Eucharistic Incoherence: Part Two
As I stated in part one, I wanted to share with my readers an email I received from someone who wishes to remain anonymous for many reasons. But trust me when I tell you that he is a very well educated person theologically, has worked in the “trenches” of pastoral outreach, and knows his stuff.
You may not agree with everything he says here. But I hope a few quibbles here and there with the sins that he lists does not stop you from appreciating the deep insights he brings to the conversation concerning the nature of the crisis the Church faces today. I will write more at the end of his email.
I got to read in full your latest blog post, which in my view is the best thing you’ve written at least since your “nuclear onanism” piece. I’d be glad to see more in this vein.
I resonated with your suggestions that catechesis alone cannot fix the lack of belief in the Eucharist. Indeed, in our day, there is more solid catechetical materials on this topic—from podcasts to pamphlets—than ever before in history. Those who research will learn well enough, but such knowledge isn’t the virtue of faith.
I’ve been coming more and more to the conclusion that the barrier in the way of Christian renewal is the widespread participation in structures of sin—in intrinsically evil ways—which is not repented or acknowledged by almost anyone in the Church. In essence, it seems to me like we have a moral crisis stopping us from addressing all the other crises, including our 'anonymous atheism.'
Obviously, many Catholics contracept, but many don’t. Moreover, most practicing Catholics know that it is wrong. The same could be said of abortion, gender mutilation, sodomy, and divorce. On all these points, Mass-attending Catholics tend to be broadly catechized and could not commit these sins with a silent conscience.
But what about refusing money to beggars at street corners? Accepting usury from banks and speculative profits from the stocks markets? Serving in the U.S. military, helping to maintain illegal imperial bases and nuclear weapons? Refusing homeless people who try to sleep on our social club lawns or parking lots? Utilizing data-driven advertisement on our media platforms? Buying new cars? Choosing cheap or fancy foreign goods, produced through slavery and/or fossil fuels, over local ones? Mass-printing and then throwing away sacred images and texts? Pledging the American Flag (the Pride Flag aside!) or placing it in the sanctuary? I speak here especially of the things that have troubled my conscience. Yet all are standard practice, even unassailable custom, in the Church I see around me. If they are sins, then not only are they committed, but they are not even recognized.
Discussions among more traditionally orthodox and conservative Catholics are often filled with excellent critiques of modernity (Schindler, Jones, Deneen, MacIntyre, etc.), but when it comes to action and application, nobody wants to take up the idea of applying these critiques to our above-listed American addictions. Recently, the few gentle or groping attempts are passed over in silence and the topic hastily changed—so to focus on platitudes like “it all really comes down to just raising your family well”, “it boils down to treating each other with love,” “at the end of the day, you just gotta not forget to keep praying.” These “lullaby effect” phrases are not the “hard sayings” of Jesus, Who demands all of everything in dramatic terms.
Here, I have to disagree with your excuse for the clergy that they are overworked: that may be, but they bear an enormous moral responsibility if most (or even many) of the above are objective sins, and yet they do not preach against them, or do not reform these practices which are carried out in our diocesan/parochial institutions. Of course, the laity’s sin is just as grave, especially when we are so resistant on all these points that the clergy fear to preach.
So, my increasing suspicion is that the principal reason that all our American Catholic prayer, catechesis, and community-building amounts do so little is that we are mired in unrepented grave sin, which we cannot or will not see. That the Church is not crying out in this wilderness, then, is the principal reason that we feel no escape from our anonymous atheism. We are told to "repent and believe in the Gospel", and because we do not do the former we struggle to do the latter. The Cross is not conquering, because we are refusing true conversion and clinging to our sins.
I think it's important that we acknowledge a certain "primacy of repentance" in the life of the Church, at least in the sense that repentance, conversion, turning from the City of Man to the City of God, is a precondition for all spiritual growth, understanding, and joy that follows. The preaching of the Gospel begins with the word "Repent!" and only afterward can we "Believe in the Gospel!" (Interestingly, St. John Paul II makes this very point in Redemptor Hominis 20.6).
