The Numbing Down of the Church: Part Four: The Universal Call to Holiness and the Semi-Donatist Option (sort of)

March 31, 2021
Crisis in the Church
“In the early days of the Church, it appeared at first as self-evident that Christians must also be holy in the fullest sense of the word.  Accordingly, the struggle of the early centuries was about how to accept the weeds in the field – – to let go of the dream of a Church of the pure so as to affirm the sinner’s membership in the Church. After this was secured, however, there was a danger of falling into the opposite one-sidedness, so that eventually holiness was separated from the question of Church membership. The conciliar text could open a third stage here, by truly going beyond the mere institutionalism (without relapsing in enthusiasm) and taking seriously again the inseparable connection between the Church and holiness.”
Joseph Ratzinger (“Theologische Aufgaben,” 243)

Unlike many of the more radicalized traditionalists I have no problem with those aspects of Vatican II with which they take issue:  religious freedom, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been baptized sacramentally in the Church.  I think all of these things represent a legitimate reiteration and development of doctrine and are not difficult to square with a broader approach to the Tradition that goes beyond the theologies of Tridentine Catholicism and into the deeper waters of the Fathers and the Scriptures.  I will be writing more on those topics in future blog posts.  Suffice it to say for now that, as is the case with all Councils, Vatican II must be read in the light of its historical context and that context must always be kept in view in order to properly assess the success or failure of the conciliar project. And I take that project to be the Church’s attempt to deal with the challenges posed to the Church by modernity. Specifically, with the institutions and culture of modern political Liberalism and its unique concepts of freedom, civil rights, and participatory democracy in a pluralistic register.  Therefore, whether or not the Council was successful in that enterprise hinges upon the cogency of both its diagnosis of the challenge posed by Liberalism as well as its prescriptive pastoral proposals based on that diagnosis.

So let me begin by first pointing out what I think are some flaws in the Council – – flaws that actually serve the useful purpose of directing our gaze at the hidden dynamite of the Council – – the universal call to holiness.  I said at the end of my last blog post that the problem with Vatican II is not that it was too radical, but that it was not nearly radical enough.  And in that regard what I mean is that the Council did not make its own teaching on the universal call to holiness radical enough and chose instead to foreground the doctrine as central to its ecclesiology in Lumen Gentium only to leave it there without applying its insights in any rigorous way to its analysis of how the Church should deal with the challenges posed by modernity.  The Council was self-defined as a “pastoral” Council and yet, despite the fact that I think its theological emphases were cogent, even profound, it failed to adequately identify the depth of the pastoral crisis that was at hand – – a crisis that the universal call to holiness was tailor-made to confront.

First then, the conciliar flaws. Heavy on theology, but lacking in concrete pastoral awareness, the Council in my view was guilty of a double naivete.  The first naivete was the apparent belief of many Council fathers that the internal faith life of the Church was healthy, sound, and robust enough to carry forward the project the Council had in mind. The Council had misjudged the reservoir of faith and theological education in the pre-conciliar Church and had naively assumed that an already “strong” Church would now be made even stronger through a renewal of theology.  It is deeply ironic that a Council that billed itself as a “pastoral” Council was so singularly obtuse with regard to the pastoral health of the Church at that time.  It famously asked Catholics to “read the signs of the times” but then failed to do so itself in large measure.  It failed to notice the extent to which the very bourgeois Liberalism it sought to challenge through a cooptation of its categories and their transformation into Catholic ones had already seeped into every corner of the Church, dulling its eschatological edge, muting its supernatural call to conversion, and turning everything in the lived existence of most Catholics into suburban rice cakes devoid of the flavor of the Gospel.  The culture of bourgeois well-being had become the religion of most Catholics in their day-to-day lived existence with a deep bifurcation between daily life in the “world” and a merely forensic, pietistical, and superficial “faith life.”  It was the religion of Western style affluence but with Friday fish fries and “the Sunday obligation.”

In such an ecclesial culture the pursuit of holiness ceased being the central preoccupation of most Catholics (more on that below) and was replaced with a minimalist pursuit of “what rules I need to follow and what sins I need to avoid in order to get to Heaven.”  The command of our Lord to “be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” was turned into an impossible ideal that only certain “gifted” celibates could achieve. The “world” was no place for such pursuits and the path of “ordinary life” became a game of gauging what little one had to do in order to avoid Hell.  It is indeed true that one can find holiness even in the ordinary, but that is not the same as saying it is holy to be ordinary. In an important article in Communio on the topic of the universal call to holiness, Marianne Schlosser puts it thus: “Has there not been a tendency to consider the reasonable average as the right measure and thus to confuse mediocrity with what should be ‘normal’ Christian existence?” (Communio, Winter 2013, p. 718).

