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Stranded Under the Southern Cross: News from a Shrinking Church

Blog Master’s note: This is another guest blog post. This time by Dr. Phillipa Martyr. Her biographical information is listed at the end of the post. What follows is a sad tale of the plight of the Catholic Church in Australia. But it is also a story that could be repeated for the Church in America and Europe. My thanks to Phillipa for this truly excellent and thoughtful post. I will be posting a blog post of my own within the next week. Until then I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did.

Dr. Larry Chapp

By Dr. Philippa Martyr

This is a story about a Church that got smaller, apparently overnight. In some places, it got so small that the people in it really started to feel lonely.

I’m a Catholic who lives in Australia. Most of you aren’t even aware that there is a Catholic Church in Australia, but there is. And it has some interesting tales to tell. Think of us as a petri dish – a microcosm of what went wrong, and what happens when you don’t fix problems in your Church. I think churchgoing Catholics in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa will shake their heads and tell me I’ve got it much better than them. And they may be right.

Australia was founded as a prison, and its original Catholic population was mostly Irish convicts. Once we became a nation of our own (no revolution, just an act of British Parliament in 1901), we really clawed our way up the social ladder.

We educated our bright sparks via low-cost parochial schools staffed by teaching orders. We formed our own trade unions and gradually infiltrated the public service and the professions. We bought big chunks of land cheaply and invested in bricks and mortar. We successfully negotiated for government funding for Catholic schools in the 1960s.

We did all of this without losing much of our faith, or our culture. We did the same thing, really, as you. And then we went through the same mess that you did – and largely thanks to you.

In the 1970s, my apparently sane and sound parish priest was sent to the United States on a formation course. When he came back, he ran amok. He and dozens of others across the country wrecked sanctuaries, threw out statues, liturgically experimented, and – in his case – had subsequent nervous breakdowns. He didn’t leave to get married, but plenty of others did.

The US Church became the beacon of all that was groovy, and our local church leadership lapped it up. We sang the drivel hymns churned out by the St Louis Jesuits and Marty Haugen. Humanae Vitae was greeted with howls of derision. Very few of our bishops lifted a finger to support St Paul VI either in public or in private, and everyone was happy.

Except that everyone wasn’t. The data on Mass attendance in Australia historically is poor, and still is a bit dubious, but it seems to have fallen from around 75% in the 1950s to around 10% nationally today. It’s been a steady dying-off of the pre-conciliar generation, who were very faithful to Sunday Mass, and the shrinking family sizes of their children and grandchildren.

Meanwhile, we acquired a national bishops conference – and like yours, it was quickly colonised by feminist nuns and church bureaucrats and began to issue social justice statements and pretty much nothing else.

Clergy sexual abuse was as rife here as everywhere else and caused by the same unholy alliances. It took just as long to expose it, and it was exposed by victims and the secular media. Neither clergy nor lay people working for the Church did much to help; the covering-up industry was an equal opportunity employer.

The clergy sexual abuse scandals in Australia – painfully documented by lay action group Broken Rites for decades and exposed in a national Royal Commission of Inquiry – lost the Church most of its remaining public reputation. The full force of both government-funded and private secular media has now turned on the Church in Australia. But that’s just the public reputation – what most people didn’t realise was that the Church in Australia was already eviscerated.

Australia is a tiny country. It looks big on a map, but our population is not much bigger than that of greater Los Angeles or greater New York (it’s nearly 26 million). The country is divided into six states, and each state contains a handful of Catholic dioceses. We have a big nominal Catholic population of around 5 million, but most of them never darken a church door. The Catholic Church in Australia today consists of around 600,000 churchgoing Catholics. That’s around the population of Louisville, Kentucky.

I tend to see the Church in Australia as consisting of the ‘real Church’ and an unpleasant outer structure that I call The Carapace. The Carapace is like The Borg in Star Trek, if it helps. It attaches itself to the real Church and feeds off it. Its principal purpose is to employ people, and its mission is to protect the Church’s assets at all costs. No dioceses in Australia have transparent accounts, but a 2018 piece of investigative journalism estimated the net worth of the Church in Australia at AU$30 billion (US$23 billion – around the GDP of Namibia, which has a population of 2.5 million people).

Elements of The Carapace are in every diocesan chancery, and in the Catholic media. It’s in the diocesan Catholic Office for Fashionable Causes with its well-paid director and SUV (looking at the car park outside the chancery is always enlightening). It’s in the Catholic youth ministries, which employ the few remaining churchgoing Catholics under the age of 30 before they graduate to adult sections of The Carapace. It’s in the elderly enclaves of religious who gave up accepting vocations a long time ago and have settled into a comfortable (and habit-less) old age with substantial patrimonies and ready access to private Catholic health care.

What epitomises The Carapace for me is the Catholic education system. In a little place like Catholic Australia, pretty much everyone’s brother-in-law is currently employed in it, and it’s funded very generously by both state and federal governments.

Without this funding, the entire system – which employs around 100,000 brothers-in-law – would collapse. This means that no one can criticise the Catholic education system in the Catholic media. This is partly because the Catholic media in Australia survives by selling advertising space to Catholic schools. But it’s also because it’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.

In recent years, secular politicians have asked questions about these very generous Catholic education subsidies. Whenever they do, there’s always an uproar from the middle classes. None of them go to Mass, but they love having cheap subsidised private education for their children. The only reason funding has not been cut yet is that the State governments can’t provide enough schools to absorb all the children who would need places if the Catholic school system had to close.

Depending on how you look at it, Catholic education in Australia has either been a monumental success (bursting schools and tons of money) or a crashing failure (the rate of Mass attendance among young people is the lowest in Australia, at around 5%). If its purpose was to transmit the Catholic faith and equip children to live as faithful Catholics in an aggressively secular world, then a cost-benefit analysis would shut the whole thing down immediately.

It also gives the State a boot to place firmly on the throat of the Church in Australia. Our bishops have a habit of rolling over very promptly to government orders, partly because they live in terror of even more lawsuits, but also because they know that the secular government holds the educational purse strings.

So where’s the real Church? I think of it as a river, alive and well and flowing steadily underneath the frozen Carapace. It’s spread across the country and it’s largely invisible to outsiders, but its basic structure is that of the early Church: a good and diligent priest with a faithful flock who trusts him, and who trust each other. Our parish structures have become very elastic; those who want to stay faithful drive considerable distances to find these priests. These priests are not always on good terms with their local bishop, and they tend to be unpopular with The Carapace.

For such a tiny Church, we’re now very top-heavy. We have an impressive 28 dioceses and seven eparchies and ordinariates. There’s currently 72 bishops or equivalent in Australia, of whom 29 are emeritus bishops. That’s one bishop for every 8,000 churchgoing Catholics. But while we are rich in bishops, most of them do not exactly cast fire on the earth. We have a few – you can count them on the fingers of one hand – who are not afraid of appearing authentically Catholic in public. Some are Catholic in private but are silent in public because they’re intimidated by The Carapace. Some have been absorbed by The Carapace; the occasional arm or leg still moves freely, but the mind is completely subsumed.

Our local priestly and religious vocations are very thin on the ground. It takes a family to raise a future priest or religious sister, and most Catholic families in Australia have no intention of doing this. As with so many other things in the Australian economy, they’re cheaper to import from overseas, and sometimes the overseas product is better than what we could make locally. We import many priests from developing countries, and I have some issues of conscience about this. I have no problem with a priest from anywhere in the world saying Mass for me; I am just aware that in their countries of origin, they have massive churchgoing Catholic populations and not nearly enough clergy of their own.  

There are some younger religious communities that seem to be doing okay. We have some strictly enclosed Carmelite communities with good reputations, and outposts of communities like the Religious Sisters of Mercy. The courageous Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, founded a local women’s religious order – the Sisters of the Immaculata – to re-evangelise and revitalise parishes in his tiny Archdiocese, so far to excellent effect. We have a local Oratory of St Philip Neri in formation, and a traditional Benedictine community from France has settled here too.

We have Extraordinary Form communities in Australia in the larger population centres, and people who oscillate between them and the saner Novus Ordo parishes (there are just over 60 Latin Mass venues in the entire country). The traditional communities are substantially aged under 50, and the families are noticeably larger. Most of them – like all Catholics who really believe – have been wounded by post-conciliar church warfare. Many have come from all sorts of unhappy situations and are seeking peace and healing. However, the only two people I’ve met who believe the world is flat – both men well into middle age with a range of other issues – I met in a Novus Ordo parish.

I am not optimistic about the future of the Church in Australia. We have no laws protecting religious liberty, and no constitutional guarantees of free speech and free assembly. We have no Roe v Wade; abortion is legal in all Australian states, as is same sex marriage. We have no Bill of Rights. All the recent proposed Bills of Rights would have limited Australians’ rights considerably, so it’s probably a good thing we don’t have one.

State governments in Australia have already passed laws that will punish clergy for not breaking the seal of the confessional. Some local bishops have bravely spoken out against this. But it’s like lighting a candle in a hurricane. We are on the run now, and our governments know it, and they can smell blood.

We’re also facing a demographic sinkhole. We’ve got around 3,000 or so priests, both diocesan and religious. It works out to around 1 priest per 180 churchgoing Catholics, which wouldn’t cause any diocesan priest to crack a sweat. But I did some crude data modelling and worked out that if death rates remain the same for the over 60s, we’ll be down to a quarter of a million churchgoing Catholics by 2050. We don’t have a priest shortage; we’re rapidly developing a laity shortage.

We’ve been trying to hold a national Plenary Council, and this process nicely exemplifies the war between a lunatic fringe of ageing liberals and the people who want their Catholic patrimony back. But this time the endless consultations, carefully curated working groups, and sanitising of input haven’t quite managed to wash out the Catholicism that still exists at grassroots levels.

I think the Plenary Council is too little, too late. I don’t want to limit the actions of the Almighty, but we’re on a trajectory now that will take a miracle to get us off it. We chose this trajectory through our sin and weakness, tolerating our bad bishops and clergy, covering up our terrible abuses, gobbling down an increasing diet of government money, and allowing our parishes to turn into liturgical silos.

What might change us is real persecution. At the moment it’s like the phoney war in Britain in 1939-40: we’re tensing ourselves for it, but nothing seems to be happening, and the sky is still blue (as it so often is in this beautiful country). However, I think it’s coming. Like the clowns, perhaps it’s already here.

The Carapace can breathe easy: the Catholic schools won’t be touched. We are approaching a tipping point in these schools where non-Catholic students will soon outnumber nominal Catholics, and most Catholic schools are already indistinguishable from other private schools. Their Catholic identity has largely been reduced to the names of buildings, and they pose no threat to the secular status quo.

Those who will be persecuted are agencies or religious orders that won’t conform to legislation that controls who they can and can’t employ. Any Catholic agency which resists anti-discrimination legislation like this will be shut down. It’s long odds whether their local bishop or diocese will support them. The Carapace is notoriously compliant; resistance is futile.

I think priests will be targeted in the confessional via entrapment and will then be tried and imprisoned for not breaking the seal. Those priests who signed up to serve The Carapace – a lot of smiling, being nice, and not rocking the boat – will continue to do so. Those who choose to be actual Catholic priests will fare less well. Being able to weather unpopularity and hatred has already become a real asset for a faithful priest or seminarian in Australia.

In every age and every country, the Catholic tide flows in and out. Right now, our tide is flowing out. I must accept that the Church to which I belong is now a shrinking minority in Australia, and likely to become an increasingly persecuted one. It’s allowed itself to become rich in assets and weak in numbers and is ripe for plundering.

My survival tips for those feeling increasingly stranded and lonely in tiny local Churches?

  • Pray. A regular prayer life, and receiving as many sacraments as you can, will not only keep the Church alive in your heart and home, but will also make all my other survival tips listed below more achievable. The Divine Office plugs you directly into the Church like mains electricity, and all you need to recite it daily is a cheap app.
  • Find good priests and love them courageously. Good priests need money, sound advice, and practical help. Set them free to do the priesting they were ordained for. Some of them need a safe place to land on their off days; if they choose you, be that safe place. Protect them with your prayers but also with due warnings; they need both. Know their limits: they are not a 24-hour crisis line, and they cannot solve all your family’s problems. Collect them like you collect the names of excellent and inexpensive restaurants that no one else knows about. Sometimes I can stave off panic attacks by simply going through the list of good priests I know in my head; I count them like sheep.
  • Embrace your Catholic weird and live it fearlessly. It signals confidence and hope to other faithful and weird Catholics, and there’s strength in numbers, even in tiny ones. I would like to work out the algorithm for Martyr’s Law: the smaller a local Church gets, the weirder it gets, because only the weird people stay attached when there’s no earthly reason to do so.
  • Light a candle rather than cursing the darkness: do what little you can locally to build up the Body of Christ. It might be hosting a prayer group, giving a talk, writing an article, doing some Adoration, lending a book, having a conversation, sharing a website. Like Mother Teresa said, you don’t have to be successful – you just have to be faithful.
  • Evangelise when the opportunities arise. Some non-practising Catholics are open to learning more about their faith – at least give them the opportunity to reject it in its fullness, rather than the cartoon version they absorbed at school. Some Evangelicals are reading their way into the Church; answer their questions honestly.
  • Befriend your fellow Catholics if you can. Be patient with their eccentricities if you can’t. This is a field hospital in the middle of a war zone, not an exclusive country club lounge. Use social media wisely to stay connected with those who might be drifting, but don’t break the crushed reeds. You’re not going to agree on politics or vaccination or pretty much anything outside of the Catholic faith, and that’s okay.

Please pray for us. It’s strange to feel oneself slipping from the safe and affluent Western world into the realm of the persecuted Church. It’s strange to have grown up surrounded by Catholics, and now to feel very exposed because they’ve all melted away. Above all, pray that I’m wrong about all this, or even some of it.  

Dr Philippa Martyr is an academic, researcher, and writer who lives in Perth, Western Australia. She can be contacted at philippa.martyr@gmail.com

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In Defense of Vatican II

Blog Master’s note: what follows is a guest blog from Apolonio Latar III.  His biographical information can be found at the end of the post.  This is a long blog but well worth the read as he takes up the much needed defense of Vatican II.  Please feel free to make comments.

Larry Chapp

By Apolonio Latar III

Frankly, I find the whole debate on Vatican II a bit boring. A lot of the arguments that one finds on YouTube or websites or even from some within the clergy are pretty much the same old arguments presented by the SSPX or authors like Michael Davies. Most people who repeat these arguments seem to have never read the early Church Fathers, are ignorant of history, or have misinterpreted Aquinas. I was just never impressed with them. Reading their arguments is like reading Jesus mythicists. Almost every claim needs to be refuted and if one were to thoroughly refute the book, one would have to write more than a thousand pages to do so. And if one refuses to write that many pages, the response would be, “You have not refuted the 700-page argument that I have made.” He somehow thinks that a non-response to absurdity is somehow a win for absurdity. This is very similar to rad-trad claims. They will choose a controlling narrative, say, the modernist or freemason infiltration of Vatican II, and read every word of the documents within that light and then claim that the problems that one finds in the Church today come from the Council. Just like any conspiracy theory, they try to link ideas or events to each other in such a way that it makes you frustrated and you don’t know where to begin. It is not that one cannot respond to such arguments. It is that human reasoning sometimes just should not tolerate foolish imagination. It is one thing to say that there may be some freemasons or even modernists in the Council. It is another thing that the modernist takeover is the controlling narrative of how one should read this event. That is simply insane.

What I would rather like to do is give a little better understanding of Vatican II in light of what the Church is facing today, following the path and ideas that Larry Chapp has been providing. This is difficult because a Christian sees history not simply as events that happened in the past, but is required to see history within eyes of faith. This means that everything that happens in history is within the mysterious and loving will of God. The covenant between God and Israel and the Incarnation reveals that God acts within history. God does not illuminate the human mind of His covenantal plan through some kind of a priori abstract reasoning, but by acting gloriously in the world. Contemplation is perceiving the depth of God’s creation and His glorious action in history.

It is important, then, that when one thinks about the Church, one does not think about her as simply an institution just like any other political institution in the world. True, the very definition of the Church is that it is where the divine dwells within the human, which includes all the mess and rottenness that one can identify with humanity. Yet, the indwelling of the divine in humanity is what gives a Christian the understanding that one cannot reduce the Church to her messiness. And this experience of the divine in the Church, the experience of God’s tenderness to humanity (even in its rottenness), is what allows a Christian to see the divine in everything in the world. The experience of being in the Church, living life with God, provides the Christian to reaffirm the goodness of creation and history. This is not thoughtless optimism, but the joyful hope that one has when one has received a great love. A Christian has the freedom of not being enslaved by a reductionist analysis of history because he sees that the logic of God is not the logic of the world.

So what is the Church facing today? One can of course point to the secularization of the world, the gratuitous acceptance of immoral practices, the lack of reverence in the Liturgy, the failure of catechesis and evangelization, the sinful members in the hierarchy, and the relativism that infects so many minds. There are questions, however, that all of us in the Church must face and they should not be taken so lightly. They are these: do we still have something to say to the world? In light of the evil apparent in the Church and the scientific and technological progress in the world, what do we still have to say? What is it that the Church can still propose to a world that simply does not find anything attractive and relevant about the Church? Why isn’t Christianity convincing anymore? In order to answer these questions, we cannot presume the answer but ask the question that Hans Urs von Balthasar asked: What is Christian about Christianity? We are before the dramatic question: what is Christianity? Looking for answers in policies, change of structures, tools of evangelization, and so on, presuppose that one has sufficiently answered these questions. What is needed is to look at the whole. This, I submit, is the best way to also understand what Vatican II was grappling with. Vatican II was concerned with answering the questions: what is Christianity? What is it that we are proposing to the world?

Of course the Church always had her eyes on the question of the whole. Every declaration she has made had her eyes fixed on the essence of Christianity. Vatican II, however, had a different way of conceiving the problem from other councils. I think we can summarize, and maybe oversimplify a little, the problems that the Church had to face in three phases throughout history.

The first millennium more or less had to face the question: Who is Christ? Or what is the relationship between God and Christ? The event of the death and resurrection of Jesus gave faith to the early Christians, allowing them to confess, “Jesus is Lord.” This ontological statement coincided with affirmation of the event that God raised Jesus from the dead: “If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart hat God has raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9-10). This confession should only be understood within the context of the practice of the worship of Jesus. The practice of devotion to Jesus and the acclamation that he is Lord necessarily entailed that they had to grapple with monotheistic Judaism.

How does the Lordship of Jesus fit into the doctrine that that there is only one God? It wasn’t easy to answer this question and it took almost a millennium to fully answer it. One reason is that the New Testament usually uses the word “God” with a definite article, ho theos, to refer to the Father and rarely refers to Jesus as ho theos (Thomas’ confession in the Gospel of John is one of those rare examples, “Ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou”). The word “God” is usually reserved for the Father while “Lord” is usually reserved for Jesus: “For there is one God…and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6). This is why Arius found it reasonable to say that Jesus was simply a creature, a lesser god, while the Father is the only one true God. What the early Christians had to confront was whether we can speak of Jesus as ho theos. Is Jesus, God’s Messiah that He raised, a lesser god or is he one substance with the Father? Of course some responded to this question in such a way that affirming the Son as identical with the Father made them diminish His humanity. Some, because they wanted to affirm Christ’s humanity, had trouble affirming his divinity.