The dynamic is very clear in the Epistle to the Ephesians. It's opening rebuke is a reminder that "you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience..." (2:1-2). Much has been made of that phrase "the prince of the power of the air" or "the evil that hangs in the air" in Communio circles. For example, Ratzinger in Jesus of Nazareth (Baptism to Transfiguration): "Who could fail to see here a description of our world as well, in which the Christian is threatened by an anonymous atmosphere, by 'something in the air' that wants to make faith seem ludicrous and absurd to him? And who could fail to see the poisoning of the spiritual climate all over the world that threatens the dignity of man, indeed his very existence? The individual human being, and even communities of human beings, seem to be hopelessly at the mercy of such powers." (near the beginning of Chapter 6) But this demonic evil in the air is not merely the background intellectual culture that oppresses faith (a Darwinian theory of creation, a mechanistic physics, a hyper-sociologized idea Church, a solely psychologized vision of the moral life, etc.), but it is at the same time the above-listed structures of sin--in which we nominal Christians actively participate!--which are premised on and constructive of our heretical, confused, and pagan metaphysics. The intellectual critique of ideas is entirely insufficient, and revealed as such, if grace is rejected by an unwillingness to amend our corrupted morals and sinful customs. Further on in Ephesians, St. Paul writes:
"Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (Ephesians 4:17-24)
This clear distinction of way of life--the former, pagan way and the new, Christian way--is essential to "learning Christ", but Paul suggests that possibility that they may not have really "heard about Him." These Ephesians--nominal Christians, but still living as their "old selves" according to the pagan society around them--are in the exact situation, I suspect, as modern American Christians. The scandal of scandals is that while our Bishops should be preaching to us like Paul, we are instead being told that economic, ecological, and military sins are not really sins, and that our "former manner of life" is not genuinely depraved--as long as we hold the conservative line on the sexual issues! No wonder the progressives are calling the bluff of this hypocrisy. They will continue to do so until the entire polarized Church in U.S. undergoes a vast reform of its moral sensitivities, which would reconstitute Her as plainly living in opposition to the world and the power of the darkness which rule over it.
He correctly (in my view) pinpoints a central failure of the Church in America over the past century and therefore undercuts the narrative that the current malaise in the Church was caused by Pope Francis, James Martin, the Germans or Cardinals McElroy and Hollerich, no matter how problematic those individuals are. Because if they are problematic (and I think they are) they are far downstream from the deeper problematic that made their emergence possible in the first place.
If you follow my writings then you know that this is a central theme of mine. The current malaise is the result of several centuries of a bad reaction to modernity from conservative, liberal and traditionalist Catholics, all of whom failed to fully grasp the depth of the challenge posed to the Church by the modern world of bourgeois values and the economic engine and military complex required to sustain those values. Allow me to toss in a bunch of quotes from various authors to illustrate this:
Cyril O’Regan (article in Church Life Journal):
The phenomenon of secular modernity is not another historical change for Newman. The way Newman sees it, it is nothing less than a complete change in the entire fabric of society and culture and of human beings as such. Newman is speaking to what pretentious postmoderns speak of as a change of mentalite or episteme. In our brave new, enlightened, and very clean world, … the concept of sin no longer rhymes; nor does justification; nor does the concept of holiness; nor even the concept of the Holy. … Such an idea becomes more or less incomprehensible; it does not compute and its not computing is a banishing far more absolute than a cadre of intellectuals arguing against it. Modernity is the world changed, in which it is not simply that we have different thoughts, but thinking itself has changed; what one can experience has changed and the way one experiences has changed. …Newman thinks that the irresistible expansion of secular modernity, its evacuation of the meaning of symbols and the attenuation of experience, makes it extraordinarily difficult to get to God’s glory - - even if not quite impossible.
Nicholas Berdyaev. (The Bourgeois Mind):
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.
Joseph Ratzinger. (The New Heathens and the Church):
The appearance of the church in the modern era shows that in a completely new way it has become a church of heathens, and increasingly so: no longer, as it once was, a church made up of heathens who have become Christians, but a church of heathens, who still call themselves Christians, but have really become heathens. Heathenism is entrenched today in the Church itself. That is the mark both of the church of our time and also of the new heathenism. This heathenism is actually in the church and a church in whose heart heathenism lives.
Christopher Dawson. (The Dynamics of World History):
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.
