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The Universal Call to Holiness: Five Kids and a Goldendoodle

Dr. Larry Chapp

I begin this post, as I sometimes like to do, with an admission.  As I thunder and bluster about the bourgeois worldliness of the modern Church, and the need for all of us to take up the universal call to holiness, I have harbored in my heart a smoldering doubt about whether or not I am a hypocrite, or worse, a fraud.  I don’t mean a fraud like some infomercial huckster selling air fryers (fried means fried, as in hot oil), but the more academic fraudulence of a scholar so caught up in an idea – – however true that idea might be – – that he forgets to submit it to the existential verification of his own life.  I started this blog in order to be blunt, even brutal, about our cultural and ecclesial crisis, but also to be equally unsparing with myself.  And so I want to be clear:  I live a materially comfortable life and I always have.  I have never been a wealthy man by American standards and have always lived paycheck to paycheck with very little money, if any, in savings.  Still, I have never gone “without” and my pot-belly attests to my ready access to Cheetos and Chips Ahoy cookies, not to mention my nightly bourbon, while I survey YouTube on my IPad for all the latest on intelligent parrots and the most recent Bigfoot sightings.  Indeed, for me, unlike millions of truly poor people around the world, a “food crisis” consists of the realization at 5:00 AM that we are out of half and half for my morning coffee – – a crisis that leads immediately to me climbing into our old Mini Cooper to drive furiously, and contrary to all of the laws of God and man, to the nearest Quickie Mart to purchase the magic elixir.  And if the Quickie Mart is out of half and half then for me that constitutes proof positive that God does not exist.

Furthermore, and not to put too fine a point on it, we did not start our Catholic Worker Farm until we were empty nesters and it was safe to launch out into more precarious financial waters.  And by “safe” I mean we were now free of the responsibility of making sure my daughter was raised in a materially secure environment.  My wife and I were discussing this just the other day and reached the conclusion that it is precisely the pressure of making sure that your children “fit in” to their broader socio-economic milieu that leads to most of our compromises with worldliness. I could be wrong about this, of course, but I am certainly guilty as charged in this regard and refrained from “inflicting” upon my daughter my own desire for a more radical Catholic existence.  I thought this would be “unfair” to her and sought instead to make sure that her life was as bourgeois as that of her social peers. What this attitude bespeaks, sadly, is that in my mind the boilerplate for what constitutes “being fair” was the default mode of suburban, bourgeois living and that somehow living a more radical Catholic life was something potentially harmful.  Apparently, the dogma does live loudly within me, but not the dogmas of my faith, but rather those of secular modernity. 

The very next day I received an email from a reader of my blog named Victor who raised exactly this point. He has graciously allowed me to share it with you:

“A few personal reflections, purely from introspection, on “bourgeois Catholicism” that I thought I’d share:

Thinking about my own recent past, I have found the growth of an unconscious bourgeois impulse since getting married (four years ago; I’m fairly young). This is not because my wife is bourgeois – she grew up in a poor immigrant household – but because within me, this new sense of responsibility for the material well-being of someone else almost overnight made material/monetary concerns take a more important place in my heart… but I have become conscious of the need to care for the family spiritual well-being as well.

-I believe that there is some legitimate tension there; the impulse of a man to provide for his family is a good one, by and large, though like any good impulse it can become perverse. But I think this is where there can be legitimate difference between the monastic and married vocations… the difference is likely more nuanced than the “way of the commandments” and the “way of perfection” dichotomy that you mentioned, but I do think that there is, in fact, a difference. I think the married person is, necessarily and rightly, more concerned with the material things in his pursuit of the well-being of his family, but that he must remain vigilant to prevent the desire to provide from becoming a desire to possess.”

He continues:

“I have been thinking about the above a lot lately because my wife is pregnant (thanks be to God!). I have the desire (good, I think) to ensure that my child grows up in a materially safe and secure environment, and I mentally wrestle with how to square this with the desire to ensure that I don’t get so wrapped up with finding the best school district that I neglect the more urgent requirement for spiritual nourishment. I have generally concluded that I need to learn to live with some of this tension – perhaps uncomfortably, since discomfort will prevent complacency and force me to examine my conscience and motives regularly – and that such tension is actually just a feature of being a pilgrim creature in a material creation that God saw was “good” but which fell through sin, and will one day be redeemed.”

This wonderfully honest email reminded me as well of a private Facebook message I received a few months back from a former student of mine who is a very good guy and a devout Catholic. He asked me if I had any practical suggestions on how to live a more authentically Catholic life in the midst of this world-gone-mad.  And so I sent him an article I had written on Dorothy Day and the call to holiness lived through a life of voluntary poverty.  He wrote back:  “Ugh.  How can I do this??  How does one live the ideals of Dorothy Day when you have five kids and a Goldendoodle??”  It struck me at that moment that perhaps I had not been clear enough about our need to transpose the principles embraced by Dorothy Day into the unique register of our own lives.  Therefore, I want to emphasize that I in no way expect people, least of all myself, to simply imitate in every detail the specific contours of Dorothy’s vocation.  That is not only impossible for most of us, for a host of various legitimate reasons, but also undesirable insofar as we all have our own unique vocations to live out in the kaleidoscopic variety that God has provided.  Nor do I think that it is necessary for all of us to live like monks or to take on a life of financial destitution. 

And so I told my former student that as far as I could tell he was already living a life of Christian sacrifice that is analogous to Dorothy’s since he had made the decision to have a large family and to take on the task of the daily grind of employment in order to provide for them.  His wife is also a former student of mine at DeSales who willingly took on the bodily pains and degradations associated with pregnancy and who now has given up the freedom of youth and the allure of a carefree and affluent life, in order to nurture her children properly.  Such is the vocation of marriage and why it is a true sacrament, not just in terms of the fidelity of husband and wife mirroring the fidelity of Christ to His Church, but also in the very literal death to self that raising a large family requires.  The key requirement, therefore, in battling the siren song of the false Gospel of Mammon, isn’t that we mirror the complete material poverty of someone like Dorothy Day or Francis of Assisi, but that we choose a life lived radically for others which will, all on its own, generate the needed moderation in our appetite for material possessions.  Because one cannot live radically for others while pursuing at the same time wealth and pleasure as the chief goals of life.  And therein lies the key:  all of us are sinners, most of all me, and we all fall short of the sanctity we desire, but if our goal is to live for others in the regime of Christ’s grace, the pursuit of financial security above all else will recede until it dissipates into a faded memory of the folly of our youth. 

But there is also something else that is instructive here:  Children.  Lots of children.  One of the oddities of modern American suburban life is that the smaller our families became the larger our houses grew.  I too was one of five children and I grew up in a cracker box of a tiny house where we had one bathroom and all of us boys (three of us) had to bunk together in a makeshift “bedroom” my dad had cobbled together in the basement with blankets for walls and a carpet remnant he bought used from some sketchy carpet outlet store.  And such was the plight of almost everyone who lived in my neighborhood: big families living closely together in small homes.  The homes were small because that is what people with large families could afford.  Most mothers were stay at home moms in those days.  Choices were made in favor of children over material comfort and the sacrifices that large families entailed.  Nobody waited until all of their financial ducks were lined up before they started having children.  I understand that today far more people go to college and thus delay marriage until they have a chosen career started.  But even still, there has been a palpable shift in emphasis over the past fifty years away from large families and toward much, much smaller families that you “can afford.” 

But rest assured of one thing.  My parents could not “afford” their five kids.  Nor could anyone else really in those days, but they chose that path nevertheless.  My father was a fireman and made very little money.  And on his days off he worked a second job to make a little extra cash to support the kids he could not “afford”.  I have vivid memories of my father coming home after having been up all night fighting a fire in subzero temperatures puking into the toilet from all of the smoke he had ingested and from sheer exhaustion, only to grab a quick bite to eat before heading out the door for his factory job that involved menial and boring labor.  And then, on his one day off a week, when I am sure all he wanted to do was sleep, he took us all fishing, or to my grandparent’s home in Omaha, or to McDonalds as a “treat”.  One of my siblings, my younger sister Francis, was born with a very severe heart defect and was extremely ill most of the time which consumed my mother’s energies and ate away at her soul.  And when our beloved Francis eventually passed away following surgery at age 5 the grief of my parents was a lacerating experience that only a parent can understand.  If I had experienced a similar tragedy as a parent I would have curled up into a fetal position and remained there for years, before simply expiring in a world- weary despondence.  But my parents soldiered-on since there were still four other children to care for.  School lunches still had to be packed and work still made demands.  I marvel now, really marvel, at their sacrifice and their courage.  My father is now 87 and my mother 84.  And yet they still bleed that wound every day. 

My point in this autobiographical excursion is that the path followed by my parents and others of their generation is the path of the counsels whether it is recognized as such or not.  They did not live in a monastery and they did not run a soup kitchen in the Bowery and they did not protest in the streets for more worker’s rights.  All of those things are good and holy to be sure, but the death to self they entail are often less than what is asked of any parent who struggles to pay the light bill and who must care for sick or troublesome children. And that is the remedy for the worldliness that afflicts the Church today – – a death to self in a life lived radically for others in the shadow of the cross.  It is a measure of how far removed from the world I just described – – the world of larger families and the sacrifices they entail – – when people raise their eyebrows quizzically and wonder how in the world it is possible to pay heed to our Lord’s condemnation of Mammon (not just its pursuit either, but its possession) in a manner consonant with “modern life”.  An earlier generation of parents would have needed no such tutoring.  They knew from lived experience that parenthood=Golgotha.

However, I hasten to add that I am NOT condemning those who have small families.  Everyone must walk in their own shoes and all lives are different.  There are often very sound reasons for limiting the number of children in your family and I am not here to judge anyone, especially since I myself have only one child.  And some couples cannot have children at all.  However, what I am saying is that we only progress in the spiritual life when our moral commitment to live a life for others is not just one more “lifestyle choice” that we can abandon whenever we want to move on to the next phase of my “life journey”.  And this is why the most existentially honest moral choices are the ones that bind us to the needs of others in unavoidable ways.  Preeminent among such choices is the choice to have a large family or to bind yourself to the Church via priesthood, or the religious life.  There is the old cliché “the ties that bind” for a reason.  And bindings often constrict and hurt.  But it is precisely in such constrictions that true freedom and liberation are born.

I attend an Anglican Ordinariate parish.  My pastor, Father Eric Bergman, has ten children with the 11th on the way.  And he is the best pastor I have ever had.  I cannot help but think that the two things are related.  I have had excellent celibate pastors as well and I do not think the Church should end mandatory celibacy.  But the one thing Father Bergman has in common with the many fine celibate priests I have known is that spirit of sacrifice for the sake of the other.  The spilling out of one’s innards, of the viscera of your life, out of love for those for whom you are responsible.  Of such spilled viscera are saints made.  And that is what Dorothy and Peter were on about. 

True sanctity never develops when we parse out our sacrifices in manageable units.  As I have written elsewhere, we do console ourselves with the soothing balm of a thousand small “crosses” that are more manageable and can fit into our lifestyle. But what that means is that they aren’t really crosses at all, but the appalling opposite:  narcissistic play acting at “religion” in a degraded form of Pascal’s wager where we convince ourselves that if we can at least imitate “sacrifice” in manageable bits, that means we are “sacrificing”.  Or, at the least, to convince ourselves that if we keep play acting at being a “man for others” then maybe we will be someday, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary.  Like Peter Sellers in “Being There”:  we like to watch.  We approach life as a spectator, which is to say we approach God as a spectator, which is to say, we do not approach God at all.

But I bring up the Ordinariate parish for another reason as well.  Because in this parish there are many, many large families.  So many in fact that the parish opened a home schooling cooperative a few years back (Maria Kaupas Academy) in order to accommodate not only the large families but also the desire of those parents to educate their children alongside of other children whose families shared their faith.  These parents understand that you cannot throw your children into the cultural septic tank of our society and then expect them to come home excrement free.  You can shut off your TV but you cannot shut off your culture.  There are, of course, no guarantees that your children will retain the faith no matter what you do.  Free will is a funny bird.  But to return to the email from Victor, I think it is true to say that in order to live out the evangelical counsels as a married person with children it is necessary to find a faith community that is the central focus of your family life, and not simply one compartmentalized aspect of your life, confined to one hour on Sundays at a typical suburban parish filled with people with whom you share no bonds of common aspiration with regard to the totalizing demands of the Gospel.   This is why my wife and I, though both cradle Latin rite Catholics, joined the Ordinariate parish. We are now, as I said, empty nesters, but I am also now an old, broken down, maladroit curmudgeon given to bouts of melancholy who needs this community of faith like never before.  And do not be afraid to “parish shop”.  The stakes are too high to “settle” for something less, as the tsunami of cultural paganism sweeps away everything in its path. 

In this rambling and very personal blog post I am trying to write my way into an answer to Victor’s question.  I probably did not succeed.  The insight I seek to communicate is a simple one:  in order to avoid the fruit of the poisonous tree of bourgeois mediocrity it is sufficient to bind yourself to the life giving tree of the path of the cross.  You can pursue that path as Dorothy did, or you can pursue it through the medium of an oblative parenthood or a deeply devoted priesthood. But whatever path we choose we cannot shrink from the task.  The fact that we all struggle with this is not evidence of the ideal’s impossibility or goodness, but of just how difficult it is to swim upstream against cultural forces that want us all to adopt a spirituality that is as tasteless and empty as eating rice cakes.  I myself truly desire sanctity and I truly desire to live a life of voluntary poverty, ascetical discipline, and contemplative prayer.  But it is always short-circuited and thwarted by my own execrable weaknesses – – weaknesses born of an addiction to comfort caused by a lifetime of ingrained living in that trajectory, in that regime.  And is this not why we need the example of the saints?  Of people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin? To prick our consciences and to show us what is possible?

And therein is the rub. Modernity is so totalizing in its reach that it robs us of the very ability to imagine differently.  To think that something else is possible. It suffocates and snuffs out every alternative candle.  I have lit many such alternative candles in my life.  They have all been snuffed.  But I keep lighting them.  You should too, and parenthood, far from being a distraction from living the life of the counsels, is the brightest candle of all.

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The Choice: Bourgeois Well-Being or Conversion to Christ: Beige Catholicism and the Challenges of the Young Priest

Dr. Larry Chapp

“Today Christians are faced with a no less heavy responsibility. There is always a temptation for religion to ally itself with the existing order, and if we today ally ourselves with the bourgeois because the enemies of the bourgeois are often also the enemies of the Church, we shall be repeating the mistake that the Gallican prelates made in the time of Louis XVIII. The Christian Church is the organ of the spirit, the predestined channel through which the salvific energy of divine love flows out and transforms humanity. But it depends on the Christians of a particular generation, both individually and corporately, whether this source of spiritual energy is brought into contact with the life of humanity and the needs of contemporary society. We can hoard our treasure, we can bury our talent in the ground like the man in the parable who thought that his master was an austere man and who feared to take risks. Or, on the other hand, we can choose the difficult and hazardous way of creative spiritual activity, which is the way of the saints. If the age of the martyrs has not yet come, the age of a limited, self-protective, bourgeois religion is over. For the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.” (Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History).

Nicholas Berdyaev makes the observation that of all the religions of the world, Christianity is the hardest to live out because of its totalizing demands.  The Incarnation of God in Christ signals the transposition of all of creation into the divine life, and with that transposition comes an uncompromising call for a painful and purgative transformation, wherein a thousand small deaths must happen before our true form can appear.  Therefore, that transformation requires an equally uncompromising response to that call. And no half-hearted responses will do, since the Incarnation is not a half-hearted overture in the first place.  This requires a bracing and brutal honesty about who we really are, fully realizing that it is in our secrets that Satan lurks.

The call of Christ and our response to it are similar to the quality of love and courtship when the moment is reached where exclusivity is demanded by the very nature of the love itself, and is experienced as a sweet burden, a joyous bondage, and a liberating slavery. The demands of such love are total, as it now transposes life into an entirely new logic and regime wherein all that is old is new again. And in no way is it experienced as just one “part” of my life among many other parts.  Indeed, it isn’t a “part” at all, but the transposition of all of the parts of life into a newly transformed whole, and any attempt to mute that transformation and exclusivity through compartmentalization and compromise is to betray it and eventually kill it off entirely.  So too goes the path of conversion to Christ.  It is not a white-knuckled affair of obedience to a command, but an entry into the way of love.  And the way of love is far more demanding than mere obedience, which after all, knows only limits.  

It is, therefore, a rebellion against the transposition of all things into Christ to view it instead as an imposition, as the intrusion of an obnoxious exclusivity into my polyamorous idolatries and my insatiable and bottomless appetite for shiny things.  What we end up seeking, therefore, are a series of compromises between the exclusivity of the call of Christ and our answer to that call wherein we seek to follow Christ in a manner that still allows us to retain our worldly pleasures and conceits.   Our “red line” in the sand is the life of bourgeois well-being, and the Gospel must therefore be made beige enough for suburbia.  And so the bourgeois tail ends up wagging the Christian dog, which culminates in a thinly disguised rejection of the pursuit of sanctity as a species of fanaticism.  The “universal call to holiness” championed by Vatican II, and presciently called for by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin thirty years earlier, is corrupted, inverted, and falsified by rendering the quest for holiness in ordinary life into its opposite.  The statement that “We can find holiness even in ordinary things” becomes instead, “It is holy to be ordinary”.  And “ordinary” is then defined, strictly, according to the structures of plausibility constructed by bourgeois modernity. The true call to holiness, if it is still admired at all, is then cordoned off into a safe space of non-triggering velvet saints whose icons exude the oil of Laodicea.  This is why Dorothy Day said “don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

The claim of Dorothy and Peter therefore was that the attempt to domesticate this transformation through a thousand compromises with “ordinary life” is a form of idolatry.  It is the idolatry of the “everydayness” that imposes itself upon us and insists upon our assent to “real life” as opposed to the fanaticism of those who seek a Kingdom “not of this world”.  And it is an idolatry as old as the Christian faith itself.  The Romans accused the first Christians of being “anti-social” and “anti- human” because the Church insisted that our spiritual center of gravity resides outside of the nexus of everyday social commerce and within the nexus of a regime of grace that explodes the old wineskins of the “normal”.  This is why Dorothy and Peter challenged the traditional theological distinction between the “way of the commandments” (a minimalist form of compromised living designed for lay people) and the “way of perfection” in the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. (a maximalist form of full Christian living designed for religious orders).  Dorothy and Peter called this into question and realized way ahead of their time that the call to live a life of radical fidelity to Christ is meant for all the baptized, and not just the perfected few.  They rightly saw that this minimalizing of the call to holiness entailed the compromised pacification of the Gospel as such. 

What the early Church, by contrast, dared its followers to do was to imagine that what seems to be most “real” (everyday, commonsense, compromised living) is in fact an illusion.  And it called us to dream differently and more radically.  It is the inability to dream differently and to assert that this world, and its logic of compromise, is an end unto itself, that I define, following Berdyaev and Peter Maurin, as the “bourgeois spirit.” This spirit has always been with us, but, as Berdyaev points out, beginning in the 19th century it has been elevated into a strict and all-encompassing governing principle for our culture, religion, economics, and politics:

“What does the word bourgeois actually mean? … The word designates a spiritual state, a direction of the soul, a peculiar consciousness of being.  It is neither a social or an economic condition, yet it is something more than a psychological and ethical one – – it is spiritual, ontological.  … he is a man of a particular spirit, or particular soullessness.  The state of being bourgeois has always existed in the world, and its immortal image is forever fixed in the gospels with its equally immortal antithesis, but in the nineteenth century it attained its climax and ruled supreme.” (The Bourgeois Mind.  Books for Libraries Press, (Freeport, New York, 1966), p. 11)

Berdyaev, who was greatly admired by both Maurin and Day, goes on to describe the bourgeois culture of modernity as a cult of devotion to a life of “well-being”, by which he meant a rejection of life lived for the Kingdom of God, with all of its demands for holiness, in favor of a life lived for the comforts of the here and now;  and if one happens to be “religious” as well as bourgeois, then it becomes necessary to treat the transcendent elements of the faith as an ancient palliative no longer needed in the new regime of comfort.  Thus does the Christian faith lose both its triumphs and its tragedies, as everything is leveled out into a banal moralizing, and the grand Christian mysteries (the sacraments) become party favors at the table of sentimentalized congeniality. 