But what allowed the Church to respond properly to these difficult questions was not just some theoretical and linguistic game that she can use to affirm both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but the faithfulness to her liturgical practices, such as the worship of Jesus and baptism, and her concern for the salvation of the world from sin and death. That is to say, can we really say that we are no longer in our sins? If Jesus is God and not man, then we are still in our sins. And if Jesus is man and not God, then we are still in our sins. It is only when the Church can affirm the full divinity (one substance with the Father) and the full humanity of Jesus that we can truly say that we are no longer enslaved to sin.

In the second millennium (again, oversimplifying), the Church had to face the questions: what is the relationship between Christ and the Church? How does the Incarnation continue in the world? Obviously, having a political order that is Christian helped the Church become more present in the lives of people. Christendom, with all of its glories and failures, gave the Western world a culture permeated with the logic of the Christian faith. Everything that was done was done for Christ and his kingdom, even if some of those behaviors were wrong. The creation of universities was done for Christ, and so were the Crusades and the Inquisitions. To belong to Christ was to belong to the Church and to make the world become more like the Church.

Two unfortunate events, the great schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestant Reformation, allowed the Church to develop a sacramental theology and ecclesiology, focused on the necessity of the Church for the salvation of the human person. The question of how we can know and experience Christ was always answered with: “in the Church.” The Councils, especially the Council of Trent, wanted to show the objective presence of Christ in the world through His Church. It was right and just that the Church did this. Showing the objectivity of the presence of Christ was a necessary step for giving the faithful a better certainty that God is truly faithful. How do we know Christ is present? Because the Pope and the bishops are all signs of His presence, giving us a link all the way back to the Apostles, inheriting a Tradition that can give us a proper understanding of Scripture. Because by our baptism and participation in the Eucharist, we are a new creation. Because in the Liturgy, we can hear the Gospel anew. And so on.

The doctrine of the Papacy, justification, Scripture and Tradition, the sacraments, etc., were all a way for the Church to say: yes, Christ is truly present in the Church and that is why you need the Church. By focusing on the objectivity of the presence of Christ, independent of what one feels or thinks, the Church gave the faithful the certainty of a home they can always return to in order to find Christ. Outside this Church, there is no certainty that Christ is present, which is to say, there is no salvation. The doctrines and theology developed in the second millennium gave the faithful the certainty that Christ is truly visible in the world. Hence, the Church is the continuation of the Incarnation.

The third millennium, of which we are a part, has to face the dramatic question: what is the relationship between the Church and the modern world? This was the question that Vatican II wanted to confront. It is not as if Vatican II was the only time the Church had to face this question, but it seems that it was the appropriate time to give answers when the world was reaching the full flowering of secularization. One can read the works of Del Noce, MacIntyre, Brague, Taylor, etc if one wants to see how the Cartesian turn to the subject, the Baconian revolution of science, the French and the Industrial Revoution, etc. have made the Western world into a place where a human person is filled with the delusion that power and efficiency are the primary values with which to judge everything, and that at the end of everything, life and the world are ultimately meaningless.

I think that the biggest problem today, the problem which the difficult moral questions (such as gender ideology, end of life issues, bioethics, etc.) are based upon, is the problem of boredom. Boredom is the perception that reality is dull, that the world is not inherently meaningful, and that one must create the meaning of one’s life and the world. The main problems today are ontological, not moral. But they are ontological because of historical events in the past that carried a worldview that is against how the Church sees the world. The question of the relationship between the Church and the modern word, therefore, must understand the two words “modern” and “world” in an appropriate way. She must understand once again what it means to say that the world was created. And she must not forget the historical factors that led her to the present day and the ontology that modern people carry.

Here we get back to the question that we started in the beginning. Do we still have something to say to the world? There are two things that a Catholic needs to balance. The first is the affirmation that the Logos is in every human person as the Logos spermatikos, especially in his or her use of reason. Every person who follows the truth already follows God in some way. No matter how corrupt the world may be, it cannot be so corrupt that there is no hope for the human person. That is to say, not only do we have hope in God that He can attract and persuade each and every person to Himself, but that there is something in the human person that will allow himself to welcome the love of God in his heart.

The second factor to consider is the affirmation that the world is corrupt and sin has weakened our reason and faith. This means that there is no room for false optimism in the world. Not only is the Church facing a world that comes from a totally different worldview, but she is also facing a world that would like to manipulate and destroy the truth and the Church. The Church’s pastoral activity must balance these while she is proclaiming Christ. The modern person is corrupted by the ontology of technology, the perception that reality is boring, while, at the same time, he will always know and love God implicitly in whatever he knows and loves, as Aquinas said. To put it in a different way, the person is a mess and the Church, like her Savior, must work through that mess while obeying the Father.

The imbalance between these two ideas can be seen by the factions that exist in the Church. There is the liberal view that has compassion on the modern world, trying to affirm the person as he is. They see a lot of greatness in the success of modern science and modern values of equality and social justice without seeing that the modern world simply does not want to need Christ in anything. They become so enamored with the world and frustrated with their fellow conservative Catholics that their fate will be like that of King Solomon. The radtrads, on the other hand, see the world so corrupt that they think that forming a bubble, a spiritual ghetto filled with devotions to Marian apparitions and eschatological warnings, and a formalistic way of worshipping God will show the world that they are the true remnant of God. So much for mission.

Both fail in proposing Christ to the world. Why should the modern world accept Christ the way liberal Catholics do when there are so many similarities between them that one would be better off to simply reject Christ? One can help the poor, be compassionate, help the sick, and any other works of corporal works mercy even without faith in Christ. In other words, why does one need Christ anyway? What does he bring to the daily life of a person that makes it much more beautiful?

The rad-trad view is little better, if at all. They simply view the whole world going to hell, so the response is to hold fast to an individualistic understanding of Christianity, saving himself because he somehow knows within the deepest depths of his heart that most people go to hell anyway. That or they presume that the best way to evangelize is to tell others that they are going to hell if they don’t fully belong to the Church. They have a scrupulous attention (and we all know there are people who suffer scrupulosity especially from this group) to the rules and doctrines of the Church that does not reveal a love for Christ, and is a reminder that legalism really takes away any joy in being a Christian. They are the remnant while everyone else is the enemy. Every bishop or priest that does not conform to their way of thinking is infected with modernism. It is as if they think that fixing the Liturgy will automatically make you a better father, mother, friend, or worker. How does Christ affect the rest of the day? Doesn’t Christ’s goodness permeate in everything that is given to him? Especially people? The fact that the SSPX has a pre-Vatican II understanding of life and the world and yet have their problems and abuses show that a simple rejection of Vatican II does not solve the big problems the Church is facing today.

We are living in a moment in history where we have separated God from Christ, Christ from the Church, and the Church from the world. In other words, if God exists, He doesn’t matter. A lot of young people simply do not find being part of the Church as a fascinating way of living. They don’t care about ecclesiastical politics the way Catholic social media users do and they simply don’t think about theology the way that people who watch EWTN do. They are upset about the world and feel hypocrisy and betrayed. They think that digital presence is actually how common life is lived and being angry is at something is the way they can feel something, even feel a bit alive.

It is no wonder why extremists, like rad-trads, are attractive to them and this is why the separation of God from Christ, Christ from the Church, and the Church from the world are so dangerous. It provides a way for individuals to become more fragmented and live in their own made up world, in their own bubble, and in loneliness. What the Church must propose today is a life of communion grounded in the Person of Christ. Communion literally means living together in the truth, not just some digital presence where one can click on a Catholic article one likes and hate what one does not like and then go to a good Mass. It is knowing a person in the flesh, with the person’s beauty, goodness, limits, and weaknesses. God became flesh: this means that it is through the flesh that we can come to know Him. And not just to know as in memorizing a bunch of doctrines and scriptural passages that support those doctrines (which is a good thing, by the way), but to know Him in the biblical sense, that is to say, to have an intimacy with Him, to be one with Him. To be one with Him, though, means being one with the Church, with concrete people, concrete faces, and therefore one with Christ. And when one is with Christ, one is with God.

This, in short, is why Vatican II was so prophetic. It insisted on proposing Christianity to a world that was forgetting God while diagnosing the problems of the modern world. It is best to see Vatican II, then, as a deepening and enriching of the faith. Pre-Vatican II magisterial teachings against Modernism were necessary, but it was insufficient to combat against it. It was necessary to condemn the reduction of faith to religious experience or dogmas to simply cultural expressions of particular historical circumstances or reading Scripture with methods that run contrary to the Catholic faith. Even if one reads Pius’ Pascendi and says “Amen” to every single statement there (after, of course, reading it carefully since with it is filled with ambiguous language, and anyone who says that it condemns Blondel simply doesn’t know what he is talking about), what exactly was the proposal? In condemning (rightly) false conceptions of experience, history, revelation, development of dogma, interpretation of Scripture, etc., it nowhere provides a true understanding how experience relates to faith, how dogma rightly develops, and how one can understand history.

Should we really think that experience plays no role in faith or knowledge of God? Should we really think that everyone who applies historical methods of interpreting Scripture separates faith and history? Should we really think that understanding the particular historical and cultural expressions of dogma would necessarily reduce it to a contingent truth? The answers are implicitly in the questions. No matter how much one can affirm Pascendi, one is left with wondering how its remedy, neo-scholastic philosophy, is sufficient to give a good understanding of the themes that were important to Modernists, such as the importance of human experience, exegesis, and history. Of course there is some good in neo-scholastic theologians and philosophers, but their (though not all) tendency to write manuals and their neglect of the primacy of Scripture and the centrality of Christ, the inability to effectively deal with secularism, atheism, technology, and interact with the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants made it difficult to make an impact upon the faithful. Thankfully, something new and beautiful, faithful to the Tradition of the Church, was being born in other places in the Church.

A group of theologians in France saw that a return to the Fathers was one of the best ways to respond to the lack of unity between thought and life. Theology had to return to the unity between dogma, exegesis, history, and the spiritual life in order to respond to the modern concerns of the human person. It is not that conceptualization is not necessary in theology, but a theology that does not address human experiences would be a cold rationalism that would make dogmas irrelevant to human life. What these theologians found in the Early Church Fathers was a theology relevant to the existential questions of the human person.

It is not a coincidence, then, that theologians like Jean Danielou and Hans Urs von Balthasar saw an ally in St. Gregory of Nyssa. The first volume of Sources Chretiennes that was published was Gregory’s The Life of Moses and both of these great theologians themselves also wrote books on this great Church Father. But why would they choose Gregory of Nyssa as one of the figures to learn from? Because, along with Augustine, what one can find in this great Cappadocian Father is a theological anthropology that can respond adequately to the “modern turn to the subject”. In Gregory, one finds how human experience of God and theology meet, how the spiritual life is rooted in dogma, and where there is an intermingling of history and ontology. Speculative theology and mystical theology were not different from each other. It simply does not make sense, for the early Church Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa, to have dogmatic theology detached from mystical or spiritual theology. And since Scripture is the soul of theology, biblical exegesis and the spiritual life were not separated either; the literal meaning of Scripture is the radiation of its spiritual sense. The experiential side of faith (fides qua) is intrinsically linked to the mysteries of faith (fides quae). Here we see why the style of theology of the Fathers is relevant: there is simply no separation between dogmatic and pastoral theology. Pastoral theology is simply communicating the mysteries of the faith so that the person can contemplate and act within the glorious communion of the Holy Trinity, the God that Jesus Christ revealed to the cosmos.

Thankfully, this style of theology was influential at Vatican II, thanks to theological advisors like de Lubac, Danielou, and Ratzinger. It was this style of theology that Vatican II retrieved, a Trinitarian Christocentric theology that gives light to the truth of the human person and the world. It rejected the original schemas because they were simply reiterations of condemnations of Modernism, which, again, were necessary, but insufficient to correct its errors. A lot of the Council Fathers saw that the Church needed to propose (not presuppose!) Christianity in a way that would meet the existential needs of the modern world. This is what it really means to say that Vatican II was a pastoral council.

If one reads the debates in the Council, what one finds is that they all saw the intrinsic link between doctrine and the pastoral. What one “feeds” to the sheep is doctrine, as a great Filipino Council Father said. The difference was, as John O’Malley said, that of style. This did not make some of the Council Fathers and their theological advisors Modernists. This style was a retrieval of communicating the faith the way the Church Fathers did. Choosing the “medicine of mercy” does not mean that truth is not presented, but truth is presented in a way that reflects its beauty. It is beauty, anyway, that provokes one to delight in the truth. But this already means that one must understand the depth of the truth of God, Christ, and the Church (ecclesia ad intra) before one can communicate it to the faithful and to the world (ecclesia ad extra).

There is simply no justification, then, in thinking that one can reject this Council because it is simply a “pastoral” one or that it never taught anything new (which is not true, anyway, especially since the Council’s new doctrine on the sacramentality of the episcopate must be accepted). For example, one of the influential texts being shared around the Council Fathers was the Danielou/Garrone text which influenced the draft of which was to become Dei Verbum. The text presents the truths Christ gave the world: the triune life of God and the truth of the human person. Primacy is given to God and His gratuitous love for humanity, a gratuitous love definitive in Jesus Christ. God reveals Himself in stages, in the cosmos’ witness to Him, in His covenant with Israel, and finally in His Only Son. Then the text presents the intrinsic connection between the word and action of God in history. This is a better understanding of what revelation is according to Scripture, rather than some post-Tridentine understanding of revelation as some kind bag of propositions that Jesus gave to the Apostles.

In fact, events themselves are called words (debarim) in Scripture. God spoke of light and the creation of light came about. God spoke to Moses and he delivered His people from Egypt. He says that He wants Jeremiah to be a prophet, and no matter how clueless or afraid Jeremiah was, it came to be. What God says happens, and what happens contains a call and a promise. And word and event coincide especially when, in the appointed time, the Word of God became flesh (event) and tabernacled among us (Jn. 1:14). So it is true: “But I the Lord will speak the word which I will speak, and it will be performed” (Ez. 12:25). Finally, Danielou articulated the Holy Spirit’s role in converting the hearts of people to Christ and to deepen their understanding of what has been revealed. What is important in the Danielou/Garrone text is its Trinitarian Christocentrism, grounded in Scripture, and that is faithful to the human person as a historical being. Ontology, Scripture, history, and experience come together in this beautiful text that influenced the Council.

Finally, there is also an issue that was not part of the original schemas. While the original schemas focused on Modernism, there were others, like Congar and Ratzinger, who saw a problem that the Church will face for many years: the problem of technology. No matter how much one can criticize Gaudium et spes for being overly optimistic, one should see that it was very perceptive in seeing many problems of the modern world, one of which was technology. This is something that the Church today still needs to face. We are living in a technological world where we are distracted, where the ontology of technology impedes us from falling in love. We do not know what it means to be in love, to be rooted forever in the beautiful goodness and beautiful truth of things. We are sentimental creatures that lack bonds of affection. The response isn’t just changing behavior, which is what policies and laws are about. Any response that is just about changing structure, changing behavior, although necessary, is insufficient. Simply repeating pre-Vatican II rituals and having neo-scholastic manuals in one’s head simply will not propose to the world that Christ is the meaning of life. It is about proposing a way of thinking, feeling, and living that is grounded in the beauty, goodness, and truth of things. That is the challenging part and that is where we really need to know what makes Christ worth everything we have.

Apolonio Latar III has an M.Ed. from Marymount University in Administration and Supervision. He has degrees in Philosophy (Rutgers University) and Theology (Lateran University). He is currently the Theology Department Chair at a high school in Virginia. 

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The Valor of the Unshielded Heart: A Lenten Meditation

by Larry Chapp

“But … the situation in which this truth emerges is now that of suffering … which lays man bare in his vulnerability, forcibly exposing and humiliating him.  Only a great and majestic human being is equal to this; he alone can bear such a burden, and only from him, when he is finally and necessarily broken apart, can there arise, like a fragrance, the pure essence of human kind, indeed, of being as such.  What is unprecedented here is that the suffering is neither denied (declared to be only apparent and philosophically reduced), nor is it shunned for the sake of an unattainable eudaimonia, but rather the way of man to god and the revelation of the deep truth of existence passes directly through the most extreme form of suffering.  That is the valor of the unshielded heart, which philosophy will lack, and which stands in a direct relation to Christ.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Glory of the Lord IV, p. 103)

In the quote above Balthasar is tracing the metaphysics of classical antiquity and in a penetrating analysis notes that the Greek tragedians, unlike their philosophical contemporaries, viewed man’s dignity as mysteriously related to the “glory” that emanates from the realm of the gods.  Balthasar puts it as follows: “In tragedy, man acts against the background of the god and man only reveals himself, emerging into the light of his own truth, because of the appearance of the god, even in wrath and concealment.” (pp. 102-103). In tragedy the existence of the gods is taken seriously and it is the final victory and glorification of the gods that forms the backdrop for the dramatic action that unfolds.  Man’s true dignity, therefore, resides in accepting “fate,” even if it ultimately means suffering and death, for it is only in such acceptance that man too can participate in the glory of the divine realm and achieve a measure of calm serenity, even joy, as our sufferings are lifted up and bathed in the glory of the victory of the gods.  Therein lies as well a kind of liberation as the valor of an unshielded heart approaches the gods with no bargaining or preconditions and allows itself to be broken open, revealing the soul’s true inner dignity as a liturgy of transformed suffering that also acts as the medium for the god’s epiphany. 

What the Greeks lacked, of course, is the Revelation of the glory of Christ.  The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the most unshielded heart possible, and therefore after Him no tragedy in a high register is any longer possible.  Greek tragic figures such as Oedipus and Antigone really were guilty of something and thus their sufferings are ultimately the result of divine justice but without any hope of reparation or restoration.  Their unshielded hearts, therefore, had valor as they accepted their fate with a dignified moral resolve, but in the end their fate, though epiphanic, is a tragic one.  And the inherent inscrutability of the world of the gods means that the question of man’s tragic fate is left hanging – – i.e. is human tragedy a merely penultimate reality awaiting a future resolution or is it our ultimate destiny?  Is this wound which bleeds into us without ceasing ever to end or are we destined to suffer the futility of an endlessly repeating nightmare forever? Is the machinery of divine justice like a set of automatic gears in which we will all be ground-up and pulverized or will there be some sort of heuristic dénouement to the whole affair that speaks of mercy? The tragedians do not say, but the fact that the human characters show up at all speaks to the importance of their free choices in the unfolding drama – –  a moral dimension – – that transcends mere fate.

But in Christ there is no such ambiguity, no tragic “fate” that is the result of his sins, and certainly no hint of a divine justice that is without mercy or reparative grace.  Christ’s human soul is uniquely “unshielded” insofar as it is an utterly open soul to both his Father’s will (mission) and to those who have been entrusted to him (all of humanity).  His entire existence can be defined as “pro nobis,” a “man for others,” and whose mission is precisely to be completely broken open in order to bear the sins of the world through a mysterious “exchange” wherein he takes into his unshielded soul the full existential weight and consequences for our sins.  What can this mean?  Who can fathom its mysterious depths?  St. Paul says that Christ “became” sin for our sakes which underscores the substitutionary nature of this exchange and, therefore, its reparative atonement.

