The Weirdness of Christ and the Authenticity of the Church

November 12, 2022
Catholic Worker
We need to make Christianity weird and wild again. 

The hits just keep on coming.  In France a retired Cardinal has admitted that several decades ago he sexually abused a fourteen year old girl.  He has now dutifully made all of the usual genuflections toward “accountability” and has apologized and asked for forgiveness. This is on top of ten other bishops in France who are currently under investigation for similar offenses or for covering up offenses, not to mention hundreds of priests as well, with around an estimated 330,000 victims over a seventy year span.  By now we have all become a bit cynical and jaded to such stories as we have witnessed similar scandalous revelations of widespread clerical sexual abuse from the United States, Canada, South America, Ireland, Australia, Germany, and even deeply Catholic Poland.  

In the midst of this we have gotten repeated assurances from the hierarchy and from folks like Bill Donohue at the Catholic League that the worst of the scandal is over and that the Church now “gets it” and now has policies in place to make sure such things do not happen again.  Even Pope Francis, in his latest ultracrepidarian airplane comments, has stated that the Church has new policies in place and is facing the crisis with courage! Well then, there you go! We have a “policy” now and it is a courageous one! In reality, there is no real fire in all this smoke, and it is just the usual bureaucratic boilerplate response to any institutional crisis: circle the wagons, hold a meeting or two, issue new directives for media consumption, then head to the bar for Martinis and raw oysters on the half shell.  And then, once back home, you can wave a paper in the air and declare “peace in our time!” and then continue on with business as usual.

And in all of this they have ignored the first principle of any healthy organization. Namely, that personnel is policy and that the people you hire and promote must energetically and fully embrace the mission of that institution.  You can have all of the policies in place you want – dream policies written by the finest lawyers, fixers, and insurance executives money can buy – but if you run an outfit like the Church, whose sole reason for existing is to generate holiness in the cruciform pattern of Christ’s love, but then populate the episcopal landscape with folks who treat that mission as an ideal rather than a mandate, then the results will be what we have seen.  

Ask yourself if Apple Computer would ever place in management positions a critical mass of consummate Luddites or if the Louvre would ever hire a world-class art thief as its chief collections curator?  Of course they wouldn’t since any sane person would recognize immediately the sheer lunacy of such scenarios and would wonder out loud how any organization so manifestly and prodigiously stupid could long endure.  Likewise, if the Church’s central mission is treated by its leaders as an unattainable perfection for most people requiring a form of heroism that Cardinal Kasper, one of the pope’s favorites, has said is “not for ordinary Christians”, then something prodigiously stupid has indeed erupted onto the scene.  And as always, when I say “stupid” I mean stupid, as in an idea so vapid, puerile, obtuse, and stubbornly resistant to antibiotics, that it defies categorization as a concept at all.

Furthermore, given that the pursuit of holiness is the Church’s central task, its evacuation from the Church’s mission mandate, means that something else will rush into the vacuum of purpose and meaning that is left behind. And that something else will be the default worldview and dogmas of bourgeois modernity and its cult of material well-being (Del Noce’s apt term). Ours is a therapeutic culture obsessed with valorizing the imperial, autonomous, self which is itself a pure ideological construct of that same bourgeois modernity. (Carl Trueman is brilliant on this point) And this anthropology of the self as a sui generis engine of idiosyncratic emotions that cannot be questioned lest one spur the wounded ones into self-loathing, is utterly incompatible with the logic of Christianity and its call for holiness in the new regime of grace, which, after all, requires at least an attempt at repentance.  Indeed, what is at stake here, as Saint Pope John Paul II pointed out in Veritatis Splendor (if we are still allowed by Austin Ivereigh or Massimo Faggioli to mention that encyclical) is nothing short of the truth and legitimacy of grace and redemption as constitutive existential realities. These are not trifling or tangential issues and the current marginalization of true regenerative holiness as the centerpiece of moral pastoral praxis in favor of the lowered-bar of dumbed-down and numbed-down psychological bromides is a recipe for ecclesial suicide.  It is a choice between St. Philip Neri and Dr. Phil.  And we have chosen poorly.