The problem arises with regard to the conciliar naivete on these points because the Council was dominated by theologians rather than pastors, and the documents, though theologically profound, displayed the conceit (and naivete) of the intellectual classes that if we just “got the theology right” that all of the proper pastoral dominoes would simply fall in a straight line as if by magic.  This is doubly ironic since no less a theologian than Joseph Ratzinger had already penned a bombshell article in 1958 called “The New Paganism in the Church” that made note of how deep the rot of faithlessness already was in the Church at that time. And he was not alone in saying things like this which causes one to wonder why the Council fathers did not take such admonitions to heart.  The result was an overly optimistic faith in “good theology” and an underappreciation for what the pastoral and political fallout would be as the Council was spun in a liberal direction by later journalists and theologians who were longing for a bourgeois revolution of cultural appeasement in the Church.  In an important interview with Peter Seewald Pope Benedict admits that in hindsight the Council was just too naïve about such things.  He says, with regard to the conciliar documents:

“In itself, we acted correctly – even if we certainly did not correctly assess the political effects and the factual consequences. One was thinking too much in a theological way and one did not consider what consequences the things would have.”

The second conciliar naivete, deeply related to the first, was the Council’s underestimation of the hostility of the Liberal culture of modernity toward Catholicism. And therefore, an underestimation of how toxic that culture had already become to the faith both within and outside of the Church.  Rightly anxious to get beyond the pugilistic Catholicism of mere negations and anathemas, the Catholicism of “forbidden books and movies,” the Catholicism which was viewed by the world, and even Catholics, as simply a kind of supernatural authoritarianism, the Council adopted a more irenic posture of “dialogue” and “engagement” with the world, naively thinking that the world of bourgeois comfort and technocratic secularism was waiting with baited breath for just such a “conversation” with a Catholicism its academic and cultural elites actually deeply loathed.

Many traditionalists fault Vatican II for never condemning communism.  However, the Church was clearly already on record as opposing communism on a deep level and an outright conciliar condemnation would have potentially caused grave problems for those Catholics living under communist rule.  My claim is that if we are searching for the gravest ideological threat to the faith in the modern world we need to look instead at the de facto atheism at the heart of the bourgeois Liberal project and the culture of worldliness that this project spawned in the Church, a Church which had long since reached a kind of “settlement” with bourgeois modernity.  And this settlement was a far graver threat to the Church as the communion of those who seek holiness than any external persecution from totalitarian regimes.  Rot from within is always more dangerous than stresses from without, especially if those stresses are countered by a structure that is internally sound.  The Council’s naivete with how far this culture had seeped into the Church, as well as her naivete about the toxicity of that culture for the faith, caused her to be overly optimistic about how much success her message of a world-leavening, world-consecrating, missionary Church with an involved and reinvigorated laity in the pursuit of Christ’s holiness would have.

The missed pastoral opportunity, therefore, was in not giving a specific contour and focus to the conciliar call for a universal call to holiness.  Viewed in the abstract such a call can remain aloof, distant, vague, and even come across as pietistical.  If the Council had had the nerve to call out the “settlement” she could have made very specific and pointed critiques, with concrete examples, of modernity’s deep alliance with militarism, consumerism, atomized individualism, hostility to moral traditions, technocracy, rapacious capitalism, sweat shop exploitation of workers, economic colonization of entire countries leading to the theft of their resources and labor for the sake of bourgeois Western comforts, and the apotheosis of wealth into a totem of worship.  It could have then linked this critique with specific moral and spiritual demands upon the clergy and the laity, admonishing them all to seek holiness first and to eschew the allurements of Moloch and Mammon, thus giving the call to holiness its lineaments and concrete form. Furthermore, such a linkage would have given the entire conciliar project an evangelical immediacy and a missionary focus that would have forestalled much of the mayhem that came later.

This naivete and missed opportunity caused the Council to promise more than it could deliver and thus the hoped for flowering of Catholic/Liberal relations instead quickly descended into a full scale rout and ecclesial retreat as Catholics themselves rose up, embraced the media narrative of bourgeois appeasement, and happily rejoiced at their new “freedom from the old rules.”  The minimalist religion of the pre conciliar Church now morphed into a religion of “celebrating who I am,” sans conversion, emptying the confessionals and replacing them with “reconciliation rooms” complete with fake plants and lava lamps.