But how does it atone? Is it because Christ has taken on the punishments due to sin in order to appease an “offended” God who will not forgive his wayward creatures until he gets his pound of flesh? How could Christ’s tortured and murderous death “please” God? Sin does indeed require some form of retributive punishment, but all too often our take on the atonement is vulgar and involves a monstrous portrayal of God as a “sky sadist.” It can also be anti-Semitic since all too often in such schemes the God of the Old Testament is described as a God of law, judgment, and wrath (the Father) whose avenging justice is satiated by the brutal death, at the hands of Jews, of His Son – – a death that ushers in a now “changed” God of love.  Or, as in the case of the Gnostic Marcion, a different God altogether, which really amounts to the same thing as the “changed” God.  And then, in the name of this “love” we decided to persecute the Jews for their alleged deicide, burn heretics at the stake, and to turn the engine of the State into an instrument of an often brutal coercion. There is an inner logic to all of that since a view of God the Father as a vengeful sadist has a nasty habit of legitimating our own violence in His name.  And ultimately, Christ too is transformed from a pantocrator who is, for all eternity, the lamb who was slain, into a kick-ass pantocrator who, when he comes back a second time, will be pissed. 

A better view of the atonement is rooted in the unchanging and unconditional love of the God of the Covenant.  There is no single view of the atonement that can adequately “pin down” in some kind of totalizing scheme the full depths of its mystery – – a mystery that is ultimately unknowable by us since the atonement is an act of the Trinity ad intra before it is ad extra, and even in the Revelation of God in Christ the mystery that is God in His divine essence remains.  Nevertheless, what is revealed as the central motif of all of Scripture is that God is love.  Love can and must also involve justice of course, otherwise it would not be a true love, but most certainly at the very least such a view of God precludes the sky sadist described above.  Therefore, a full and proper view of the atonement must be rooted in that theological fact. And so it is more in line with this fact to view the atonement as an exchange wherein Christ takes into his unshielded heart the full toxicity and poison that is sin in a mysterious mystical act and suffers it through to the end. And if the ultimate consequence of all sin is to make us “distant” from God, what it is that Christ suffers is the experience of that distance, of that “dereliction,” and of that crushing alienation in the “dark night” of the experience of the “absence” of God. And yet, despite it all, Christ continues to love even from the depths of darkness and offers to the Father on our behalf a perfect act of contrition. In other words, our “no” to God which our sins both represent and instantiate, is transformed into a definitive “yes.” We too must appropriate that “yes” and make it our own – – our salvation being anything but automatic – – but we are now relieved of the anxiety that our faith can never be “good enough” to “merit” the Father’s forgiveness. 

Furthermore, the entire dynamic of this event is a corporate one wherein the entirety of the human race is implicated within its action, which also means that salvation is a corporate event. Within the depths of the unshielded Sacred Heart the full eschatological horizon of humanity opens up. Heaven and Hell are, therefore, Christological states of being, both of which reside within the “decision” contained within that substitutionary exchange. But they are not symmetrical since Christ’s corporate action “pro nobis” directly implies the priority of the regime of grace and salvation over that of perdition. This is the basis of Balthasar’s claim that we can at least hope that all will be saved.  Perhaps it is a false hope, but Balthasar is not speaking here of a psychological state but of a Christological reality. 

The corporate nature of salvation also contains a gut-punch for our understanding of what it means to “be saved” and, therefore, what it means to be a Christian.  Evangelicals are fond of asking “are you saved?” But what does it mean to be “saved?”  Salvation cannot be viewed as an atomized and individualistic endeavor where my conversion is viewed as a possession of mine that I have “acquired” like some object that I purchase and now “own.”  Baptism is our entry into the Church but it isn’t a “get out of jail free” card or a free ticket on the express tram to heaven.  Nor does being saved mean that I believe in the proper doctrines or even that I believe Jesus is the Son of God. As St. Paul observes, faith is useless without charity. Indeed, he implies that such a faith is just an empty “noise” devoid of meaning. And as such faith without charity can actually be a dangerous illusion that fosters the notion that salvation is something that I possess simply in virtue of some magical action on my part. Thus, central to our salvation are the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, identified as the very heart of the Gospel by Dorothy Day. As St. Augustine noted, there are only two “cities” – – the City of God which is comprised of all those whose lives are oriented to the love of God and neighbor, and the City of Man which is characterized by the libido dominandi.  And many there are who, though “in the Church,” are actually citizens of the City of Man.

Being saved means something far deeper and far more existentially gripping than the magical view of salvation that so many seem to assume.  Those who are saved are now called to enter into Christ’s body which means that we are putting on the “new man.”  But what does that mean?  What is this “new man?”  It is the pattern of Christ’s own humanity, including his atoning death.  Christians therefore are called to emulate his existence “pro nobis” and to transform our own souls into unshielded hearts, allowing ourselves to be broken open in order to also suffer for the sins of the world.  Ours is a substitutionary vocation where our entire life becomes a liturgy of intercession for the “others.” How often do we hear Catholics say of their sufferings that they are “offering them up” as an act of charity wherein whatever “merits” our suffering may have gained for ourselves are transferred to someone else?  This implies that salvation is corporate and I am implicated in the lives of every other human being who has ever lived or who will live.  Such intercession, far from being a pietistical puddle of saccharine syrup, is in reality the very warp and woof of our vocation as priests. A priest is an intermediary who prays and intercedes on behalf of the people.  And the priesthood of all of the baptized means that we are a “people set apart” for the express purpose of interceding for others.  Therefore, this pattern of substitutionary intercession is not an ancillary element of our salvation but rather is its very essence.  There is a reason why St. Therese of Lisieux, a cloistered nun, is the patron saint of missionaries.  Her quiet life of intercession, her “little way,” is nothing short of the very meaning of the Gospel.  Which is why she is also a doctor of the Church.  Furthermore, the deepest purpose behind “converting those others” is so that they too can become part of this corporate body of intercessors, thus elevating their own suffering, which may have seemed existentially meaningless to them before their conversion, into the “glory” of Christ’s paschal action.

But as I said above, this is a gut-punch because it means unshielding our hearts in a raw and radical conversion to a form of spiritual empathy that requires us to rid ourselves of any notion of entitlement with the endless “demands” for our own “rights” that entitlement brings.  We are to be divested people, poured out, and profligate in our forgiveness.  And this is especially true when we ourselves endure sufferings caused by injustices committed against us.  The commandment to love and mercy found in the Sermon on the Mount is not so much a prescription for an earthly social order as it is an eschatological summons to lessen the full range of sin’s regime. For when we forgive those who harm us, we lessen the effect of those sins thus reducing the offender’s guilt, which means that forgiveness is much more than a psychological movement of emotions but is also a demand of charity.  There can be no true Christian existence without it and we cannot be “saved” if we are parsimonious in its application.  Thus does Christ respond to Peter, who had asked Jesus how many times we are required to forgive, by telling the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though his own debts had been forgiven (and he thus was saved in his eyes!), he then turned around and refused to forgive others. (Matthew, 18:21-35). Christ is not just giving a pithy little sermon here on the importance of forgiveness.  He is laying down the very law of the Gospel and makes it clear that no “disciple” of his can be “saved” unless that salvation is a shared one.

There is a wonderful scene in the Russian movie “The Island” ( a great movie which can be found for free on YouTube here) where the main character of the story, a saintly monk, is shown at prayer. The scene begins with the monastery’s abbot and another monk praying in their respective cells the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner”).  In other words, they are praying for themselves.  The scene then shifts to the prayer of the saintly monk who is standing outside looking over the sea coast and who prays “Lord Jesus Christ I pray for all the dead that they may be forgiven their sins.”  Of course, both sets of prayers are perfectly legitimate and holy in their own way (I too pray the Jesus prayer as does the saintly monk early in the action), but the movie wants to highlight that the saintly monk’s sanctity goes further than the Jesus prayer and is precisely constituted by his unshielded heart, broken open for the sake of the world. 

But this view of salvation has deep connotations for the Church as a whole as well.  Can we say that a Church bureaucracy larded with lawyers on retainer and liability insurance is a Church with an unshielded heart?  A Church grown fat with Mammon and comfortable with Moloch is certainly not the Church of substitutionary intercession, but is rather a Church of possessors and owners, overly concerned with protecting its unfettered “right” to maintain its fortress of sacramental solitude vis-à-vis a dominant culture portrayed as the enemy at the gates.  The Church does indeed have enemies, but I highly doubt the most dangerous ones are outside of her gates.  I would start with the quislings at the USCCB and work out from there.  I say this fully aware that some may view that last statement as overheated rhetoric.  But I say it and mean it quite literally.  Our bishops are, with some noteworthy exceptions, cowards and dullards, wolves in wolf’s clothing, not even bothering to hide their managerial class predation on any Catholic, priest or lay, who actually believes, has a pulse, and dares to rise above the Church’s Vape shop mediocrity.  These are not men characterized by the valor of the unshielded heart, not men of mission or zeal, not men of faith, not men of intercession, and the only substitutionary endeavor they usually engage in is when they upgrade to First Class from Business Class on their flight to Rome.  Not without reason did Jesus warn us that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.  Because you cannot offer your unshielded heart up as a sacrifice for the cankerous wound that afflicts the world all the while clinging, like the old lady in Hell in Dostoevsky’s parable, to the rotted onion of our holographic charity.

Ours is a Church concerned with saving the appearances. It is a childish Church of fantasy make-believe that talks to its invisible friend called “healthy parish life” as if such a thing is real.  If salvation is corporate and if our central role is to be priestly intercessors for the pain of the world and our chief “actions” are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, then this mentality should predominate the landscape of our parishes.  Does it? You tell me.  I get emails every day from distraught Catholics from all over the country and they ALL ask variations of the same questions:  where can I find a parish that isn’t beige? Where can I find a parish that embodies the valor of the unshielded heart? Where can I find a parish that embodies a faith worth dying for?? That views salvation as an intercessory task for the sake of others rather than as a tired Totem of magical pieties?  A parish that refuses to play CYO sports on Sunday mornings (what is wrong with you malcontents?!… there is a vigil Mass you know… the Sabbath is for suckers…).  Enough illusions! Enough accommodationism! Basta! 

Sincere Catholics who want to serve the Lord in His Church are currently undergoing a deep crisis of demoralization.  Catholics I have known for decades have suddenly stopped going to Church, and not because they have “lost the faith” but rather because the Church has.  People of faith, who seek to meet the world with unshielded hearts, find in the bourgeois Church of today nothing but shields. Thick ones. They are tired of being called “fundamentalists” and “fanatics” just because they can no longer stomach the moldering stench of the rot of it all.  And many of them have retreated into a domestic preservation of the faith, like the Japanese Catholics during their time of oppression, until such time as the Church comes to its senses again.  I am not condoning this, merely describing it, and sympathizing with its reasons.

In a famous lecture given at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with the Archbishop in attendance, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, an agnostic, excoriated the Church for turning the meaning of Christ’s messianic action into a reduced and domesticated story fit for instilling “civic virtues” in the citizenry, but not much else.  He noted that in the early years of the Church Christians viewed themselves as “sojourners” in this life who lived within the eschatological horizon of “messianic time.”  They payed attention to their civic duties since they understood that the “ultimate things” come to us through penultimate things.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the penultimate must remain so and therefore the true Christian understood that his or her true home is elsewhere.   But all of that changed, said Agamben, with the revolution in the Church wrought by Constantine.  Suddenly, Christians went from being sojourners to citizens and the focus shifted from the ultimate to the penultimate with an attenuation of the eschatological dimension of messianic time as the result. 

A Church now overly fixated on penultimate things becomes, through an inexorable spiritual logic, a Church of worldly compromises.  Because the penultimate, when it becomes a substitute for the ultimate, inevitably devolves into a drab and suffocating ordo of utilitarian casuistries.  As the Gaelic language would put it, there were now shields “galore.” And a Church of shields, both figural and literal, is not a Church in spiritual and pastoral solidarity with the primary Christological act of substitutionary atonement. 

Today is the beginning of Lent for us Latin Catholics.  And it really does seem as if the contemporary Church is undergoing a long delayed pruning in the midst of the gravest crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation.  And I don’t just mean the sex abuse crisis, but the whole, damn, crisis of faithlessness in the Church that is demoralizing and alienating her base. And the answer to which I am pointing in this post is not in the direction of some program of reform, some “scheme,” or some kind of moral revolution in the Church.  It is rather a simple call to recover what is most basic about being a Christian.  To recover what it truly means “to be saved,” which would require us to remove the shields from our hearts for the sake of the world.  To love our enemies and to pray for them.  To suffer for them.  To die for them.  As did our Master before us.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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Let’s Try Again: Anger and Church Reform.

Blog Master’s Note: The following is the first in what I hope will be a series of guest blogs. Today’s post is by Teresa Messineo. Her biographical information is at the end of the post. This post is her wonderful commentary on my post last week on the Constantinian “heathenism” (paganism) of the Church. I think it is excellent. I hope you all do as well. The picture I chose for the top of the post is of a book by my journalist friend Christopher Altieri which is a collection of his reporting on the crisis in the Church. I include it here because if anyone is moved by Teresa’s post to learn more of the crisis in the Church this is a great place to start.

Larry Chapp

by Teresa Messineo

            So many essays are penned today about Church reform and so many of them are angry.  And I get it.  I was raised in an angry church. 

            As a kid, I attended outdoor mass where armed guards walked the perimeter, their German Shepherds tugging at their leads.  I knelt down to receive communion in rented ballrooms, in Holiday Inns, in picnic pavilions where pistols were sold out of car trunks for cash after the closing hymn.  For years, my parents ran bootleg Latin masses out of our basement boiler room, the furnace kicking in at inopportune times, drowning out the elderly priest as he shakily proclaimed the Word of God.

            I do not judge my parents’ generation, or the form of civil disobedience their faith life took.  People were – and continue to be – betrayed by those in positions of power within the church.  While their bishops lived like modern day royalty – a sort of flabby, old white man jet set – hardworking families went without braces for their kids and much-needed car repairs in order to keep their parishes open, only to have their school and church doors locked anyway, their donations greedily pocketed.  For those schools that remained open (like my own high school), children were raped by trusted priests and then gaslighted to keep silent, with devastating and far-reaching effect (see my essays on this here and here).  In the post-conciliar church, sanctuaries were ransacked; statues of Mary and baby Jesus ended up on the curb; my dad once saved a whole monastic library that was piled up outside in the grass, waiting to be burned (I don’t know that we actually read many of these books, but it was the principle of the thing).  For those who enjoy reading childhood accounts like mine, as a kind of nostalgic Catholic-Americana, perhaps no one does it better than Veronica Chater in her full-length memoir, Waiting for the Apocalypse (I also link an early piece I did on this, for the New Oxford Review). 

            But neither anger nor nostalgia for an earlier time will help us now.  If we are serious about church reform – and not just intent on venting our rage – we will have to try something else.   Dr. Larry Chapp, in his essay, The Constantinian Heathenism of the Church: Ratzinger and the Crisis of our Time, makes the argument that the church’s ‘hyper-magisterialism, born out of an idolatrous ecclesial ideology that makes the Church an end onto itself rather than a mere medium to Christ’ is coming dangerously close to the mark here.  While my formative years left me very well catechized (I have won money naming the Six Precepts of the Church), it was not there that I learned of the Nature and Person of Christ.  I learned doctrine.  But, at best, that is a beginning, not an end.  ‘And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required’ (Luke 12:48), and much, much more is required of us.  Following Christ demands morality, but morality is far more than error-avoidance.  As Chapp aptly puts it, ‘The proper uses of the magisterium devolved into a hyper-magisterialism that turned the doctrine of apostolic succession into a weaponized ideology of control. Theological orthodoxy and holding to all the right doctrines became a central focus of the Church’s concept of salvation as such, elevating doctrines and creeds beyond their status as second and third level reflections on the sources of Revelation, and into the realm of Revelation as such.’  I could not have said this better.  I have seen grown men cry, not out of repentance, but out of sheer terror, paralyzed into inaction (when action was morally necessary) by their fear of sinning, of breaking a rule, of making a mistake.

            So what can we do?  Pick up any Catholic publication, and the list of quick-fixes for our church seems endless.  Outlaw the Norvus Ordo.  Get rid of altar girls.  Say this novena (it will make the devil really, really mad).  Put Benedict back on the Chair.  Ban all Praise and Worship hymnals (okay, that last one is tempting).  But is there a secret recipe for getting our church ‘right’ or, at least, setting her on a better course?  I don’t believe in quick fixes.  But if there is anything useful I have learned from my unusual vantage point in the church, I offer it now.

            1) Either you love Jesus Christ, or you don’tThere are a lot of other points I could make, and a lot of other arguments we could have, but all of them are pointless without this.  I think a lot of people – and a lot of people that were and continue to be in positions of power in the church – have fallen out of love with Christ, if they ever cared for Him at all.  You can wring your hands in despair over this; or you can start piling up kindling around the nearest stake; but I feel the purpose of church reform would be better served by everyone concerned being honest about this.  Personally, for me, living without Christ – without a consuming love for Him – would truly be terrible, but it’s not that way for everyone.  If your parish priest, or local bishop, or that nun I had in high school who used to smack every male student within range with her spiral-bound notebook no longer cares for Christ, that needs to be admitted as the first step towards their stepping down from places of authority, and our church beginning to heal.  Even if they are outwardly invested in the trappings of the church – in their high-end real estate, in felt banners, in scarves and mittens that match the colors of the different liturgical seasons – without Christ, it was all a façade, anyway, a shambles that could never stand.  You might argue they are making the wrong decision, giving up Christ, and I would agree with you.  But I have a feeling they gave up on Him a long time ago.  Let these church leaders – who cannot lead us because they do not like the Head of the Church, let alone love Him – remove themselves from the mix.  And, after that, let’s see what we have left to work with.  Chapp quotes Ratzinger’s prophetic 1958 lecture, The New Pagans and the Church: ‘And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals.  But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult … but the Church of faith.  It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that it was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming, and be seen as man’s home where he will find life and hope beyond death.’ 

            2)  Neither the Left nor the Right will save you.  Anyone naive enough to believe a political party will save them or their country’s morality is in for a rude awakening.  In my experience, Catholics identifying as liberal have been poorly catechized (just ask them to list the Ten Commandments), can be easily manipulated by politicians who appeal to their emotion, and often define their relationship with God as ‘casual’ – kind of like He’s a cool uncle, rather than a Father.  The more vocal group I knew in my youth – identifying as conversative or traditional Catholics – may have been insanely well-catechized, but my whole life I watched them be taken advantage of by con artists, survivalists, and other charlatans who prey on the distrustful.  I have seen these Catholics override their God-given reason and what they knew to be true, if it did not fall into a neat, doctrinal niche, or could not be easily looked up in a second grade catechism.  Disturbingly, many have also adopted a view of God and Mary (especially in regard to Marian apparitions) that is similar to many domestic violence triangles – the pleading woman interceding for and protecting her children from an ill-tempered male.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have said my rosary every day, and visited Fatima like the best of pilgrims.  But I was put off by what her more ardent devotees seemed to be implying.  Is Mary more merciful than God?  More loving?  More understanding and patient and forgiving?  Or is she these things precisely because God dwells inside her and He is those things in their fullness? 