Yes, the Church is filled with sinners of varying levels of perfidy and thus, as Pope Francis has pointed out, the Church is analogous to a “field hospital” that must triage the wounded and prioritize “those in most need of thy mercy”.  But triage is performed with an eye toward healing which means that there must be some standard as to what constitutes “health” and all those involved must convince the patient that he or she must cooperate with the recuperative regimen prescribed by the doctors.  My own brother just recently had a heart attack and he is a heavy smoker.  I am sure his doctors did not tell him, after placing three stents in his clogged arteries, “Now go home and enjoy yourself.  And if you enjoy smoking, by all means keep doing it. Party on Garth.”

What is telling in that analogy is that it drives home forcefully the total rule over our minds that the cult of bourgeois well-being has as the primary interior decorator of our mental furniture.  As Stanley Hauerwas pointed out in a lecture I once heard him give, “Why is it that we make damn certain that our heart surgeon is of the highest caliber with impeccable skills, but when it comes to our inner spiritual life we will actually tolerate gross incompetence from our spiritual guides?” When, in a moment of hypochondriac panic we think we might have cancer we go immediately online to check out the Mayo clinic website on cancer symptoms and would not even think for one second of consulting the webpage of the local 24 hour “You pay-we cure, EmergiCare” office. But when we feel the gnawing of a blue spiritual malaise, we seek out the dulcet, winsome, tones and therapeutic palliatives of any hack at hand who will advise us to turn to aroma therapy while staring at a lava lamp or to walk a labyrinth as we “mindfully” construct origami swans.

Embedded in that sarcasm is a serious point.  As I have written before, the particular crisis modernity presents to us cuts more deeply than a simple denial of God’s existence. The crisis is rather the far deeper incision of God’s nullification as a complete irrelevance. In other words, even denying God exists is to give too much obeisance to the question of God in the first place. The mentalité that constitutes, and thus hedges-in, our conception of the “really real” is not that of a divinely populated cosmos teeming with life, but, as Hans Jonas points out, of a dead cosmos where life is viewed as an epiphenomenal effervescence which now must turn back and impose its will on the dead material substrate.  God, and the question of God, has no place in that Titanistic project.

And with such a materialist worldview at the heart of modernity we would most certainly all be Marxists by now were it not for the fact that the excesses of capitalism were gradually reined-in, and the largesse of robber-baron wealth dispersed to the rising bourgeois masses who promptly turned Mammon, as Eugene McCarraher points out, into their most cherished enchantment.  God, even if he exists, does so now in an ethereal and other-worldly modality which has little purchase on our private and/or public constructions of what counts as real and existentially important. The Marxist revolution never happens because the need for it has disappeared, and the God Marx viewed as an illusory narcotic and an anesthetic against proletarian pain is now just a lifestyle accessory and an end-of-life companion. Thus was Marx’s essentialized (and somewhat romanticized) “groaning proletariat” transformed into groaning suburban complainers whose chief concern is that their Cable TV is too expensive – which, of course, it is.  

What is my point then in all of this with regard to where I started with the Church scandals?  It is that for the most part the Church in the West is a strange kind of thing indeed.  As with Marxism, the problem the Church faces is that the problematic it proposes – sin and its redemption – seems not to exist anymore to most people.  In other words, the question to which Christianity is the answer is no longer a question that people ask.  And the standard ecclesial responses to this crisis of message and meaning appear quite often as an impossible attempt at a chimeric hybrid of faith and utter indifference, of the outward trappings of the Gospel with the inward heart of modern atheism, and which thus suspends the Church in a kind of extended theatricality without seriousness.  We no longer seem to truly believe in the play or its plot or its narrative threads. We no longer count it all as part of the really real.  Because if we did believe the narrative of the Gospel we would not rape our children and/or enable via coverup those who do.  And yet the “show” goes on with the leading actors still garbed in Renaissance and Baroque epicene frills that no longer are evocative of the sacred, but project instead an air of antiquarian exhaustion and/or the stench of rank hypocrisy.  It all comes across as a dance of shadows in Plato’s cave, bereft of substance, of reality, of anything that damn well matters.  