This insight, it seems to me, is even more timely today than it was during Berdyaev’s era since the processes of putrefaction that he saw at work in the Church of his time, have exponentially progressed in our own, as the Church in America continues to abase itself on the altar of sentimentality, offering itself ever more to the Molochs of modern Capitalism, militarism, eroticism, consumerism, and therapeutic moralism.  On both the “Right” and the “Left”, the Church in America and Europe is defaced with the graffiti of our vulgar cultural preoccupations and seems no longer to have the spiritual resources to even desire something more Christ-centered.   In earlier eras reform was possible, despite corruption and spiritual laxity, because people still knew where and what the “center” was: the Christ presented in the gospels.  Today we doubt the legitimacy of even having a center, viewing the very notion of a center as lacking in “inclusion”, which of course is merely code for “we want our bourgeois comforts and conceits.”  And so we see that we are not so opposed to “centers” after all. Mammon suffers no rivals. 

George Bernanos, in his masterful novel “The Diary of a Country Priest”, begins his narrative with the following words from the Curé d’ Ambricourt:  “My is a parish like all the rest.  They are all alike. …  My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it.  Like so many others!  We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it.  Someday perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – – become aware of the cancerous growth within us.  You can keep going a long time with that in you.”

“Boredom” is a slippery term that can mean anything from the normal emotional fatigue that sets in when one is engaged in the drab duties of daily life up to the deep existential acedia of one who has simply grown world weary and has become jaded to life itself.  But the boredom that Bernanos is referencing is of a unique kind that is peculiar to Catholic communities that have incrementally and silently abandoned faith in the sacraments as encounters with Christ and replaced that faith with a secular simulacrum wherein the outward form of the sacraments remains, while the inner life has been hollowed out and replaced with the banal ideology of a deeply channelized, and profoundly intolerant, bourgeois cult of self-fulfillment. 

What Bernanos is pointing to is a moribund Catholicism that has gone to seed, like a dandelion long past its fruitful floriation and which has dispersed its seeds into the buffeting winds. What remains may still be outwardly green but it now has no discernible purpose.  And soon its greenery will be dead even if the roots remain.  Thus, there is also an air of putrescence about beige, bourgeois Catholicism, with a lingering stench that is the telltale signature of dead things decomposing, in spite of the deodorizing bureaucratic apparatus chanceries try to sprinkle over the rotting corpse.  And as Nicholas Berdyaev also notes, the spirit of bureaucracy is the deepest inner voice of the bourgeois soul and bespeaks a fundamental orientation to “control through management techniques” that is the Mark of the Beast.

Therefore, the universal call to holiness is needed more today than ever before, as the progressive ideology that governs modernity erases the structures and institutions that have carried the weight of Tradition on their shoulders.  Human freedom is defined by today’s political Liberalism as a radical autonomy from all previous strictures and structures, as the steamroller of “liberation” flattens everything in its path.  In the place of Tradition, now destroyed, we are given … nothing.  And this is because the formal “neutrality” of the choosing self is the only absolute in our pursuit of bourgeois well-being, and the only “sin” left in our moral lexicon is “intolerance” to the needs of this autonomous freedom.  The modern believer is, therefore, in a situation unparalleled in the history of Christianity in that in order to persevere in the faith one cannot presume the support of the broader culture or even, sadly, of the Church, which is also infected with the same virus of aimless, mediocrity. 

Therefore, the serious believer is thrown back upon his or her own inner resources. Thankfully, the Sacraments are still efficacious despite the corruption of the Church, pockets of serious Catholicism remain in almost every parish, and the Church still abounds in resources available to believers from the deep treasury of her past.  Nevertheless, the path forward for the believer can only be the arduous path of personal holiness, since the crushing weight of the modern world is indeed powerful and a lukewarm compromise between bourgeois existence and “spirituality” tailored to that existence will not weather the coming storm. We cannot remain in a domesticated region of stasis since in the spiritual life one is either trending upward toward God or downward toward the libido dominandi.  There is no “middle path” of compromised Christianity.  And by “compromised” I don’t mean that the Church has sinners within it or even that it has many, many “big sinners” within it.  I mean rather that the Church has been gripped from top to bottom by a foreign spirit that says you can have Christianity without the cross, without a cruciform structure to our lives, and that we can be “good Christians” even as we structure our lives around various forms of bourgeois “security”. 

And that brings me to my final point:  the crisis in the priesthood.  And by “crisis” I am not referring to the issue of clerical sexual abuse and its episcopal cover ups.  As a former seminarian and a professional theologian I have, of course, come to know many priests. And over the course of the past decade I have noticed among my young priest friends in particular a sharp and stinging demoralization caused by their experience of parish life.  They entered ministry full of vigor and enthusiasm, determined to be a strong priestly witness to the power of Christ, but discovered quickly that the beige, bourgeois Catholicism described above is not only deeply entrenched, but also very resistant to challenge.  Furthermore, they also soon discover that the small band of “traditionalists” in their parishes – – folks who should be allies in the struggle – – are quite often narrow-minded and mean spirited malcontents ready to do battle for whatever cause they had just picked up from Michael Voris or Taylor Marshall.  It is hard indeed to make common cause with people who think Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were liberal modernists not to be trusted, and who also think that the Novus Ordo, though “valid”, is an abomination concocted by Freemasons in the Vatican. There are, of course, sane and well educated Catholics in almost every parish, but their numbers are too few to offset the bourgeois ethos of the modern parish where the primary emphasis is on making Catholicism compatible with life on the cul-de-sac. 

I know one priest via an email exchange who wrote to me complaining about how he had tried to end the practice of CYO sports playing games on Sunday mornings.  The blowback he received was often vicious and left him shocked and demoralized.  The idea that as a Catholic one should not reserve Sunday morning for organized sports under a “Catholic” banner seemed utterly foreign to his parishioners and they made it clear that the priest was being “divisive”, “intolerant”, “conservative”, and … wait for it … “contrary to Pope Francis’s message of mercy.”  I know another priest who inherited a parish where patens were not used at communion time by the altar servers and the liturgical chimes had been removed from usage during the Eucharistic prayer.  I asked him why he did not simply reintroduce them which was his right as a pastor.  He just smiled and said it wasn’t worth the war that such moves would have created and decided instead to just keep the peace by acquiescing to their nonchalance toward the sacredness of the Eucharist.

Just last month I got an interesting email from another young priest who tried to open a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in a house near his parish but had to abandon the project when influential (i.e. wealthy) members of his parish told him that their donations would go away immediately if he even attempted such a thing.  When he reminded them of Christ’s commandment to care for “the least of these” he was told that nothing was stopping him from opening a shelter in a different neighborhood, by which they meant “anywhere but near us”.  He then appealed to the chancery for support but got nothing but silence in response. 

These are but a few, anecdotal examples among many, many more that I could cite.  And I am certain others who are reading this have had similar experiences.  But perhaps the most galling and demoralizing aspect of modern parish life is the resistance that many young priests face from their own diocesan chancery and/or the bishop himself when they seek to introduce things like altar rails and communion while kneeling, Gregorian chant, frequent incensing of the altar, the people, and the book of the Gospel, or God forbid, worship ad orientem.  None of these things are prohibited by either the rubrics or the documents of Vatican II themselves, but they are almost universally opposed by bishops who are terrified of appearing to sanction liturgical forms that restore a more “vertical” and supernatural element to the Mass and which seek to counteract the suburban view of the Eucharist as an hors d’oeuvre served to party guests.  One priest described it this way to me:  “It is true, as Pope Francis says, that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect.  However, in my parish, communion is treated as a ‘participation trophy’ to be handed out to everyone who, after all, have had to put up with the annoyance of having to go to Church.” 

Nor is the resistance limited to trying to make changes to the Liturgy.  Indeed,  some of the stiffest resistance arises when a priest tries to get the diocese to approve of a highly focused and intense commitment to social justice causes other than the (legitimate) fight against abortion. However, even with abortion, you find dioceses with more liberal bishops who seem embarrassed by the issue and try to curtail priestly agitation even against pre-natal homicide.  Priests who seek to apply the moral mandate of the Gospel to the political sphere, both liberal and conservative, more often than not find their hands tied by secret reprimands from the bishop, complete with threats to be removed from parish ministry and assigned instead to oversight of the diocesan cemeteries.  God forbid that the Church would lose its tax exempt status!  How would bishops like the disgraced Bransfield afford their booze and daily flowers if they taxed the episcopal palaces?

All snark aside, the sad fact is that the tone and tenor of the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church is characterized by a “don’t make waves” mentality and it seems to matter not one wit whether the bishop is liberal, conservative, or just a managerial class apparatchik intent on promotion to Rome and that apartment in Trastevere.  Indeed, the USCCB is dominated by bourgeois, managerial class dullards who were elevated to the episcopacy through the winnowing sieve of a self-protecting and self-replicating bureaucracy obsessed with preserving the appearance of “safe stability” above all else. This alone explains why most dioceses pay more attention to the lawyers and insurance companies than they do to their most effective pastors.  It also explains why, from a diocesan perspective, the most important pastoral duty of any parish priest is to make sure the parish assessment is sent to the diocesan treasury on time, and in the full amount.  Historically, (and I hope this is changing) a priest who “agitates” for a holier and poorer Church is more distrusted in many chanceries than a priest who rapes children. Let that sink in a bit…

Therefore, it should not come as a shock that something is happening in the parish priesthood that is not good.  My armchair and subjective estimate is that a good half of the young priests I know are not merely “demoralized” but are, in fact, miserable.  Some have even left the priesthood entirely, deeply wounded, and emotionally pulverized into dust.  These men were seeking something to do with their lives that was “heroic” and deeply masculine in the ascetical discipline that true valor demands.  But what they encountered in the modern parish was an effeminate Catholicism of therapeutic nurturing where the Eucharistic liturgy had been reduced to: “Hi, welcome to Church-Mart. I love you.”  They looked forward to making a difference in the confessional only to discover that few parishioners actually went to confession anymore, and the ones that did were the ones who least needed to, or worse, (as one priest told me) you get the same 5 sexually scrupulous neurotics who showed up every Saturday to legalistically purge what they did Friday night.  Wedding liturgies were found to be a martyr’s ordeal as the bourgeois ethos was in full Monty without shame: “No, you cannot sing a Dylan song to each other in place of your vows.” One young priest told me that on his tombstone he wanted the following engraved:  “Father **** Concierge and Martyr”.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg since the young priest’s biggest battle is with the “don’t rock the boat” bourgeois mentality of both the laity and the episcopacy on a whole range of issues.  So what is a young priest to do in this environment?  I have gotten numerous emails from priests asking me to write on this topic and to offer a positive proposal for the way forward.  I would like to cop out on that request since my analysis of the situation is dour and grim.  In my opinion, the Church in America is in deep Kimchi at the moment.  Nor do I want to offer puerile bromides like “holiness is the only answer”, even though that is a true statement in some ways.  But I feel the need to offer something concrete lest I fall into a pattern of endless jeremiads without any hope.   Allow me to just bullet point a few ideas:

  1. Begin with a reassessment of priestly goals.  It has become trite to say this but it is nonetheless profoundly true: “success” is not a Gospel category.  Christ ended his earthly ministry an abject failure by the world’s metrics of success.  And yet, his small band of Galilean misfits changed the world forever.  Focus, therefore, on your own small band of parish misfits who seem to “get it” and work from there to plant whatever seeds you can.
  2. Resist the temptation to despair at the apparent indifference of most in your parish and your chancery to your ministry.  Such despair is of Satan.  You are touching far more people than you realize.  I learned this as a college professor. I was so often demoralized by the seeming indifference of my students only to get a letter from a student years later telling me how much my class meant to him or her.  Focus therefore on the hidden effects your witness is having.  And remember this always:  even if you save only one soul in your entire priestly ministry, there is much rejoicing in Heaven.
  3. Don’t let the bastards get you down.  It is human nature to focus on those who say vile things about you even if it is only one comment in an ocean of otherwise positive statements from people.  I remember as a teacher reading my student evaluations and even if 99% of the comments were positive I spent my entire day obsessing over the one jerk who said he hated my ties.  Shake the dust of such rejections from your feet and move on.
  4. Read good books.  Then read more good books.  And it does not matter the topic: theology, philosophy, history, literature, art history – – it all enlivens the mind and the soul.  A priest touches the most people every Sunday in the Homily.  Be the priest who actually has something interesting to say.  A great homilist is a rare find these days and the discipline of homiletics has fallen on hard times with lousy advice in the seminary about telling stories and leaving folks with a pithy and practical “take away”.  Give your parishioners real intellectual meat to chew on.  Most lay people are starving for this. Do not remain on the level of “catechetics” since what most Catholics need these days is to be reevangelized.
  5. Pray deeply and often.  You cannot give what you do not have. 
  6. Be masculine. And by that I do not mean eating pork rinds at parish events and belching a lot.  Be self-confident and supremely comfortable in your own skin.  Know who you are and what you believe and live it with vigor and valor. In other words, do not be afraid to be a father. 
  7. Finally, and in line with #6, do not shrink from resistance.  Have the courage of your convictions and fight, fight, fight for them until your last breath.  The greatest saints almost always encountered fierce resistance from all quarters, with some of them even being censured and silenced for a time.  But they fought on and perdured.  To give up in the face of resistance is to admit that maybe you are not as convinced as you think you are of your own convictions.

The Church will survive.  It is not our Church but Christ’s.  However, the beige, bourgeois Church seems unconquerable at the moment.  And I don’t want to be trite or glib here ending with some Pollyanna hope that is the opposite of the theological virtue of hope.  We are living in a Golgotha moment that is an excruciating trial that seems to have no end on the horizon.  In fact, it would seem that things are only going to get worse for the foreseeable future.  Our Lord endured a descent into Hell and we too are not to be spared such a dark night of the soul as we follow in our Lord’s path of kenotic oblation.  Christ assured us of victory if we perdure, but he also assured us that the path to glory for anyone who is his true follower is first the path of Calvary.  He is indeed Risen, but he is so as the risen and crucified Lord who is in eternity and for eternity, the “Lamb who was slain”.  It would appear therefore that unlike previous eras of the Church, our lot is to have this dynamic laid bare and made raw.  Therefore, a stark and clarifying – – indeed “purgative” – – choice is being presented to us as a bracing gift of the Spirit:  embrace the path of suffering for others in the run of grace or embrace the path of Mammon and success.  The middle ground is gone and the halfway house of beige Catholicism is being exposed more and more as the spiritual equivalent of the crack house on the corner. 

The “Gospel of bourgeois wealth” is tempting but it is of Satan.  Joel Osteen, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and their Catholic epigones in the “prayer and praise” crowd of charismatic cultists appear on the surface to be prophets of Christian “joy”.  But it is all the honey-laced arsenic of the AntiChrist.  It is a Kool-Aid cult of capitalism.  And if we drink it we will perish.

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What I Saw at the Abbey of the Genesee: The Crisis in the Church and the Universal Call to Holiness

Dr. Larry Chapp

I was reading an article the other day about an ongoing miracle in Italy that dates back to 1336.  In December of that year a young, pregnant woman named Egidia Mathis was walking home at night and feared for her life because of some unsavory characters who appeared to have evil intentions toward her.  So she ran to a nearby pillar that had on it an image of the Virgin Mary and pleaded with Mary to help her, whereupon, as the story goes, Mary appeared and scared off the bad guys and offered comfort to the young woman.  As if that wasn’t miracle enough, at that same moment a row of leafless, ice-covered, blackthorn bushes near the pillar suddenly broke out into full bloom, with flowers covering the bushes.  All of these events created so much stress and emotion in Egidia that she gave birth right there on the spot to a healthy baby.  A Church has since been erected at this location and is dedicated to “Our Lady of the Flowers”.  And every year since 1336 (with the exception of 1914 and 1939, on the eve of two World Wars) the blackthorn bushes at that location have broken out into full bloom out of season in the cold of December.  You can read the entire story here:  http://www.ncregister.com/blog/joseph-pronechen/miracle-of-the-flowers-repeats-for-six-centuries

I begin my reflections with this story because the image of flowers miraculously blooming in the dead of winter seems like an apt description of the emotions I felt during my visit to the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York last year.  And not just because flowers are beautiful and can brighten up almost anything that is dreary, but because, as in the miracle, the wholly gratuitous, unexpected, and life-affirming eruption of the authentically supernatural into our lives is genuinely shocking and provocative.  I went to Genesee weighed down by the clerical sex scandals of the previous year expecting very little beyond a quiet period of reflection during this Christmas season.  I went, to be blunt about it, with a cynical and strangely attenuated heart, feeling metaphysically desiccated and fragile, hoping for a small, spiritual consolation of some kind in the midst of this agonistic winter in the Church.  I was expecting little more than the spiritual equivalent of a jolt of caffeine in the morning to get you going again, but what I found there instead, like a man on his way to debtor’s prison accidently tripping over a pot of gold, was hope.  Not the trite and emotionally shallow hope that one gets from a “good trip” somewhere, where you meet “good people” and have a “good time”.  Here I mean hope in the sense of the theological virtue that one encounters very rarely in life, if at all.  You can read all about the theological virtue of hope in the theology books of course and you can “know” a great many things about it through such study.  But until one actually lives it or encounters it, it remains an abstraction offering nothing of real life-changing substance.  That is the value of the saints.  They are blackthorn bushes blooming out of season.  And I met them at Genesee.  

But in order to map-out the topography of the concrete hope the monks and lay workers at Genesee gave me, and why I think the exact contour of this hope is important to anyone serious about living the Gospel radically, I think we first need to understand the nature of the “winter” we are currently in.  Because you cannot cure a disease unless you are accurate in your diagnosis of the pathology in question, and you may even end up in a worse state if you engage in radical forms of treatment for the wrong ailment.  Doctors can kill just as easily as they can heal if they are quacks.  And the Church, dadgummit, has enough of those.  

Like many of my fellow Catholics, I have experienced the “winter” of the sex scandals as a period of sadness, pain, and a demoralization caused by disillusionment.  However, in my own case – – a theologian and former seminarian, aged 62, who came of age in the post-Vatican II silly season – – the sex scandals were not so much a shock as they were a confirmation of something my wise, seminary spiritual director (a German, Jewish convert who had fled Hitler with his family) told me all the way back in 1981: “Enter the Church’s ministry with eyes wide open.  Because let me tell you, the rot is very deep.”  

In other words, I was not surprised by the scandals because I had been expecting them.  Anyone who has worked inside the Church over the past 50 or so years has known that some form of this day of reckoning was on the horizon.  A prescient and brave few were sounding the alarm bells but were ignored, as all such prophets get ignored by large institutions that are rotting from within even as they desperately cling to the status quo of the outward trappings of former glory.  And this decision to ignore the inward rot of the Church so long as her post-Tridentine integralist façade remained largely free of signs of putrefaction, is why many, if not most, of the bishops of the Church since Vatican II, far from being true pastors and shepherds of souls, were witless, managerial-class boors with an eye on that promotion to Rome and an apartment in Trastevere.  Their mandate was as simple as it was banal. Namely, to “save the appearances” of outward success even as everyone on the inside knew it was a sham and a scam.  Which is why their almost universal boilerplate model for dealing with sexual abuse by priests was to cover it all up.  The phrase “Do not air your dirty laundry in public” is certainly not peculiar to the Church, but the managerial-class bishops of the Church raised it into a criminal artform as they desperately tried to hide their weird and sketchy “Uncle Teds” from the neighbors.  

This explains why the bishops were not shocked by the allegations against some of their priests and why such allegations did not lead to swift and decisive action.  Why were they so insouciant and cavalier about it all? Why did they treat it all as a managerial and an actuarial problem rather than a criminal one? Why? Because they were expecting it.  They had known for years and had been explicitly warned that something rotten was festering.  But the knowledge of the extent of the abuse and the repeated warnings had the opposite effect on the bishops than what one would expect. It simply jaded the bishops, as it was slowly doing to the entire clerical caste and became just one more “problem” that the manager/bishop had to deal with as he struggled to save the appearances.  

My point here is simple, but important, as we struggle to try and understand the genesis of the episcopal cover ups.  Anyone who lived in and through the clerical culture in the Catholic Church over the past 50 years could not help but be influenced by the pervasive nature of the perversion that was all around us.  Not that one was tempted to engage in the perversion oneself, but that one would become inoculated against how horrible it truly was.  In other words, there was a “dumbing down” of the episcopal response to clerical perversion because there was first a “numbing down”.  For example, when I was in the seminary in the 80’s, I remember that one of my fellow seminarians got the boot when a male prostitute he had written a check to waltzed into the seminary’s main office on a fine, sunny day to complain that the check had bounced.  The reaction of my fellow seminarians was to joke about whether the young man got kicked out for soliciting a prostitute or for his bad financial management.  The point, beyond all the joking around, is this:  after a while such incidents no longer shock.  You get used to it.  And when new events would arise of a similar genre, you would just shrug your shoulders, sigh, and quote David Byrne: “Same as it ever was”. Unfortunately, so did the bishops.  (Do not judge me for my David Byrne quote.  Yes, I am old, and do not know modern pop artists.  But it was the 80’s after all and I liked The Talking Heads).