            So, if neither the Left nor the Right will save us, who will?  See point one, above.  Unfortunately for those who were not really that into Him in the first place, we are left again with Jesus Christ.  He is enough, He is sufficient, He is superabundant.  He draws all things to Himself, and will draw into (and from within) the church everything necessary, not just for its survival, but for its thriving upon the earth.  But no politician can do that.  Only Christ.

            3)  Take your fingers out of your ears.  There are those who (amazingly) feel there is nothing wrong with the Catholic Church, and swear undying allegiance – not just to her doctrine and dogma, not just to the faith or religion, but, unequivocally, to the actual political institution itself, a city-state nestled in the heart of Italy.  No sex abuse scandal, no claims of clergy corruption can seemingly perturb this smiling group, happily content with the status quo, waving their pretty white-and-yellow flags and proclaiming the current incarnation of Christ’s church on earth as ‘pretty darn good.’  I am not one of these Pollyanna’s.  And neither, I believe, is Chapp when he cites the magisterium’s long-standing love affair with ‘worldly perks, its secretive curial intrigue in the tradition of corrupt kingly courts, and its episcopal pleasure palaces.’  The political church hierarchy is imploding in on itself, crushed by its own weight.  Let it.  It was never the right tack to take in the first place, a misdirection, at best.  Christ said to take no money for the journey and have only one cloak.  We crammed as much cash as we could into our pockets, pushed aside our naked neighbor, and struggled along the bumpy road of salvation, tugging behind us an unwieldy suitcase stuffed with a dozen cloaks.  Okay, so we got that wrong.  Let’s try again.  Every place where we took the words of Christ (Matthew 20:25, 1 Peter 5:3, Luke 9:3, etc) and twisted them for our own benefit, we took a wrong turn.  It’s time to turn back.  And turn towards Christ. 

            There is a danger my words – ‘turn towards Christ’ – could be misconstrued, either as mere pleasantry, or as a gross over-simplification, but they are neither.  They are, in fact, a little terrifying.  To turn towards Christ is to admit that He is worth turning towards, in fact, the center and summit of all things.  To even begin to see Him is to see ourselves, and all the lousy ways we’ve injured ourselves and others, and the piffling nature of our contributions to a church of which we are both members and some of her loudest armchair quarterbacks.  But if you can face that day of truth, that awful reckoning, if you can turn towards Christ you begin to see the world as He sees it.  Not as a hopeless mess, not as the dark and despairing chaos the world often sees it as, but as something indescribably beautiful, and precious, and worth saving.  So worthy of salvation, in fact, that He bothered to come and do precisely that.  Christ’s message was never one of despair, but of hope.  He did not draw hundreds, and then thousands, and then millions (billions) of believers to Himself by any means other than His nature, His very Self, which is so irresistible to the human heart that He needs no press, no PR team, and certainly no corrupt, power-hungry hangers-on to make it so.  If you could see the world as God sees it, you would never again raise a hand to your neighbor, except to help him.  You would come to see yourself, too, for the incarnate beauty God sees you as, even if ‘beautiful’ is the last adjective you would ever choose to describe yourself.  And you would laugh at the fear (as Ratzinger put it) of our becoming a smaller church, a less powerful church, a church whose first priority is not avoiding error but encountering Christ and His inescapable love.  There’s nothing scary about that, even if it has not been tried for nearly 1,700 years. 

            Towards the end of his essay, Chapp calls for universal holiness, not as an oversimplification of the problems within the church, but as their only possible solution.  ‘It will be a smaller, chastened Church, that will be cruciform and devoted to the ‘simple ones’ so neglected by the world.  It will be a deeply spiritual Church, shorn of its political trappings and having almost no social standing.’

            Kind of like the Church Christ founded. 

            Sounds just about perfect to me. 

~ Teresa Messineo is a graduate of DeSales University, where she is currently completing her graduate MFA-CW.  She spent seven years researching The Fire by Night (HarperCollins 2017), her historical fiction novel about military nurses of the Second World War, now published in three languages in seven countries.  She is also the mother of four children whom she exclusively home schooled for nearly 20 years.

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The Constantinian Heathenism of the Church: Joseph Ratzinger and the Crisis of our Time

“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 will call themselves Christians, but have really become heathens. Heathenism is entrenched today in the church itself. That is the mark 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”

(Joseph Ratzinger, Hochland, October 1958)

With these incendiary words in an article shocking for its candor during a time when such things were just not said, a young Joseph Ratzinger burst onto the theological scene in Germany.  All was not well with the Church, despite outward appearances, and Ratzinger was convinced that the Church was in a deep crisis of faith requiring an equally deep theological response.  What is instructive in the quote isn’t just the blunt claim that the Church had been infected by “heathenism,” but also that these words were written in 1958 which gives the lie to the currently popular view among some conservatives that the reforms of Vatican II are responsible for the malaise in the Church.  All Vatican II did was to lift the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido and to thereby allow for the first time a full public expression of the unbelief, brewing for centuries, of the laity and the clerics alike.  Only this can explain why the putative “Catholic” culture of the pre conciliar Church collapsed almost overnight.  The vapid lunacy of the post conciliar Church was the product of the hollow and merely forensic “faith” of the pre conciliar Church.  There is only one Church and these shallow distinctions between the pre and post conciliar Church – – distinctions designed in order to assign blame based on your favored ecclesiastical ideology – – are useless as valid diagnostic tools. 

Ratzinger was not alone in ringing the alarm, as many fellow ressourcement theologians, philosophers, Dorothy Day, and Catholic literary figures in the period between 1920-1960 were making similar claims. The signs of rot were there if you only had the eyes to see it. These prophets were largely ignored by Church leaders and were viewed with deep suspicion as crypto-modernists – – the charge of “modernism” being the new twentieth century version of “she’s a witch!” as it was indiscriminately deployed against both real modernists as well as the nouvelle theologie.   Church leaders were mainly focused on maintaining the façade/illusion of “fortress Catholicism” viewed as a rock-solid bulwark of unchanging “orthodoxy” standing firm against the evils of the modern world.  Ratzinger, and like-minded thinkers, knew that the “fortress” was in fact a house of cards as later events would confirm. 

One of the thinkers who also raised the alarm was the French novelist George Bernanos.   I am currently reading a new reprint of an old book by Bernanos called “The Great Cemeteries Under The Moon.” The book is an account of what Bernanos witnessed in the Spanish civil war while living in Majorca.  First published in 1938 it is a scathing indictment of the Church’s alliance with the Franco regime and its turning a blind-eye to the State sponsored terrorism that Franco used in order to stay in power.  And pertinent to Ratzinger’s claim about the new heathenism in the Church, the main alarm Bernanos is raising is the same as in all of his novels. Namely, that the worldly, practical atheism of the Church was causing a numbing-down of her spiritual senses through a process of accommodation to the existential exhaustion of bourgeois European culture. 

I mention the text by Bernanos in particular because it brings out the main point I want to make in this post.  Namely, that the “heathenism” that Ratzinger saw in the Church was of a far deeper kind, and involves a far deeper apostasy, than the heathenism of a moral and religious relativism that Ratzinger was concerned with at that time.  These are real concerns, and I too share them, but they are largely the bourgeois concerns of the leisured academic class (a class of which I am a member).  In other words, Ratzinger was correct, but insufficiently so (as he himself came to see), since the heathenism that Bernanos is pointing out is not just of the kind denounced in the usual jeremiads about the “corrupt worldliness of the Church” but rather an indictment of the Church’s blessing and embracing of worldly “power” as such that amounts to an endorsement, among many other things, of State sponsored murder.  Indeed, the Church has not only quite often blessed modern, worldly power but also, as Bernanos notes, it has sought to import its methods and to imitate them.  The Church has, of course, murdered people herself in the name of “orthodoxy” not so long ago, so her baptism of the bastards should not shock us, despite the happy-face ecclesiastical emoji that her leaders like to project as they use the fig leaf of “development of doctrine” as an excuse to overlook past sins:  “yeah, yeah, we used to do bad stuff, but we don’t now. Our bad. Now, onto our reform of curial dicasteries.” 

Therefore, one can hardly be blamed for understanding the relativism that so concerned Ratzinger as merely a symptom of a much deeper rot. Because nobody is ever really a relativist.  Ever.  Relativism therefore is always a subspecies of some kind of a deeper rejection directed at the existing moral and spiritual ordo of a specific culture.  And the rot of that culture, the Church’s culture included, with its hypocrisies, corruptions, inconsistencies, and manifest injustices, shares deeply in the blame for the emergent “relativism” of those who reject the entire, tired monument of mendacity.  There are of course theoretical, philosophical relativists, but they do not seem to understand that if their thesis is “true” then they should stop writing and retire to the faculty lounge for a spirited discussion of linguistic theory while drinking high-end bourbon out of a crystal glass made in a sweat shop, while sitting on furniture made in a sweat shop, and wearing tweed suits made in a sweat shop.  Nobody takes such idiots seriously.  But what we often call, too superficially, “relativism” in the broader culture is in reality nothing more than the cri de couer of exhausted souls, living in an exhausted culture, and in search of alternative answers. 

The deeper problem, brought out clearly by Bernanos, is the Church’s 1700 year commitment to various iterations of the Constantinian arrangement. I know this is a cliché these days, but even cliches can be true and this one is.  I hasten to add now all of the usual caveats concerning the broad social implications of the Gospel and of the necessity of the Church to be a participant in the full life of a culture, its political culture included. Nevertheless, the Church is never stronger in the political/public sphere than when it is least implicated in the apparatus of the State.  As soon as it becomes an apparatchik for the reigning political powers its ability to preach a Christ who was unjustly murdered by the Roman Imperium is blunted. The Roman State is often treated as a vestige of a “long ago” regime that was apparently a one-off example of the misuse of State power, rather than being held up, as it should be, as a paradigm for just about every “sovereign State” that has come after.  That certainly seems to be one of the main points of the book of Revelation with its “whore of Babylon” sitting astride the nations. However, Christ’s State execution is often glossed over and soteriologized into a purely “spiritual” act seen as having little to do with our efforts throughout history to curry favor with State power.  The Gospel has social implications? You are damn right it does, and first among them is the recognition that Pilate’s question “what is truth?” displays the convenient relativism of “power” employed by all hegemonic States. Therefore, the Church’s proper stance toward all such forms of political power should not be collusion, but distance.  For it is only in distance from such power that the Church is most free even if, and perhaps most especially, that freedom is that of the martyr.  And that is the only “integralism” that matters. The integralism of the cross and its paradoxical victory over the powers of this world. 

The list of authoritarian States the Church has colluded with over the centuries is so long it would take pages upon pages to enumerate.  But far worse than this collusion wherein the Church tacitly baptizes worldly power for the sake of proximate and expedient goals, is the fact that the Church herself has imported patterns of worldly power into her own governing structure.  After Constantine the Church began a centuries long expansion of power that saw the rise of an inflated “papalism” equipped with all of the apparatus of a political power and eventually adorned in princely, if not kingly, renaissance garb.  Bishops began living in palaces and behaving like the landed aristocracy (and many still do), all of which, in practical terms, was an open repudiation of Christ’s warning that you cannot serve both God and mammon.  The political, as opposed to the cultural, concept of “Christendom” was predicated on the notion that the Church had to wield worldly power in order to be free from other worldly powers.  The papacy even developed its own prisons, standing army, and executioners.  And this is to say nothing of the rampant corruptions and debauchery that infected the Church as a result of this mimesis of Caesar’s power. 

Would the great schism between East and West have happened without this political corruption of the Church?  Would the Reformation?  Tetzel may have lit the match, but the kindling was all around, doused with accelerants, and just waiting to explode into an inferno.  And even though these are all events in our distant past, the fact remains that the Church, well into modern times, clung to its Constantinian power, its worldly perks, its secretive, curial intrigue in the tradition of corrupt kingly courts, and its episcopal pleasure palaces, with ferocious tenacity, kicking against the goad as Christendom slowly died one body part at a time. And even as Christendom’s corpse began to give off a stench the Church tossed perfumed talc over the mess and published a syllabus of errors and demanded oaths against modernism.  Errors were indeed afoot, and modernism was real, but the point is that the old methods of coercive power were now as effective as putting a band aid on a melanoma. 

On the theological side it was inevitable that this political corruption of the Church would also bleed into the concept of the Church as “teacher” and “the sole means of salvation.”  The proper uses of the magisterium devolved into a hyper magisterialism that turned the doctrine of apostolic succession into a weaponized ideology of control. Theological orthodoxy and holding to all the right doctrines became a central focus of the Church’s concept of salvation as such, elevating doctrines and creeds beyond their status as second and third level reflections on the sources of Revelation, and into the realm of Revelation as such.  Creeds, as C.S. Lewis notes, are like road maps.  Useful indeed, but they are not a substitute for the reality they depict.  Creeds are necessary.  But the living Christ is a person, and not a creed. Thus did correct adherence to doctrine come to be wedded with coercive power as the Church justified murdering unrepentant heretics on the grounds that it was for their own good since their salvation depended on getting the doctrines correct.  Church sponsored inquisitions have been greatly exaggerated, as many modern historians are now uncovering, but their existence nevertheless cannot be denied, and they did indeed put people to death.  And the fact that the magisterium of the Church did not condemn the very concept of an inquisition is a sure indicator that the doctrines of the Church had been turned into an ideological superstructure for the maintenance of political Christendom. 

Salvation is a gift from God, in the ordo of grace, and not a parlor game for the intellectually gifted.  And well into the modern period this politicized and distorted magisterialism created an ethos of inquisitorial coercion that did nothing to stem the tide of modernism since its chief means of operation was coercive power and not argument, the imitation of Christ, and the exercise of legitimate authority.  As for modernism and the supposed “fortress” of magisterial efforts to combat it Ratzinger writes: 

“Modernism never really came to a head, but was interrupted by the measure taken by Pius X … The crisis of the present is but the long deferred resumption of what began in those days.”

(“Faith and the Future” Franciscan Herald Press; 1971, p. 92)

I am obviously not arguing against the theological necessity of a magisterium, apostolic succession, the papacy, and the witness of the Church in the public square.  I hold to all of those truths.  However, I am arguing against the peculiar political form that these structures have taken on.  The Italian philosopher Augosto del Noce in an important essay reprinted in the Summer, 2015 edition of the journal Communio makes an important distinction between “power” and “authority.” True authority is rooted in a moral and spiritual sphere and exercises its responsibilities to the truth utilizing tools from that same moral and spiritual domain.  As such, it is the exact opposite of the coercive modus operandi of political “power.” Political power must be coercive since it has no attractiveness in and of itself, and even when it appeals to the enlightened self-interest of its citizens does so from purely utilitarian calculations.  As such, it has very little power to “persuade” and quite often must resort to the stick of force when the carrot of self-interest fails.  Furthermore, when political power does manage to “persuade” it is often through populist demagoguery, or war mongering, or flat-out lies. How much more imperative then is it for the authority of the Church, which is after all a theological reality, and moral and spiritual in its very essence, to eschew “power” and to persuade rather than to coerce.  And the only power of persuasion it has is the towering figure of Christ, who coerced no one but drew the world to himself even as he was “lifted up.” The Church therefore will have no authority whatsoever unless it pursues the path of its Lord and imitates His pattern of kenotic “glory.” 

My claim therefore is that the crisis in the Church today  – – a crisis of faithlessness and de facto atheism – – has been caused by a Church that has had, historically, a lot of “power” and, therefore, now has very little “authority”. And what good, after all, is a magisterium in a Church that has no real spiritual authority even as she continues to function in a purely forensic manner? The “infallibility” of the Church may still be technically intact, but the authority behind it is not.  I wonder, for example, if the American bishops understand that they have zero credibility to teach anything? Decades of colluding with the local civil authorities to cover up child rape for the purpose of preserving that outward façade of a “holy” Church may have preserved their “power” for a time, but at the expense of their authority.  And their response to the crisis, which arose only after their lies were exposed, was to tinker with the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church, her “mechanisms,” all the while exempting themselves from their own protocols for “others” thus insuring a degree of immunity for their ongoing “power.”  All they did was double-down on “process” in order to save the appearances.  In short, it was a cynical and mendacious betrayal of the faithful in order to save their own skins showing once again that the only thing that matters to them is the power that comes with respectability.  We have replaced the old political integralism with an integralism of insurance companies and lawyers, an integralism of bourgeois comfort, in order to preserve the current status of the Church as a suburban strip-mall of ersatz spiritualities. 

Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that there are two basic principles that structure the Church.  The Petrine principle forms the institutional, skeletal element without which the Church would just be a formless blob of disconnected tissues lacking a proper foundation. The Marian principle, which is superior to the Petrine, constitutes the Church’s internal holiness, her “guts” if you will.  And Balthasar emphasizes that without this Marian dimension of holiness the Church is just a dead pile of bones.  The Dominical warning about “whited sepulchers” comes to mind and is exactly what Balthasar is alluding to here.  For too long our hyper magisterialism, born out of an idolatrous ecclesial ideology that makes the Church an end onto itself rather than a mere medium to Christ, has fostered an eclipse of that Marian element in the Church, no matter how many apocalyptic visions of Mary are currently popular.  I have no doubt that Mary has appeared, but her message of prayer, penance, and holiness is ignored in favor of the “secrets” and predictions of doom.  In other words, we are awash in “correct doctrines” and superficial pieties that tickle the ears, but where is the true Marian holiness?? 

The pathology is, unfortunately, deep as can be seen in the quality of our current debates.  Is Pope Francis a heretic?  Should we take communion on the hand or on the tongue? Is the Novus Ordo a creation of Freemason conspirators? Should women lector at Mass? Is Vatican II a robber Council? Should Benedict still be wearing a white cassock? Latin or vernacular? Gothic or fiddleback? Should homosexuals be ministered to gently or should we smash them over the head with a catechism as we refuse to bake them cakes? Is Vigano a prophet or a clown? Should the Vatican bank be shut down? How should the curia be reformed? Should some women be made Cardinals? Deacons? Is Bishop Barron a dangerous modernist? Was von Balthasar a heretic? All of these debates signal a Church still locked in the heathenism of power insofar as they are all concerned with “winning” the debate for “their side” of disputes that are essentially concerned with the Petrine element of the Church at the expense of the Marian.  Where are the debates over asceticism, prayer, penance, vocational commitment, evangelization, and so on? Off the radar.  Nobody cares.  My good friend Fr. Michael Kerper calls this sort of thing “team theology.” And lost in the debates, as we take our side with our team members, is the “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). In short, we are a Church of Marthas. 