The two naivetes were deeply related since the pre conciliar Church of forensic rules and minimalist mediocrity was just the legalistic mirror image of the post conciliar antinomian Church which also viewed things through a legalistic lens, only now in a regime of Laodicean laxity. In other words, in neither case was the pursuit of holiness viewed as the primary obligation of every Christian, including the laity.  Along these lines it is interesting to note that in the pre conciliar Church most people still believed that the pursuit of holiness was a noble thing, albeit one for the religious elites among the celibates. Many in the post conciliar Church, by contrast, cast a jaundiced eye at the entire concept and precisely for the same reasons. Namely, that the pursuit of holiness was actually just code for a kind of clerical elitism that needed to be eradicated through an emphasis upon a vulgarization of the faith as a celebration of “ordinary people” (a bastardization of the conciliar “people of God”) which quickly degenerated into the cotton candy Catholicism of populist enthusiasms. A religion of rules, now in the death-grip of an antinomian fever, struggled to maintain its equilibrium as the Church splintered into traditionalist, liberal, and neo-con factions, all of whom were attempting to create a Catholicism without Catholics insofar as none of them sought to make the universal call to holiness the centerpiece of their various schemes, preferring instead a path of “stratagems”:  restorationism for the Lefebvreists, secularized, Leftist social justice causes for the liberals, and “neutral” natural law theory in an American tonality for the neo-con culture warriors.

The bishops, overwhelmed by the post conciliar cultural tsunami, retreated into their chanceries, content to focus on balancing the budget and presiding over an “operation Rice Bowl” Catholicism of philanthropy, beige parishes, and “annual appeals.” Vocations, predictably, plummeted as there was nothing in this milquetoast Catholicism to inspire young men and women to seek a supernatural holiness the Church herself no longer promoted with any vigor or with a manifest conviction that went beyond pious lip service.  The liturgy had become an anarchist’s dream of freelancing priests and the playpen for cultural Kitsch-meisters in both music and architectural design as we sang an entire generation of Catholics into the grand vision of the St. Louis Jesuits as we danced and held hands in our newly built churches “in the round,” all of which had the shape of the cul-de-sacs that inspired them.

I am not, obviously, here to condemn tout court a Council that I wholeheartedly support. As I have said many times in defense of the Council in the face of the scorched-earth and unnuanced attacks of the rad trads, no Council is without faults and no Council is, therefore, beyond legitimate and reasoned criticism.  Faults can be found in every single one of the great Councils in the Church’s history.  Furthermore, hindsight is 20/20 and even though the Council can be faulted for a certain naivete, I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the total collapse of the Church’s culture or the manner in which it unfolded.  The Church, as Karl Barth noted, opened its windows to let in the fresh air, but a hurricane blew in instead.  But in principle there was nothing wrong with opening those windows since the Church had indeed become stale and one can only stay so long in a defensive posture of mere negation before the air inside becomes foul and toxic.  Nor am I contradicting my belief that the Council should have been more critical of modernity since there is a way of engaging the world with a raw and frank honesty, with a full existential appreciation for the gains achieved by Liberal democracy, and using the full resources of the Church’s intellectual and spiritual traditions, without for all that retreating into a triumphalistic, neo-scholastic fortress of defensive rejection of all things modern all the while never even attempting  to engage the world at all. “Contempt” is not the same thing as “critical engagement” and “rejection” is not the same as “prophetic witness.”

More importantly, however, and despite a certain pastoral myopia of the Council, there are pastoral implications of a profound nature to be drawn from the rich theology of the Council, especially in its related teachings on the universal call to holiness and the Christological form of our humanity.  The Council deals with the call to holiness in several places, but its main explication comes, appropriately, in the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.  This is significant since it eliminates any possibility of defining the call to holiness as a merely individualistic exercise in private virtue and piety.  Lumen Gentium explicitly ties the call to holiness to the Christological holiness at the heart of the Church and thus locates the call within the broader communion of saints. Indeed, the Church as such is defined as the communal dimension and expression of this holiness. Yes, the Church is loaded with sinners since all have fallen short of the Glory of God, but it is the business of the Church to turn those sinners into saints. Indeed, it is the very reason for her existence and, were she to lose sight of this fact she would cease to be what she was called to be by God.