And then we wonder why folks are leaving the theatre and not coming back. We hold “synods on synods” ( a sure sign of the triumph of the bourgeois bureaucratic impulse toward centralized control via the simulation of democracy) and bishops gather in Rome with mock seriousness armed with portfolios larded with the latest statistics the better to pretend that “things are getting done” back home when the reality is that the Church in their diocese is most likely dying.  How refreshing it would be if a majority of bishops were to rise up and say to the Pope, paraphrasing the young Curé of Abricourt in Bernanos’ novel “The Diary of a Country Priest”: “Holy Father, our dioceses are bored. Like all the others. And it does not seem there is anything we can do about it.” And to tell his Holiness that this boredom, as the Curé of Abricourt also says, “is like a cancer” that you can actually live with for quite a while. Until you can’t. And how refreshing it would be if they said as well that this cancer is the rot of bourgeois modernity infecting the Church which we must resist with all of our power.  Which is also what Bernanos thought.  And finally, to tell the Pope that we must live ourselves, and instill in our flock, the holiness of Christ.

I am not holding my breath for such speeches.

In my youth I was involved in a theatre group that one year performed the same three plays over and over in differing venues.  I was the lead in one of those plays (“The Man Who Came to Dinner”) and by the end of the year I no longer cared one wit for the play or my role in it.  The show went on, and if I may say so, I remained quite funny and got all the usual laughs in all the usual spots.  (I can be funny when I need to be, and sometimes when I should not be.) But inwardly I resented the audience deeply, those laughs, and I came to hate that play.  All I really wanted to do was to rush through the performance so I could go back to the green room, smoke cigarettes and get drunk with my fellow thespians until we collapsed in exhaustion around 3:00 AM, and to count all of that as a mark of dark sophistication.  

What I am claiming here is that the corruptions and scandals of the Church in the West are the ecclesial equivalent of the faux “dark sophistication” of that green room. That the corruptions in the Church are not the result of flawed policies, or a lack of synodality, or clericalism, or bad liturgy, or even bad moral theology, but of an inward rejection of the narrative play of the Gospel as such. To be sure, the show goes on, but now filled with an exhausted and cynical bitterness that eventually just retreats either into the unreality of bureaucratic somnambulance and petty perks, and/or the green room debauchery of spent actors seeking the dopamine rush of bodily pleasures.

I have spoken to many of my friends – both Catholic and non-Catholic – and gotten literally hundreds and hundreds of emails from my readers, who say that they do not even bother to read such pathetic stories of scandal and corruption anymore since there is no need of further witnesses.  They have seen enough to make an adjudication: The Catholic Church of today lacks all moral and spiritual credibility to say anything to anyone about anything, and most damningly, to speak at all of the Christ it supposedly serves.  

Let me be clear. The sentiment is not that everyone now thinks that the vast majority of priests and bishops are perverts and scoundrels. Not at all.  Only the incorrigibly awful anti-Catholic bigots think that way.  I know many, many fine priests and not a few great bishops.  And these men are heroes of the highest order in my eyes. And most people are well aware that the vast majority of priests and bishops are good men possessed of a certain common-sense decency and civility. Therefore, the problem is not that the laity now all think that the clerical ranks are filled with perverted, evil men.  The problem is rather that most lay people think that the clerical ranks, and especially the episcopal ranks, have too many clueless men.  Clueless about the nature of the crisis we face. Clueless therefore about how to confront it.  Clueless about the entropy of modern nihilism and how it degrades the Church’s orbital integrity around Christ. And perhaps more than clueless. Perhaps a level of insouciance as well as the theatrical play goes on but performed by men without chests.