My positive proposal is simple, yet difficult:  holiness.  The Church of concordats and position papers is dead.  “Infallibility” is a completely empty concept when it is rooted in power instead of authority.  And where there is no holiness, there is no authority.  I wouldn’t take a recipe for brownies from Stalin, no matter how perfect they look.  Personnel is policy and a hypertrophy of the Petrine element produces the wrong personnel.  Nor is this Donatism.  I am not questioning the validity of anyone’s office.  I am questioning the existential authenticity of the modern Church and its efficaciousness. 

Joseph Ratzinger also understood that the Church of success, wealth, and power – – the Church of Constantine – – had run its course.  The future would belong, he wrote, to a “remnant” of believers, serious in their pursuit of holiness even as they reached out to their neighbors.  It will be a smaller, chastened Church, that will be cruciform and devoted to the “simple ones” so neglected by the world.  It will be a deeply spiritual Church, shorn of its political trappings and having almost no social standing.  And so I give him the last word even as I gave him the first: 

“And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult… but the Church of faith.  It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that it was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming, and be seen as man’s home where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

(“Faith and the Future”, pp. 105-106)

Dorothy Day, pray for us

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Evangelization from Within Guardini’s “Threshold”

By Larry Chapp

“There are those who experience profoundly the mystery of life at the threshold. They live decisively neither here nor there. They live in a no-man’s-land.  They experience the restlessness that passes from one side to the other. Melancholy is the restlessness of the man who perceives the closeness of the infinite – – who experiences at the same time blessing and threat.  The meaning of man consists in being a living threshold, it consists in taking on this life at the threshold, and living it to the end.  In this way he is rooted in reality; he is free from the enchantments of a false intimacy with God. The attitude that is most authentically human is the one influenced by the threshold, the only adequate to reality.”

Romano Guardini. Portrait of Melancholy

Some months ago I had a blog post dealing with Michael Voris’s attack on Bishop Robert Barron. Among other things, he attacked Barron for his comments on who can be saved in an interview Barron took part in with the popular, conservative Jew Ben Shapiro.  Shapiro asked Barron if he, a Jew, could be saved given the Church’s teaching that Christ is necessary for salvation.  Barron responded, tactfully, that the Church does indeed teach that Christ is necessary for salvation but that the grace of Christ is not limited to the visible confines of the Church and that the Church teaches that those who are sincerely following their well-formed consciences can find salvation outside of the Church.  Barron’s answer was indeed perfectly orthodox insofar as he did not in any way downplay the necessity of Christ for salvation and was merely pointing out what it is that the Church teaches on the matter.  But that was not good enough for Voris who went on his usual “Vortex” tirade, literally shouting at the camera that Barron was guilty of advocating for a dangerous religious relativism, all because he did not immediately offer Shapiro an invitation to convert to the Catholic faith for the sake of his soul, or tell the viewing audience that converting to Catholicism was the only path to salvation.

This incident has been stewing in my age-addled brain for some time now because it takes me back to my years as a professor of theology where I too was often accused by my more traditionalist students of “pandering” to the non-believers in my classes. Apparently, what they wanted me to do was to cut to the chase and start quoting the catechism in order to “preach the truth” instead of my usual path of non-confrontational give and take.  I am sure my experiences in this matter are not unique among professors of theology as we have all had to confront the “catechism thumpers” and their view that evangelization is a simple matter of stringing together a daisy-chain of quotes from magisterial documents.  They, like Voris, are the Catholic equivalent of the Evangelical Protestants who can muster scores of Scripture quotes as they shoot them with Gatling gun type efficiency at their hapless targets. The presumption seems to be that since “souls are at stake” one must jump immediately from point A to point Z, without the slightest concern over whether or not the soil has been properly prepared for their targets to “receive” point Z in the first place.

Evangelization is not a monological act wherein the initiative resides purely with the evangelizer while the other person is a merely passive recipient of little factoids of truth.  Evangelization is a relational act between persons of equal dignity who are engaged in that most human of activities: a conversation. And a conversation is not the same as an argument, or a debate, wherein the evangelizer is trying to “win” in order to then thump his chest in triumph at having scored another “victory for Christ.”  How many people actually come to the faith because they lost an argument with a Michael Voris type “evangelizer”? Contrast that with the numbers of people who come to the faith because they have established an open and honest relationship, even friendship, with a serious person of faith who was willing to engage them in the full depths of their humanity acknowledging the legitimacy of their doubts, their questions, and their reservations, even as they gently, softly-softly, share with them why it is that they believe.  This is a process that can sometimes take years – – perhaps even a lifetime – – where true conversion to the faith is the fruit of the inner action of the Spirit working in and through the friendship established, and all in God’s good time.  The initiative, in other words, is God’s, not ours, and God’s time is not our time, with the Spirit of God working not just through the words and life of the believer, but also in the mysterious depths of the non-believer’s soul. 

A true evangelist, therefore, is one who watches and waits.  Someone with the depth of humanity required in order to discern, prudentially, when to speak and when to shut the hell up.  Someone who can feel, connaturally, and with a spiritual instinct that is more art than science, when the soil is ready for planting and when it is not.  Someone who is not too quick to rush in with ready-made “answers” that are trite and filled with the anodyne bromides of a spiritual ideologue who hasn’t bothered to empathetically enter into the questions of the “other”. Indeed, the triumphalistic and bombastic forms of evangelizing often seem to be solipsistic exercises wherein the so-called believer is trying to justify his own faith to himself, shouting into an echo chamber of doubts.  This accounts for why this kind of “evangelizer” is so keen on “winning” the debate, since losing is not an option as it calls into question the very faith of the evangelizer. In such a case the faith has ceased to be an interpersonal “proposal” and has morphed instead into an ideological superstructure of doctrines pressed into service as the identity marker for a rootless, bourgeois, self in search of the kind of rationalistic certitudes that the Enlightenment tells us are the only barometer of truth.  Souls are indeed at stake.  But whose soul?

By contrast, what true evangelization requires is the meeting of thresholds.  In the quote from Guardini above he identifies the essence of what it means to be human as the willingness to live in the no-man’s-land between heaven and earth, to live at the threshold of heaven even as we continue to live in the opaqueness of this life.  The true spiritual seeker is one who can live in this tension and who feels both its joys and its melancholic sadness.  To live in that threshold is to make one’s entire life a question mark in search of answers – – answers that conceal as much as they reveal since they are grounded in the deep mystery that is the Triune God.  The faith does indeed give us answers, even ultimate ones, but never in a modality that precludes darkness – – a fact that the lives of many saints attest to.  Even Saint Paul, who witnessed the risen Christ, nevertheless spoke of how in this life we peer into heavenly things as through a darkened glass.  To live in that threshold is to share deeply in the full depths of the human condition which is at one and the same time a condition marked for eternity as well as by the limitations of our finitude and our sin. 

The implications of this for our view of what constitutes evangelization are far reaching.  For starters it means that the interpersonal act of evangelizing is first and foremost an empathetic action wherein you attempt to understand how your interlocutor experiences life in the threshold Guardini describes.  This is not an easy thing to do and not just because it is impossible to fully empathize with someone else’s subjectivity.  It is also difficult because the temptation is always in the direction of understanding someone else’s experience of the threshold through the lens of your own.  This is the trap so many “preachers” fall into as they set up caricatures of “non-believers” and create straw men to attack, all of which amounts to a monumental exercise in self-assertion and projection rather than a sincere effort at authentic communication with the world of non-believers. 

Therefore, (and here is where folks might strongly disagree with me) it is necessary for the evangelist to be so deeply immersed in his or her own faith, so deeply convicted of its truth, so deeply formed by those truths, and so deeply educated in its spiritual pedagogy, that it then becomes possible to “bracket” that faith in order to doubt it all anew, and to rethink it all again in the respristinating light of all that one has learned in life.  In so doing we can begin to see deeply into the full depth of human despair and doubt and thus are able to “stretch out” into solidarity with all doubters.  Indeed, to be able to name their doubt for them better than they can name it themselves. There is tremendous power in being able to articulate the “dark night of the soul” for those who are lost in it but who are still seeking the light.   Thus is all true evangelization the path of empathy, the path of entering into the internal logic of doubt and darkness, and to suffer it through to the end.  This is a tremendously difficult thing to do and sometimes requires a lifetime of preparation, which is why “evangelization” in the full register of a robust encounter with the “other” is so very rare.  It is precisely why the saints and their lives are the best evangelizers and also why the arrogant, “us vs them,” pile-driving pugilism of a Michael Voris is so damnably silly. 

I am most certainly no saint.  But, to toot my own horn a bit, I was a really good teacher.  I am not good at many things in life, but there is one thing I was good at and it was teaching theology.  And as I reflect back on those years in the classroom I now realize what it was that made me effective and what it was that most rankled my hyper traditionalist students.  It is a skill that is also possessed by my dear friend and former colleague, Dr. Rodney Howsare.  And that skill is this:  that when a doubting, non-believing student raises an objection in the form of a question you first begin by taking it very, very seriously.  You then proceed to reformulate the question for the student and in so doing actually make their point even sharper and more cogent.  In so doing you validate the student’s doubts and help them to own that doubt even better.  Then and only then are you ready to propose an answer, and the answer will be all the more cogent since it will be an answer that has gone through the crucible of the doubt.  But this is only possible if the teacher has also doubted and doubted deeply, to its very depth and to the ends of its inner logic, all the while maintaining the faith in a kind of bracketed suspension that is possible only if one lives in Guardini’s threshold. 

This, it seems to me, is the path followed by Bishop Robert Barron which is why his videos are so effective and why he is so hated by those on the rad trad fringes of the Church.  He seeks to preach the Gospel in a manner that truly reflects its radical spiritual and human depth – – a depth that can often be occluded by the very doctrinal apparatus of the Church which, though true in itself, has become very “in-house” in its language and which, therefore, does not speak to a modern soul formed in the witch’s brew of our technocratic, digital, secularity.  I am not here to defend Bishop Barron per se – – he is a big boy and he can defend himself – – but rather to defend a method of preaching in today’s world that follows the path of empathetic solidarity with every sincere seeker who lives in the threshold.

Finally, there is a need to ground this method theologically in order to go beyond its mere pedagogical soundness as an “effective” tool.  The method I am describing is cruciform in its inner spiritual logic insofar as the attempt to enter empathetically into the dark night of doubt is an act of sacrificial “substitution” for the sake of the “other.”  The true evangelizer must be a person of deep prayer and penance who seeks to take into his or her own soul the existential fractures of the “other” that cloud the mind and lead to doubt. The empathy I speak of then is more than a mere “feeling with” but also a true “taking on” as one adopts the doubt of the world, suffers through it, and thereby contributes to its conquest, its redemption.  Evangelization therefore is more than a pedagogical act, but is also, and most profoundly, a penitential and soteriological act. 

We are told by Saint Paul that in our sufferings we make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. (Colossians 1:24) This a deeply mysterious statement because what can possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? A key can be found in Paul’s statement that his afflictions make up for what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings insofar as they are for the sake of the Church.  In other words, we need to remember that the essence of Christ’s sufferings went far beyond his physical pain and reside even more deeply in his taking on the full weight of the implications of sin.  But for the sake of our own entering into that salvation the Father also wills that we participate in its inner dynamic.  This is what Christ means when he says that we too must take up our cross.  He doesn’t just mean something trite like “you too will have bad things happen to you”.  He means something far deeper and much more challenging.  He is asking us to understand that “to whom much is given, much is expected” which means that “salvation” is not something I “possess” in an acquisitive manner, nor something I “grasp at” in order to “own”. Rather, it is a gift in the form of an offer to participate in his own redemptive act for the sake of all others.  To be a Christian, therefore, is to give a name to our threshold. And that name is “love as substitutionary sacrifice”.

We live today in a Western culture that faithless.  It is a world marked by doubt and is deeply fractured and on the brink of cultural collapse. All that remains, all that holds us together, is our wealth and our digital technocracy.  It is a challenge unique and without parallel in the history of the Church. And so we face a choice.  We can either gin-up apocalyptic tales of an emerging “soft totalitarianism” and a coming “persecution” and become modern day Essenes fleeing into our version of Qumran until the storm passes, or we can follow the path of Christ which is the path of the loving empathy that leads to the cross.  For if we truly love our neighbor and our enemies then “flight” is not an option.  It is a sin. 

Dorothy Day pray for us.

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The Hermeneutic of Continuity: Part II. Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Neo-Traditonalists

By Larry Chapp

Before I begin today’s blog a note of terminological clarification is in order.  In what follows I will often be referring to what I am calling the “neo-traditionalists”.  All Catholics ought to be some form of a traditionalist since, obviously, as Catholics the living Tradition, as interpreted by the magisterium, is important in our approach to Revelation.  However, since the Vatican Council there has arisen a counter reaction to its reforms from Catholics who object to many of its teachings, which they consider to be departures from the received Tradition.  These Catholics were relatively few in number at first but their ranks have recently grown exponentially.  Fueled by the papacy of Pope Francis and with the internet as their highway they have grown increasingly influential and comprise, in my view, a genuinely new movement within the Church.  Therefore, I am calling them “neo-traditionalists” in all that follows.  So let us begin ….

I have written a lot on this blog about the hermeneutic of continuity.  I have gotten largely positive feedback from my readers which is always encouraging.  However, the one constant refrain I keep hearing from almost everyone is something along the lines of the following:  “This is all great but how do we continue to believe in the hermeneutic of continuity in the era of Pope Francis and his many departures from tradition?”  And this question comes from both my more moderate to conservative readers as well as from the many neo-traditionalists who read this blog.  Therefore, and in light of the recent motu proprio from the Pope on women in the ministries of acolyte and lector that stirred up yet more dust, I thought it was time to deal with the elephant in the living room:  Pope Francis.

The first thing that must be pointed out is that for the neo-traditionalists Pope Francis is problematic not just in himself but stands as “exhibit A” for all that has gone wrong from the Council forward.  In other words, he is not unique in their view, but is merely the logical outcome of the many ruptures with Tradition that the modern magisterium has promoted.  Their blogs and podcasts all engage in lengthy criticisms of Vatican II and the ressourcement theology that animates it, and they all seem to buy into some version of Archbishop Vigano’s rejection of the Council as “near heretical” and his assertion that the post Vatican II Church is a corrupted “parallel Church” that exists alongside of the true Church of the orthodox holy remnant of believers.   Pope Francis is just the cherry on the cake of that false “Vatican II Church” and their criticisms of him therefore lean heavily in the direction of viewing him as an arch heretic.  Therefore, in order to contextualize my critique of Pope Francis it is first necessary to outline where I think the neo-trads go so terribly wrong and thereby end up exaggerating the “problem of Pope Francis”.

Let me first begin then with what I think is the deepest theological flaw in their approach.  A flaw that is in reality an internal contradiction.  I think they know this which is why they refuse to address the question head-on and resort instead to what amounts to various forms of deflection.  The contradiction in their approach is that they all claim to affirm the authority of the magisterium, but only when and where it suits them.  Which is to say, they don’t really affirm the authority of the magisterium at all, but are instead affirming their own magisterial authority over the magisterium, which is, ironically, decidedly Protestant in principle.  They try to get around this problem by trying to locate the exact moment in ecclesiastical history when the magisterium began to be corrupted with error (again … the Protestant idea that there is a primitive true Church that was then corrupted) and to imply, or to state explicitly, that all magisterial statements after this “rupture” are suspect. And of course for them that rupture was Vatican II, with the more radical among them claiming that the rupture began even earlier with the emergence of the nouvelle theologie.  And still others go further back viewing Vatican I as the source of the problem with its declaration of papal infallibility, which created what they call the “hyperpapalism” that opened the doors to all of the papal and conciliar shenanigans of the 20th century. But once again, it is not hard to see that this is Protestant in principle as evidenced by the fact that the neo-traditionalists themselves are broken up into various factions that line up behind their own favored narrative of rupture.

They all however have as their modus operandi the attempt to prove their narrative of rupture by cherry picking from the magisterial documents of the past that they think the modern magisterium contradicts and to use this as evidence of the putative rupture.   Thus do they claim that they are merely preserving the Tradition against modern innovations and are not truly “dissenting” from the magisterium but are, in fact, trying to preserve it.  But left unaddressed is the thorny question of why ancient magisterial teaching should have any authority whatsoever if the modern magisterium can get it so wrong?  If Vatican II can teach heresy and if modern popes can teach heresy, why should any council or any pope of any time be given any weight or credibility as authoritative? How is it not deeply contradictory to say that the ancient magisterium was authoritative but the modern one is not? How does one divide-up the magisterium in this manner unless one is really implying that the modern magisterium is really no magisterium at all?  Wouldn’t all of this instead imply that the Protestants have been right all along and that the very notion of an authoritative teaching magisterium is a post Constantinian invention?

And it is no good to hide behind the red herring that what they are rejecting is merely non-infallible teaching.  Because their narrative of rupture goes far beyond mere “dissent” and is instead accusing the modern magisterium of full-on heresy on a massive scale.  It is also a huge display of chutzpah since many of these folks are the same people who accused the liberal dissenters from Humanae Vitae back in 1968 with unfaithfulness to the ordinary magisterium of the Church, which requires our assent even when it is teaching in a non-infallible manner. After all, they said then, outside of the creeds and a few statements from Councils and Popes, most of the Church’s teaching is of the non-infallible kind and there are therefore, “levels of authority” in the teaching of the ordinary magisterium that we must pay attention to.  Indeed, there are elements of the ordinary magisterium of the Church that are also infallible, even if they haven’t been defined de fide definita, and those elements cannot be dissented from.  The authority of the Church’s teaching, therefore, cannot be neatly divided between “stuff that is infallible”and “all of that other crap that doesn’t matter”. The moral theologians Germain Grisez and John Finnis both argued cogently that Humanae Vitae, for example, is just such an example of an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium.  And no less a light than Hans Kung agreed and stated that the “infallibility” of Humanae Vitae only proved that the whole teaching on infallibility is wrong since Humanae Vitae is so clearly incorrect.  Sadly, there are now members of the neo-traditionalist movement who are reaching the same conclusions as they dissent from Vatican II and claim that the modern Church proves that the whole teaching on infallibility has to be looked at again.  

Furthermore, the neo-traditionalist narrative of rupture involves an idealization and romanticization of the ancient magisterium as this monolithic “thing” that was uniform and harmonious – – an idealization that any Church historian would find risible – – and then use this alleged uniformity of the past as a bludgeon against the modern Church. Of necessity therefore, their narrative also requires a constant exaggeration of the “chaos” of the modern Church filled with anecdotes of the horrors committed in the name of the Council, which has the net effect of painting a picture of the modern Church that is wholly negative.  That is not to say that there isn’t much to criticize in the modern Church – – I have pointed out many of these things myself – – but that is far different from the wholesale demolition that these folks engage in.  Their aim is to discredit the modern Church at its very roots and that is a dangerous game to play.  In fact, it is a schismatic game. 