And so my larger point is that the bishops are/were not singularly evil men, but were rather the products of the ecclesiastical culture of their age.  And that culture is largely reflective of the culture that surrounds us.  But therein resides the true nature of the “winter” in which we find ourselves, and the true nature of the disease that afflicts us.   In short, at some point in her history the Church in North America and Europe ceased to be culture-forming and came to be, instead, formed by the culture.  Granted, the Church has always been and should be influenced by the dominant culture.  How else could she evangelize?  How else could she enculturate her message in each new era? And of course, it is naïve, psychologically and sociologically, to think that anyone can ever fully overcome the formative effects of their culture and engage in a form of pure, objective “reason” devoid of subjective bias.  Nor should they want to. Only simpletons and fools want to be Mr. Spock.  But at some point, in order to gain wisdom, or even to just think critically, or to be able to “think outside the box”, or to gain a new vision of cultural possibilities, one has to be able to rise above the crowd, to row the boat upstream, and to dare to imagine things differently.  One has to be able to take the mental furniture your culture has given you and be able to rearrange it creatively, in order to avoid your soul becoming a static set on Downton Abbey. As Chesterton once famously said, usually it is only dead things that float downstream.  Only a living thing can swim against the current. And this is a truth that all the artists and the creative visionaries in our ranks know:  you must cultivate and then continue to nurture a lively and intuitive imagination in order to reach the only kind of critical “objectivity” that matters.  

And how much more is this true then for people of Christian faith whose task in evangelizing the culture is in large part a task of imaginative reconstruction of possibilities.  To take the stuff of this world, and to be able to take its flat surface appearance as an “object”, and to reimagine it as an epiphanic eruption of a deeper, spiritual depth.  For our hope, rooted in our faith, is that there is a “new heavens and a new earth” that is in the making here and now, and whose full fruition will come in the future.  Our hope is for a new Kingdom, born in and through the stuff of this world, which is radically different from some kind of Gnostic Disneyworld in the sky disconnected from this world in any meaningful way.  The Kingdom of God is, rather, the indicator of a very real inward transformation of the entirety of creation.  As Christ says in Revelation:  “Behold, I make all things new”.  He didn’t say “Behold, as a reward for not doing naughty things with your naughty bits, I give you the ultimate Space Mountain.”  But the latter scenario befits the reduction of the faith to a moralizing, bourgeois “niceness”, where the Christian faith is poured into the Jell-O mold of secular, suburban life precisely to create a domesticated Christianity that lacks the imagination to think otherwise.  Because Christians who think like Christians might just rock the boat enough to lower the GDP.  Yikes. 

My claim, therefore, is that the fundamental crisis in the Church today is not rooted, primarily, in sexual perversion.  It is rooted, rather, in the idolatry of worldly comfort, which I take to be the very essence of the bourgeois spirit.  It is an idolatry made respectable (and therefore unrecognized as idolatry) by the Church’s modern acceptance of the Enlightenment’s co-optation of the Kingdom of God by politics and economics.  This entails as well the de facto, practical atheism that ensues when God’s Transcendence comes to be viewed competitively over and against our worldly fulfillment.  In such a bourgeois regime, where Christianity has been tamed and has become just one more aid or help to our self-improvement in this life (Shmemann’s genius insight), the Kingdom of God has to be gutted of its true supernaturally transformative power and replaced with either the ridiculous Gospel of prosperity or the totalizing social/political Gospel of the Left.  And, as Schmemann further points out, our status as homo adorans, as primarily in our essence “worshipers of the true God”, is thus replaced by homo faber, or humanity viewed as a mere economic commodity, either as a producer or as a consumer, and as a forger of brave new worlds in the here and now.

Thus does it come to pass that nobody believes in the God of Jesus Christ anymore.  Thus does it come to pass that the Church has morphed into a worldly simulacrum of the Kingdom – – a counterfeit idolatry riddled with the lies and deceptions of suburban, bourgeois fulfillment, to such an extent that the Church even remains silent about America’s clearly evil, and “gravely disordered” military industrial complex whose sole purpose is the preservation of late capitalist bourgeois wealth.  My goodness, look and see how Catholics – – liberal and conservative – – strain at a gnat yet swallow a camel.  We strain over our endless debates on human sexuality, while swallowing in one gulp the very capitalist, militarist, and hedonistic false anthropology that undergirds the entire modern American enterprise of “value neutral inclusion”.  

I have long believed, therefore, that the laity play a much larger role in the current crisis than we are often willing to admit.  (Don’t kill me for saying that. I am not exonerating the clergy here).  Because the clergy in any era are formed by the lay world in which they were raised.  And post-World War II Catholics have lived largely affluent lives of material comfort, taught their children that such comforts were the point to existence and, therefore, a kind of birthright, and indulged in the fruits of the sexual revolution. Some might see my comments here as an unfair rant, filled with judgmental and harsh generalizations.  I can only say two things to this.  First, I stand by these observations because I too am a product of such a culture.  I feel it in my bones, in my marrow, in the depths of my soul.  And if you are honest you will admit that you too are deeply affected by this same ethos.  I adopt no Archimedean stance of “holiness”.  I am not a sheep among a herd of goats.  I too am a zombie-child of my age.  I am a compromised scoundrel who can barely scrape together a single honest prayer during the course of my day.  Second, for evidence of my thesis look no further than the total collapse of the Catholic façade after Vatican II’s spin doctors lifted the lid on the Church’s cultural libido.  In other words, if pre-Vatican II Catholicism was so strong, why was its collapse so swift? Perhaps the answer to that question gives us a clue as to our current crisis:  we as a Church have been ill for quite some time, and that illness is not perversion or clericalism, although both of those things exist in the Church.  No, the illness is the cult of “well-being” as Berdyaev puts it, or put another way, it is the cult of worldliness.  And this illness afflicts the laity as much as, if not more than, the clergy.

This is why I say it is important to diagnose the disease properly before a remedy is recommended.  For if we focus solely on priestly sexual predation, and episcopal cover-up, and the “lavender mafia”, we will miss the role the laity have played in all of this.  We will be engaging in a kind of Girardian scapegoating – – even if those we are blaming are, in fact, guilty as charged (which they are).  I am friends with a growing legion of parish priests who entered parish ministry full of vigor and idealism, but who are now on the verge of psychological and emotional collapse.  They know priests who have turned to booze or porn or women or dudes or expensive trips or lots of fancy restaurants (or all of the above) to anesthetize themselves against the crushing pain of meaninglessness that the “beige Catholicism” of modernity has become.  And when you add in the fact that many of their fellow priests were already immature and broken human beings when they entered the priesthood – – celibacy being the great attractant for both saints AND the weird and immature – – you will soon see why all of this was so utterly predictable.  

Please understand I am NOT here offering an apologia for clerical malfeasance.  I am very much on public record, in front of millions of TV viewers on The O’Reilly Factor, condemning such corruption in no uncertain terms.  Any priest or bishop involved in sexual abuse and/or its cover up should be immediately laicized and turned over to the proper civil authorities.  And if canon law stands in the way, then either change canon law or to hell with it.  Furthermore, the Church should indeed pay through the nose, to the point of severe financial hardship, to compensate in some small way the victims of such abuse.  Simple justice demands all of this.  And insofar as the bishops can alter Church policies in a manner that fosters real procedural transparency I am for it.  Better late than never.  

My larger point, however,  is more practical with regard to where we go from here.  We keep expecting the Pope and the bishops to “do something”.  We keep waiting for “new policies from Rome” and are waiting with high expectation for some upcoming meeting of bishops in Rome to develop new “programs and strategies”. We wonder out loud why the 2002 Dallas Charter didn’t change human nature from the ground-up and create a new springtime of clerical holiness.  We keep arguing about married priests or women priests or female deacons – – as if tweaking the clerical “structure”, as Pope Francis notes, will change the Church’s idolatrous commitment to a shallow worldliness.  The Anglican Church – – the relatively few of them that are left in Europe and North America – – says hello.  The desire for a quick and simple solution on the level of a policy change is understandable.  As C.S. Lewis noted, the modern world is made up of “men without chests” who seek solutions in the world on the level of technocratic and managerial control rather than in a renewal of virtue.  Therefore, placing our hope for change in an ecclesiastical committee tasked with altering procedures is just business-as-usual thinking.  I make no pretense, furthermore, to knowing the answer to this problem.  But I think I can confidently state that there never has been in the history of the Church, nor will there ever be, a bureaucratic solution to what is, in its essence, a problem associated with spiritual failure:  Nemo dat quod non habet

I can’t say when this process of cultural accommodation to the modern bourgeois spirit began. Intellectual genealogies are always dicey.  They always seem to fit the ideological filter of the historian in question.  For example, I once knew a Greek Orthodox theologian who said he could trace, in five historical steps, the path from the filioque to the Holocaust.  Or the Catholic version of this in a prominent moral theologian who I once heard give a talk tracing the causative line from the acceptance of condoms to the rise in urban street crime.  It reminds me of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur says to Sir Bedivere:  “This new learning amazes me. Explain to me again how one can use Ram’s bladders to prevent earthquakes.”  The problem with modern intellectual genealogies is the same as the problem with medieval science:  they are deductive attempts to start from a settled first principle or seminal historical event (e.g. the rise of nominalism) to concrete empirical conclusions or sweeping historical claims about the present crisis.  Therefore, in trying to adjudicate the causes of the modern crisis in the Church, it is better, I think, to begin inductively, via a “thick description” of multi-focal cultural trends, rather than deductively with a set of dogmatic presuppositions.  

Now is not the time or place to engage in such a multi-focal analysis.  Others have already done so admirably and with much greater scholarly vigor than I could muster.  However, what needs to be pointed out is that if the crisis (the Church’s idolatrous acceptance of the bourgeois spirit as normative) has a complicated and somewhat opaque set of historical causes that played out synergistically over several centuries, so too then will its “solution” require a multi-focal and long-term commitment to a reform of the Church that will involve all of us.  The clergy are indispensable in a liturgical, sacramental and hierarchical Church that is rooted in the doctrine of apostolic succession.  Therefore, the laity must seek out and align themselves with those members of the clergy who understand the nature of the current crisis of faith and who are therefore serious about the kinds of reforms that are needed.  

But the nature of the crisis requires a true revolution, radical in its scope, of the manner in which lay people live the faith in the “worldly world”.  And in this regard leadership of this movement must be largely lay driven and directed, even as it seeks guidance and sacramental presence from the clergy.  Vatican II famously championed the “universal call to holiness” and was viewed, correctly, as calling for an empowered laity and a less clerical Church.  Sadly, what happened instead was the clericalization of the laity as we crammed as many eucharistic ministers and lectors and music ministers into the sanctuary as we could.  Meanwhile, the true empowerment of the laity to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a modality consonant with their state in life (the only path to holiness given by the Gospel) was eclipsed by the powerful movement of sexual liberation of the 60’s, and effectively derailed, and then subsequently redefined as the Gospel of therapeutic “self-improvement”.

The need, therefore, is to once again take up the truly revolutionary message of Vatican II – – that the bourgeois spirit of modernity can only be overcome by a renewed Church rooted in the evangelical counsels – – and to imaginatively rethink, in the light of this call, how lay people need to structure their lives in the world.  We also need a renewed sense of how serious this all is.  This is not a spiritual game we are playing, or an extension of that very same bourgeois sense of self in some kind of self-conscious role playing and posturing as a “spiritual person”. In its own way, such dabbling in even “rad trad” liturgy and forms of spirituality is just another form of accommodation with the therapeutic spirit of the bourgeois self.  And the same goes for Christian homesteading and back to the land romanticisms that are just a kind of hip “prepping” with a biblical veneer.  Spare me the Whole Foods crunchy cons who want to champion alternative ways of living so long as the creature comforts remain.  

Don’t get me wrong … in their own way all of the things I just mentioned can be positive signs of something truly holy going on.  My wife and I ourselves attend a high Church Anglican Ordinariate liturgy (thank you Pope Benedict!) since we are in search of a true experience of homo adorans, and we raise organic food on our “back to the land” Catholic homestead!  But it is precisely, once again, because I sense the narcissism in my own soul that I can see the dangers inherent in even things that appear as positive reform movements.  The finger of accusation I am pointing is at myself before it is at anyone else.  It is precisely because I know for a fact that I need this reform in my own soul that I suspect lots of other people do as well.  And so my only point is that all such attempts at restructured lay living must be seen explicitly, and lived accordingly, as a repudiation of the imperial, consumeristic, self and as an attempt at putting on instead the renewed humanity of Jesus Christ. And not the sanitized Christ of the modern settlement, but rather, the bruised and bloody Christ of the cross, the lamb who was slain, the savior born in anonymity, raised in anonymity, and who died in ignominy.  That Christ.

All of this (finally!) brings me back to the Abbey of the Genesee, what I saw there, and how I think it relates to the crisis we face.  I went to the Abbey for two reasons.  First, for a short two-day retreat that I hoped, as I mentioned above, would give me a small spiritual booster shot.  But my wife and I also went up because we were invited there by a lay person who runs the retreat center associated with the Abbey (Mike Sauter).  We got to know him through a mutual priest friend who is a frequent guest of the Abbey and who is contemplating a monastic vocation there (Fr. John Gribowich).  We were invited there because the monks of the Abbey, as well as the lay workers we met, are all interested in the universal call to holiness and who share our view that the current crisis in the Church is a spiritual one requiring a spiritual response.  My wife and I met with the lay worker, our priest friend, and two priests from the monastery, one of whom was the abbot.  We had an amazing two-hour conversation that centered on the nature of the current crisis in the Church and how some form of the universal call to holiness for lay people is absolutely necessary for the renewal of the Church.  

The point I am trying to make is that those of us who buy into this vision are not an idiosyncratic gaggle of latter-day Essenes awaiting our own vindication at the approaching doomsday “for those others”.  The vision is a positive one, espousing a life centered on the evangelical counsels for the sake of, and out of love for, the world.  Our world.  The only world that is given to us to inhabit.  

But beyond all of this talk, and beyond the discursive and rational elements of the conversation concerning all of these “issues”, is the simple witness and example of the monks in all of its power.  We must never lose sight of the fact that it is not the Church that attracts and speaks to the soul, but God.  The human soul is made for God and is ever restless until it rests in the divine heart.  The first pagan converts to Christianity did so because they felt liberated from the despairing and brutal world of the pagan divinities as they encountered the rejuvenating purity of the God of Jesus Christ.  They felt the power of this God in a concrete and tangible way.  And this encounter gave them new eyes for reimagining reality, for reimagining the manner in which society could be different.  How people could live differently and treat each other differently.  And that latter point is important.  For what Christianity preached was not a private spirituality of enlightenment and flight from the world.  That was the gnostic perversion.  It preached instead the conversion and transformation of the world along the lines of the cruciform God of unlimited love.  This new faith in the cruciform God created entirely new pathways for reimagining what the love of neighbor entails.  Because true empathy is only possible where the imaginative powers have been engraced and transformed precisely in order to place oneself into the condition of the “other”.  Christological forms of empathy are only possible in a world where the human imagination is now placed in the service of charity rather than the service of the libido dominandi.    

Human beings will only pursue a revolution of the spirit if they think it is concretely possible, if they can imagine it actually happening.  Otherwise all such visions will remain locked up in fantasyland along with unicorns and pixie dust.  When I witnessed the monks of Genesee at prayer, I saw men whose entire lives are defined by the divestment of self which is rooted in a concrete hope for the coming Kingdom.  I saw men whose imaginative vision of what is real, and therefore, of what is possible, was so transformed by their lives of worship and adoration that they became witnesses to others of the reality of that same world.  The simplicity of their chants was gripping in its authenticity and unpretentious humility.  And I felt my cynicism and negativity melt away because I sensed a most elemental liberation of my “concerns” (of MY slavery to our current principalities and powers) in the face of the power of the God of Jesus Christ.  The monks live, and therefore model, the Gospel truth that one can find one’s life only if one first loses it.  That love is not a zero-sum game wherein the more I give of myself the “less of me” there is.  The paradox of the Gospel is that the more I love, the more I give myself away, the more it, and I, grow.  The monks show us that the path to God, and therefore, deep happiness, is the path of divestment.  

But the path of divestment is the opposite of the path of acquisition.  Divestment allows us to open a space for the reception of the “gift” of the other and of God.  Acquisition is, by contrast, a spirit of “grasping” and of domination.  This is what the monks of the Abbey of the Genesee show clearly. Namely, that the power of voluntary poverty resides not in the realm of ascetic negation, but in the more positive domain of the transformation of the human lust for domination into the quiet openness that Elijah felt at the mouth of his cave, straining to hear that still small voice.

I know this might all sound like a romanticizing exaggeration, but it is not.  These men are the real deal and when you encounter such blackthorns in bloom out of season it leaves an impression.  And the takeaway from all of this, if you want to put it that way, for those of us trying to live the counsels as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin did, is that we must never lose sight of why we are seeking alternative forms of living in the midst of the new barbarity that surrounds us.  For whatever form this renewed way of living takes the one common denominator has to be the imitation of Christ.  Everything else is a vanity, an ideology, a subtle form of the spirit of acquisition.  In other words, we cannot allow our faith communities to be defined by what we are against.  There has to be a positive proposal that is rooted in an authentic alternative.  And if we are able to live that alternative, we will become powerful witnesses to the fact that a different way of living is indeed possible, that it isn’t a fantasy like unicorns and pixie dust.  We will have won half the battle if we can just give people the hope required to reimagine the deeper contours of reality beyond the drab and pinched confines of bourgeois modernity and into the deep pool of God’s profligate love.  

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Defending Vatican II: Has the Hermeneutic of Continuity Failed?

Before the advent of the papacy of Pope Francis it was possible to view the Church’s reception of the Second Vatican Council as one of creative continuity with the Tradition, derailed for a time in the post conciliar silly season, but now set right by two holy and brilliant popes.  Indeed, while still prefect of the CDF under Pope John Paul, Joseph Ratzinger appealed to just this idea and made a distinction between the “first phase” of the conciliar reception – – a phase characterized by media driven distortions of the Council, and a faithless secularizing among even the clergy themselves – – and the “second phase” of conciliar reception which had been initiated by John Paul – – a phase characterized by faithfulness to both the Tradition and the particular conciliar project of renewal.  And then, as Pope Benedict XVI, he continued this retrieval of the Council in its second phase, doubling down on what John Paul had accomplished while also adding his own unique theological voice to the retrieval.  For a time, therefore, the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” had apparently prevailed over the “hermeneutic of rupture” that had dominated the theological landscape in the first phase of the conciliar reception.  Rahner was out. Balthasar was in.  The Council had been saved from the pottery chalice and denim vestments crowd of Catholic, Zen Master, Reiki massage therapist, innovators. Or so it seemed…

But something has changed with the arrival of the papacy of Pope Francis.  Some now argue that what we are witnessing is a third phase of conciliar reception, wherein many aspects of the Council which were downplayed or ignored by the two previous popes are now being retrieved for the first time.  A new narrative is emerging that views the papacies of John Paul and Benedict as actually being reactionary betrayals of the Council’s true spirit, betrayals which we must now reject as post-conciliar hiccups or blips on the ecclesiastical radar.  They were just the last gurgling, gasps of the moribund conservative Church, we are told, and now that we have a truly progressive Pope we can finally begin the process of implementing the Council.  We now have a “true pastor” at the Church’s helm who understands the need to accommodate our moral theology to the diaphanous subjectivity of the individual conscience as well as the need to focus on mercy rather than fixate on the arcane and alienating debates over “true doctrine”.  The hermeneutics of rupture has returned, if it indeed ever really went away (more on that in a bit), and the path is now clear to implement the Free Church Catholicism of white, suburban, bourgeois, comfort.  Fatima is out.  Our Lady of the cul de sac is in. The Church of the pharisees is dead!  The Church of the people is finally here! Bring out the fatted liturgical dancers and let’s “do” liturgy ….

Strangely, this emerging narrative finds an ally in the growing termite mound of Catholic traditionalists who agree with the hermeneutics of rupture and who maintain, along with their heroic champion Archbishop Vigano, that Vatican II was a monumental mistake that needs to be either radically corrected or entirely suppressed.  They too view the papacies of John Paul and Benedict as, collectively, a desperate and failed attempt to put lipstick on the conciliar pig.  They too view the Councilin both its spirit and in its letter, as a rupture with the great Tradition. In this regard they are even more radical than the progressives who see in the “letter” of the Council nothing but compromise with the very reactionary forces that the Council wanted to overcome. Hence their constant appeals to the “spirit” of the Council as an “event” that transcended the actual documents themselves, which can now be safely ignored.  The Traditionalists go even further and view the “spirit” of the Council as a conspiratorial plot by modernists and Freemasons to deliberately plant ambiguities and outright theological errors in the actual documents of the Council for later exploitation.  Furthermore, they direct their bilious rhetoric at the very heart of the conciliar project, with four main areas of irritation in particular:  Liturgy, religious freedom, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue.  And of course, what I am describing are views shared by those traditionalists who are still in some kind of “communion” with Rome, however attenuated it might be, owing to their visceral rejection of Pope Francis.  But one must also keep in mind that this rejection of the Conciliar project in those four areas is also the longstanding view of the SSPX, as well as the far-Right, fringe, sedevacante Covens.  In other words, traditionalist worlds are colliding, and the full extent of the fallout has yet to make itself clear.