At this point (and I know this from emails) some will accuse me of being my “usual hyperbolic and acidic self”. They will say that things are not this bad and I am being overly harsh and pessimistic.  But such accusations would be wrong.  If anything, I am understating the problematic of the de facto atheism at the heart of the modern Church so as not to step on and “crush the bruised reed” of folks who are teetering on the brink of ecclesial despair.  But the facts are the facts and what they scream out is that the progressive, radical traditionalist, and conservative responses to all of these issues all fall short, and each in its own way, insofar as none of them adequately addresses the situation from within the Christological heart of the Church.  And this only adds to the problem of the scandals. The fact that we cannot even properly diagnose their source is why we cannot properly get the prescription for a cure right. Like parents who keep sending their drunken and misbehaving sons off to military school for remediation when in reality the problem is that both parents are themselves public drunkards.

I am a theologian of the ressourcement/Communio school of thought.  And that can mean very many different things depending on the topic at hand and the individual theologian being discussed.  But the one thing that ties almost all the members of this school together is a radical Christocentrism. The Church’s one and only metric for discerning the truth about God is Christ and Christ crucified.  Christianity shares many things in common with the other great Abrahamic, monotheistic religions.  But what differentiates Christianity and thus defines it thoroughly, is the radical claim that the Abrahamic God descended (kenosis) into the form of a slave, took on our human nature in all its fleshy messiness, and died at the hands of the Romans by being nailed to some pieces of wood, only to rise from the dead three days later.  And the claim of Christianity is that this is the Absolute and definitive Revelation of who God actually is.  Everything in theology is thus downstream from this and any Catholic theology that is therefore not Christocentric is flirting with deep error at best, and idolatry at worst.  

I further think that this was also the primary theological project of Vatican II as it sought a reinterrogation of the entirety of the Tradition through this Christocentric lens and filter.  Sadly, the Church was not christologically mature enough to handle this which points to a certain naivete in the Council which seemed to have thought otherwise.  This christological reorientating of the Church required a certain “ripping off the Band-aid” of many elements of the Tridentine form of the Church, and the Council fathers thought that the Church was healthy enough to withstand this.  It was not.  The Council sought to create a Christological revolution in the Church only to discover that, in point of fact, nobody really believed in Christ anymore.

This led to the strange post-conciliar situation, aptly described by Fr. Robert Imbelli, of a “decapitated” Church that spoke incessantly of the “Spirit” and the putative directions in which it was blowing, but which spoke very little of Christ.  The “People of God” motif of an eschatological and sojourning pilgrim people was never intended by the Council to replace the “Body of Christ” motif.  It was proposed as a complement and a bit of a corrective to an overemphasis in the past on the Body of Christ metaphor.  However, post-conciliar types spun the people of God metaphor as a repudiation of the Body of Christ concept and after that the race was on to see who could run ahead of the “Spirit” faster than anyone else.

The profuse ecclesial bleeding that then followed shows that rather than a healthy organism, the Church was more like those hemophiliac children of overly inbred royalty and once the bleeding started it proved difficult to stop. The pre-conciliar Church had not been so christologically healthy after all and the post-conciliar bleed-out is strong evidence of this sad fact.  And now, today, everybody is rushing to reapply their version of the Band-Aid when in fact the real issue is the lack of christological platelets in the ecclesial bloodstream in the first place.

None of the proposed solutions, in my view, are christological enough and therefore none of them penetrate the bloodstream and get at the true source of the problem.  The progressives want a different Christ altogether – the Christ of an “end of history, solidarity of all humans in a Liberal order” variety – and want to cut the patient further and accelerate the bleed-out, at which point they will present the Church’s corpse, like a hound dog with a dead rabbit in its mouth, and lay it at the feet of modernity whereupon Locke shall then be declared  “all in all”.