They cannot have their cake and eat it too which is why my claim is that they are in de facto schism with the Church even if they are unwilling to admit it.  How else can one interpret the claim of Archbishop Vigano that Pope Francis is a heretic who presides over a “false parallel Church” which exists over and against the “true Church” of the “holy remnant” other than as a de facto schism?  And most of the neo-traditionalists who are currently popular out there in clickbait land have elevated Vigano to the level of a spiritual hero who is a prophet for our times.  They publish and discuss his various overheated letters at length (with approval) and breathlessly await the next one.  They openly favor and further his cause and speak of him as a true hero – – a Catholic Assange or Snowden – – and never a word of criticism emerges from their lips in his regard.  One can only assume, therefore, that they share, or are at least deeply sympathetic with, Vigano’s views.  And when pressed on this issue they get very testy and have no answers.  The theologian Robert Fastiggi has also written on this contradiction and called them out on it, only to have his views dismissed by them as “hyperpapalist” propaganda.  In other words, they resort to ad hominem attacks rather than address the very substantive issues that Fastiggi, and I, and others like Adam Rasmussen and Thomas Weinandy, have raised.  They have no substantive answers because there are none possible.  Insofar as they support Vigano and share his views they are supportive of his de facto schism whether they want to admit it or not.   

The charge of “hyperpapalism” is particularly indicative of the source of their problem.  They are so convinced that the modern Church is in contradiction with the past that they interpret any theological attempt to place the modern Church in continuity with the tradition as a bogus effort at obfuscation.  Their world is a black and white world, lacking nuance or historical contextualization, and they therefore read magisterial documents with a wooden and flat-footed literalness that admits of no further development should circumstances warrant it or the Church gain a deeper understanding of her own Tradition over time. They ignore the fact that there is in the deposit of faith a hierarchy of truths and that often in the Church’s history a lower truth has tended to eclipse a higher one, thus requiring a later correction.  Such is the case, for example, with the Church’s teaching on religious freedom at Vatican II which the traditionalists wrongly claim is in full-on contradiction with past teaching when in point of fact it is grounded in an appeal to a higher truth in the deposit of faith (the orientation of truth to its reception in freedom and the constitutively non coercive nature of faith) over the concept of confessional States which is rooted in the lower truth of the supremacy of the spiritual realm over civil authority.   Understanding doctrines in historical context then allows one to understand why the Church may have deemed it wise to foster a coercive approach to the faith via the State at one point in its history only to go beyond that view in the present time as it deepened its understanding of the nature of faith.  (I have written on this issue in a previous blog post).     

This is but one example among many that the traditionalists claim proves that there is a rupture, when in point of fact all that has happened is a legitimate development of doctrine.  They would also add to their list of grievances the teaching of Vatican II on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and liturgy. Space constraints prohibit me from commenting on these at length but there are numerous theologians, of a very high caliber, who have done yeoman’s work in this area.  Of course their analysis is debatable, such is the nature of theology, but at the very least they do make it possible to view these issues in the light of a hermeneutic of continuity without any “forced” hyperpapalist contortions in play.  Furthermore, the Church enjoins us to approach all of her teachings with an open submission of mind and heart, which means that the theological work that has been done in these areas is extremely valuable to anyone who wants to approach the Church’s teaching on these hot topics with a charitable reading rather than a suspicious one from the get-go.    And that should be the approach of any faithful Catholic who isn’t spoiling for a fight.        

One is justified, therefore, in thinking that there are other ideological forces at play beyond some theological disagreements over whether or not we should be talking to the Lutherans or allowing female altar servers. This suspicion grows deeper when you read their blogs and watch their YouTube channels (as I do) and see them calling theologians like Ratzinger and von Balthasar “modernists”.  Their use of that term as a descriptor for ressourcement theologians displays an astounding ignorance of what the term “modernism” meant in its historical context.  Because none of those theologians was a “modernist” in the accepted sense of that word and actively fought against it.  Therefore, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that what the traditionalists mean by “modernist” is simply everything that is “modern” tout court.  Nobody is more critical of the basic philosophical underpinnings of modernity than I am.  And I oppose the crushing nihilism, scientism, and atheism of our time.  But to just reject everything that is modern ignores the fact that the modern world has given us new insights into many things that ought to be taken into account. And that is precisely what many orthodox theologians have attempted to do, but in order to do so had to go beyond the strict confines of scholastic manualism.  To ignore the profound theology of a Henri de Lubac on the grounds that he and his allies are the reason why we have communion in the hand is just a gross – – and dare I say sinful – – distortion of the truth. In fact, quoting David Bentley Hart, such assertions scarcely rise to the level of nonsense.

But it is also ideologically suffocating.  One of the complaints from the traditionalists is that the modern Church is characterized by too much change.  One popular neo-traditionalist blogger complains that the Church has changed so much that the Catholic Church of today is actually a “different religion” from the pre Vatican II Church.  But this hyperventilating over the many changes of the past fifty years (and there have been many) is related to their refusal to engage the modern world in any meaningful way.  Because the simple fact of the matter is that the modern world itself represents the greatest change in human consciousness in history.  The rise of modern science alone, with its utter destruction of the old, enchanted, hierarchical cosmology of the ancients, presents us with a radically different view of reality than the ancient Church could have ever imagined.  The modern world thus presents to the Church the greatest spiritual and intellectual challenge she has ever had to face.  And the power of the coercive, confessional State to impose Catholicism from above is as dead as disco.  So the Church has to really fight her way out of this one, defenseless and vulnerable as was her master, with no other weapon than the truths of the Gospel.  Therefore, it should not surprise us that in response to these challenges the Church might have to put on a radically new garment – – the garment of a radical Catholicism and not just mere “orthodoxy” – – in order to repristinate the faith by returning it to her roots.  That means a simpler Church, shorn of Constantinian pretentions, shorn of its triumphalist pieties, committed to the evangelical counsels and the path of holiness, and fully aware that her credibility in the modern world, so long as she merely retreats into her medieval answers, is nil. But it also means therefore that theology had to widen its horizons in order to be on an equal intellectual footing with the Archons of our age.  Not to parrot those Archons in a vain attempt to gain “respectability” with them (we will leave that to the liberal Catholics) but in a robust retrieval of that which is most uniquely her own and it representation as something fresh.  And anyone who thinks that a return to pre Vatican II scholasticism is the answer to that challenge is just ignorant of the real theological challenge at hand.  But hey… we are indeed talking to the Lutherans and the Jews with respect so somebody must have screwed up. 

In accord with this rejection of all things modern there is also a powerful undercurrent of apocalypticism in the writings of many of the neo-traditionalists.  In the religious domain most especially, narratives are of constitutive importance, and the narrative that they have concocted in order to legitimate their dissent from the modern magisterium is that we are living in the time of the “Great Apostasy” that has been predicted to precede the return of Christ. This is what allows them to reject the modern magisterium without running off into schism because the apostasy of the Church has been foretold and they view themselves then as modern day Essenes running off to the Qumran of the Latin Mass awaiting the day of their ultimate vindication.  Marian apocalypticism looms large here as well and has been the engine that has fueled an explosion of conspiracy theories that read like a Dan Brown novel.  The Freemason challenge to the Church is, and has been, a real one, but to read books like Taylor Marshall’s “Infiltration” or any of Vigano’s letters, is to enter a world of Freemason conspiracies so detached from reality that it borders on a true paranoid delusion. But such apocalyptic narratives are necessary to the cause since only a tale of end times apostasy can justify their bilious hatred for the modern Church, which is now cast as part of the conspiracy.  Furthermore, such thinking poisons the well of honest discourse since everything you say now in defense of the modern Church is just used as further evidence of how deep the apostasy goes.  Therefore, such apocalyptic thinking creates a uniquely closed mind that is completely impervious to all arguments that come from tainted sources. Which is why the traditionalist echo chamber of discourse is so incestuously inbred.       

This penchant for apocalyptic conspiracy scenarios also helps to explain their bizarre attachment to Donald Trump. Taylor Marshall, for example, was once Trump’s campaign advisor for all things “Catholic.” Trump is viewed by many in their camp as the last great firewall of resistance to the evils of the Democrats precisely because of his manifest insanity which makes him the free-wheeling, rogue destroyer of enemies that we need.  The more insane he became and the more things he destroyed, the better. Thus, every vice that Trump exhibited simply elicited even more devotion and excitement.  At last! We have a lunatic on our side who will restore Christian America! Newsflash: America was never Christian.  But that is a blog for another day.  My only point here is that their devotion to Trump runs deep because he fulfills their apocalyptic fever dreams of a ruined modernity. Because it is only after modernity is crushed that we can leave Qumran and start to rebuild the Temple.  If this is what they  mean by “true continuity”, then I gladly return the ticket to their after party.

It is important to any discussion of the hermeneutic of continuity that we point out that continuity does not mean slavish repetition and it does not mean that there will not be some “ruptures” with the past. All great Councils of note were called because the Church was facing some crisis, some dispute, some problem, that needed to be resolved.  And in that process often times the Church has to come up with a solution that requires a change from some aspect of its teaching.  A change that is both in continuity with the central truths of the faith, but that is also a rupture from some lesser truths that had gotten distorted. 

Just think of the controversies created when Nicaea adopted the philosophical and non-scriptural term “homoousios” to describe Christ’s relation to the Father.  It was a novelty at the time and it went against the sensibilities of many Council fathers.  It also cost Athanasius dearly as the Council kicked up a post conciliar firestorm so strong that it rivals the post Vatican II maelstrom.  Several more Councils were needed just to figure out how in the heck homoousios actually related to a host of other Christological issues.  In no way, therefore, does a defense of a hermeneutic of continuity commit one to the idea that there can be no novelties introduced by a Council and no breaks with the past in order to emphasize deeper truths that had been obscured.  And that is the nature of all true reform.  The problem, therefore, with the neo-traditionalists is that they want to freeze the Church into a certain form, and keep it locked into a single era and then use that as the only barometer of true orthodoxy.  But that is not a true “traditionalism” at all, but an ecclesiological/political ideology of fairly modern provenance masquerading as such. And then weaponized against the unity of the Body of Christ in his Church.

Now, as for Pope Francis….  I will simply begin with the straightforward admission that I think he is a very average Pope.  We have had bad Popes before of course, but their deficiencies were mainly in their palace-court style corruption.  Pope Francis, on the other hand, presents us with a unique set of problems since he has taught things that are indeed a rupture with the Tradition, and not in a good way.  That just is a fact and has to be admitted up front in the interests of honesty.  Allow me to quote myself from a previous blog since what I said then is appropriate here as well:

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

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

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

Yes, he is a troubling Pope.  But I stand by all of which I wrote before.  He has not taught in an official way anything that can be deemed “heresy”.  Therefore, his reign as Pontiff should not cause us to lose our faith in the promises of Jesus to Peter or in the magisterium in general.  And for all of their concerns with “hyperpapalism” the neo-traditionalists are making far too much of the importance of this one Pope.  We must not exaggerate the importance of any single Pope, good or bad, as we see, for example, that the hero worship of JPII has gotten a bit chastened by the recent revelation that he did, after all, have flaws.  Pope Francis has said and done things that I think are erroneous and are harmful to the hermeneutic of continuity.  But he isn’t a heretic, and the errors he has taught (e.g. the famous footnote in Amoris, civil unions for homosexuals, his change to the catechism on the death penalty, the entire Amazon Synod) can be reversed by a future Pope.  Francis will not be pope forever and this too shall pass.  As Frank Costanza would say “serenity now!”

So has the hermeneutic of continuity failed because of Pope Francis? No it has not.  He is a set-back in that cause I admit, but not an insurmountable one. And if you will allow me a rather disrespectful descriptor, Francis is just a speed bump, and not a roadblock or a bridge that has fallen in the road ahead. As my Zoom, podcast friend Zac Crippen puts it, the hermeneutic of continuity has not failed, it just has not completely succeeded yet.  And a retreat back into a romanticized past that never really existed is a very bad idea.  (You can find Zac’s podcasts here.)

There is only one magisterium of the Church.  And that is because there is only one Church.  And that magisterium stands or falls on the integrity of the whole, and not just in some of its parts.  Therefore, the only truly Catholic path forward is to respect the entirety of the magisterium, ancient and modern, and not to weaponize one part of it against another.  It can be criticized.  It can even be heavily criticized.  But to accuse the modern Church of apostasy and heresy is a bridge too far.  Let’s not cross it, shall we?

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The Universal Call to Holiness: The Eucharistic Liturgy and the Unity of Sanctity and Sacrifice

By Larry Chapp

“The profession ‘There is only one God’ is, precisely because it has itself no political aims, a program of decisive political importance: through the absoluteness that it lends the individual from his God, and through the relativization to which it relegates all political communities in comparison with the unity of the God who embraces them all, it forms the only definitive protection against the power of the collective and at the same time implies the complete abolition of any idea of exclusiveness in humanity as a whole.”

Joseph Ratzinger. “Introduction to Christianity”. (Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 113)

It often comes as a shock to many people when they find out that Dorothy Day was very traditional in her approach to Liturgy and did not care at all for the casual nonchalance with which many in her movement approached the Mass in those crazy years that followed in the wake of the Council.  There is the famous story where Mass was said in one of her Catholic Worker houses using a coffee cup from the cupboard as a chalice (without her approval).  After Mass she was seen burying that cup in the ground.  When asked why she was doing this she responded by saying that the cup was no longer suitable to be “just a coffee cup” since it had been consecrated by the blood of Christ.  So it needed to be buried lest it be mistakenly pressed into service as a coffee cup once again.  There is another famous story where a well-known activist priest showed up to say Mass at the main Worker house in Manhattan and was not going to wear vestments but who soon learned from Dorothy that he most certainly was. 

For Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin it is precisely the Christological sacredness of the Mass that is the central weapon against the bourgeois spirit of the age insofar as it is, among many other things, irreducible to capitalist commodification.  The Mass is non fungible and transcends the political domain as it re-presents in a non-bloody manner the sacrifice of Christ at the hands of a worldly Imperium, thereby and therein establishing a new Kingdom that relativizes all worldly Imperia.  Thus, the trivialization of the Eucharistic liturgy as a mere meal for fostering some kind of worldly social conviviality robs it of its eschatological power to challenge the unjust structures of the age.  In short, for Dorothy and Peter there is nothing as socially subversive of worldly power than the Eucharistic liturgy and the most “political” thing a person can do is to go to Mass and to assist in the liturgy with deep devotion.  This is precisely why the bourgeois spirit of the modern world constantly threatens to domesticate the Mass into a pliant tool for inculcating “civic virtues” that are necessary for the maintenance of the dominant social ordo.  The “real presence of Christ” is fine so long as the Christ so present is not the Christ whose death and resurrection has broken the stranglehold of the Archons of worldly power.  Mammon and Moloch both detest and resist all rival eschatologies, but they reserve a special venomous hatred for the crucified ordo of Christ which delegitimates at its roots the cult of well-being that is at the heart of the bourgeois project. 

Therefore, I find a deep consonance between ressourcement theology, Vatican II, the vision of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and a high view of the Eucharistic Liturgy in a traditionalist register.  In the struggle for social justice, and in the never-ending battle to defend the “least among us” from the perennial, predatory savageries of the rich and powerful, there is nothing more liberating than the rolled-away stone of the empty tomb which signaled the end of the eschatology of torture and the advent of the transformative Kingdom of the crucified and risen Christ.  The Eucharistic Christ is the very presence of that subversive, rival Kingdom and therefore any attempt to turn the Eucharist into a “horizonatalist” celebration of “agape fellowship” where Jesus is “only” present in our social conviviality is actually a nod in the direction of oppression insofar as it returns us to the worldly dominion of our slave masters. 

The liturgy is not, therefore, a mere adjunct to the fight for social justice, but is its very heart and soul.  It is one of the chief reasons Dorothy left the world of Marxist political agitation with its purely materialistic account of existence and opted instead for the power of the living Christ who alone can liberate us from the cult of blood and soil.  A daily Mass goer, Dorothy grounded her entire ministry in the eucharistic eschatology of broken bondage and sought to bind herself to that same Christ in the sacrament of her brothers and sisters in need.  No “worldly project”, no bureaucracy, no form of electoral politics, no technocratic tweaking of “the structure”, and certainly no ecclesiastical compromise with the tyranny of the “present moment”, can do what Christ does since they all remain within the kingdom of entropy and can never reach beyond the horizon of death. No matter our best intentions, everything bears the “smudge” (as Hopkins put it) of our grimy fingerprints.   

What this means is that for the Christian the only true “politics” is a Eucharistic politics of substitutionary suffering for the sake of the other – – especially the “other” that is our enemy – – which implies the development of a deep, spiritual empathy for the plight of my neighbor, which is in turn grounded in the theological concept of our corporate personhood in Christ.  Therefore, for Dorothy there is a deep and intrinsic link between sanctity and sacrifice – – a link made clear in the unbloody representation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in the Eucharist.  But it also means that, for our part, true participation in the liturgy entails an understanding that the Eucharist is not “magic” and its fruits within us are not automatic.  It is indeed a “gift given” but like all gifts it must be received. And reception here means our active engagement with the dynamic of spiritual transformation wherein we bring our entire lives to the altar of the Lord and offer ourselves up without reserve as a living sacrifice to be united to the sacrifice of Christ. 

All too often we do not bring our “entire lives” to the Eucharist but only our “pious lives”, i.e. the Eucharist is what we “do” when we are “doing” religion.  All too often do we treat the liturgy as a kind of shamanistic talisman wherein we approach the Mystery as a totem that “protects” us even as it requires nothing from us.  All too often do we view our mere presence at the Eucharistic table as a bet-hedging wager that “merits” us some brownie points with a Santa Claus God without ever stopping to consider that such a posture is in fact an act of sinful, or perhaps even sacrilegious, mendacity.  Dorothy was never a finger-wagging moralist and she certainly had a keen awareness of our fallen sinfulness, but by the same token “to whom much is given, much is expected” and we cannot use our human weakness as a rationale for treating the liturgy as a social party for “nice people”with communion served as an hors d’oeuvre. 

A true Eucharistic piety is a totalizing project that vomits out its mouth all of our lukewarm attempts to have our cake and eat it too as we seek to “negotiate” a thousand compromises between the binding address of the Eucharistic Christ and our life of bourgeois commitments.  The spirit of Laodicea is precisely this spirit of compartmentalization where the Eucharist becomes one more lifestyle accessory that has as little purchase on our allegiance as our choice of interior décor in our living rooms.   But such an approach to the Eucharist robs it of its inner essence as something that lays an all-encompassing claim upon us and eventually renders the entire affair drab and boring which soon culminates in our slow drift into the waiting arms of our capitalist Baphomet.  This was the constant theme of Dorothy who understood that the spiritual life has its own laws, its own logic, and that Christ was not playing around when he said you cannot serve two masters:  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I am as guilty of this as the next person. We all are.  Ours is not an age of faith and the siren song of secularity lives deeply in all of us whether we want to admit it or not.  The dogma does indeed live loudly within me, but which dogma?