Nevertheless, the overall dynamics of what is happening here is really rather transparent.  A large segment of the conservative Catholic movement, disgruntled by the Francis papacy, has peeled off of the mainstream and veered into a practical alliance with the SSPX.  And the internet, clickbait purveyors of this movement have seized upon this conservative disaffection with Francis in order to gin-up a never-ending apocalyptic boil of conspiracies and scandals.  From allegations of repressed Fatima secrets to lurid details of the sexual habits of the Roman curia, we are inundated daily with “The Late Great Catholic Church” narrative of The Great Apostasy.  And in all of this they also constantly sneer at those “conservative” Catholics (such as Bishop Robert Barron, their bete noire) who continue to wallow in the mud of “continuity”. The traditionalists pride themselves on having showered off the muck of Vatican II with the pristine holy water of the grand Tradition from Trent to Pascendi.  Their writings and podcasts are a festering stew of unsubstantiated insinuations and the illogic of guilt by association. Their flat-earth theology is a self-contradicting appeal to the authority of previous popes and Councils in order to denigrate modern popes and Councils. Pope John Paul is out.  Archbishop Lefebvre is in.  So grab your Vigano bobbleheads fellas, and your “I hate Pachamama” emoji buttons, and let’s meet at the Tiber with our Freemason detector kits, stowed neatly under our MAGA hats.

Thus, the battle lines are drawn between the progressive champions of rupture, the traditionalist affirmation of the same (but from different motives), and those ressourcement thinkers who continue to insist that the Council has been misinterpreted and needs to be retrieved properly in continuity with the great Tradition even as doctrine is organically developed to meet modern challenges.  However, far from being a “third phase” of conciliar reception what we are instead witnessing is a return to the exact same contours of the debate that framed the first phase.  What is new here that we have not already seen going all the way back to the 1970’s?  In a word, nothing.  These are the same tiresome debates and the same protagonists that we saw in phase one, which is why the proponents of rupture have to discredit the papacies that supposedly put those debates to rest, rather than organically developing something new building on the achievements of John Paul and Benedict. What we are dealing with today are unreconstructed post Vatican II liberals and traditionalists who have returned with a renewed vengeance.  At age 62 I spent my formative years in the immediate aftermath of the Council.  And as a seminarian from 1978-1985 I experienced the full and fierce range of the internal ecclesiastical debates that were then raging between progressives, Lefevbre supporters, neo-scholastic restorationists, and the ressourcement proponents of continuity.  Based on that experience, and now armed with the insights gained from a career spent in the theological guild, I can only say that to me this is just deja vu all over again. 

What we are currently enduring therefore is not a natural and organic development of a true “third phase”, but rather, the reemergence and re-empowering of movements that never really went away.  In many ways the papacies of John Paul and Benedict were indeed “failures” insofar as the fractious divisions were never really healed, but merely glossed over with the thin patina of Roman teaching authority.  As a young theologian attending theological conferences at such venues as the annual meetings of the College Theology Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America I was dismayed to see that the guild was still dominated by the progressive wing of this divide. And this domination was not exercised charitably with a “big tent” view of the theological craft, but in a suffocating way that attempted to block the careers of anyone who dared challenge the reigning liberal orthodoxies.  When I expressed this dismay to many of my older peers who shared my concerns, I was told to bite my tongue and wait for the inevitable change that was on the horizon.  I was told that there was a new wave of “John Paul generation” lay Catholics and theologians who would soon displace the old guard of rigid and doctrinaire liberals.  Theological liberalism, I was told, was not self-replicating and would soon die out under the weight of its own hermeneutic of suspicion that undermined any reason for believing in the Church in the first place.

I didn’t believe them.  Yes, there were indeed a few younger theologians who could be described as John Paul Catholics.  But I trusted my own eyes and realized that their numbers were too few to engage in the renewal that I was promised was coming.  And as a professor who taught mostly undergraduates I saw little evidence that my students were on the cusp of a renewed vigor in the faith or that they were seeking a robust revival of Catholic living.  I believed then, as I believe now, to paraphrase Andrew Breitbart, that religion is downstream of culture and that the same cultural forces that created the post Vatican II divisions were not only not gone, but had intensified into a raging anti-Catholic storm.  I knew that the old divisions were still there, that the theological guild was still dominated by progressives, and that the average Catholic was no more prepared to buck the culture than they were in 1965. In short, the papacies of John Paul and Benedict did not sufficiently move the ecclesiastical needle in the right direction, leading me to conclude that we were only one progressive Pope away from the return of the old gods.

And that brings me to Pope Francis and the question that animates this essay.  In the light of the current papacy has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer to that question is a maddening “yes and no” type of response.  First, there is the issue of Pope Francis himself whose words, despite his sometimes loose, off the cuff comments, speak to an endorsement of a hermeneutic of continuity.  He has said that he is a “loyal son of the Church” and there is no reason to doubt this when one looks at the long list of progressive wishes he has not granted:  the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests stands, the ordination of women to Holy Orders has not happened, he has not rolled-back or even “modified” the teaching against artificial contraception, he has not granted in an official way intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians, he has not rolled back Benedict’s permission for any priest to be able to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, and he has not changed the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or changed, as he did with the death penalty, the language of the Catechism which refers to homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.”  It would seem, therefore, that he is not on board with the agenda of the progressives even if he has gone slightly beyond John Paul on the issue of the death penalty and he has softened the Church’s pastoral response to those who are divorced and remarried.  This latter point is instructive since he could have merely changed the Eucharistic discipline of the Church in this matter but chose instead to simply “tweak” it a bit.  And you can quibble with my use of the word “tweak” if you like, but the main point I am making here is that he fell far short of what the progressive wing of the Church wanted in that matter.

However, he is a truly confusing Pope and very hard to pigeon-hole in any definitive way.  And even if he has not delivered to the progressives their full laundry list of desired changes he has re-empowered and emboldened them with his constant pitting of truth against mercy, doctrine against pastoral sensitivity, and “institutional rules” against love. Furthermore, he has appointed to high ecclesiastical office men who have just this mentality and who seem to have an animus against those Catholics who are actively and publicly engaged in what has come to be known as the “culture wars.”  He has refused to meet with the dubia Cardinals, or Cardinal Zen when he visited Rome, but had plenty of time to meet with NBA players to discuss the issue of systemic racism.  And, of course, the entire Synod on the Amazon was simply a coming out party for old, white, liberal, Germans who proceeded to cynically use the troubles of the Amazonian region, which they really don’t give a damn about, to blather on about enculturation and celibacy as if Brazil was Belgium in 1968. His post apostolic exhortation on the Synod was a tepid and empty endorsement of absolutely nothing beyond superficial bromides about economic injustice.  Conservatives cheered and sneered after the release of the exhortation since it seemed, in its silence, to be a papal slap-down to the progressives who manipulated the Synod into a group-hug for paganism, but in reality it was a vacuous document that makes one wonder what in the heck he thought would happen after he had stacked the synodal deck with a gaggle of Germanic Gnostics.  

In short, Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church but does not have, in my view, a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. He seems to have the mistaken view that Catholic liberals in 2020 are the same as liberals in 1958, and seems genuinely disappointed when they behave more like secular critical theory provocateurs rather than Yves Congar.  His whole thought-world seems to be that of a man who thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride their rubble.  He is fighting yesterday’s battles which underscores my point that we are most definitely not in a “third phase” of conciliar reception, but have instead been teleported by this papacy back to 1965 forcing those of us in the ressourcement camp to relitigate a case that was decided, with magisterial authority, by the previous two popes.  Perhaps this has been his end game all along.  Perhaps he is not as naïve as I think.  Perhaps he wants to reopen that case precisely because he wants it adjudicated differently but does not want to be the presiding judge, allowing “drift” to accomplish what papal fiat cannot. He is, after all, a Jesuit.

Nevertheless, and whatever the case might be with regard to Pope Francis, the fractious fault lines of the Church are the same today as they were 60 years ago.  Therefore, those of us who are defenders of Vatican II as being in continuity with the past need to tighten our belts, stand up straight, take a deep breath, and say “Ok. Where were we? Let’s start again then shall we?” It is frustrating in a way similar to when one of my students would ask “Dr. Chapp, could you please explain again how Nicaea taught that Jesus was just a man and not really God?”  At that point you have a choice: either give up in defeated resignation, or begin again to rearticulate what seems to many of us to be obvious, but is not, apparently, to a host of others. The analogy limps, of course, because my students were genuinely ignorant of the facts, but in the current debate we are dealing with people who actually know the facts but deliberately choose to either ignore or distort them.  That adds to the level of frustration – even anger – – but, as the tired cliché goes – – “it is what it is” and we have to deal with it.  It is the primary reason I started this blog since I refuse to acquiesce or to cede the high ground to the forces of mendaciousness.

One can, therefore, have a measure of sympathy for those modern traditionalists who have moved further and further toward the position of Lefebvre out of an anguished reaction against the ambiguities of the current papacy.  But sympathy with these groups should only extend so far since they are unwittingly playing into the hands of the progressives insofar as they agree with their hermeneutics of rupture.  Sadly, they labor in a world of illusions where they indulge fantasies of a grand restoration of a past that never was.  The Council was absolutely necessary as the Church needed to address the question, so long delayed, of the Church’s relationship with modernity.  One could characterize the first millennium of the Church as a struggle to define who Christ is, and the second millenium as a struggle to define what, and who, the Church is. But the time had come for the Church to further address the issue of who Christ and His Church are for the non-Catholic world at large.  Traditionalists provide no answers to that question beyond a kind of watered-down Feeneyism, and are often uncharitable and mendacious in their own right, as they viciously attack the teaching authority, and those who defend that authority, of the very Church they claim to be defending.  Their approach is highly destructive, today just as it was in 1965, and their acid-fueled hallucinations of a restored Tridentine Catholicism are one bad trip.  Quite simply, they are annoying.

So has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer is yes, if one defines “success” in this matter as a definitive closure to the debate at hand, wherein most of the pertinent parties agree that the Council was not a rupture with the Tradition, in both letter and spirit, and further agree that the road forward must begin with a robust retrieval of just what it was that the Council actually said.  It is a failure unless all parties agree, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it, that:  “The spirit of the Council is its letter.”  However, at the end of the day, the answer to the above question is a resounding “no!” since the Council itself, in its actual documents (which I doubt most of its critics have read with any serious scrutiny) makes it manifestly clear that it is not in rupture with the past.  To be sure, like all Councils it introduces something new, like Nicaea’s thunder bomb use of the term “homoousios”, but does so quite explicitly in continuity with the past.  For example, Dignitatis Humanaedoes introduce a deepening of the Church’s thinking on the issue of religious freedom, defining it, as the Church had not done before, as a fundamental human right rooted in our common dignity as persons. But it did so not in the categories of political Liberalism, which it pointedly rejects, but rather in Christological categories drawn from the Church’s own treasure house of Revelation. The development is new, but organic, and flows naturally from the awareness that Truth is merely an abstraction if it is divorced from its appropriation in an uncoerced freedom, viewed as its only proper medium of reception.

Therefore, the hermeneutic of continuity has not failed, even if it has not completely succeeded in putting to bed all of its critics and misinterpreters.  But Church history is instructive here as well as we see clearly that all of the truly great Councils – – “great” because they were deciding matters of fundamental importance to the faith – – generated division, and not a little chaos, in their wake.  Just ask Athanasius if he thought the aftermath to Nicaea was a smooth go.  Therefore, as with Nicaea, so here too we must remain as steadfast as Athanasius in seeing that the hermeneutic of continuity is our only true and theologically appropriate path forward.  It alone remains rooted in the historic faith of the Church.  Neither progressive nor traditionalist ideologies will suffice since they are both animated, not by a proper ecclesially oriented theology, but by agendas alien to the faith.  I will be blunt and polemical here. Scratch the surface of a progressive and one uncovers a latently atheistic and nihilistic ethos. Scratch the surface of a traditionalist and one uncovers a latently fascistic romanticism.  Scratch the surface of the Second Vatican Council, and one finds Christ at its center.  Gaudium et Spes 22 contra mundum.   

This is not to say that the Second Vatican Council was perfect or that it is immune from legitimate criticism. No Council ever is.  Even Nicaea generated its share of unresolved Christological ambiguities.  To cite but one example, Vatican II famously called on the Church at large to “read the signs of the times” but then failed to do so properly itself.  Specifically, it grossly overestimated the internal strength and cohesiveness of the Church, and severely underestimated the toxic and anti-Christian nature of modernity.  Centuries of top down censure and clericalistic control had created the false impression that the Church really was this monolithic fortress of fidelity and masked the deep deficiencies in the Church’s internal spiritual life.  For, as I noted above, truth is only such in its fullness when appropriated freely, non-coercively, and with a deep understanding of what is at stake in its reception or rejection. But the combination of ethnic, cultural Catholicism and a dumbing down of the faith through the imposition of a stale orthodoxy that censured all critics, merely created a house of cards that collapsed as soon as Vatican II lifted the lid on the ecclesiastical libido.  Traditionalists never address this issue as they pursue the path of restoring the “glories” of this failed model.

Likewise, the Council simply whiffed on the matter of modernity’s true ethos, emphasizing a vague and ill-defined “openness” to a “world” that is never defined in any specific detail.   And once the windows of the Church were opened, what blew in was not fresh air, but, as Karl Barth famously observed, a hurricane. I disagree, therefore, with Joseph Ratzinger who said that the Council fathers cannot be faulted for not anticipating the great cultural revolution that was upon them.  The signs were indeed there if one could set aside the superficial optimism about the turn to the world that animated many of those at the Council.  Progressive Catholics today go even further and take this conciliar optimism as a green light to completely embrace the de facto secular atheistic ethos of modernity. And insofar as the Council really was overly optimistic about the latent Christian underpinnings of modernity, which the Council seemed to think were just waiting to be unleashed through a renewed “dialogue” with the Church, then it is at least partially to blame for much of the silliness that came later.  

Fortunately, the Council itself provides us with the textual remedies to its own failures to read the signs of the times properly.  And as I said, it is our only fruitful path forward.  The Council’s failures were, in my opinion, largely confined to what it did not say. For example, it did not include a deep enough analysis of the deeply secular philosophical underpinnings of modernity, or that modernity’s origins reside precisely in a fundamental decision to reject the notion of “religion” as something that makes a public claim.  And even where it does deal with that issue, as in its treatment of Marxism, it is overly breezy and superficial.  

Be that as it may, the Council chose to focus on the only answer to the question of modernity that the Church can truly offer as its most treasured possession:  Christ the Lord. In every aspect of the conciliar documents we see a Christological concentration as the Council fathers chose to propose a reform of the Church that is, in reality, a repristination of her fundamentally Christological form.  Like ecclesiastical archeologists they sought to recover the freshness of the Christ of the gospels which had been obscured by the palimpsest of a moribund, neo-scholastic overlay. They developed a deepened Christological theological anthropology that was the basis of a true Christian humanism that alone can combat the false humanisms of modernity.  They developed a renewed ecclesiology deeply rooted in an Incarnational emphasis on the Church as the body of Christ, extended in time.  And they put forward a truly beautiful Marian theology wherein Mary is viewed in her only proper context as the Mother of that same Christologically recentered Church.  The list could go on and on, but the point is made.  Vatican II is a Christological Council and must, therefore, be read in continuity with all previous Christological councils.  

I will conclude with what is to me one of the most overlooked teachings of the Council: the renewed emphasis on the importance of the laity and the universal call to holiness.  Ignoring this aspect of the Council – – or misinterpreting it as a call to eliminate all sacral distinctions between the laity and the clergy – – is a grave oversight since it points to the only true “continuity” that the Church ever needs: sanctity.  What we need are not new “structures” but new saints.  What we need are not new “strategies” or “programs” but new confessional witnesses to the faith by those who live that faith in the intersection between the Church and the world.  In short, and this might seem trite, but it is a profound truth that is too often missed because it is so dadgum obvious:  you cannot have a genuine Catholic renewal without deeply convicted Catholics.  There are no substitutes for holiness as all ecclesial “projects” will crash and burn without it.  

Progressives and Traditionalists place their trust in the chariots of lesser kings.  Vatican II shouts to the world: “Laudetur Iesus Christus!”  Let us all do the same, in saecula saeculorum! Amen.  

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In Defense of Vatican II: Religious Freedom and the Insouciant Silliness of the Neo-Integralists

Dr. Larry Chapp

In the interest of full disclosure I begin with an admission.  And that admission is that I am a hopeless Romantic who has read too much Tolkien and who longs to live in the sacral world of Middle Earth with its enchanted woods, priestly wizards, and noble Kings who rule by hereditary right, but who are also invested with a sacramental religious authority.  Beaten down by the unrelenting drab ugliness of modernity, with its dead, flat-lined metaphysics, its bleached, inert, and dead cosmos, its grotesque and elitist surveillance technocracy, its sham democracies, and its pornified view of what our naughty bits are for, I long for a holy Monarch who can, in union with Holy Mother Church, cover the world once again with elves, pixie dust, and good tobacco. 

But alas, we do not live in such a world.  And even Tolkien’s fantasy world is besotted with violence and saturated in blood, mirroring as it does his experiences in World War I, giving eloquent witness to the fact that even an enchanted world must give way to the reality of an ineradicable wickedness in the hearts of the free agents who populate his mythic landscape.  Thus does his world beckon us to the supernatural domain of Transcendence even as it counsels sobriety toward any false nostalgia for a utopian dominion of heroic Kings and the insulated, bucolic world of the Shire – – a world that never was and never will be this side of the eschaton.

The closest we have ever come, perhaps, to Tolkien’s fictional world is the amalgam of faith and civil order in the era of high Christendom.   Political Christendom was an attempt to create a social ordo on earth that mirrored the celestial ordo of Heaven.  Its vision was grandiose and all-encompassing, seeking to conquer the known world for Christ with a zeal for souls.  And its accomplishments are not to be ignored or downplayed.  In theology, philosophy, law, literature, architecture, agricultural technique, science (yes, science), education and visual art, Christendom created an unrivaled synthesis that gave us Dante and Notre Dame, Chaucer and Erasmus, Raphael, Francis, Dominic, Thomas, and a host of other luminaries too numerous to mention. And it also gave us something that is often ignored.  It gave us this thing called “Europe”.

Nevertheless, the political Christendom that reigned in Europe from the fourth to the nineteenth centuries is dead.  In point of fact it actually died centuries ago in the late medieval decline into corruption, with its carcass, like a dead and bloated whale on the beach, slowly eaten away by the carrion of the early modern world.  All that remains of its former glory are the bleached white bones of something long dead, but which still seems to beckon those of a nostalgic bent, like those modern neo-pagans who flock to Stonehenge every solstice to carry torches, dance, and then retire to Starbucks for a latte.  In other words, there is an air of pie-in-the sky play-acting in the writings of the Catholic neo-integralists who must know that the bones of the past are truly lifeless and are most likely to remain so. One can perhaps sympathize with such fantasies since, from a Catholic perspective, there is much to dislike about the modern world.  Nevertheless, there is a grave danger that such nostalgia will blind us to the lessons of history and put us on a course to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The fact of the matter is that Christendom failed.  And it failed because it embodied a view of the confessional State as an instrumentum salvationis that was wedded to worldly notions of coercive force. The confessional State, armed with the weaponized gospel that sought to suppress theological errors in the name of saving souls from perdition, and invigorated with a sense of divine right, imposed coercive fines, penal punishments, and even in some cases, death, upon Jews, pagans, and heterodox Christians.  And while it is indeed true that this repression has been greatly exaggerated in the literature on the topic, much of it generated by the Church’s enemies, both religious and political, nevertheless, as Brad Gregory documents so well in his book “The Unintended Reformation,” the repression was real and constituted a monumental failure of charity on the part of the Church.  But it also constituted a failure to understand that the Gospel is not something that should be imposed by force since the truth of Christ is constitutively ordered to its free acceptance.  In place of this view of freedom, political Christendom appealed instead to the notion of a sharply defined, and platonically hierarchical, sacral order into which the individual must “fit” or face negative consequences.