Hans Urs von Balthasar. (The Moment of Christian Witnes):
The man who considers and treats the world … as simply a quarry for the building of his own house will hardly be likely to see a reflection, however pale, of God’s image. He has become homo faber once again, … [Therefore] we are obliged to make a virtue of necessity and to convert the inability of modern man ‘to seek God and see if he cannot find him or feel his presence, who is never far from us’ (Acts 17:27) into a nervous awe of a remote, undiscoverable God whose presence we can never hope to feel. … And because modern man obviously does not have an easy time of it, the Christian joins modern man and becomes, along with him, one seeking God rather than appear to be one who, naively and incredibly, has found God already.
I could add quote after quote but you get the point. Insofar as modern Christians, including Church leaders, have made their peace with this situation no prophetic counter-witness to our culture is possible. In his apostolic exhortation, “Christifideles Laici”, Pope John Paul II, leaning heavily on the teaching of Vatican II on the laity, spoke strongly against any bifurcation in the life of the laity between their “spiritual life”, which too many conceive of as something entirely “private”, and their living of the Gospel in the public square which is too often deemed “inappropriate” in our culture. In section #59 he makes this explicit:
There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called "spiritual" life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called "secular" life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity. In fact, every area of the lay faithful's lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, who desires that these very areas be the "places in time" where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of the Father and service of others. Every activity, every situation, every precise responsibility-as, for example, skill and solidarity in work, love and dedication in the family and the education of children, service to society and public life and the promotion of truth in the area of culture-are the occasions ordained by Providence for a "continuous exercise of faith, hope and charity".
And in an even more direct manner Pope John Paul challenges the laity to be more educated in their faith in order to be better able to give public witness and in particular to be more informed about the Church’s social teaching. He states in section #60:
This is especially true for the lay faithful who have responsibilities in various fields of society and public life. Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge -and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation-of the Church's social doctrine, as repeatedly stressed by the Synod Fathers in their presentations. They refer to the participation of the lay faithful in public life, in the following words: "But for the lay faithful to take up actively this noble purpose in political matters, it is not enough to exhort them. They must be offered a proper formation of a social conscience, especially in the Church's social teaching, which contains principles - of reflection, criteria for judging and practical directives (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction of Christian Freedom and Liberation, 72), and which must be present in general catechetical instruction and in specialized gatherings, as well as in schools and universities. Nevertheless, this social doctrine of the Church is dynamic; that is, adapted to circumstances of time and place. It is the right and duty of Pastors to propose moral principles even concerning the social order and of all Christians to apply them in defence of human rights Nevertheless, active participation in political parties is reserved to the lay faithful" (emphasis in the original)
Sadly, this admonition to give witness to the Church’s social teaching has not extended in American Catholic circles on either the Right or the Left into an extended and trenchant condemnation of the misuses of American power abroad, the rise of America as the world’s preeminent military hardware merchant, the ongoing influence of the military industrial complex in our politics, economy, and culture, and the possession with intent to use if so needed of a vast arsenal of hydrogen bombs.
I have spoken often of the menace to our Church of the progressive Left and its underwriting of the dangerous, Gnostic, LGBTQ steamroller, which threatens to destroy marriage and the family as the foundational pillar of civilization. Marriage and family are natural institutions created by God and as such exist prior to the State and have a metaphysical and theological priority over the State. And this is even more true of human life as such which is why we must continue to oppose with all of our might the “culture of death” also outlined by Pope John Paul.
Nevertheless, there is great merit in the “seamless garment of life ethic” even if that notion has been abused in order to dismiss the so-called “pelvic issues” as of lesser importance in the hierarchy of moral values. In reality, and following Dorothy Day and a host of other orthodox theologians here, there are deep linkages on a foundational moral theological level between the human life and sexuality issues and the issues related to economic injustice and military power. And the modern bifurcation within the Church between those who are “pro-life” and those who are for “social justice” is one of the deepest and gravest misfortunes of our time.
I dream of a Church in America that is willing to go the Cross as the singular and only institution in our country that fights for the dignity of human life in all aspects. That we become known as “those people” who refuse abortion, refuse euthanasia, refuse LGBTQ ideology, refuse war in almost all cases, refuse the vast inequalities of wealth, and which forbids its members to work in the nuclear arms wing of our military. And I dream that the various factions in the Church can dream this as well and begin to make common cause against the gods of Moloch, Ares, and Mammon in our age.
Such a dream seems like a fantasy. And therein lies the problem.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.