This is also precisely why Vatican II sought to reform the liturgy.  The traditional Latin Mass was indeed a treasure and it was a mistake when, after the Council, it was essentially repressed. Therefore, I applaud Pope Benedict’s decision to allow its use on a wide scale once again.  More on that in a bit.  But it is also true that for many Catholics the liturgy had become a passive experience, something the priest did up on the altar, in silence, and in a language that was not the mother tongue of those gathered.  Mass had become a place of quiet contemplation, of private devotions, and not a place of communal worship in any outward way.  It was indeed a grand spectacle when done well, and we would do well to retrieve many aspects of the solemn trappings of that liturgy.  But a “spectacle”, in and of itself, is not a liturgy, and the Council sought to remedy such tendencies. 

I hasten to add, however, that I am not saying that one cannot participate in communal worship unless one is “doing something” outwardly or that one cannot enter into the liturgy interiorly, uniting ourselves to the Lord and to all those gathered.  That too is a false notion of participation and was one of the primary failures of the post Vatican II implementation of the reforms where Mass veered into the opposite direction of an “activism” that was overly horizonatalist in its understanding of true participation. Nevertheless, I am speaking here of general trends which were the major concern of the Council as it sought to reinvigorate a true spirituality of the laity and our active engagement with the liturgy as a true act of worship rather than a one hour period of contemplation.

This reinvigoration of the laity and the de-clericalization of the Mass was the goal of Sacrosanctum Concilium since the Council fathers understood, as Dorothy had understood decades before, that the challenges posed to the faith by modernity required a robust and active lay presence as a leaven in the world.  Therefore, they opened the door to Mass in the vernacular, with greater dialogical participation from the gathered worshippers.  This led to the creation of the Novus Ordo, (a flawed creation to be sure and much in need of further reform), which is now the ordinary form of the liturgy for the vast majority of Catholics and has been so now for about 50 years.  There is no need for me to rehearse once again the sad litany of liturgical abuses that followed its botched implementation – – abuses that were so widespread that they caused Paul VI to famously remark that the “smoke of Satan” had entered the Church.   Nor do I feel a need to engage the endless narratives that have arrived of late detailing all of the curial shenanigans that led to its creation.  The bottom line is that it is a valid liturgy implemented by a valid Pope and, despite its flaws, it embodies elements of reform that were much needed. And in my view, the most sorely needed reform was the allowance for Mass to be prayed in the vernacular. 

That last line will cause many of my friends to clutch their pearls and tut-tut about the “banality” of the Novus Ordo and to wax eloquent about the beauty of Latin.  Latin is indeed beautiful, and it is the historic “language” of the Church, but the notion that the liturgy should be prayed in a dead language since the meanings of its words are now “fixed” and not subject to the vagaries of interpretation is just utter nonsense.  Especially when the proponents of imposed Latin themselves do not expect everyone to learn Latin but instead point to the many fine Missals that have translations in them.  But translations do not have “fixed” meanings so the whole point about the superiority of using a dead language is a red herring.  The advantages to worshippers praying in their mother tongue far outweigh the ideologically driven campaign to impose Latin again on the entire Church.  I highly doubt, for example, that the Church would have seen the explosion of new converts to the faith in places like Africa and Asia had something like the Novus Ordo not been implemented. 

The demand that Latin be the only language of the liturgy is a Eurocentric conceit that now makes the Church look like a medieval museum piece rather than the living, worldwide, communion of the Body of Christ.  I know, I know… if the Liturgy is in a single language it adds unity to the Church and thereby creates a “universal language” that also (supposedly) reinforces the catholicity of the Church.  But one has to wonder as to what kind of “unity” a universal language creates, keeping in mind that uniformity is not the same thing as unity and that the true unity of the Church comes from Christ and his Eucharistic presence and not in this or that language of the liturgy.  The organic unity of the body of Christ (the Church) is the fruit of a pluralism of cultures and peoples that coalesce around the Mystery of the crucified and risen Lord, and this will be true even if the liturgy is in Latin. There is an ineradicable pluralism in the Church and this is a good thing, but it often seems as if the proponents of imposed Latin fear this pluralism as the harbinger of a dangerous relativism, which only underscores the fact that what seems to drive this movement is an ideologically driven fear rather than the putative superiority of a Latin liturgy for all.  There is nothing about the Latin language that is more inherently “sacred” than any other language, even if it has been sanctified by millennia of usage in the Church, and the introduction of the vernacular into the liturgy is a monumental step forward rather than the abomination its critics claim.

Furthermore, and not to put too fine a point on it, the claim that the loss of Latin is a “dilution” of the Mass flies in the face of the empirical fact that the Church has always had a multiplicity of rites, many of which have never used Latin and which have mysteriously thrived despite that fact. Indeed, rites such as the Byzantine Catholic liturgy are every bit the equal of the old Latin Mass in their solemnity and sacral dignity.  I am not arguing that the suppression of the old Latin liturgy was a good thing or that we cannot learn from it as we seek to reform the Novus Ordo.  But I am saying that the universal use of Latin is in no way a requirement for good liturgy. 

All that said, there are elements of the older liturgy that I think should have been retained in the Novus Ordo.  Such elements would include (in my view) worship ad orientem, the reintroduction of chant as the primary musical form, communion received on the tongue, from a priest, while kneeling at an altar rail, and the restoration of much of our liturgical patrimony that has been lost in the form of introits, graduals, anthems, and so on that are majestic and enormously important.  Palestrina and other forms of elevated music are also a much needed corrective to the musical drivel that has been inflicted on us over the past decades.  A more liberal use of incense should also be brought back as well in my view despite the often repeated claim of pastors that people object to it for reasons of respiratory distress.  Funny how that was never an issue before 1970.  I guess people’s lungs are weaker these days.

There are other things as well, but you get the point.  The Novus Ordo is in need of an “upgrade”, so to speak, but there is absolutely nothing in the structure of the Mass that would preclude the reintroduction of all of these elements.  All that is lacking is the will of the bishops to make it so.  And before we all cynically roll our eyes and say “fat chance” we should pay greater attention to the fact that there are people and groups out there who are currently working tirelessly to make these reforms a reality. My wife, Dr. Carmina Magnusen Chapp, is a sacramental theologian who was involved for many years in the Society for Catholic Liturgy and has been constantly reminding me of late of all of the good things that are going on in that movement.  To that end she has contributed the following remarks concerning the movement to reform the reform: 

“The Society for Catholic Liturgy is a hub for professionals involved in liturgy, bringing scholars, musicians, and architects together with priests and lay ministers – all seeking to make the celebration of the liturgy beautiful and authentic. The Liturgical Institute at Mundelein has also had a positive impact on American liturgical life. Both of these enterprises were founded by the late Cardinal Francis George. Of course, the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life and its Center for Liturgy are doing some of the finest work on liturgy and evangelization today. The New Liturgical Movement website is a great resource for keeping up on the latest liturgical buzz. 

On the ground, there are examples of beautiful church renovations and restorations (as with EverGreene Architectural Arts), and efforts by bishops to introduce quality music to parish liturgy (as in the Archdiocese of New York, whose seminary music director runs workshops on teaching children Gregorian Chant). Most recently, the USCCB sent out guidelines regarding the doctrinal soundness of texts of hymns sung in church (long overdue).” 

To this list I would also add the recently created Benedict XVI Institute whose aim is to restore beauty to the Church in all of its forms.  From where I sit these various projects to reform the Novus Ordo stand a much, much greater chance of making real positive change than all of the agitations from the Facebook Fiddleback fuss-budgets and their fantasy-camp campaign to get rid of the Novus Ordo entirely and to replace it with the old Liturgy.   Because the Novus Ordo is not going to go away and the traditional Latin Mass is not coming back as the standard and ordinary form for the liturgy.  Therefore, the constant drip-drip-drip of traditionalist criticism of the Novus Ordo is constructive to a point, but quickly gets tiring as a counter productive and fruitless exercise in restorationist fever dreaming. 

I would also point to another positive development that was also the creation of Pope Benedict XVI (ad multos annos!).  And that is the creation of the Anglican Ordinariate, of which I am a member (as well as my wife).  In my opinion the Ordinariate Liturgy comes very close to the reformed Liturgy the Council fathers had in mind.  It is a rite that uses the vernacular (but with elevated “formal” language), with prayers recited out loud, and with dialogical responses from the laity, but that also incorporates all of the liturgical elements in my wish list above.  Ordinariate parishes are few in number and widely scattered so I harbor no illusions that millions of Catholics will start to attend their liturgies.  However, as with the reintroduction of the Extraordinary form of the liturgy so too here:  the goal is the gradual reintroduction of lost elements in the hope that there will be a cross-fertilization that will help the reform of the Novus Ordo.

To return to where I started, the point to all of these liturgical musings is to underscore my conviction that the liturgy, as my friend Father John Gribowich points out, is not an end in itself but a means to an end.  And that end is our incorporation into the Body of the crucified and risen Christ.  Therefore, as Dorothy emphasized again and again, the inner link between sanctity and sacrifice must be our guide in all that we do.  Whatever liturgical reforms that transpire in our future must also, therefore, be guided by that principle and not by extra-liturgical ideological commitments to this or that ecclesiastical regime, be they of either the Right or the Left.  Immediately after the Council the liturgical reforms were degraded because the liturgy was used as a tool for pushing a broader liberal agenda that sought accommodation with secular modernity. That threat still remains, but there has also now emerged a strong restorationist ideological current from the Right, a current that has become exponentially radicalized by their strong reaction against the Francis papacy, with Archbishop Vigano as their hero, the traditional Latin Mass as their Logo, YouTube as their pulpit, and Vatican II and the Novus Ordo as their bete noire.  Oh… and they hate Bishop Robert Barron, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and think John Paul and Benedict were both closeted modernist softies. 

Seen in that light it has to be said that the reintroduction of the wider use of the Extraordinary form, which I support, has not come without a strong downside.  I want to be clear that I have no issue with true liturgical scholars who have written beautifully about the EF and who desire to see it more widely used.  However, there is no denying that there is a growing element in the traditionalist movement which has weaponized the EF and used it as a bludgeon against the Novus Ordo, Vatican II, and almost all of modern theology.  My contention is, therefore, that theirs is not a true love for the liturgy in its old form so much as it is an entire package of restorationist commitments that include a tacit rejection of many of the central themes of Vatican II which would include a rejection of the teaching of the Council on religious freedom, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and liturgical reform, among other things.  And this is more than just a “suspicion” since many of the clickbait internet grifters on the Catholic far Right state such things openly, especially when they are pushing their champion, Archbishop Vigano.  The standard line that is emerging is that Vatican II and the Novus Ordo were both products of a Freemason conspiracy that had “infiltrated” the Church.  Their various conspiracy theories along those lines lack any real substantive evidence and rest on arguments grounded in a kind of “guilt by association” logic that is so tenuous it would make Dan Brown blush. 

Furthermore, it is painful to watch some of them “theologize” since it becomes painfully obvious very quickly that they do not have the faintest idea of what they are talking about.  Their spittle-flecked rantings against theological giants like Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar (universalist demon!), and even, yes, Joseph Ratzinger (authors I am sure none of them have actually read), are so ignorant, and so lacking in charity that it truly takes your breath away. 

These are not serious people but, sadly, they must be taken seriously since their influence is growing.  They are not, it seems to me, true lovers of the liturgy but are instead advocates for a long-gone ecclesiastical regime that they have idealized and romanticized, with the EF as a kind of emblem of the whole.  And they are quite nasty about it which is, as the poker players say, a “tell” that they really want nothing to do with the Church as it is, but only the Church they imagine once was, but wasn’t.  Thus, their approach to the EF is that of an inauthentic role- playing where their self-identities are defined through a set of performative acts that have more in common with the modern bourgeois construction of the “self” than with the kenotic anthropology implied by the Eucharistic liturgy.  In short, they are the true modernists – – a fact which is confirmed by their bizarre love affair with Trumpism. 

Vatican II teaches us that the Eucharist is the source and the font of our entire spiritual life (LG 11).  Therefore, the liturgy cannot and must not be sucked into the vortex of the ideological idolatries and superstitions of either the Left or the Right. What this also means is that true liturgical reform, which is needed, can only move forward when that reform is linked to the broader reform of our spiritual lives. In that vein what is called for is a raw, bracing, and brutal honesty about who we truly are vis-à-vis Christ. I know that I do not fare well in such an unblinkered assessment and I agonize every day over my manifest hypocrisies.  And, I suspect, most of us fail in that regard since we are all the children of our septic times.  For myself, I turn to the saints for hope that the link between sanctity and sacrifice is possible for me, and for our world.

Dorothy Day, pray for us. 

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Bourgeois and Beige Christianity: The Prosperity Gospel and the American Cult of Mammon

  • The American Gospel of Birthright Wealth

    by Larry Chapp
    In January of 2018, Kenneth Copeland, the octogenarian prosperity Gospel televangelist, took possession of a fifty-million-dollar Gulf Stream jet aircraft, for the purpose of helping him “spread the Gospel”.  He had come under some heavy criticism for this purchase, as some rightly wondered why a minister of the Gospel (sic) needed an airship of such magnificence when he could just fly coach like the rest of the plebeians who dutifully send him their tithes.  His response was to lament the fact that as a minister of Jesus he is a constant target of demonic attacks and that this is especially the case on commercial airplanes, which he described as “demon infested tubes”.  He is entirely correct, of course, that these days the experience of flying does indeed feel like being locked in a demon tube fresh out of Satan’s workshop (which I think is located inside of Disneyworld, probably Epcot, where everything is a manufactured counterfeit).  But such are the indignities that all ordinary people must put up with in order to travel.  Would that we all could have the skill to bilk millions of dollars out of desperate people in order to avoid the Baphomet of the skies, but as far as Copeland is concerned his anointed “specialness” justifies this, and indeed, many other such outrages.  You can see the video of his unveiling of the new plane here.

    This episode is instructive for reasons that go well beyond the peculiar perfidy of Kenneth Copeland, and we ignore the broader reality that he represents to our spiritual peril as Christians.  It is all too easy for many in our culture to dismiss Copeland as just one more snake oil salesman in a long tradition of such pious miscreants, and to laugh, with NPR levels of snotty and condescending derision, at this bumpkin from Texas and his legions of dupes from the ranks of the snaggle-toothed deplorables.  But this dismissive derision is largely a hypocritical exercise carried out by our coastal elites who fancy themselves, wrongly, to be far too sophisticated for such nonsense.  Because the reality is that Copeland, with the other prosperity Gospel preachers, is merely a particular cultural and religious iteration of a much broader American conceit.  A conceit that is embedded in every level of our culture.  Namely, that the prosperity we have enjoyed as a people for a little over a century now is something of a birthright and, therefore, that the vast economic, political, technological, and military apparatus we have built up to sustain, secure, and impose this conceit is, in our eyes, altogether justified.  Seen in this light, Copeland and the other prosperity Gospel preachers are merely the most vulgar representation of a much deeper spiritual rot.  The chattering classes would never entertain the thought, even for a second, of joining up with the “Don’t tread on me or I will kill you with my assault rifle in the name of Jesus” crowd of Bible-toting moonshiners.  But they would join the Episcopal Church, which is probably an even worse idolater of Moloch and Mammon.  And if they aren’t religious at all in an “organized” way they can always have recourse to Poperah Winfrey’s spirituality of meditation, money, and massages (oh, and free cars, please don’t forget the cars.)

    Eugene McCarraher points out in his magisterial new book “The Enchantments of Mammon” that somewhere along the line “Capitalism” became the religion of the modern world.  It is a long book, approaching 700 pages, but well worth investing the ten months it will take to read and digest it.  Of course, in a short blog post I cannot do the book justice.  I merely cite it as evidence that a very smart fellow agrees with me, which is what we academics (or in my case, former academics) do.  But all joking aside, the book really is a wonderful exposition of St. Augustine’s notion that the “worldly world” is animated by what he called the libido dominandi.  In a nutshell, that term connotes far more than the “will to dominate” and locates the essence of our sinful inclinations in our deep lust for acquisition and possession, which in turn necessitates a social structure of power relationships characterized by the strong dominating the weak, and the weak, in their turn, desiring to be strong so they too can “acquire” things and dominate others.

    But Christianity introduced a revolution of the soul that overturned this mythos of wealth and power, as the young Church warned its new converts that those two realities (wealth and power) are seldom far from each other.  Indeed, the first Christians so valorized a materially simple life that repudiated the “natural” human eros for acquisition and the pleasures associated with it, that they were labeled by their contemporaries as anti-human.  The well-off denizens of Rome viewed Christianity as the ultimate buzzkill, what with its constant finger-wagging at such wholesome pursuits as blood sport, child buggery, adultery, and infanticide.  We forget, for example, that Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel is, among other things, a celebration of social upheaval where the strong are brought low and the weak are raised up.  In fact, the entire biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, can be read as a tale of the ultimate vindication of life’s losers and the bringing to justice of the fat and the comfortable.  And do I really need to go over again the steady stream of condemnations of wealth that come from the very lips of Jesus?

    It is telling that every time I pen such words on social media about Jesus condemning wealth there is an immediate influx of harsh denunciations of what are perceived to be my unnuanced and scorched earth approaches to the topic.  Denunciations I never receive when I pen words, even crazy words, about the Trinity or the Church or Joe Biden’s creepy, gropey, hands.  No… the keyboard Grand Inquisitors of the high Church of Capitalism keep their powder dry in order to defend the legitimacy of owning lots of useless paraphernalia while half the world starves.  After all, dogmas do need defending and heaven knows somebody needs to speak for the rich.  The sad truth is, however, that the Catholic defenders of American style Capitalism view it in the abstract as coinciding, in theory, with the Catholic defense of private property and freedom of social relations, but ignore its actual concrete reality as a set of economic practices that encourage consumerism, rabid individualism, and the dissolution of human personhood in the corrosive acid of  an artificially inflamed concupiscence.  This is an economic system geared toward the imperial, therapeutic, self and its cacophony of competing desires.  It is an entire collective of concupiscence that elevates the lowest kinds of eros to the highest pedestals of honor.  And yet, there are Christians who view all of this as our God-given birthright, and that God has “blessed” America with its unparalleled wealth in order to highlight our messianic anointing as God’s chosen instrument for “the good” in the modern world.

    Returning to McCarraher we see that this Christian revolution of the soul, always a precarious proposition, was blunted by the rise of modern capitalism, and finally eclipsed by it.  But rather than merely abandoning the Christian faith, the modern world simply redefined it as a wonderful tool for fostering the kinds of moral virtues one needs in order to be “successful”.  And of course, “successful” is defined in economic categories.  The American founding domesticated Protestant Christianity by turning it into a virtue factory for the bettering of our economic prosperity and the creation of good citizens of the Republic.  The theology of the churches, as theology usually does, then dutifully created the required set of ad hoc justifications for why Christians need not listen to Jesus.  Well … except for sexual matters. We had to have “family values” in the midst of this fetishizing of work as “wealth creation” so sexual morality stood out as almost the whole point of the Christian enterprise.  Thus did the Church’s sexual morality devolve into a white-knuckled puritanism, having nothing to do with the Kingdom ethic of Jesus’ sexual teachings (teachings which were quite stringent by the way in their own right), and everything to do instead with making sure that sexual license didn’t interfere with the engine of prosperity.  No wonder then that once modern Americans figured out you could actually have wealth AND sexual license that the old-timey sexual ethic bit the dust.  You just need to make sure you can kill your unplanned and unwanted offspring so that the wealth train keeps steaming down the tracks.  And so we did that too, with the sock-puppet theologians not far behind with their dulcet tones of approval.