Furthermore, the confluence of Church and State involved the Church in a regime of acquisition wherein the Church also gained worldly sorts of temporal power as well as vast amounts of wealth.  And once gained, this power and wealth were not easily relinquished since they fell into the hands, as wealth and power always do, of men with small souls and mendacious minds.  The corruption that ensued should not be viewed, therefore, as an aberration but rather as the inevitable byproduct of this ecclesial spirit of grasping acquisition.  And while it might be romantic to conjure up images of “holy Kings” and so forth, the fact is the Church had little issue with the feudal system of indentured servitude that made the aristocratic governing structure of the time possible. To be sure, the Church did a lot for the poor, especially in its vast monastic system, but such efforts were largely palliative and did not address the systemic economic injustices that were eating away at the social fabric.  Indeed, the religious orders themselves, including the Franciscans, became fat with the worldly lard of land and treasure. 

Christ’s warning that you cannot serve both God and mammon should have alerted them to the fact that money is a demanding and dominating mistress who brooks no other suitors.  But as is always the case with faithless and feckless men, their spiritual rot consumed their minds with a silent, syphilitic rigor and caressed their will with the soothing allure of primal pleasures. Lost in their ribald revelry, they were made blind and could not see that the only path to a specifically Christian “glory” is the Christ of the cross – – a grotesque and humiliated figure of worldly defeat – – which is a path that we too, if we are truly seeking to live the gospel, must tread. Nor can we say that such insights, retrojected backward, are an anachronism unfairly imposed on the Church of that time.  Because there were numerous saintly voices in that era who were desperately shouting the same warning.  In short, the Church had the same gospels we do, replete with numerous Dominical sayings condemning wealth,  but it chose to ignore them.

Before I go any further I want to be clear in what it is that I am arguing against. It needs to be affirmed, as I point out below in my critique of Liberalism, that all governments are “integralist” in some fashion or another. All governments, in the ordo that they seek to facilitate, embody a set of implied metaphysical and anthropological claims. Strict neutrality, therefore, toward the deeper questions of existence is a dangerous illusion. All States are ultimately “confessional” and all citizens are some variety of an integralist. Therefore, my argument is not against integralism as such but against those forms that explicitly reject the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae on the issue of religious freedom. The schism between the SSPX and Rome revolved precisely around the former’s rejection of Dignitatis which they view as a contradiction with past magisterial teaching. Archbishop Vigano has recently expressed similar views and he has become increasingly popular with certain conservative Catholics who are sympathetic with this rejection of Dignitatis.

There are obviously many varieties of Catholic integralism with many laudable and noteworthy academics developing a critique of political Liberalism and who do not support the creation of a confessional State that rejects the notion of religious freedom as a fundamental civil right. But it would be wrong to assume from this that they represent the entirety of the integralist spectrum, which they most certainly do not. And my fear is that if there ever did come a day when Catholic confessional States once again became common, that it would not be the saner heads that would prevail.

To return then to the main line of the narrative, as political Christendom died the world groaned and in an agonistic paroxysm of violent reaction birthed, over several centuries, a new ordo.  Political Liberalism emerged, therefore, both out of the Christian cultural matrix and in reaction to it.  There were, of course, various shades of emphasis but the one thing all political Liberalisms had in common was a steadfast belief in the autonomy of individual freedom conceived of negatively as the mere absence of outside coercion, especially in matters of religion.  There did remain certain countries with “State Churches” (which remain to this day) but the trajectory was clear and decidedly in the direction of allowing for a wide swath of religious freedom.  Indeed, even those countries with established churches gradually saw those establishments become attenuated and largely ceremonial, with the principle of religious freedom enshrined in law, if not in constitutional principle.

What cannot be emphasized enough is that Liberalism cannot be understood outside of its historical context as a reaction against political Christendom.  And to that end, Liberalism championed the notion that the State must remain neutral with regard to all grand, metaphysical claims, and must especially remain neutral in matters concerning religion.  But of course, all governments, as I said above, are ultimately theological since whatever ordo they adopt always implies a metaphysics and an anthropology.  In other words, all governments ensconce some form of integralism, even if it is now a secular creed, and the strict neutrality toward religion that Liberalism asserts is, therefore, a shell game and a sham.  For if the claim is that the State must be indifferent toward religion, or between religion and irreligion, then it follows by an inexorable logic that Liberalism is claiming that religion is, at best, irrelevant to the social project of governing, and, at worst, a positive hindrance to the same.  All religions are “equal” because all religions are equally trivial and irrelevant – – a relic of our infantile and adolescent past, which we have now happily outgrown in the age of reason and science. 

This implied de facto atheism at the heart of the Liberal project was masked for centuries by the dominant cultural religiosity of the time.  But over time, the secular, atheistic soul of modernity took its toll, with religion now viewed as a boutique shop accessory complete with dream catchers, crystals, angel pins, and books on self-fulfillment by Poperah Winfrey.  But there is one thing religion must not do and that is step outside of the boundaries of this strip mall aesthetic and into conservative, political agitation. “Christianity” in a Leftist register is allowed into the political sphere largely because everyone knows that liberal Christianity is just secularism in religious drag.  John Lennon’s execrable song “Imagine” is indeed a modern anthem to this sensibility, the theme of which is reducible to “Don’t believe in anything and we can all get along.”  But get along with what?  Buying Lennon’s records I guess and the rest of the flotsam and jetsam produced by our culture of consumption.  It is a call for a “Pax consumptionis” where the binding spiritual glue of our society is nothing more than a collective of concupiscence.

It is precisely this pseudo-neutralist posturing of political Liberalism that most exercised the 19th century popes and it is against this historical backdrop that their various fulminations against democracy and religious freedom must be read. Sadly, there is also not a little clinging to the carcass of that dead and desiccated whale in many of these statements as well, as the popes desperately clung to the Papal States and the shopworn and outdated notion that unless a Pope has temporal power he could not wield his spiritual power freely.  As political Christendom was breathing its last, in the gurgling death throes of its terminal condition, the Vatican desperately fought rear-guard actions in a flurry of diplomatic concordats with various governments, seeking to protect (rightly, of course) the liberty and freedom of the Church in the new secular order. The doctrine of papal infallibility was defined during this era as well, as the Church fought against a surging tide of Gallicanist rebellions, as well as new forms of the old doctrine “cuius regio, eius religio” (but this time with secular religions) which found expression in places like Germany with its Kulturkampf against the Church of Rome as a “foreign power”.

The upshot of all of this was that the Church was in a bit of a sociopolitical pickle and did not have a clear vision of how to move forward without simply reverting to the impossible dream of a restored Christendom.  I am reminded of a scene from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” where the lead character, Everett (played by George Clooney), an escaped convict with two other escapees, exclaims in response to the three of them being trapped in a barn and surrounded by the police “Damn. We are in a tight spot here!”.  In many ways the analogy is an apt one because the Church of the early 20th century did seem like an escaped convict from an earlier era, hemmed-in and cornered on all fronts by a bevy of enemies, both real and imagined, with no real plan for how to get out of the “tight spot” it found itself in.  The temptation, of course, was for the Church to dig in its heels and double-down on dreams of a new King Louis IX emerging out of the ashes to save the day.  Thankfully, the Church did not do this. Whether out of a true realization that the past was flawed and not to be retrieved, or out of a simple observation that there were just too many Orcs at the gates, I cannot say.  But one thing was clear:  political Christendom was dead and it was not coming back.

All of the foregoing is the historical backdrop to the issues that confronted the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) was the most controversial document the Council produced garnering the most negative votes (70) of any conciliar document.  And it is the document most reviled by the neo-integralists of our own day, echoing the earlier rejection of Dignitatis by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who founded what later became the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X.  What they all have in common is a belief that Dignitatis contradicts earlier magisterial teaching on religious freedom and that its adoption of the idea that religious freedom is a fundamental human right grounded in the dignity of the human person fosters a dangerous religious relativism.

But all of that is, as we say in Nebraska, horse hockey. Given all of the thorny issues involved, Dignitatis, which is, after all, a very brief document, made no pretense that it was offering a complete “theory” on anything, least of all a complete theory on Church-State relations. It begins by explicitly stating that all previous magisterial teaching on the topic remains intact. It remains largely silent on the issue of “confessional States”. And it also remains silent on the topic of the establishment or disestablishment of religion in the constitutional order.  The critics of Dignitatis are, therefore, guilty of reading the document through the lens of what came after in civil society (Liberal indifference to religion) and counting it as guilty by association.  The logic seems to be as follows:  Vatican II taught that we must accept the principle of religious freedom.  Modern Liberal regimes also teach religious freedom.  Therefore, Vatican II has endorsed Liberalism.

But Dignitatis did nothing of the sort and to claim that it does is just hyperbolic hysterics at best, and/or an ideologically driven willful distortion of the facts at worst.   The Council forcefully reiterates the moral obligation of both individuals and societies to use our freedom to seek the truth about God.  Freedom is thus defined, as it has always been defined by the Church, as a freedom to pursue the truth owing to the constitutive orientation of all freedom to the truth.  There is no hint in Dignitatis of a view of freedom as a raw autonomy wherein the individual is morally free to seek anything he or she so desires.  The traditional view is that rights imply obligations and everything in Dignitatis points in that same direction. Freedom, therefore, is not viewed by the Council as a negative freedom defined by the mere absence of coercion.  And so the Council pointedly rejects the model of Liberal indifference and relativism. 

It is very clear, therefore, to any fair observer, that the Council is charting a course between two extremes.  On the one hand it eschews any romantic nostalgia for a return to the good old days of a “hard integralism” with its banned books, penal Inquisitions, and the entire sclerotic apparatus of clericalist social control so historically prevalent in predominantly Catholic countries.  On the other hand it also rejects, as already noted, the false metaphysical neutrality of Liberalism as well as its nihilistic, and manifestly self-contradicting, epistemic “humility” toward the question of God.  Dignitatis offers no clear blueprint for what kind of social order needs to emerge in the light of the foregoing rejections and leaves such adjudications for future theologians to unpack, well aware that a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach is no longer viable. 

What then did Dignitatis affirm that gets the neo-integralists into such a lather?  It is the fact that it teaches that even in a confessional Catholic State religious freedom is more than a mere “toleration” of error for the sake of public order. And despite the best efforts of some to spin the interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae in this direction, the Council, to its credit, went with the French bishops who, with the support of folks like theologian Ratzinger and bishop Wojtyla, taught that religious freedom must be respected in a civil sense because freedom is oriented to truth, and that all human beings have a moral obligation to seek the truth about God.  But of equal importance, as Ratzinger notes, is that truth is oriented to freedom as its only proper medium of reception.  Therefore, what we see is that the Council endorsed a fully orthodox view of freedom as a “right” that is rooted in a prior “obligation,” which entails a Christologically grounded positive view of freedom rather than a purely formal Liberal notion of freedom as a neutral entity that merely needs to be “left alone.” It also rejects, therefore, the integralist’s view that the State has the right to coerce people into the faith “for their own good”.

Thus does Vatican II endorse both the older view of the moral obligation of freedom to seek truth, as well as a deepening of this view, through a Christocentric theological anthropology that sees all truth as a mere abstraction until it is rooted in the relational dignity of a person. As such Dignitatis Humanae represents an enormous step forward, and a key linchpin in Vatican II’s broader project of renewing Catholic theology through a Christological concentration.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we read Dignitatis in relation to the Council’s voluminous statements on the dignity of the laity and its proper role in the Christianizing of the civil sphere.  If the Council did offer any hint of how a modern State with a majority of Catholics would operate it would be a social order animated by a concern for human rights, human dignity, freedom of conscience, moral truth, and a concern for the poor, but with a strong “leavening” of the democratic process through the contributions of a vibrant and educated laity.  And in a society without a Catholic majority, the role of the laity is to provide a constant witness to the truth in the civil sphere – – a witness that will increasingly take on a martyrological form as the full arsenal of Liberalism’s “benign neutrality” is brought to bear against those recalcitrant few who continue to believe in Transcendent truth and, more to the point, its intelligible knowability. 

And that brings me to my final point.  Namely, the necessity of putting aside once and for all the idea, so beloved by the integralists, that the social Kingship of Christ implies the necessity of authoritarian forms of government. They speak as if the ascension of our Lord signaled the end of Christ’s cruciform modality and that this form of his existence is now totally eclipsed by his glorification.  Christ is indeed vindicated in the resurrection and ascension, but to listen to the integralists it is a vindication perched now on the precipice of revenge with a view of Christ as a kind of Schwarzenegger Pantocrator.  Like a celestial Terminator he vows “I’ll be baaack” and this time he will be pissed.  Of course, that is a bit of snark and a caricature, but it essentially characterizes accurately the neo-integralist emphasis on a Christ of dominating power as well as the concomitant emphasis on his earthly regents in the civil sphere mimetically instantiating the same kind of coercive power.

Thus, the integralists are wrong on four fronts.  First, they get Dignitatis Humanae wrong, and in my view, deliberately so because their ideologically driven agenda demands that the distortions that crept into the post Vatican II Church be placed directly on its shoulders, no matter the evidence to the contrary.  Second, they get wrong the true nature of the social Kingship of Christ.  The New Testament clearly portrays the risen and ascended Christ as “The Lamb who was slain.”  The resurrection narratives emphasize the continuity between the risen and crucified Christ, with his resurrected bodily modality still bearing the marks of his torture.  And as the great cloud of martyrs testifies, it is a cruciform modality that is still the primary mark of the true Christian. Third – – following in line with its misunderstanding of the social Kingship of Christ – – it misconstrues the nature of authority in any putatively Christian State.  Christ gave us a model for “authority” and that model is the path of kenotic love where service is defined as a death to the egoistic self for the sake of others.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last, as we humbly submit ourselves to the indignity of washing the feet of our “inferiors”.  Such a model is decidedly against any formulation of Christian civil power as a regime of top-down coercion in matters of religious conscience.  And finally, the integralists are wrong in their tout court rejection of all things modern.  As many modern theologians have noted (e.g. Balthasar, Ratzinger, Guardini, among others) there is much to commend in the modern emphasis on the importance of human subjectivity.  The Church’s longstanding emphasis upon objective truth is extremely important, especially today, but it is just a fact that this emphasis has caused the Church to ignore the role played by human subjectivity in the reception of that truth.  Therefore, while it is true that “error has no rights” it is also true, as many others have noted, that those who are in error do.

In Augustine’s great masterwork, “The City God”, the great saint highlighted the earthly struggle between the libido dominandi and the amor Dei.  But he did not posit this struggle as one between the Church and the world, between the religious and the non-religious, between the Christian and the non-Christian. Rather, he saw this struggle as cutting through the heart of every individual, in the agonistic subjectivity of their souls, as we all struggle to pursue the Good. And it also must not be forgotten that he penned his masterpiece as a response to the anxiety many Christians were feeling as the Pax Romana crumbled around them.  Thus, his work, rather than being viewed as an endorsement for a coercive regime to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, should be viewed instead as a grand reminder that Christians should avoid placing too much hope in any regime of worldly power, reminding us that the Kingdom of Christ is, ultimately, “not of this world”. 

We do indeed, in our contemporary situation, find ourselves in a “tight spot”.  But the insouciant, ideological, play-acting of the neo-integralists is a superficial, reactionary, and thoroughly unrealistic fantasy.  And as such it is a dangerous diversion from the task at hand.  In short, it isn’t a serious attempt at anything and it helps us not one wit to get out of this tight spot.  Dignitatis Humanae, on the other hand, is a serious attempt, by serious men, to at least begin the conversation again, with fresh eyes and a historically chastened memory.  The Christological form looms large in their counsels, and it is a cruciform model that privileges service, kenosis, and the witness of martyrdom in our secular age, over the model of a regime of coercive force.

I for one do not want to live in the world imagined by the integralists.  And despite Vigano’s ravings to the contrary, Vatican II does give us a Christological path out of our tight spot. 

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The McCarrick Report and the De Facto Atheism of the Church

Several people have asked me to comment on the recently released McCarrick report and so I thought I would offer the following brief comments.  I will return to my series on Vatican II and will have a new blog post on the Conciliar document Dignitatis Humanae by the end of the week.  So stay tuned….

As I have mentioned before, when I was in the seminary at Mount Saint Mary’s (Emmitsburg, Maryland) from 1981-85 I knew several seminarians from the diocese of Metuchen during the time that McCarrick was bishop there.  In fact, one of them was my roommate for a year.  And he and others told me that McCarrick had a habit of inviting seminarians to his beach home at the Jersey shore for little weekend parties wherein McCarrick was constantly drunk and was very prone to groping people inappropriately while drunk and that he routinely selected one of the seminarians to share a bed with him for the night.  Therefore, to say that it was an open secret that McCarrick was a pervert is a gross understatement.  Because it was no secret at all.  Everyone knew about these “rumors” and everybody joked about it.  Indeed, even one of the seminary professors, a priest, upon hearing that McCarrick was going to visit the seminary warned many of us to stay away from “Bishop Howdy Doody” as he called him.  

I eventually left the seminary and moved on with my career as an academic, but I always kept one eye on the rise of McCarrick to high office.  And when he was made Archbishop of Washington, and then later a Cardinal, I just could not fathom, in my naivete, why somebody had not blown the whistle on the guy.  I could not get my mind around how such a manifest sexual deviant and drunken ecclesiastical party boy, had gotten so far.  And I worried that the entire thing was a train wreck waiting to happen – – a fear that was deepened when in 2002 Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, off-camera after I had filmed a segment with him on priestly sex abuse, told me that they were investigating a leading American Cardinal for sexually inappropriate behavior with adults.  I said to him “You mean McCarrick.”  He just grinned from ear to ear, leaned back in his chair and replied, “have a safe trip home Dr. Chapp.”  But nothing ever came of their investigation and so I can only surmise that they ran into the same problem that everyone else had. Namely, that you could not get anyone to go on the record and that McCarrick was being protected by some powerful American prelates who were masters of deflection.

Well, the train wreck did eventually happen and now we have the long delayed “McCarrick Report” which will, most likely, be interpreted through the lens of the various ideological rip currents in the Church.  Liberals will seize the opportunity to criticize Pope John Paul and exonerate Pope Francis with an eye toward delegitimizing John Paul’s papacy as the “last gasp” of the reactionary Church.  Conservatives will see the entire affair as just further evidence of the existence of a “lavender mafia” in the Church that needs to be eliminated by implementing even stricter protocols for weeding out homosexual seminarians.  Less ideologically inclined folks will lean toward an analysis heavy on criticism of the Church’s clerical culture of secrecy, lack of transparency, and its sclerotic bureaucratic  apparatus – – an apparatus that has an inbuilt tendency to chart a trajectory through safe waters and to avoid at all costs any boat rocking by whistleblowers.

There is an element of truth in many of these approaches. It pains me to say it but Saint Pope John Paul II made some egregious mistakes in these matters and his negligence allowed the rise of McCarrick to prominence.  Nor was this a one-off mistake since he also did it with others – – most notably Marcial Maciel.  I think John Paul is a saint and he remains one of my heroes.  But he was human and flawed and does bear a great deal of blame here.  He seems to have had more than a tin ear for this issue.  It is better described as a deaf ear, which is deeply disappointing. Likewise, there are indeed a lot of homosexuals, both celibate and not-so-celibate, in the clerical ranks.  And with all due respect to those good priests who are homosexual but chastely so, the presence of such a critical mass of homosexuals in the clergy has created a large subculture of sexually active gay priests who cover for each other and whose epicurean lifestyle is a scandal.  On that latter point, McCarrick and Bishop Bransfield are “exhibits A and B.”  Finally, there is, of course, a need to institute new protocols for greater accountability and transparency in the Church in order, at the very least, to bring justice to the victims of sexual abuse.

However, even after taking all of that into account, I also think such analyses fall short of the mark because they do not analyze the actions that were taken with regard to McCarrick by his fellow prelates through the lens of a performative reduction.  And by that I mean that our tendency is to analyze such things too abstractly and our questioning never rises to the level of asking the concrete question of what the performative actions of the prelates in question tells us about what it is they truly believe – – or, as the case may be, what they do NOT believe.  Because if we know one thing for certain after the revelations of massive priestly sexual abuse and its cover up, it is that this is not a problem peculiar to either liberals or conservatives and it cuts across the ideological spectrum like a hot, searing, scalpel that lacerates to the bone.  Nor is it reducible to the inaction of a single pope or popes, who failed to “govern” the Church with due diligence.  Nor is this an issue that is largely a matter of “bad policies” that can be fixed with “charters” and absurd “Virtus training programs” for lay people who, for crying out loud, are not the core of the problem. In fact, the presence of Virtus training programs is actually a symptom of the problem insofar as it represents nothing more than a nod to the lawyers and insurance companies.  It is also a cynical exercise in deflection.  Cynical, because they don’t really think it will work (nor do I think that they care if it does or does not).  And “deflection” because it is merely an attempt to foster the illusion that “something is being done.”