The radical traditionalists want, ironically, a very modern Christ as well. Theirs is an Enlightenment based epistemological Christ of absolute logical clarity and deductive certitude.  It is a contractual, albeit “Kingly” Christ, with clear laws and rules for how the subject is to behave in return for sacramental favors. The idea that Christ is also a profound mystery and that Revelation is therefore not merely a set of clear conceptual propositions to be defended with Aristotelian logic escapes them utterly.  It is a Christ of super-ego guilt and cathartic release – a life of guilty indulgence followed by the pursuit of indulgences.  A trip-wire God who cannot seem to wait for us to commit “mortal sins” which, by the way, seem very easy to commit.  The trad world is also a world where strict logic would seem to dictate that most people will go to a Hell of eternal conscious torment. And thus, theirs is a Christ of a very limited atoning reach.  Christ, we are told by them, did not die for all, but only for those who would eventually accept him.  Only when we emphasize this Christ – the Christ of a world of booby-trapped mortal sin tripwires and a majoritarian Hell, and who also gifts the Church with doctrinal, neo-scholastic clarity on all these things -- will we ever be motivated to “Make the Church Great Again”.  Theirs is a Christ that runs the Church like a sacramental protection racket:  Embrace Catholicism or the God of love will break your legs.

I refuse to open both doors number one and two (progs and trads).  But what of door number three? The conservative option? Perhaps the “Big Deal of the day” awaits behind that door?  Sadly, once again, one finds an insufficiently christological option here as well. The conservative Catholic Christ is a kind of “traditionalist lite” Christ with all the same emphases upon conceptual certitude in all things but now with a more expansive view of salvation and a less strict interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Do not get me wrong here.  And I will state this only once but clearly:  doctrinal clarity is important as is a sound moral theology and all readers of this blog know where I stand on the progressive Catholic questioning of those things.  Nevertheless, my critique here is that when the mystery of Christ is reduced to its theological function of bringing clarity and of underwriting the ecclesial authority structures that carry that clarity, then we have a problem.  Even Pope John Paul acknowledged that the papacy could be exercised differently while still retaining its juridical Petrine validity. I am not questioning the latter.  I am questioning the reduction of the mystery Christ to a stale and moribund “orthodoxy” where the tail of neo-Liberal economics and politics wags the christological dog. I am questioning the reduction of the event of the Incarnation to a Catholicism of Peggy Noonan speeches, Christopher West chastity rallies, and an Americanist account of the meaning of life.

But beyond that, the conservative option also weds us to an overly triumphalist understanding of Church history as a series of “victories” punctuated by only a few “regrettable mistakes” that does little to hold the Church truly accountable for her actions.  And this narrative is necessary since most conservatives are not integralists and embrace the Liberal political order for the most part, and thus know that they need a narrative that can persuade in the naked public square.  And that narrative of triumphalist glory appeals in that square to not a few of the discontented denizens of modern despair. The Church’s successes are trumpeted as great triumphs while her mistakes and sins are approached irenically as adolescent foibles. Just look at how many conservative Catholics got upset when John Paul held his “confession of past ecclesial sins” forgiveness liturgy and accused him of undermining the Church’s integrity. This strikes me as a deep pathology that has a direct bearing on the sex abuse cover ups as well.  

How many converts have come into the Church over the past fifty years as followers of this conservative mythological vision of a Church standing astride history as this glorious Chestertonian slayer of errors only to de-convert later and leave in disgust and despair after discovering that this is all just too simplistic? My point is not, to repeat myself, that the Church should not correct the world’s errors.  She should and has. Nor is my point that Chesterton was wrong. He wasn’t and I love him.  My point is that this “Christ of epistemological certitude in an Enlightenment sense” might have value as an ecclesial/political talking point in an era of secular nihilism, but it is not the whole Christ or the Christ adequate to the task at hand in the long term. That center simply does not hold any longer.  Furthermore, there is just an air of stodginess and staleness about it all, which, I admit, is a merely impressionistic assertion on my part, but I think it is true nevertheless as a general impression that millions of people have about the current status of the Catholic Church.