    It took a little longer for Catholics to follow suit, mainly because most American Catholics were poor, relatively unassimilated, immigrants.  But as soon as they mainstreamed into the well channelized path of “Jesus and Mammon” it wasn’t long before we too succumbed to the new Gospel of prosperity.  I can’t remember who said it (Hauerwaus? Wendell Berry?) but there is a cheeky aphorism in this regard that has a large nugget of truth in it.  Namely, that in America there are no Catholics, just Protestants who pray the rosary.  And nowadays, not even that, since the rosary is tedious and boring requiring a spiritual attention span that lasts longer than a commercial.  I am guilty of this.  Ask my wife.  The rosary is a chore for me, because I really do swim in the shallow end of the spiritual pool, which is warmer than the deep end – – and for reasons that go well beyond shallowness as a cause, I fear.  The point being that I am not preaching in this Jeremiad at an unknown “other” who I have conjured up in my fever dreams as the great foil of the Christian utopian project.  This entire essay is me talking to myself, since I have never been able to break free of the gravitational vortex of the Gospel of birthright wealth. All dramatic eschatologies of good vs. evil need a good bogeyman.  And when I look in the mirror all I can say is:  Ecce Homo.  Say my prayers, then pass me the bourbon please.  What does God expect of me anyway? Perfection?

    The American Gospel of birthright wealth sits very easily with the Gospel of cheap grace, with the latter becoming a kind of therapeutic, parlor room of mercy that magically turns all of my vices into merit badges that scream to the world how “human” I am precisely in and through my very darkness.  Thus do we invert the path to holiness and celebrate the “heroism” of the agonistic path of moral darkness and inner conflict.  This is also why we love to expose the salacious failings of those who do strive for the traditional concept of holiness.  We seek out the chinks in their armor of virtue – – any chink – – in order to legitimate the notion that moral chinks are more real than moral solidity.  The path to holiness is thus held up as a fraudulent posturing filled with the bile of self-righteousness, all in the service of dumbing everyone down, spiritually, to the level of a Hobbesian world of fear and social control.  “Who are you to judge?”  Who do I have to be?

    None of this is meant to imply that one cannot be both wealthy and virtuous.  I have known many virtuous wealthy people in my life who are very generous with their money and are genuinely good people.  Indeed, most of them are far better people, in terms of the natural virtues, than I am, and by a big, big stretch.  Even Jesus seems to have had some wealthy friends (Joseph of Arimathea stands out) and he did not seem to demand anything more of them beyond the support that they gave him.  But this latter point is an argument rooted in grand silences since we really do not know much about these individuals mentioned in the Gospels at all.  What we do know, is that Jesus explicitly condemned the accumulation of wealth as something contrary to the Kingdom.  But what is wealth? How much is too much? And is the fact that I live a materially comfortable life my ticket to Hell?  These are questions I cannot answer but that should not be taken as a green light to speed on ahead in the spiritual party limo.

    The key here is not to overthink the issue at hand and to blunt the force of Jesus’s words through a thousand paper cuts of caveats, distinctions, and casuistical, excuse making. What Jesus is saying is that in order to be fit for the Kingdom you have to place God in first place. You have to have a singleness of vision and purpose.  You must be without guile or subterfuge, saying “yes” when you mean “yes” and “no” when you mean “no”.  You must put your hand to the plow and not look back, wistfully, at what you are “missing out on” by focusing intently on the demands of his Kingdom.  Your heart, as Jesus points out, follows your treasure, whatever that worldly treasure might be.  And unless that treasure is the Kingdom you are guilty of an idolatry of some sort and in varying degrees of severity.  The essence of all sin is just such idolatrous counterfeiting of the good with some drab and hideous imposters, all of which promise us happiness if we will but eschew the tears of the saints in favor of the laughter of the sinners.  I mean, Billy Joel assures us of this as he flamboyantly and robustly declares that only the good die young.  That is a lie of course, but hey, it sells cars and condoms, so it is a serviceable facsimile of wisdom for our culture of birthright wealth.  Better living through chemicals.  Sign me up…

    But this is to speak in generalities, whereas Jesus was quite specific in his denunciation of wealth in particular.  Why?  My hunch is because he understood that the marriage of wealth and power is a particularly virulent opiate that infiltrates our soul with a spiritual dopamine rush that few can resist.  I know I can’t, since the only reason I am not rich is that I am not rich.  Circumstances just did not line up like that for me, but if they had, I highly doubt I would be penning these words.  I would probably be in jail for insider trading and mail fraud, having attempted to hawk fake Viagra pills via the good folks at the postal service.  And so, if someone as manifestly holy as I am could not resist the siren song of Wall Street, then, sweet Lord, who can be saved?  The fact is, the possession of large amounts of wealth binds us to the “worldly world” in a most potent and pungent way – – potent because it opens up for us every worldly enjoyment our heart desires, and thus, every other idolatry we can imagine, and pungent because wealth attracts even the distracted with its odor of false sanctity, like passing a McDonalds fully sated, but once smelling those fries you just have to have some. (Ok, I will just confess it … I love McDonalds).

    This path of the potent and the pungent dopamine rush of wealth is our path as American Christians whether we will admit it to ourselves or not.  And it is not the path of Jesus.  Yet, we have concocted a form of Christianity that has baptized this ordo of birthright wealth in very sophisticated ways.  Let me illustrate by using an example from my former employer, DeSales University. At DeSales, there is the relatively new Gambet Center (a large, rectangular, soulless, brick building) that houses, among other things, our business department and a cadaver lab.  I find that congruence most appropriate.  And if you go to the second floor of that building you will see a room with glass walls that has in it a large stock ticker on the wall.  And above that stock ticker hangs a crucifix.  And the juxtaposition of those two things has always struck me as idolatrous and borderline blasphemous.  Now, I am sure the people who thought it wise to do so had good intentions.  And kudos to DeSales for wanting to foreground its Catholic identity.  Truly, I mean that.

    However, in juxtaposing those two things the question naturally arises concerning exactly what sort of Catholic identity we are promoting here?  Because what this juxtaposition implies is that Catholicism is okay with Wall Street style, corporate-capitalism so long as it has some sort of orientation to the Gospel.  But does it?  I, as a Catholic Worker, say that it does not, and indeed represents a form of money-idolatry that is totally at odds with the Gospel. And if that is true, and it most certainly is, then the presence of the crucifix represents its cooptation and its complete inversion by an idolatrous, rival, god.   At best, the presence of the crucifix is merely adding a superficial veneer of piety on top of corporate greed, like sprinkles on ice cream – – in this case, as my friend Dr. Bill Portier calls it – – Jesus sprinkles.  (In Nebraska where I am from, we call sprinkles “Jimmies”.  But I use the term sprinkles these days because it is more gender neutral.)

    And that brings me back to McCarraher’s book.  Because one of the governing ideas of the book, if not THE governing idea, is that our culture, though in many ways post Christian, is not for all that simply secular and lacking in any mystical enchantments.  Prescinding from the standard academic histories these days that view our secular age as an era of disenchantment from what Peguy called mystiques, McCarraher gives us instead a detailed counter narrative of capitalist, pecuniary enchantment.  This is, it seems to me, deeply in tune with a more sound anthropology that understands that human beings cannot live without gods, and so, if we kill the One God of our cultural tradition, the God of Jesus Christ, then it isn’t as if now we have no gods, it just means rather that now we will have different gods – – gods that are often attenuated simulacrums of our traditional God, parasitically feeding on that God as it invents new capitalist, technocratic, consumeristic counterfeit gods.   For as Dr. McCarraher deftly demonstrates, money has now been invested with a whole range of mystifications and enchantments that is in every way a form of religion, complete with rituals, sacraments and dogmas.  And the fact that these new gods do not, at a superficial glance, appear as gods, only underscores the fact that they are poor gods. In other words, they are gods insofar as they define our reality, provide our values and orient our entire civilization around a core set of dogmas, but they do not, for all that, give us contact with that Transcendence that is our only true immanence.  In short, capitalism is an enchantment, but a very bad one.

    Finally, I would like to highlight Dr. McCarraher’s conviction that, in light of the above, that our current politics, wedded as it is to this system, this “apparatus” as Simone Weil calls it, is moribund and terminal.  We have reduced the classical notion of politics, which was a broad conception that included culture, religion, and the many intermediary institutions that were freighted with the task of preserving the cultural heritage, to the meager and paltry notion of “voting” and “parties” and legislative governing.  The latter is, at the end of the day, useless at best and a dangerous fiction at worst, and lulls us into a false and mendacious sense that all we need to do to “fix things” is to tinker with this or that legislative policy.  But insofar as we are not allowed to question the god of pecuniary interests, such an enterprise is doomed from the start.

    I, as a Catholic Worker, am deeply convinced, therefore, that the only way forward is a grassroots revolution of the soul wherein we engage in the politics of resistance through a retrieval of localist, communitarian, culture – – or, as Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement put it – – the coming together of “cult, cultivation and culture”.  This is indeed a Romanticism.  But as Jesus implied in everything he said and did … the Romantics will inherit the earth someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Christmas Meditation: The Vulnerability of God

“In the child Jesus, the defenselessness of God is apparent. God comes without weapons, because he does not wish to conquer from outside but desires to win and transform us from within. If anything can conquer man’s vainglory, his violence, his greed, it is the vulnerability of the child. God assumed this vulnerability in order to conquer us and lead us to himself.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Christmas Reflection, Ox and Ass at the Crib in Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts

As I type these words one of my dearest friends, who is suffering from Covid 19, is in the ICU of a local hospital fighting for his life.  He has been fighting Covid 19 for twenty days and he keeps getting worse.  And now he is in grave danger of needing to be put on a ventilator.   I sent him a text message a few hours ago and asked him how he was feeling.  He sent back a one word reply: “Agony”. 

In the era of Covid he is not allowed any visitors of any kind for any reason.  And other than the nurses, doctors, and the beeping/whirring machinery of modern medicine, he is alone. His friends must stand by and wait with anxiety as we try and cobble together some idea of what is going on from the tiny scraps of news that we get from his sparse and often cryptic texts.  But we do know one thing: he is in deep peril and at this moment there is little more that modern science can do for him beyond hooking him up to a machine that will further damage his lungs even as it saves his life, temporarily, by breathing for him. He is at this moment, quite literally, completely helpless and vulnerable, and none of the various measures he has taken in his life to make his existence more “secure” are of any use.  He is “exposed” to the elementals of life like never before and stripped of the last illusions of “control”, as his entire life is now reduced to a few bits of data on a chart, in a tiny, windowless room, that smells like the color blue.

I chose the quote from Ratzinger above because of its emphasis upon the Incarnation as God becoming a part of this very regime of vulnerability.  And not “vulnerability” as an abstraction, but the kind of real vulnerability my friend is experiencing along with millions of others.  The eternal and infinite God has “become” a finite and timebound man.  And I highlight the term “becomes” and avoid saying things like he “entered into” time, since the latter can still be viewed as something extraneous temporarily making a foray into a strange and foreign milieu.  The scandal of the Incarnation isn’t that God took on our humanity like I “take on” a different shirt in the morning (on a good day) but that he “became” the man, Jesus. Nor did he become a man through some grandiose public display of power with magnificent circus pyrotechnics signaling his arrival onto the scene like a President who swoops into a disaster area in order to score political points.  God became a man by first becoming one of the most vulnerable and dependent things that exists:  a baby. 

Saint Paul refers to the “humility” of God in becoming a human being and refers to it as a form of self-emptying “slavery”.   And it is a form of slavery that will culminate in his death by crucifixion, which was often a common fate for rebellious slaves in ancient Rome. But we must avoid the temptation here to misread Paul’s words and to view the humility of the Incarnation as a denigration of the full dignity of our humanity, conjuring up as it does a faint whiff of the notion that God had to “swallow his dignity” in becoming human – – as if God’s dignity and our own are in competition to one another or in some kind of opposition.  Indeed, the mere fact of the Incarnation is a shock, a scandal, and a devastating rejection of all such Gnostic systems of dualistic opposition between creation and God, insofar as it affirms that our nature is precisely made to be so taken up, in its totality, into the divine nature.  We are not worms groveling before a pluripotent deity of heteronomous power who could crush us on a whim if he so desired.  We are, rather, free spiritual beings with an immortal soul imprinted with the very image of God and made for communion with that God.  We are indeed “mere creatures” and God is the infinite Creator.  And there is a great ontological gulf between us.  But it is God who has bridged the gulf and made our very alterity the foundation for our union:  all love begins in distance and not identity.  As Balthasar puts it:  We are “like” God precisely in the fact that we are not God.

And so I choose to emphasize the humility of God in the Incarnation through the lens of vulnerability and not as some kind of “denigration” of God’s lofty State.  Because what so shocked the ancient world about the Christian claim – – both among Jews and pagans – – wasn’t that God lacked the “power” to become incarnate, but that such a thing represented an unacceptable “compromising” of the divine eternity and immutability.  Both Jews and pagans were very much accustomed to gods (God) who spoke to their seers, who took on an “alias” and walked among them for a bit, or who sent his emissaries to do his supernatural work.  So what was shocking in the Christian claim wasn’t that God would deign to “come down” and cavort with his creatures in some theophany, but that God would “become” one of his creatures.  Such a claim involved God too directly in the vulnerabilities of the human condition and in so doing “compromised” his very divinity.  This is not Gnosticism, but it is nevertheless a view that plays in the sandbox of Plato’s “divided line” between the incommensurate and mutually antagonistic realms of spirit and matter.

Latent in such a view, sadly still very prevalent in our own day, is that God cannot “experience” what we experience without being involved in the realm of change and corruption.  God must remain “above the fray” and can only “empathize” with our plight from a distance. He can indeed have “compassion and mercy” toward our vulnerabilities and can even “zap” a miracle from heaven and send it my way to prevent me from some danger, but God cannot become more interior to me than I am to myself. Furthermore, when all is said and done, God remains “out there” in a realm that is “away” from us when we cannot imagine God differently than as a generous, celestial, potentate.  And even if we say that God was “in Jesus” this is often imagined, in a kind of magical, superhero manner, as being like Tony Stark’s “Ironman” suit with its nuclear powered heart running the whole artificial operation of wingless flight and stinging death rays.  Or, as C.S Lewis points out, such a distant God often degenerates into a drooling benevolence, like a senile grandfather who dispenses coinage to the kids to buy ice cream. 

Christmas is therefore a radically subversive festival.  Born into a realm of violence, the Christ child is uniquely vulnerable from the get-go.  His parents were already turned away from an Inn, which, when you meditate upon that, means that the Inn keeper turned away a pregnant woman who was clearly near-ready to give birth.  And perhaps that is precisely why he turned them away in the first place signaling just how indifferent and cold the ancient world could be to women, children, and even men of low estate.  And immediately following the birth of Jesus, Joseph must take his family and flee to Egypt as the murderous political regime flexes its imperial muscles and begins the indiscriminate slaughter of children in order to calm the neurotic tremors of Herod who imagined that his precious power might be in jeopardy.  The years of quiet anonymity that then followed in Nazareth may appear to have been a period of relative safety for the young Jesus, but the political reality of that time meant that Roman-controlled Galilee was anything but a bucolic haven of Shire-like peace. The ubiquitous presence of the accoutrement of Roman control could not have escaped the notice of the young Jesus nor the vulnerabilities that such a presence created for the local villagers.  The entire atmosphere was politically charged with an immovable Roman fist constantly in play to snuff out the revolts, insurrections, and grumblings of various Jewish groups given over to a politically radicalized theology.  Therefore, when Jesus does finally enter into his public ministry he was well aware of how vulnerable he was, what a violent ordo he was entering into, and what the eventual consequences would be.  His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night prior to his death gives us a searing insight into the fact that though his death was willingly accepted as part of his mission, it did not present itself to his psyche as something peaceful and secure: “Hey guys, sleep on… I got this.  Remember that I am God so this is no big deal.  See you on the other side…”

“Agony in the Garden.”  It brings me back to my friend’s one word text:  “agony”.  When I look at the Christ child in the manger I do not imagine the little drummer boy and talking donkeys.  I see instead a God who wishes to experience our agony from within.  The silence of that manger in the cave takes my soul to the silence of that Garden and the silence of the tomb and the wordless pain of all who suffer alone. In the manger I see a God who is not play-acting at being a human being.  I see a God who is about to experience a lifetime of vulnerability, pain and a horrific death.  You might complain that I am not making enough proper theological distinctions between God “suffering in Jesus” and “God suffering in the Divine Nature as such”.  Fine… your theological angina is duly noted.  But those distinctions, though necessary, must never be allowed to mute, blunt, and render sterile, the very purpose behind the Incarnation in the first place.  Theology is not Revelation.  Christ is Revelation and theology is a second or third level meditation upon that primary fact – – the fact of the human Christ who suffers, dies, is buried, and rises again, and the God who is “implicated” in that same experience. 

But why such an emphasis upon vulnerability?  Because just as Dorothy Day teaches us that voluntary poverty creates a personal zone wherein we are then forced to live in what she called “precarity”, so too do all forms of vulnerability strip us of our illusions, lay us bare, and thus open us up to the most fundamental questions of our existence.  And the sufferings associated with disease and death are the greatest forces for precarity that we will encounter.  Indeed, many saints and mystics have pointed out that in the post-lapsarian regime of sin in which we live the manner in which we die is the greatest purgative of all.  Thrown back upon ourselves with all of our various “props” taken away we are left with the raw and unbrokered encounter with that child in the manger whose death in vulnerability and precarity preceded my own in time and exceeds my own in orders of magnitude.  The angels, the shepherds, the Magi, the animals … all rejoice at the birth of this child.  A great King is born.  But a King whose Kingdom will be made up of those who do not shrink from vulnerability, but who embrace its unique powers of divestment. 

But this divestment of self is only possible when the hope of the resurrection is present as well.  St. Paul makes this very clear:  It is the resurrection that removes the “sting” of death thus robbing it of its power to drag us into despair.  Therefore, the “vulnerability” of God in Christ is a conquered vulnerability. Nevertheless, in order to achieve a share in the resurrection we must all do as Christ did and first walk the path of the cross.  Our vulnerability does not have the last word, but it does have the penultimate word.  There is no Gnostic escape hatch wherein we can access the Divine milieu in an immediacy requiring no suffering or vulnerabilities.  There is no “Gospel of wealth” backchannel passageway to a resurrection life that requires no antecedent sufferings.  As I have said before:  Deepak Chopra and Joel Osteen and Paula White all have perfect teeth.  And they are all of the Antichrist.  Resurrection comes only after the cross, even as the Hebrews only got to the promised land after a sojourn at Sinai. 

On this Christmas I think of my friend. Alone and in agony.  My prayer is that the God who made himself as vulnerable as a baby, and who died in agony, will take up residence in his anguished soul and guide him on his journey, wherever that may lead.