My claim is actually more shocking – – some would even say “dark”. My claim is that the concrete actions taken with regard to McCarrick in particular, and the entire sexual abuse issue in general, tells us that many (most?) of our priests and bishops are de facto atheists.  They may overtly give public statements of faith, perform the Sacraments, kneel dutifully before the Blessed Sacrament, bless boats and homes and pets, all the while being “men without chests” as C.S. Lewis puts it. I would further add the following: most lay people in the American Church today are also de facto atheists who, therefore, swim in the same cultural soup of cultivated spiritual mediocrity.  “My parish is bored” says the young curate in The Diary of a Country Priest, which was Bernanos’s way of saying that nobody really believed anymore.  Because the boredom being described in the novel, and against which the non self-aware holiness of the curate is in contrast, is not the everyday boredom one feels at eating the same leftovers three days in a row or doing the same tasks every day, but rather is the deeper existential boredom of acedia.  And as the novel makes clear, it is a spiritual rot, a form of atheism, that pervaded the entirety of the French Church, both lay and clerical.  

Isn’t all of this rather judgmental you might ask?  Well… perhaps.  But in reality I think it closer to the truth to say that this claim of mine represents not a judgmental finger-wagging at those “others” whose faith does not rise to the purity of my own, but rather represents an extrapolation from my own de facto atheism.  I sense it in others connaturally since I have already experienced it in my own attenuated modern soul.  Ours is not an age of faith.  Our cultural horizon rarely stretches further than the local Vape shop and focuses our attention almost exclusively on the pursuit of worldly ends.  And many of those worldly ends are perfectly fine, but our cultural tendency is to stop there.  Like the old Irishman I once met at a pub in Galway who marked his whisky bottle with his ring in order remind himself, as he put it, to drink “thus far and no further”.  And just as with his pursuit of sobriety, our stopping short at perfectly legitimate worldly ends, without ever pressing further into the “deep waters” of supernatural faith, is our Lockean hangover wherein we deem such deeper pursuits to be fraught with the dangers of an inebriated fanaticism that is best nipped in the bud.  

Nor am I talking here about something akin to Newman’s distinction between notional and real assent. Because my claim is that even our notional assent is deeply lacking even “notional” levels of conviction and is riddled with the kinds of doubts that paralyze any growth in the spiritual life and which lead, as Augusto del Noce points out, to the accommodating compromises we have all made with our bourgeois culture of well-being.  And as del Noce further notes, at the core of our culture today – – a culture that affects and afflicts believers as well, in almost equal measure to the non-believers – – is a nihilistic soul the likes of which the world has never seen before. We live in an era of metaphysical negation which is marked by a degraded reductionistic naturalism that considers all previous ages to our own to have been mere infantile and adolescent stages of intellectual growth, but which we have now surpassed as we have moved into the “adulthood” of science and secular atheism.  From Feuerbach and Auguste Comte through Freud and on up to Noam Chomsky this narrative of “progression” from our infancy in myth to our adulthood in reductionistic nihilism is the coin of our secular, atheistic realm.  

And to think that that cultural tide hasn’t also swamped the Church in the storm surge of the modern hurricane is sociologically naïve in the extreme. Karl Barth once observed that Vatican II opened the windows of the Church to let in fresh air, and a hurricane blew in instead.  I am a big defender of Vatican II, as my next blog post will make clear, but if the Council can be faulted for anything it is precisely, ironically, in its false reading of the signs of the times.  And in its overly simplistic – – indeed amateurish – – sociological analysis of our times it seemed oblivious to the fact that if the Church could “go out” to the world then the world could, in its turn, come into the Church, and not in a good way.  The Council overestimated the vitality of the Church’s faith life – – an overestimation that is proven by the fact that that same Church came unraveled immediately after the Council – – and underestimated the toxic nature of modernity for any kind of genuine faith. And the tragedy is that it isn’t as if it did not have fair warning, as many of its deepest thinkers, from Claudel, to Guardini, to Bernanos made it clear that all was not as good as it seemed exteriorly.

Nevertheless, there are, of course, still pockets of holiness and true belief in the Church.  In my analysis here I am speaking in obvious generalities and am attempting to delineate broad trends and widespread attitudes.  I am attempting to engage in a performative reduction wherein I submit the current malaise in the Church to a concrete analysis of what the internal logic of that malaise implies.  And from where I sit it implies a deep crisis of faith.  And I am not talking here of a general lukewarmness such as the Church has historically, from time to time, fallen into.  In this regard I am echoing the analysis of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict who has also identified a deep crisis of faith as the chief cause of the sexual abuse problem.  

Viewed in this light, the sexual abuse problem in general, and the “McCarrick affair” in particular, cannot be dealt with in isolation from all of the other symptoms of this crisis of faith that afflicts the Church in the West.  To take one example – – an example that bears directly on the abuse crisis – – the practice of mandatory celibacy in the Western Church has become profoundly problematic, as one might expect in a Church besotted with a secularizing unbelief.  We are all of us sexual beings, and our natural instinct is to seek an overt expression of that reality through physical, sexual intercourse.  This instinct is a powerful one, instilled in us by the Creator, but also radically distorted by sin.  Thus, any decision in favor of celibacy, particularly among the young, is going to present enormous challenges (especially in our pornified culture) and will be possible only to the extent that there is a deep faith present which is open to the movement of Christ’s transformative and elevating grace.  And any attempt to live this life without faith, grace, and a deep prayer life, will eventuate in a white-knuckled repression that breeds frustrated resentment and the seeking out of surrogate material pleasures such as booze, food, trips, and vapid entertainments at best, and pornography and sexual relationships at worst.  Furthermore, without faith, celibacy just creates a clerical class of professional bachelors often locked in a depressive and lonely isolation devoid of any form of chaste intimacy.  And if you add into that witch’s brew of factors the sad fact that a certain statistically significant subset of men are drawn to the seminary precisely because they are emotionally immature and psychosexually dysfunctional, then you have the seeds of a crisis on your hands. What you end up with are priests who are desperately seeking intimacy and who do so with minors who are just vulnerable enough to be pliant.  Or you hire a dominatrix and make a porno movie on your Church’s altar.

I support mandatory celibacy and do not make these remarks in order to argue for its elimination.  A married clergy does not alleviate all of these issues, as all of the pertinent evidence makes clear, and brings as well a new set of different, but related problems.  And there is just as big of a crisis in marriage in the Church as there is among the celibate clergy.  It should be noted in this regard that there is more sexual abuse of minors at school at the hands of married teachers, and in households at the hands of married relatives and even parents, than among priests in a rectory.  This crisis in marriage, evident to any priest who hears confessions, is yet another symptom of the crisis of faith as couples enter into the Sacrament with a purely secular notion of marriage as nothing more than a civil, contractual arrangement that can be broken at will when the relational bargain the contract enacts is deemed to be “unfulfilled”.  The explosion of annulments in the United States is not, therefore, an abuse of the process where a wink and a nod are given to divorce and remarriage by another name, but a real acknowledgment of precisely the crisis I am talking about.  Finally, despite the ham-handed manner in which it has been carried forward, I think the Pope’s “concessions” in Amoris Laetitia on issues relating to divorce and remarriage are, at the very least, yet another indication that we have a problem and that the Pope knows it. And so we really need to stop the polemics with regard to Amoris because no less a light than Pope Benedict also noted that the Church is faced with a huge crisis here – – a crisis of faith among those seeking marriage in the Church – – and that the Church had to do a better job of recognizing this fact.

And so as I read the summaries of the McCarrick report and skim through its many pages my overall reaction is a mixture of anger (as I said at the beginning, everyone knew.  EVERYONE), sadness (for McCarrick’s victims, some of whom were my friends, and for the Church) and disappointment that the deeper issue that what really afflicts the Church is a deep, deep loss of faith was never addressed.  I get that the report was not meant to delve into such deeper issues, and yet … damn it, it should have since without it the entire report just becomes a cataloging of failures without a point.  This is, after all, a document of the Church and not the cold analysis of a corporation inquiring after why its market share has gone down.

And don’t tell me that the reason why it ignores deeper spiritual causes is that it is just trying to ascertain facts in order to better develop policies to avoid such things in the future.  Because that is the whole dadgum point I am making:  we will most definitely not avoid such things in the future if our focus is purely forensic, mechanical, and clinical.  There is no “policy” change that will make the sins caused by unbelief go away.  Personnel is policy and in this case we are talking about sins committed by faithless men, who were aided and protected by other faithless men, in a Church (in this case the American Catholic Church) grown cold in the faith owing to its flaccid bargain with bourgeois modernity.

Furthermore, even on the level of a purely forensic analysis of the facts, the report is open to the charge that it is trying to paint the problem as something that was done in the past, with Pope Francis exonerated of any wrong doing, and so we should just all move along now since “there is nothing to see here.”  It is like an automobile accident that has been cleared from the street, with the cops telling us we can stop our rubbernecking now as we slow down to stare at the bits of glass remaining on the road.  I just find it interesting that the main culprits identified in this report are either dead or very old. The report contains a wealth of detail and does shed light on how this all came about. Nevertheless, it really does read like an attempt to just move us along and to put the matter behind us. There just doesn’t seem to be any seriousness in the report on the level of a real theological and spiritual analysis of how the powers that be in the Church came to enable child rapists. And the very lack of such an analysis screams out that the Church still doesn’t get it and is further evidence of my thesis.  Because only a Church that doesn’t really believe anything anymore would treat the spiritual causes of the crisis as a triviality not worth discussing and as something that would be “distracting” from our “real, empirical analysis of causes.”

Raping children is a sin. Enabling and covering up for people who rape children is also a sin.  And they are sins of such magnitude that one is safe in assuming that no one who possesses a genuine faith would commit them.  These are the actions, the sins, of faithless men.  So the deeper, unaddressed question is: how did the Church come to be dominated by such men? And until that is answered no amount of policy changes will suffice. One reader of this blog, John Miner, has pointed out succinctly and with great insight the following, which is a wonderful summary of where we need to go. Therefore I will give him the last word:

“It is clear that Garrigou-Lagrange’s (and many before him incl. Aquinas) opinion that a man should be in the illuminative way prior to being ordained a priest, and in the unitive way prior to being a bishop has been either cast aside or ignored in the first place. How is it possible for any man to confront the challenges of the priesthood without first striving for spiritual perfection?”

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In Defense of Vatican II: Beauty Will Save the World.

Dr. Larry Chapp

James Matthew Wilson and Bishop Robert Barron. Two Champions of Beauty

One of the things I have long pondered is why it is that people fall away from the faith.  Obviously, they do so for a variety of reasons so I will not attempt a “one size fits all” answer to that complex question.  My addled and dissipated brain isn’t capable of such global thinking anyway, as age and too many bowls of Frosted Mini Wheats have taken their toll on my synaptical integrity.  And the Covid-quarantine Rice Krispie Treats aren’t helping either.  We have also recently discovered that there is a rat living in our crawl space, which to me, a lifelong rodentophobe, is a major theodicy problem.  And if God does not exist then there is no need to answer the above question since it is already answered by the malevolent presence of that rat:  Existence of a rat in our crawl space = no God.  QED.  Somewhere Richard Dawkins is smiling, which galls me, since he is such a blazing, intellectual guttersnipe.  

Still, all joking aside, the small point I would like to make in this brief post is that, in my view, the answer to why people leave the faith is hiding in plain sight:  for whatever reason, they just no longer believe the Christian narrative anymore.  It really is that simple because if you really did believe the Christian truth claim you would put up with any number of ecclesiastical micro aggressions in order to stay the course, despite the rocky terrain.  You would say to yourself in the midst of your existential dyspepsia over the Church’s endless foibles and absurd “stratagems”: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”  I know this is certainly true in my own life since I would have long ago left the Church over its modern descent into mediocrity and banality were it not for the fact that I actually still believe in both the Christian narrative and the Church that bears it forward.  That really is the bottom line because, quite frankly, the post liturgy donuts have grown stale as sacramentals of forced conviviality and I can get better “fellowship” at a Star Trek convention.

This is what puzzles me then when I hear people engage in grandiloquent “exit narratives” that focus on this or that egregious assault on their fragile sensibilities as the chief reason for departure.  You know the boilerplate formula as well I do, I am sure:  some priest farted in the confessional once, or because they couldn’t get an annulment for their fifth marriage, or because the music minister dropped the Saint Louis Jesuits as the main playbill for Mass, or the pastor said something in a homily that “offended” you, or some old, caterwauling, Church lady chided you for eating Jujyfruits at Mass.  Oh the humanity! 

Very often, when confronted with such narratives I will just bypass the whole bowl of sentimental pottage and cut to the chase and ask:  Do you still believe in the Creed and the Sacraments?  And most often the answer is a qualified hemming and hawing, with all kinds of linguistic legerdemain they learned at a workshop run by a Jesuit-Buddhist-Zen master-massage therapist, before they finally just give up and admit that “well no, I don’t accept most of those ‘rules’ anymore.”  Nor is there usually any reverse “road to Damascus moment” where the faith is lost in a single dramatic traffic stop gone bad.  The truth of the situation is usually far more boring, with faith gradually ebbing away in the acedia-inducing wort of our fermenting culture.  

I have a very good priest friend, an old seminary chum of mine, who is a man of very high intellect and even higher wisdom, who often laments to me on the phone that “nobody believes anything anymore.”  And by that he means what the priest at the beginning of Bernanos’s “Diary of a Country Priest” means when he says: “My parish is bored.”  In other words, underneath the outward façade of sacramental participation, “Monte Carlo night” fundraisers, CYO sports, and pet blessings, there lurks the noonday devil of quiet disbelief.  My priest friend further opines that since this is true, the pastoral strategy the Church has adopted over the past sixty years – – the strategy of turning the faith into the spiritual equivalent of rice cakes – – is doomed to failure, as the current implosion bears out.  Nobody dies for something they think is not true.  Nobody sacrifices for something they think is not true.  Nobody long endures suffering for something they think is not true.  And the bottom line is that if one is deeply bored by something, chances are it is because in the grand scheme of things you judge it to not be true, or, at the very least, even if true, of little importance.  

In the past year I met a most remarkable person at a conference who has since become one of my favorite authors.  He is the poet James Matthew Wilson who is involved in a project to reinject high caliber beauty back into the Catholic faith.  The Church is still the repository of Christ, but that image has been effaced in the ugliness and mediocrity of the modern Church.  What is needed is for the Church to be repristinated through Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.  Because these realities, when perfected, are anything but boring and are a real, honest to goodness remedy for acedia and the noonday devil.   The Church must once again become a patron of the arts as it seeks to reclaim a culture of beauty and of excellence.  James Matthew Wilson is involved in the Benedict XVI Institute which is a new venture that seeks to create that culture in the Church once again, in the midst of a world that careens toward the anti-human abyss of technocratic nihilism.  What he, and his allies at the Institute, understand, is that there can be no appeasement or “arrangement” between the Gospel and the ugly, vulgar, world of consumeristic kitsch.  For when the Church seeks to enculturate into an anti-culture (which is what our society enfleshes) it commits suicide as it dissolves and is absorbed into the world of our technocratic Borg masters.  

I mention this new Institute not because I think it will single-handedly bring the needed renewal, but because it is a model of what must once again blossom in the Church in order to reinvigorate the motives for faith and the soil in which that faith can grow.  Because the Gospel cannot flourish in the culture of strip malls and vape shops.  Of course, modern Catholics are “bored.”  We have turned our Churches into grand temples dedicated to the gods of efficiency, bourgeois comfort, and the ugliness spawned by expedience.  Everything is geared toward making the Gospel “safe” and “inoffensive” and the spiritual equivalent of the Boy Scout Oath, if you are lucky. And the whole enterprise – – the lot of it – – is boring.  That is why modern Catholics, like modern people in general, talk endlessly about “sexuality.”  Because all our culture has left is a degraded eroticism masquerading as liberation.  But degraded eroticism is the most pathetic god in our entire pantheon of divinized addictions.  Because the erotic, devoid of love and an orientation to Transcendence, is the ugliest and most boring thing of all.  

Another noteworthy attempt to put beauty back into our quiver of pastoral strategies is the series of videos, podcasts, and other materials created by Bishop Robert Barron and his Word on Fire Ministries.  And because Bishop Barron chooses to foreground the beauty of Catholicism as his chief mode of evangelization, rather than pugilistically swinging at a host of putative enemies as varied as Vigano’s Freemason Dr. Evils, up to and including, Voris’s “homoheresy modernists,” he has been vilified and pilloried by the so-called radical traditionalists for being insufficiently nasty.  In their view, unless there is blood on the floor, you haven’t properly preached the Gospel. Furthermore, their vision of the Gospel is an ugly amalgam of ignorance, reactionary politics, restorationist theology, and a heavy dose of apocalypticism with its “we are the holy remnant” elitism.  They are Catholic Branch Davidians living in a fever swamp of conspiratorial delusions, throwing Molotov Cocktails out of the window in Taylor Marshall’s basement at Bishop Barron and just about anybody else with a lick of sanity.  I will take Barron’s emphasis on beauty over their manifest ugliness and, I suspect, so would most Catholics.  

Vatican II understood this as well.  The Council Fathers knew that “fortress Catholicism” was harming the Church and fostering a culture of drab ugliness owing to the boring nature of its insularity from all things “modern.”  They may not have always gotten the answers right but they were at least willing, finally, to pose the question of modernity to the Church in order for the Church to share the riches of the Gospel with a greatly changed and desperately lonely world.  The tragedy, of course, is that this conciliar initiative to repristinate the Church, to find the hidden lost gems of the Tradition hidden under the palimpsest of neo-scholastic verbiage, was hijacked by a different set of vulgarians intent on replacing the beauty of the Church’s patrimony with a crass, and false, egalitarianism that equated the “tastes” of the popular culture of modernity with “the spirit of the Council.”  Indeed, under the guise of liturgical renewal and increased lay participation, they began to assert that the very insistence on high-end beauty in the Church is a form of reactionary and elitist “triumphalism.”

But if you read the Council documents themselves the exact opposite of this view is put forward.  How and why those documents came to be ignored and the renewal called for by the Council derailed is a subject for another day.  Suffice it to say for now that anyone who wants to blame the Council for being the chief cause of what came after is guilty of some extremely sloppy thinking devoid of real sociological data.  It is a form of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacious thinking that reigns supreme these days in traditionalist circles and it needs to be challenged.  Steven Bullivant’s recent book called “Mass Exodus” is a good place to start that challenge since he offers a wealth of real data on the multi-focal causes of the post conciliar disaffiliation from the Church by so many.

Beauty will save the world.  That is to say, Christ will save the world.  So can we please stop doing all within our power to render Christ boring?  Can we please stop turning him into a cipher for suburbia?  Christ Pantocrator has become the Christ of the attached garage. Is it any wonder then that people walk away?

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In Defense of Vatican II. Part One: The Cross of Christ and the Politics of Power

Dr. Larry Chapp

In what follows I am laying the groundwork for a series of blog posts devoted to defending Vatican II against the so-called Traditionalists. I began this blog about a month ago now by first examining a few representatives from this amalgam of theological dissenters from the far Catholic Right. I did so in order to give the reader a sense of the tone and content of that movement. Most troubling to me is their open rejection of vast swaths of the teachings of Vatican II, and even, as with Vigano, the claim that the Council, in its entirety, should just be suppressed.

I offer today a revised and amended version of an essay I wrote for my previous blog. It centers on the significance of the cross of Christ for properly understanding the true nature of power. I offer this meditation first, even before I begin a defense of specific documents of the Council, in order to establish the theological matrix in which all of my subsequent reflections will be embedded.

When I was still a university professor, I often asked my students to play an intellectual “what if” game.  I asked them to imagine what our world would be like if Christ had never existed and, therefore, Christianity had never come into being.  I did this to subvert the hostility of so many of them toward the “institutional Church” owing to its centuries of misconduct and deep sinfulness.  The honest, non-ideological students, had to admit that a world in which the values of the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire reigned supreme would have been far, far worse than the civilization formed by the Christian Church.  You can disagree with that assessment, of course, but you would be wrong to do so.  I have noticed too on this topic that those who indulge the puerile intellectual habits of folks like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens never bother to notice that much of the force of their facile critique of Christianity is a moral one, centering on the many, many ways they claim that the Christian Church has been morally bestial without offering any justification for this moral vision from within the ideological logistics of their atheism.  In many ways I think their moral instincts are sound, and their criticisms of the Church, though exaggerated and often ignorant of the real historical record, are at least loosely grounded in the sad reality of the sins of Christians.  Nevertheless, what they fail to notice is that the very moral verities they are invoking, which they imagine to be nothing more than the “common sense” morality provided by secular reason, are in reality Christian in inspiration and origin. 

