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

November 6, 2021
Crisis in the Church
What does the word bourgeois actually mean?
“What does the word bourgeois actually mean? … The word designates a spiritual state, a direction of the soul, a peculiar consciousness of being.”
“The bourgeois, even when he is a ‘good Catholic’, believes only in this world, in the expedient and the useful; he is incapable of living by faith in another world and refuses to base his life on the mystery of Golgotha”.

Nicholas Berdyaev

I like to watch”

Chauncey Gardiner

Section One: Why another blog post on bourgeois Catholicism?

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

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

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

Section Two: The Ernstfall

"Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also"

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

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

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

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

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

Section Three: The attenuated Church of bourgeois spectators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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