwise very holy and well-meaning priest, bishop, cardinal, pope, religious, minister, or lowly layperson, can become drawn away into perversity, like the proverbial frog in the pot.

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    1. Thanks for this. The blog post was already overly long. I think it is the second longest post I have written. And so certain editorial decisions have to be made. I can’t discuss everything in one post!! But yes, it is something that should be discussed.

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  15. One argument for the bourgeois attitude, touched on this article with a different twist, is the average Catholic’s eschatological vision of heaven, of the Kingdom of heaven. Too many Catholics have an 8-yr old’s reductionist vision of heaven, of the afterlife, imported from secular society and Protestants, because we want to get along and not offend anybody at someone’s funeral or wake. This is the idea that I get to play video games forever, or, in an adult version, are reunited with beloved Aunt Millie or our passed-on drinking or golf buddies. These are all fine and dandy for comic strips but heaven is where we praise and adore the One, Triune, Infinite God for eternity in communion with the saints, of whom we hope includes Aunt Millie or our golf buddies, and the Mass/Divine Liturgy is a foretaste of this Kingdom of Heaven, present in Christ, which is why we can live in the Kingdom now, on earth, through Christ. This Kingdom is present in, begins on earth in, our liturgical services. From worship of God, we enter into the world as the fire of the Holy Spirit. So if our vision is reunification with our dead friends, then checking the box is all that is necessary and we will remain spiritually dormant. If our vision is the living God, through whom we also hope to be reunited with family and friends, then checking the box is abhorrently minimalist, even if that’s all we are offered at the present moment.

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  16. As a graphic designer, nothing screams “we’re trying to fit in with the cool kids at the lunch table” like the neon colors with squiggles and curvy shapes the usccb is using in their synod posts on Instagram. It’s very popular and “in” right now and makes it feel pretty obvious who they are catering to as a “listening church”.

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