And if what I write above is true, and it most certainly is, then what remains is the task of identifying what the specific Christian contribution was.  In other words, what was the revolution that Jesus of Nazareth created, why was it so shattering to the dominant power structures of the world, and how did it change our view of who God is?  That Jesus preached the advent of a new “Kingdom of grace” cannot be reasonably doubted.  But what are the rules of citizenship he established for admittance into this Kingdom and how does living in this Kingdom put us at odds with the “ruler of this world”?  These are hard questions to answer because the Gospel authors themselves seem reluctant to domesticate the image of Jesus inside the box of a ready-made “theological system”, realizing, I suspect, that as soon as one cages a Tiger you really no longer have a Tiger.  The temptation has always been to domesticate Jesus, whether it be through a thousand syllogisms or ten thousand Deepak Chopras.  I think our culture today is more prone to the latter than the former, as the coffee shop Christ allows us to both call ourselves “Christians” and to … well… hmmm…. kill people, whether that be in our Imperial wars or in our various “clinics”.  And the Christ of the clinics and the Christ of the drone wars is a result of the domestication of Jesus through a cultural and political reduction.  Thus does the Jesus who was crucified in an act of a self-emptying descent into the depth of the human condition, become, through the alchemy of a Latte and NPR, the Jesus of “death from above” and “dilation and suction.”

Thus, in order to resist this reduction of Jesus to either a politics (in the narrow sense of that word) or a cultural prop, the Gospels do not obsess over conceptual clarity in the sense of creating a neat system of ideas that read like a Power Point bullet list during a TED talk.  And thank God they don’t since there is nothing so boring and ridiculously pompous as a TED talk. [Side note: I was once asked to give a TED talk but did not know what it was.  I thought, “Who the hell is Ted, and why the hell should I talk to him?”] Nor do the Gospels give us ecclesiological, organizational, flow charts, (which are inherently and irreducibly demonic by the way, the Wormwood bitterness that makes everything German), and what they give us instead are suggestive references to a “Rock” and some kind of “keys” which are to be used in the name of a God renamed in a mysterious tripartite formula lacking in even the most rudimentary theological explanation.  And, while we’re at it, who was that half-naked kid in Mark’s Gospel that ran away when Jesus was arrested?  Who is Theophilus, the person Luke addresses his Gospel to?  And so on.  So many hanging chads…

This is not, however, an argument against the later formulation of doctrines and offices in the Church, since Jesus was most certainly not an antinomian or an anti-institutional preacher of an esoteric Gnosticism, no matter what today’s sophisticated anti-Semites say.  The latent anti-Semitism that lurks beneath this view of Jesus as a kind of anti-Jewish Jew, and as a purveyor of cracker-barrel spiritualism, is as old as Marcion and as fresh as “The View”.  To be sure, as I say above, Jesus cannot be reductively domesticated in neat theological systems.  But that isn’t because he was opposed to theology.  It was because HE WAS the theology.  Jesus doesn’t iconoclastically “burst categories”.  He WAS THE category.  And so no, he wasn’t a first century Oprah Winfrey and he never combined empty, boutique-shop sophistry with free donkey-cart giveaways.  The currently fashionable world of “spirituality”, with its dream catchers and its drug store, fauxBuddhist therapeutics, knows nothing of the real Jesus.  Indeed, these currently fashionable parlor room curiosities are merely the Ivy League version of the prosperity Gospel, complete with promises of body detoxification through the drinking of grotesque green liquids of unknown provenance.  Jesus+Essential oils = A brownstone in Park Slope.

So enough of such nonsense.  When it comes to the Gospels we see instead a Jesus of immense solidity and when we approach him we run up hard against a wall that at first seems impenetrable to our ersatz spirituality and our desiccated rationality. By contrast, the piercing and lacerating image that the Gospels present is precisely that – – an image – – and its logic (its “truth”) is embedded in the dramatic aesthetic of a humiliated, crucified man who descends into the silent solidarity of the dead. And the Gospels make clear that this descent into the dissolute world of decay, into the moldering stench of Satan’s sting, was the very condition for the glory that follows.  The crucifixion and the descent into death were not “mere preliminaries”, or a forensic theological mandate that just had to be endured, stoically, in order to fulfill some bestial bloodlust on God’s part before he then rewarded Jesus with the Golden Ticket.  Such is the view of entire benighted wings of the Christian household who then go on to preach that we don’t have to endure the Cross because Jesus did it for us.  We now just get to kick back, open a bag of pork rinds, and enjoy the endless Disney World of our resurrection life.  This, despite the fact that Jesus himself explicitly tells us that we too will need to take up our cross in order to follow him.  So much for Sola Scriptura.  It is indeed instructive, is it not, that those who chirp the loudest about Sola Scriptura never seem to have read the Scriptura.  They just wave the Bible around in the air, like a Talisman, which goes along with their magical Hogwarts view of the atonement.  

No, the Cross of Christ is no mere preliminary.  It is no mere juridical act of appeasement followed by judicial exoneration and the lavishing of parting gifts.  It is in truth the Revelation of God’s deepest nature, the expression in human, worldly, time-bound form of the Eternal One.  But what can it possibly mean that God’s very inner life is best exposited in this brutalized way?  

Jesus said “He who sees me sees the Father”.  Well… according to the Gospels to “see” Jesus is to look at the cross.  Not exclusively (since Resurrection is part of this event too), but focally, centrally.  It is to view the Resurrection in and through the crucifixion, which is why the Resurrected Christ is forever the “Lamb who was slain” and whose resurrected body still bears the marks of his grotesque torture.  The Cross reveals to us that God, as love, is nothing more than pure gift.  He is giving as such.  He is descent and self-emptying sacrifice for the sake of the other as such. This is the essence of what the “Trinity” is and is thus also the essence of that divine life within us and of our nature’s truest end.  He doesn’t “possess” these attributes as qualities like you and I possess this or that virtue.  He IS those attributes.  

Christ reveals God.  Christ is God.  And Christ is eternally “marked” by his crucifixion. So too must we be so marked.  This is the criterion for entrance into the Kingdom I mentioned at the start.  This is the essential “difference” of specifically Christian faith as opposed to all others, secular and religious.  We are not, as the Enneagram and Pottery Barn Chalice crowd inform us, “resurrection people.”  If we are to be resurrected it is into THIS Kingdom, the Kingdom of “cross and resurrection”, and not into a Kingdom marked through and through by the sign of bourgeois comfort.  We are not “saved” just because we gave some vague, and nominal assent to a theological proposition, which we then label as “faith”.  If we are to be resurrected at all it will be as crucified and resurrected.  There is no other path.  And it is precisely the counter-mark of the Antichrist to imagine that there is.  Joel Osteen and Paula White have our President’s ear.  But they reject the way of the Cross and embrace the way of Mammon.  They both have perfect teeth.  And they are antichrists.  

This is why I am a Catholic Worker. And it is the only reason for being a Catholic Worker.  To live as closely as we can the Sermon on the Mount, which is, paradoxically, only illuminated by the shadow cast by the Cross.  This was the constant message of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  We must not so spiritualize the Sermon on the Mount that its clear mandate for Christians to abandon the path of Mammon, the path of acquisition, the path of violence, is distanced from us by a series of thorned hedgerows, as we tell ourselves that such “perfection” is for the monks alone.  The rest of us, we are told, have to live in the “real world” where none of this idealistic stuff applies.  But we do console ourselves with the soothing balm of a thousand small “crosses” that are more manageable and can fit into our lifestyle.  I am very guilty of this.  Very. Guilty.  But what that means is that they aren’t really crosses at all, but, as I see in my own life, the appalling opposite:  narcissistic play acting at “religion” in a degraded form of Pascal’s wager where I convince myself that if I can at least imitate “sacrifice” in manageable bits, that means I am sacrificing.  Or, at the least, to convince myself that if I keep play acting at being a “man for others” then maybe I will be someday, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary.  Like Peter Sellers in “Being There”:  I like to watch.  I approach life as a spectator, which is to say I approach God as a spectator, which is to say, I do not approach God at all.

The cross is never easy.  It is repulsive and ugly.  A symbol of the worst kind of torture, injustice, and brutality.  And it is the central symbol of our faith.  It is our only path to the resurrection and the Kingdom.  That gate and that path gets narrower for me every day.  Narrower in the sense that I can’t seem to stay on it, or even on some days, find it.  How hard it is to truly die to self, to divest ourselves of all of our caterwauling idolatries, and to stop our pretentious posturing as we seek to manipulate and bend others to suit our needs.  We are like the old lady in Hell in Dostoevsky’s tale, clinging to that rotten onion and preferring it to the glories of Heaven.  We think that the “old man” in us is like snakeskin that we can shed, “and I will someday, just let me get through this….”. But then we discover that we really do prefer the rotten onion.  

It is hard to die.  But that is why the new Kingdom of Christ’s grace begins with the death of God on the cross.  “One of the Trinity has died” – – so an ancient, anti-Nestorian line has it.  It flirts with heresy, but only trivially so.  In reality, the gravamen of its insight should make us all weep for joy.  

But this is also why I am deeply suspicious of the recent upsurge among some in the so-called “Catholic Traditionalist” movement to repristinate some version of a hard, political, integralism.  Motivated by the true insight that Liberalism is a god that has failed us, they long for a return to Christendom and its coercive confessional States, rejecting along the way Vatican II’s endorsement of religious freedom which they view as a lamentable capitulation to modernity’s religious relativism and indifferentism.  They interpret the social Kingship of Christ in shockingly modernist tones as a mandate for the coercive exercise of political power in religious matters ignoring, apparently, the sad historical fact that whenever and wherever the Church became a regulative political force it quickly became “merely” a regulative force, and ceased to be a transformative force.  And it further ignores the sad historical fact that Liberalism arose precisely because Christendom failed owing to its distorting of the social Kingship of Christ in exactly the same manner as the new integralists do.  History teaches us that such a regulative, non-transformative Church breeds anti clericalism and resentment as the Church comes to be viewed as just one, gigantic, buzz kill.  It is no accident then that those countries which had the strongest version of this Catholic integralism, are also now currently the countries most rapidly de-Christianizing.  

And why is it that these same “Traditionalists” never bother to answer the question of why, if the pre Vatican II Church was so strong, vibrant, and faith-filled, that it collapsed almost overnight as soon as the Church lifted the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido after Vatican II? Could it possibly be because everything had already degenerated into a hollow, forensic legalism which is precisely why the Council fathers knew we needed reform?

In light of what I have written above on the centrality of the crucified Lord as the only proper lens through which we are to read the meaning of Christian existence I can only say that both Liberal integralism and Catholic integralism failed because they both share a false, voluntarist understanding of human freedom. And a freedom thus conceived can only be tamed by worldly mechanisms of power.

Therefore, the only “integralism” I endorse is the regime of the crucified and risen Lord, whose social Kingship is characterized by a civilization of kenotic love, a civilization of service to “the least of these”, and not the Kingship of the coercive bludgeon.  This, and this alone, is the “politics” of the Church – – call it, as William Cavanaugh does, a politics of the Eucharist.  In such an integralism the most “political” thing you can do is to worship the crucified and risen Lord at Mass and to love your neighbor to the point of death and beyond.  This is the only “reform” of the Church that has ever been needed, both in the past, and, most especially, now.  

Christendom is dead, and its misbegotten child, Liberalism, is dying.  What will replace it we do not yet know.  Whether by violent revolution or organic evolution a new order will emerge.  But our response as Catholics must not be – – must.not.be! – – a nostalgic attempt to bring back the Christendom of the weaponized Christ of coercion.  Our contribution, rather, must be to live and to preach nothing other, as with St. Paul, Christ crucified.  To die to our worldly idolatries of power and pretention, and to put on the baptismal garment of Christ’s descent into the nether regions of darkness in order to retrieve it for the Kingdom.

Finally, I offer here a robust defense of the call of Pope Francis for the Church to go out into the “existential peripheries” in order to shine the light of Christ’s love into the abyss of despair that envelops so much of our world today.  Not without reason did he choose the name Francis – – the most powerful saint in the Church’s history precisely because he was the saint, above all others, who was most radically conformed to the crucified Lord of history.

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Low Hanging Fruit. Part Three. Michael Voris and his obsession with Bishop Robert Barron

Dr. Larry Chapp

At long last I turn my attention to the more-Catholic-than-thou pit bull of Detroit, Michael Voris.  Voris is the brains (sic) behind the media sensation known as “ChurchMilitant” and has posted a series of YouTube videos called “The Vortex” wherein, in his own words, “lies and falsehoods are trapped and exposed.”  He intones these words while twirling his pencil around in the air, like a makeshift wand, which acts as a fair warning that what is about to come will generate as much destructive wind as a broken fan.  His style is angry and pugnacious, with an in-your-face, rapid fire delivery that gives off an air of smug, know-it-all, condescension toward his absent targets.  Frankly, as I hope to show, he is an imbecile.  If you find that harsh I really don’t care, because he is a bully who deserves to be treated like one.  Nor do I care that he occasionally does a good job of reporting on the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church because there are lots of good people doing the same thing whose credibility far surpasses Voris’s and, to be blunt, he gives those of us who care about such things a bad name. Jeffrey Epstein may have been good at throwing parties, but I wouldn’t want him as my daughter’s wedding planner.

What follows is going to be relatively long, so those who do not like reading long blogs are free to turn away.  Or, you can print it off and hide it in your pantry with your cupcakes and return to it at your leisure.  I am going to focus on a series of videos he has produced on a single topic – – a topic he has pursued with monomaniacal vigor.  And that topic is his ongoing vendetta against Bishop Robert Barron.  I focus on this because it is a paradigmatic snap-shot of both his vicious and puerile style as well as his substantive ignorance of the very “lies and falsehoods” he claims to be unmasking. Furthermore, he has produced so many videos on so many topics it is best to focus on a few rather than dissipate the endeavor with scattershot attacks on a host of moving targets.  Finally, I choose to focus on the Robert Barron Vortex videos because it is the most glaring example of Voris attempting to destroy something that is good happening in the Church, simply because it isn’t, in Voris’s eyes “good enough,” and therefore is “suspect” and most likely, evil.  And this to me is the most dangerous element of how Voris operates.  He engages in the falsification of the good, seeking to invert it into its opposite – – something evil – – all in the service of furthering his own version of “small tent” Catholicism which only has room enough for Voris and his Legion of Doom homies.  

Voris claims that Robert Barron is completely “infected with modernism” as evidenced by what Voris calls his “Catholicism lite” videos (such as his ten part video series “Catholicism”) and Barron’s often stated support for the view that we can have a “reasonable expectation that all will be saved” – – a view Barron links to that of the late Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Voris also hates Balthasar, but more on him in a bit.    Voris also asserts, in so many words, that Barron is a pretentious academic who likes to hide his deceptions behind a fog of smart sounding “big words” and that Barron suffers from the “smartest kid in the class” syndrome and likes to show off how educated he is.  He also chides Barron for being a “name dropper” who likes to quote silly people like Dostoevsky and Claudel – – authors Voris dismisses as literary fluffies that no real person cares about. (!!) Finally, he accuses Barron of being a failed evangelist because he doesn’t immediately start preaching “at” people about Christ, but chooses instead the path of dialogical conversation.  As evidence for this he cites a recent interview that Barron had with the conservative Jew, Ben Shapiro.  I will deal with each of these accusations in turn.  But before I continue you might want to check out one of Voris’s videos on the topic so that you can see for yourself the list of outrages that sends him into a spittle-flecked tailspin.  You can access it here.  Oh … and the Shapiro interview episode here.  You should wear a faceguard when viewing.  

I would like to begin with a thought experiment.  Imagine a room filled with about 100 people who are interested in learning more about the Catholic faith with an eye toward possible conversion.  Now further imagine that the sponsors of the event have invited two speakers – – Michael Voris and Robert Barron.  Barron gives an hour long presentation, with slides, highlighting the wisdom and beauty of Catholicism, as well as exploring the lives of a few representative saints.  He then invites discussion in the Q & A follow up where he patiently, and gently, answers questions, utilizing a conversational style with an irenic and non-combative demeanor.  Voris then follows and spends an hour in his usual attack mode, informing his listeners that most of them are probably going to go to Hell for masturbating, watching porn, contracepting, and voting for Democrats.  In the Q & A he then tells his questioners that now that they have heard the Gospel properly preached that they must dutifully convert or face perdition.  He concludes by tossing scores of paperback catechisms into the crowd, like a fake Santa tossing candy, willy-nilly, off of a Christmas float.

Now I ask you dear reader, which speaker would you invite if you were running such an event? And please don’t tell me that I have given a false caricature of Voris in the above scenario.  Because Voris states bluntly that the kind of evangelizing that Barron engages in “convinces nobody” and “does not work.” And if you watch his videos and get a sense of his “style”, and you combine that with his condemnation of Barron’s approach, then you can see that one is within the boundaries of reasonable speculation if you suspect Voris, in front of such a group, would be – – not a bull in a china shop – – but a rampaging elephant at an origami festival.

Because the facts are these:  Robert Barron’s Catholicism series of videos, as well as much of the catechetical material produced by his Word on Fire ministry, HAS brought thousands of people to the faith.  I do not know of a single RCIA director who would swap Barron’s videos for a steady diet of Vortex episodes.  And if they do they should be fired with extreme prejudice.  I don’t know where Voris is getting his “evidence” that Barron’s approach “does not work” but I suspect this is just his usual bombastic bluster.  Because there is solid evidence, for anyone who knows what is going on in the Church today, that Barron’s videos have been a highly effective tool for bringing people to the faith.  I myself used his Catholicism series in many of my theology classes and can personally attest to their pedagogical AND evangelizing effectiveness.  Thus, there is no other way to say this: Voris is making here an empirically false statement.  The first of many.  But I doubt Voris cares since his motive here is not really truth, but the rhetorical discrediting of Barron at any cost. 

As a teacher of undergraduates for twenty years, in a fairly typical small Catholic University (DeSales), my own teaching style mirrored that of Barron (but with more expletives and bathroom humor than I care to admit) as I sought to negotiate the difficult path of reaching both my already believing students (the minority) as well as the vast swathe of students who are lukewarm to Catholicism at best, and openly hostile at worst.  And I am sure that my experience mirrors that of just about every other teacher that is reading these words. Therefore, and based on experience, I can say without fear of contradiction that Voris is full of crap.  Had I taught like Voris does I would not have lasted through my first semester and would have most likely been fired within the first month and escorted off campus by a phalanx of campus security guards.  Happily, I did not teach like Voris does and enjoyed a long and successful career wherein I brought hundreds, if not thousands, of students closer to the truth of Christ.  But if Voris had seen me teach he would have accused me of preaching a “Catholicism lite” that “convinces nobody”, and accused me, as he accuses Barron, of teaching idiocy and lunacy.  

Further evidence of Voris’s nightmarish and cartoonish vision of what constitutes proper evangelizing can be seen in his criticisms of Barron’s interview with Ben Shapiro.  Shapiro asks Barron if he, Shapiro, being Jewish, can be saved?  Barron could have responded, as Voris would have preferred him to, by saying “Yes Ben it is possible, but highly unlikely, unless you become a Catholic.” Thankfully, since Barron isn’t a flat-footed, intellectual troglodyte, he artfully answered the question by first stating that Christ is the only means by which men are saved, but that one does not necessarily need to be a baptized member of the Church in order to be related to Christ, salvifically, in some way.  He went to say that being an explicit Christian is the “privileged way” of reaching heaven but not the only way.  

I say he “artfully” answered Shapiro’s question because Barron rightly adjudicated that the very reason Shapiro asked the question in the first place was that he already understood that Catholics consider Christ as the pivot point for the salvation of the world and, in a further discernment, that Shapiro was unlikely to convert to Christ just because Barron asked him to.  In fact, even if Shapiro was harboring “Christ haunted” moments, a full-throated, Voris-style Christological drop kick to the face would have had exorcised any remnants of a Christ haunting within Shapiro’s soul. Fortunately, Barron was being interviewed and not Voris, and Barron rightly understood that Shapiro’s deeper question was whether or not there can be “theological common ground” between a devout Jew and a devout Catholic, with Shapiro, to his credit, seeking to do his part to overcome the historic hostility between Judaism and Christianity.  Finally, and this is an overlooked point by the rad trad torch brigade, Barron understands quite well the deadly consequences for Jews that Christian hostility has fomented over the centuries as well as the resulting deep suspicion that many Jews have toward Christianity, and was therefore well aware of the historical sensitivity of the question that Shapiro was asking.  