Historically, it is very evident that when the Church has lost sight of this primary purpose that she quickly falls into corruptions of all kinds.  And when we look at the various reform efforts in the history of the Church we see that there has been a focus on cleaning up clerical corruption and the moral dissipation of various religious orders.  Thus do we see splinter groups forming among the religious orders in the emergence of “discalced” this and “discalced” that, or the creation of reformed orders of “strict observance.”  But Lumen Gentium places the universal call to holiness in the center of its treatment of the Church and emphasizes the obligation of all the baptized to seek holiness with due regard to all of the various ways people live in their concrete circumstances.

I use the word “sojourners” here deliberately since it underscores a central biblical theme, especially in the Pauline corpus, that this world is not our final destination and that we are members of a Kingdom that is “not of this world.”  Our horizon must, therefore, be eschatological and thus even the lay person, though not living a specifically monastic life, must seek after the evangelical counsels as a central component of their obligation to pursue holiness.  There can be no “stasis” in this endeavor since it is an ironclad rule of the spiritual life that one is either trending upward toward the love of God or trending downward toward the libido dominandi.  Thus, what Lumen Gentium is suggesting is that this time around what we need is a “discalced” laity in order for them to be a true leavening agent in the culture, rather than have the culture leaven them.  In other words, the Council is not engaging in some romanticization of the laity as some vague, populist, “people of God” whose bourgeois form of life is now to be baptized as the new norm and as some kind of bizarre expression of the Holy Spirit leading the Church into secularized mediocrity.  Rather, the Council is placing on the laity a high calling and a profound challenge and reminding us all that halfway measures are no longer sufficient.

I can think of no better expression of what I am talking about here than the description of the path to holiness given by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When he said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” (New York: Touchstone. pp. 170-171)

Seen in this light we can discern that the Council is aiming at a declericalized Church where the laity are not infantilized as mere obedient spectators in the coliseum of clerical theatrics, but rather now take their proper place in the communion of those who seek holiness as a member of the priesthood of the baptized – – a priesthood that implies that they too are to be, as the Israelites of old, and as the New Testament epistles remind us, a people “set apart” and whose entire existence is in the form of a purgatorial fire in order to steel themselves to the missionary task of consecrating the world to God.  And this purgatorial fire is nothing less than the death to self required by the cruciform nature of all of Christian life.  The “prosperity” Gospel has its gross Protestant poster children that have been much in the news lately. But there are bourgeois Catholic iterations of the same and it is all from Satan, the father of lies.  Christ himself told us that we cannot be his followers unless we take up our cross.  Crucifixion is a bloody affair, and the death to self is a tortured path of pain, despair, darkness, dissolution, and a sense of abandonment – – all of which we must pass through in order to put on Christ.

Instead, we like to “manage” our penances and to domesticate them into tame pieties that exact little sacrifice from us. But this will not do.  In fact, most of it is just a mendacious game of pious self-rationalizations.  Death of any sort is never easy because it always entails a painful rupture of some kind which is why in the spiritual life it must take the form of a holy violence within ourselves as we do battle with the archons of the age that have rooted in our souls as the true gods that we worship. Satan does indeed reside in our secrets.

All of this is why I am so devoted to the spirituality of Dorothy Day who saw way before others the absolute necessity of a laity committed to the path of holiness.  Her commitment to this path was a commitment to a revolution in the laity who for too long had been allowed to wallow in the mud of worldly mediocrity on the pretense that such evangelical perfection is not their calling.  As I have noted elsewhere, Dorothy Day’s deep insight in this regard is that if we are all indeed called to holiness, then this necessarily entails a reexamination of the uses to which the traditional distinction between the “way of the counsels” and the “way of the commandments” has been put.  Poverty, chastity, and obedience cannot be so easily cordoned off from the Divine moral commandments since the former in-form the latter and breathe fire into their equations.  This is surely, among other things, what Jesus was making clear in the Sermon on the Mount.  Unlike Moses, who came down from the mountain to give the people the decalogue, Jesus brings the people up the mountain with him in order to announce the inbreaking of a new regime of grace that calls them all to a higher path of perfection.