My point here is to return to where I started and to emphasize the crippling and profoundly debilitating crisis of credibility and authenticity that the Church is undergoing right now.  And that this crisis cannot be solved with a few conservative tweaks of the system, or a rad trad return to Latin and Lagrange, or the progressive mosh pit of celebratory secularization.  

Ok then Mr. Self-Righteous-Smarty-Pants, what is your solution?  I don’t have one in the sense of a “pastoral program” suitable for an ecclesial Ted Talk at the next USCCB meeting. I have no flow charts, spread sheets filled with statistics, or power point photos of smiling kids in a pool waving catechisms in the air while eating saint-shaped gummy bears.  

All I know is one thing and that is the need for a christological revolution of the heart within the Church the likes of which we have not seen in a millennium or more.  This is what Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were all about.  It was their sole objective.  We need a Church where Christ is viewed, once again, as the Head and that his cruciform reality is our sole metric for adjudicating both the Tradition as such as well as the movement of the Holy Spirit in that Tradition and in the here and now. The Holy Spirit bears witness in the Church to Christ and Christ alone.  And any so-called movement of the Spirit that engages in an eclipse of that Christ is of the Anti-Christ. And we must not be afraid to name such idolatries for what they are: demonic.

But all of that is still too generic and abstract. The crisis of credibility in the Church requires a radical, christologically grounded re-imagining of what it means to be a Catholic in today’s world.  And for parents it means the excruciatingly complex and difficult path of trying to figure out how to keep our children away from the horribleness of modernity without for all that becoming Catholic Amish, which rarely works in the long-run anyway.  You can shut off your TV, but you cannot shut off your culture. How do I tell my kids then to go out into the cultural septic tank, but please don’t come home with shit all over you? Here in particular the episcopal wing of the Church seems not to care at all for such parents.  Or the priests who are trying to help such parents.  There cannot be business as usual.  But there also cannot be an Essene-like retreat into our Fortress of Solitude.  Parishes have to become critical hubs of cultural and social meaning in a Christic register and the priests who “get this” need support from their bishops.  Priests cannot do this alone and they need the help of very educated laity and they need the support of their bishop and not the usual resistance to anything that smacks of novelty.

But beyond all of this, which remains on the level of the prudential, what we need is to make Christianity weird again.  We need, as I read somewhere the other day, to make Christianity “wild” again.  We need to have more “characters” in the Church brimming with the idiosyncratic and “in-your-eye” strangeness of an ancient Stylite but now in a modern idiom. We need saints of a bizarre attractiveness and originality unafraid to be eccentric.  For as Balthasar put it, to be concentric to Christ is to be eccentric to the world.  We need literary saints, musician saints, teacher saints, plumber saints, street saints, bar saints, churchy saints, parent saints, and… I think you understand my gist here.  We need Christian strangeness everywhere and not just Christian “Nyet”.  The “Nyet” is important but should not be defining.  The positive proposal of our strange way of life should be defining.  Our beauty as unique and bizarre individuals in Christ should be defining.

And this is why I love Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  I do not agree with everything Dorothy taught (e.g., a radical and unbending pacificism) but what attracts me is the wild and weird Christ that she presents.  Of course, there is “good weird” and there is “bad weird”.  Saint Francis of Assisi was good weird.  Archbishop Paglia is bad weird.  You get the picture…

The Church, in other words, has come to be viewed as part of the domesticated landscape of a bored and tired world. Peter Maurin used the image of “dynamite” to describe the full explosive force of the Christological conversion he thought was required.  Stasis is no longer possible.  We will either look upward to Christ and his call to a weird and wild holiness, or we will look downward to our gut or our crotch or our veins.  

The French Church is just the latest example of the truth of that insight.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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