But all of that is lost on Voris who thundered against Barron’s apparent religious relativism and his lack of faith in the centrality of Christ for salvation.  But such an assertion, based on the evidence, is yet another Voris distortion of the truth and an empirically false claim.  Barron clearly upheld the centrality of Christ for salvation and gave no hint of a religious relativism.    One shudders to think how Voris would have responded to this deeply serious Jewish man – – a man, by the way, who bothered to interview a Catholic bishop owing precisely to that deep religiosity.  And who did so with deep respect and a generosity of spirit that Voris manifestly lacks.  

Voris’s entire tirade against the interview borders on the perverse insofar as it both radically distorts what Barron was saying (and I think deliberately so) as well as mangling the teaching of the Church.  For what Barron said to Shapiro is exactly what most Church Fathers have said, what Aquinas has said, and what the entire modern Magisterium of the Church has said. Namely, that there can be salvation outside of explicit membership in the Church.  To be fair, Voris says he believes this too, but given his rhetoric on the matter one wonders if Voris takes it seriously or if he is just nodding in its general vicinity all the while plowing ahead in a different direction.

More than likely, what his denunciations of Barron point to is nothing more than a bizarre animus he has against the bishop who seems to act for Voris as a kind of shibboleth for all that he thinks is wrong with the modern Church.  Because as one surveys the current ecclesiastical landscape it is hard to see why Voris would choose Barron as his whipping boy unless there was something visceral and emotional at play in Voris’s deeply fermented mind.  Barron is a modernist? Really??  Does Voris even know what that term means?  What this accusation of modernism shows, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that Voris has never read a word of Barron’s serious scholarly works.  In his book “The Priority of Christ” Barron scopes out in the very first chapters a trenchant critique of modern liberal theology and points to a robust and repristinated orthodoxy as an antidote to the secularizing assumptions of more modernist theologians.  Barron is rightly viewed in the theological guild as a deeply traditional thinker, much to the delight of his admirers and the dismay of his more liberal critics.  Therefore, for Voris to claim that Barron is completely “infected with modernism” is so ignorant that it makes one wonder if Voris even cares if half the nonsense he spews is true.  There is no other conclusion therefore that can be reached other than the fact that Voris has chosen Barron as an enemy for reasons that go far beyond Barron’s theology.  What those reasons might be I have no idea and I will leave it to the mental health professionals to figure out.

But as inane as all of that is Voris gets most agitated by Barron’s statement that we can have “a reasonable hope that all will be saved.”  He constantly refers to the idea as “idiotic” and “beyond stupid” even though he admits that the notion is not necessarily “heretical” but comes close to it.  Well which is it Mr. Voris? Is it heretical or is it not?  Because if it isn’t heretical (and guess what? It isn’t) then Bishop Barron is well within his rights as an accomplished theologian to put the idea forward for consideration.  When Voris denounces the idea as “idiotic,” quoting scripture without any theological nuance and without any awareness that there are indeed multiple passages in the New Testament that hint at a hope that all will be saved (especially in the Pauline corpus), he seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that there have been saints in the Church who have put forward the same idea.  St. Gregory of Nyssa was a full-on universalist, as were many other Church Fathers. Most damning of all for Voris’s case is that no less a light than St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church and, one would assume, a better Scripture scholar than Voris, taught that in the end God will restore everything and everyone to its pristine condition, including the devil and the other fallen angels! Were Gregory, Clement, and Jerome all idiots too? Are they too uttering “lies and falsehoods” that need to be “trapped and exposed” in the mighty wind of Voris’s twirling pencil?? I wish The Vortex had been around in Jerome’s time because that cranky old grumbler would have made short work of Voris. 

It is indeed true that the Church did eventually condemn this “hard” universalism.  But not because the Church wants to assert that some, or many, are in Hell, but merely to point out that such a claim – – that Revelation teaches us dogmatically that all are saved – – is not tenable.  Barron and his theological guide in these matters, von Balthasar, make it very clear that they too share that ecclesial assessment.  And they are not merely paying lip service to it either but acknowledge that the New Testament holds in tension two sets of texts on the issue – – some implying some will be damned (which Voris quotes repeatedly), with other texts implying the opposite (which Voris ignores).  Therefore, Barron’s and Balthasar’s conclusion that we can, given the depths of Christ’s salvific reach, hope for the salvation of all in a meaningful way is most definitely not heresy or even “near heresy.”  But that doesn’t stop Voris from frothing at the mouth, like a rabid dog with a bone that he won’t give up, giving every indication of being a monomaniacal neurotic.  Voris seems to need people to be in Hell in order for his world narrative to hold together.  Which is a sad commentary on that narrative.  Not that there is a Hell and people might go there.  But that he seems to need them there.  He seems to want them there.  Except for himself of course.  He seems strangely confident in that.

In one of the videos I linked to above one gets a definite clue as to what is really grinding in Voris’s gizzard on this issue.  He goes on a lengthy Jeremiad against the evils of the abortion industry and Planned Parenthood in particular.  In graphic detail he correctly describes the horrors of abortion and the trafficking in aborted baby body parts.  I share his revulsion in these matters.  As, I am sure, does Bishop Barron.  So what conclusion does Voris draw from this litany of evils?  He concludes that the people involved are so morally hideous that they most certainly are going to Hell, thus disproving Barron’s thesis on salvation.  Well! QED! What need have we of further witnesses?! 

Maybe the abortionists will end up one day in Hell and maybe they won’t.  But unlike Voris, I will leave the final disposition of their souls to Our Lord.  The mere presence of sin, even great sin, is not sufficient for us to take upon ourselves such adjudications.  So I would like to ask:  Who died and made Michael Voris the eschatological Judge Judy?

There is also the not so faint, and thoroughly disgusting, implication that Barron’s views on Hell somehow minimizes these evils and thus enables them.  Why else would Voris spend a good ten minutes screaming at the camera denouncing Barron just after cataloging the evils of the abortion industry?  Voris seems to assume, quite ignorantly, that a hope for the salvation of all means that we think that sin is “no big deal” and will go unpunished and unremediated.  Here Voris once again shows how theologically illiterate he is, since even the wrongly demonized Origen, the great speculative universalist himself, taught that the punishments and torments for our sins will be tremendous and nearly unbearable.  Thus robbing Voris, and his cheerleaders in the stone-throwers social club, of their chief pastoral argument. Namely, that absent the fear of an eternal damnation, people will not take sin seriously since Bishop Barron and his ilk have given everyone a carte blanche ticket to ride on the sin train.  One wonders why Voris even bothers to pray for the souls in purgatory if he thinks the post-mortem punishments for our sins and the fires of remediation they require are no big deal.  Or why we should do penance in this life in order to avoid the purgatorial fire to come since, in Voris’s view, unless that fire is eternal, it ain’t worth a fig as a deterrent to sin.

This entire way of thinking also betrays a fundamentally unchristian way of viewing why we should avoid sin.  Voris’s approach here is more in tune with potty training a puppy than with the pedagogy of the spiritual life.  As Aquinas teaches, the human will is constitutively oriented to the “Good.”  Thus, in choosing evil we thwart our own happiness and dissipate the soul in the idolatrous pursuit of counterfeit goods that may please us to a point, but ultimately render us miserable.  Therefore, that which is most compelling about the Gospel is that it is true, good, and beautiful.  Christ attracts and opens the soul as the sun does for a flower.  This is one of Barron’s central points and one with which Voris is in white hot disagreement.  There must be eternal punishments galore or nobody will want to be good!  What a miserably pinched-up and sadistic view this is.  It bespeaks a fundamental disbelief in the inherent attractiveness of the Revelation of the love of the triune God in the life of Jesus the Christ.  

Voris seems to think the moral life is, in its essence, simply a forensic system of rewards and punishments, and views the Gospel as merely the pathway to those rewards.  He is like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch who thinks if the presents are removed then nobody down in Whoville will celebrate Christmas.  Because if nobody will want to avoid evil if there isn’t the threat of eternal torment, then the flip side is also true. Namely that nobody will want to be good for its own sake either, requiring the carrot of a reward as its only possible motivation.  This is the moral vision of a child, and certainly not that of St. Paul, who was already living the way of the moral commandments but who turned his life completely over to Christ after the blinding vision of the resurrected Lord.

As for the charge that Barron uses “big words” in order to pretend to be smart I can only say he is smart.  Very, very smart.  And certainly smarter than Voris.  Which isn’t hard. But beyond that, one wonders what in the hell Voris is talking about here.  Because one of the chief reasons that Barron’s videos are so popular is that they really do succeed in being understandable to an average person with a modicum of education. In reality, what seems to rile Voris on this issue is precisely that Barron is successful and Voris thinks it is all rooted in a deception.  In other words, he is accusing Barron of engaging in rhetorical sophistry.  However, from where I sit it seems that it is Voris who is the sophist. Sophists can come in many sizes and shapes, including blustering, blathering, blowhard shapes, which is a kind of sophistry designed to appeal to the choir but nobody else.  It is the sophistry of the dog whistle wherein certain red meat code words are tossed out like “homoheresy” and “modernism” in order to gin-up the apocalyptic fervor of one’s YouTube subscribing customers.  

Finally, if you want further evidence for just what an ignorant poseur he is look no further than his ridiculous and absurd comments regarding the eminent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Not content merely to snipe at, and caterwaul over, Bishop Barron’s views on Hell, for good measure he wants to further smear the good Bishop by making it seem that he has hitched his theological wagon to some fringe wing-nut.  For starters, Voris describes Balthasar as a “lunatic.”  Yeah, you read that right – – he calls Balthasar, one of THE premier theologians of the 20th century, the favorite theologian of Saint Pope John Paul II who made Balthasar a Cardinal, and a close friend and collaborator with Joseph Ratzinger, who preached the homily at Balthasar’s funeral, a “lunatic.”  Regardless of what one thinks of Balthasar’s theological project, and regardless of what one thinks of his views on Hell, to call him a lunatic is so profoundly stupid and absurd that it borders on the insane.  And I mean “insane” literally as in, he is completely detached from reality.  One suspects, of course, that Voris hasn’t read a word of Balthasar, as he apparently hasn’t read a word from the works of fluffies like Dostoevsky and Claudel, and is merely basing his assessment of Balthasar on the mere fact that he disagrees with him on a single theological point.  In Voris’s world apparently, to go against his “Tiny house” vision of Catholicism is to render one a lunatic.  Well then, count me among the deranged.  

But he isn’t done.  He then asserts that Balthasar was a close associate of, and a collaborator with, a “debunked mystic.”  I can only assume he means Adrienne von Speyr, a female Protestant convert to Catholicism who had numerous mystical and supernatural experiences that Balthasar viewed as a genuine “charism” that was a gift from God to the modern Church.  You might disagree with the legitimacy of her experiences, but there is no sense in which one can claim that her mystical ecstasies and so forth have been “debunked.”  Debunked by whom? Voris? Vigano? Taylor Marshall?  The Ladies on The View?  We don’t know who the debunker is that Voris has in mind here because he does not say.  More than likely he is referring to some off Broadway article written by someone who thinks like he does and which probably purports to show that Adrienne’s writings are filled with heresy, idiocy, lunacy, and horrible cake recipes. But I will tell you who DID think that Adrienne was worth listening to and that was Pope John Paul II who, in 1986, convened a symposium in Rome (a symposium, not an “investigation”) devoted to her charisms, a symposium at which he gave a positive opening address.  So if she was “debunked” as Voris claims it is a pity that John Paul was not informed of this.  Once again, Voris proves himself to be as ignorant as he is nasty, and with barely a shred of common human decency.

But wait, as the commercial says, there’s more!  No, sadly, not a free set of official ChurchMilitant, anti-Pachamama, ginsu knives, but a mind numbingly risible description of Karl Barth as merely a “self-inflated Protestant minister.”  At least, I think Voris is talking about Barth since he accuses Balthasar of “taking his cues from the writings of a self-inflated Protestant minister.”  And Balthasar makes no bones about the fact that he was deeply influenced by Barth’s theology.  But what does that even mean? Seriously… what does it mean? Barth was self-inflated?  Once again, as with Balthasar, and with Barron’s scholarly works, one suspects Voris has never read a word of Barth and probably can’t even name Barth’s most famous work (The Church Dogmatics).  And once again we are left with the impression that Voris is just a blowhard stringing together a daisy chain of denunciations devoid of any content.  It can be argued, and many have indeed claimed, that Barth is the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century.  But hey, according to Voris, Barron is an idiot, Balthasar is a lunatic, and Barth is a self-inflated Protestant. And so, it would seem, that only Michael Voris stands between us and a descent into the abyss of lies and falsehoods.  Only Voris remains standing astride the ruins of the modern Church like a giant, oily, creepy, Colossus: “Barron? Balthasar? Barth?  Fools all! I alone remain.”

And while we are at it, what is wrong if Balthasar sees merit in the theology of a great Protestant thinker? Is Voris implying that Protestantism is just completely false in all of its manifestations and in all of its particulars? That one cannot find a single shred of decent theology there??  That it is just heretical turtles all the way down?  If he does think that way then he is not in tune with the Magisterium of the Church.  However, once again one suspects that all Voris is really doing here is dog whistling his subscribers – – “Balthasar likes a PROTESTANT theologian, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more.”

And so I am done with Michael Voris and I will not be returning to him again.  Because watching his videos is tiresome and soul draining.  And I only do so because the dude has a large platform and is greatly influential over a certain faction of the Church and that influence needs to be fought against.  Indeed, as a ressourcement theologian, an orthodox Catholic, and a loyal son of the Church, I happily count many people who hold traditionalist leanings as my friends.  Some of them dear friends.  However, many of them have succumbed to Voris’s message of division and denunciation.  In their defense they are hurting right now and deeply confused by this most vexing of papacies.  Thus, the soil is fertile for someone like Voris to sow his seeds of contempt and ignorance – – as is the case with all demagogues who can only seize the throne during a period of agonistic chaos and social rupture.  I can only pray that my friends who have succumbed to his Svengali trance will not be too harmed by it and will someday be in a more peaceful state of soul.  

The late, great Father Lorenzo Albacete once stated that the biggest internal threats to the Church do not come from the far Left but from the far Right.  I disagree to the extent that I think both are equally dangerous, but I think, nevertheless, that his point does alert us to the dangers of the lunatic Right.  But as Albacete pointed out, the reason why he thought the far Right was more dangerous was because they appeared to speak the language of orthodoxy and they appear to many as grand defenders of the Tradition, whereas in reality, they are every bit as much a dissenting form of theology as the far left.  But because they appear as angels of light the deception is even deeper.  I can’t tell you how many messages I have gotten since I started this series of blogs on “Low Hanging Fruit” from people who tell me to “leave these guys alone! All they are doing is defending the faith!  All they are doing is fighting to preserve the truth!”

No, actually, they aren’t.

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Oh my, Archbishop Vigano again. Part Three. My final response to his theological dissent.

Dr. Larry Chapp

Just when I thought I was ready to turn my attention to the Catholic lion of Detroit, Michael Voris, Archbishop Vigano has popped up again with a very long letter addressed to a group devoted to restoring Catholic identity.   I was just going to ignore it and move on since I have already dealt with Vigano’s ravings at great length and, quite frankly, he bores me.  Personally, I would rather binge-watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island than devote more time to Vigano, but his latest missive is so over the top and so filled with hyperventilating, spittle-flecked, tirades against the false “deep Church” of the antichrist that I felt vindicated in my previous criticisms of him and wanted to come on here and say “I told you so.”  Some few readers, obviously sympathetic with Vigano, have accused me of being unfair to the “heroic” archbishop and that I have attacked a straw man of my own invention, engaging in all kinds of unfair caricatures and misrepresentations of his positions.  Well, his latest appearance on the stage should put an end to such criticisms since his last letter confirms everything I have said.

His letter is long, as I said, which, ironically, will cause this post of mine to be much shorter, which I am sure will delight most readers.  The letter contains so many accusations that to deal with each one would take 50,000 words of unpacking.  And so allow me to merely bullet point just a few of his assertions with a few brief comments of my own.

*As usual, he rejects Vatican II root and branch as a heretical Council.  He even calls into question this time if it even really was an ecumenical council at all.

*He rejects ecumenical dialogue without further qualification.  He just says it is part of the deep Church plot to undermine the truth.

*He rejects all interreligious dialogue and cooperation as fostering religious relativism just like the Freemasons espouse.  Again with the Freemasons!  Apparently, they are everywhere.

*He rejects democracy and says the Church’s embracing of it is a dangerous nod to a false individualism. 

*He rejects the so-called nouvelle theologie and accuses it of causing the Church to develop an “inferiority complex” to the modern world in all of its Satanic pretentions. He then lists the negative fruits of this inferiority complex:

*The loss of the concept of a Catholic monarchy that rules by divine right. Can I infer from this that he endorses such a view? He lists it as one of the negative effects of modern theology so…. I don’t want to be accused of attacking a position he does not hold, but can we at least not conclude that he seems sympathetic to the rejection of democracy and its replacement by a Catholic monarchy of divine right?? Divine right kingship is, of course, in the modern era, a Protestant idea.  

*Another of the ill effects is the loss of the idea of a “State Church.” So, once again it seems he is at least sympathetic to the idea. But his explicit rejection of Dignitatis Humanae on religious freedom allows one to see that here indeed he is an advocate for a return to the Church being established as the official State Church where that is possible.  He seems oblivious to the fact that it is possible nowhere in our current cultural and political milieu.

*Finally, another ill effect he lists is the loss of the Index of Forbidden books. So I see a pattern emerging here – – reject democracy and embrace divine right monarchy, reject religious freedom and bring back religious coercion from the State, and ban certain books that dissent from the Magisterium. But wait… isn’t he a dissenter??  Be careful what you wish for Archbishop.  Still, there seems to be an overall lack of any awareness on his part that these realities (State Church, Catholic Monarchs by divine right, Banning of books in the Index) are all deeply problematic and were tried and found wanting – – and found wanting precisely because they all involve a nominalist understanding of freedom, and thus of power, and of how the latter should relate to the former.

*He rejects religious freedom and the concept of “human dignity” as the root of this freedom. Dignitatis Humanae’s call for religious freedom is just more Freemasonry devilishness in his view.  It is one of those heretical doctrines of the Council put there by the modernist conspirators in order to destroy the Church. He utterly misses the fact that Dignitatis roots its teaching in the relationship between our obligation to seek the truth and the freedom to appropriate such truth non coercively.  Joseph Ratzinger beautifully explains this when he points out that all truth is constitutively oriented to freedom as its only proper receptive medium. But I guess Vigano thinks Ratzinger and Wojtyla were heretics too?? Part of the conspiracy??

*He wants the Pope to wear the papal tierra again.  Ok. That’s cool.  I can get on board with that.  

*He says Fratelli Tutti calls for human solidarity on the model of a secular humanist globalism.  Except it doesn’t.  Francis roots it in God as the Father of us all and sees the Trinity as a model for the kind of relational love we need to foster.  He also says that the basis of our love of neighbor, as Christians, is the fact that we see Christ in our brothers and sisters.  But this might just be a Freemason trick so who knows? But seriously, this is becoming a tired trope from the Traditionalist camp.  I am not a huge fan of Fratelli, but let’s at least get what it says right rather than forcing everything through this conspiratorial filter.  

*He says the Covid pandemic is fake and is just a ruse for the government to sieze control.  I wasn’t aware that the good Archbishop was an epidemiologist and an expert on pandemics. My bad.  

*He says we are living in the end times.  Maybe we are.  Maybe we aren’t.  We will just have to wait on this one and see how it plays out…

*He says “Bergoglio” is the head of a false “deep Church” that is the creation of the AntiChrist.  He says this is analogous to the modern “deep State.”  More apocalyptic thinking.  With a heavy dose of “we alone are the true remnant” thinking.  This smacks of a kind of cultish insularity and an “us against the world” paranoia.

*He says the Church has fallen under the domination of modern technocratic science.  But he gives no examples of what he means here.  And, quite frankly, I have no idea what he means here.

I could go on and on but I will stop here.  I encourage you to read the whole nauseating diatribe for yourself.  You can access it here.  This will be my last post on Vigano.  My only goal in offering up this last blog on him is to defend my previous blog posts on him as being true to his actual beliefs.  I did not attack a straw man.  I did not caricature his views.  I did not exaggerate or misrepresent him.  

I would encourage my Traditionalist friends (of which there are, happily, many) to rethink their sympathies for this man’s views.  We are all upset with the state of the Church.  We are all angry at many of the things that are going on.  But to endorse Vigano’s animus against everything in the Church since Pascendi is short sighted in the extreme.  And toxic. Let us work instead at a true revival of the faith, one not rooted in a rejection of everything that is modern as a Freemason plot.  We need to retrieve Vatican II properly, as was attempted by John Paul and Benedict.  You can side with Vigano if you like.  I choose John Paul and Benedict instead.