And that brings me to the role the ordained priesthood plays in all of this.  The ordained priesthood is qualitatively different from the priesthood of the baptized insofar as the latter share in this priesthood of mediation communally, whereas the former does so as an individual whose sacramental ordination gives him the character of representing the head of the Church, who is Christ.  His sacramental powers are not his own, but are the work of Christ himself thus guaranteeing the validity and efficacy of the sacraments regardless of the personal holiness of the priest.  The Church long ago condemned the Donatist heresy that tied the validity of the sacraments to the personal holiness of the priest.  This truth is expressed in the doctrine of “ex opere operato” which states in essence that a sacrament is valid so long as the priest is validly ordained and is performing the ritual that the Church provides.  The priest might be a total degenerate – – a clerical dung beetle – – but that has no bearing on the validity of the sacraments.  And thank God for that.

But were the Donatists entirely wrong?  To be sure, as a group the ancient Donatists come across as schismatic, puritanical, fanatics who would have been no fun at Toga parties.  I am sure they were insufferable prigs who were probably like a hybridization of Michael Voris and Piers Morgan.  Nevertheless, one can sympathize with their central insight that there ought to be some manifest real world effects of the internal, Christological holiness of the Church as such.  If this were not true then the doctrine of the Church’s impeccability starts to look like a monumental shell game, a pious fiction, an all-too-convenient dodge, and even just a plain ol’ fashioned falsehood. The priest does indeed confect valid sacraments regardless of personal holiness. However, and in line with the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of all believers, it is also the task of the ordained priest to lead this communion of those who seek holiness into Christ, into holiness, and to gather up their offerings of self and to present them to the Lord on their behalf.  But how can a priest who is a degenerate perform this function effectively?

And this is what I mean by the numbing down of the Church.  We have grown so accustomed to a bourgeois and mediocre laity and a corrupted and filthy clergy that we have all leaned too heavily on “ex opere” as our failsafe mechanism and turned it into a colossal engine that drives the train of indifference.  Personally, I am done with it and refuse to participate in the game.  I waste no time in walking away from a parish that has parishioners who are bored with the faith and priests who are intellectually stupid, morally corrupted, spiritually lazy, and socially dysfunctional.  I have found a home in my local Anglican Ordinariate parish and shook the dust off of my territorial parish long ago.  And I encourage others to do the same.  If the Church wants us to stay devoted to our territorial parishes then it needs to give us parishes that actually believe in something and live it.  I am too sinful a man, and I am in need of too much support, to continue attending parishes where I am not deeply challenged to holiness.  My eternal soul is at stake and so I make no apologies – – NO.APOLOGIES. – – for putting my hand to the plow and not looking back at my territorial parish that had no plows or plowmen at all.  I am sure my combox will now fill up with those who disagree. You may post away and if you do I will not be angry.  But I won’t answer you because you are not responsible for my soul. I am.

I am calling this path of resistance to the machine of “ex opere” mediocrity the path of semi-Donatism.  The Donatists were heretics and I reject their heresy.  I also reject their elitist and schismatic snobbery.  But I embrace the notion that we need to recover the intrinsic connection between the Church and holiness.  We need to recover the idea that to insist on the pursuit of holiness is not a form of elitism but the very thing we are supposed to be doing as just the general run of our lives as Christians.  The Church should indeed be characterized by “here comes everybody” and be an open door for any dadgum sinner (like me) who wants to walk in and join the challenge.  But therein is the kicker.  A Church committed to the pursuit of holiness should indeed never be an elitist haven for snobs who look like they have been chewing on green lemons for days.  But it should be a place for sinners of all kinds who are committed to that path of holiness, no matter how halting their steps in that endeavor.  In other words, it must always be the place where all are agreed that holiness is the one and only goal of the whole darn thing. Therefore, the Church must never bless our sins in the run of faux mercy and should never treat the commandments as mere “ideals” (as the once great, but no longer great, Cardinal Schönborn said last week). Because as soon as it does, it becomes a monumental pile of irrelevance, which is the real reason people stop going to Church.  No Gallup survey or Pew Research grant is necessary to point us to the obvious.

I was once a member of a parish where there were no scheduled confessions since nobody ever showed up.  Of course, they were never encouraged to either.  If you wanted to go to confession you had to call the rectory and make an appointment.  And this is not an uncommon thing in the Church today, even before Covid.  Think about that. It is like a hospital emergency room with no doctors on call and if you need to go there because you lopped-off your arm in a fit of pique you will still need an appointment.  In such a scenario nobody in their right mind would go to that emergency room in search of medical care.  Likewise, a Church that does not preach the Gospel of conversion, repentance and holiness – – and sincerely attempts to live it – – is a Church without a reason to exist. Or a soul.

Dorothy Day pray for us.

Photo: Dorothy Day by Maggie Willis

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