I mentioned last week: the Cardinal who ordained me lost his right to minister in the Church, owing to an allegation that he sexually abused a minor, well over forty years ago.
No one wants to reflect on such things. But under the circumstances, I have no choice. This is my father in God, the man who received my lifetime promises and ordained me a deacon and a priest. And since Cardinal McCarrick touched many of our lives, perhaps you, dear reader, will benefit from our suffering a bit together, as we think this through.
The man who accused the Cardinal did so because the Archdiocese of New York (McCarrick’s home diocese) set up a process for victims of clergy sexual abuse to come forward. Apparently the Church in New York actively sought to get the problem out from under the rug. Only a reckoning with all the facts can bring peace and reconciliation.
(If you are a victim of sexual abuse reading this, and you have never spoken about it with anyone, please trust someone enough to talk about it.)
The program in New York provided Cardinal McCarrick’s victim with a forum in which to tell his story. The story checked out. So Cardinal McCarrick got treated as any other priest would get treated. Immediate suspension from ministry. (In this case, by order of the pope.)
Let’s remember that the Cardinal has not been found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor. There is no question of a civil legal proceeding, because the alleged abuse occurred too long ago for that. But Cardinal McCarrick has a right to a canonical trial, to vindicate his good name. He says he is innocent.
Or does he? His statement concludes with: “While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charge has gone through.”
Now, when someone undertakes to vindicate his good name after a false accusation, and insists, “I believe in my innocence,” and then apologizes… you have to wonder: Is this poor soul losing his mind? Or dealing with alcoholism or drug abuse? Someone of sound mind knows whether or not he sexually abused a minor.
In this case, the someone is 87 years old. Maybe getting a bit senile. But Cardinal McC still has his wits about him, as I am told by a friend of mine who spoke with him recently.
Conclusion: We have to read the Cardinal’s statement as an implicit admission of guilt. Like most accused priests that I know, Cardinal McCarrick likely will never have a canonical trial. The matter will go no farther than it already has. His indefinite pre-trial suspension will serve as his permanent punishment. And justice will never run its full course.
This is one of the great flaws in the system established by the “Dallas Charter” in 2002. It provides for an administrative penalty so severe (indefinite suspension based on an allegation) that the accused loses his basic legal right to self-defense.
But, in this case, there’s more. Rumors of McCarrick abusing his authority with seminarians have circulated for two decades. Last week, when the Archdiocese of New York announced Cardinal McCarrick’s suspension from ministry, two New-Jersey dioceses where McCarrick had served as bishop also made an announcement. Both dioceses had privately settled legal claims against McCarrick for sexual misconduct with adults.
The adults in question are likely seminarians. Apparently the accusations of misconduct came to diocesan authorities in New Jersey after McCarrick became Archbishop of Washington and a Cardinal.
When I was one of Cardinal McCarrick’s seminarians, I never wanted to believe the rumors about his having taken advantage of seminarians in New Jersey. The people who spread those rumors had their own axes to grind. I knew a kind man. But these settlements serve as evidence that there was truth in those rumors that I refused to believe.
So: This week I bit the bullet and rented the movie 2015 “Spotlight.” I had studiously avoided the film until now. It tells the story of the 2001-2002 Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse of minors by Boston priests.
It is a remarkably excellent movie. It paints a picture altogether too real to ignore.
The movie draws you into the honest, diligent, angry work of the small team of journalists who uncovered something: A long-term conspiracy of silence about sexual abuse of minors by priests in Boston.
The most compelling characters in the movie are 1. the abuse victims, now adults, who struggle to say what happened to them, and 2. the good Boston-Catholic lawyers who have known for years about the extent of the problem, and tried to do right for the victims through confidential settlements, but who feared the damage that a public airing of the whole business would do to the Church.
The movie’s circle of human sympathy excludes one group of people: the men trying to run the Archdiocese. Indeed, the entire narrative thrust of the priest-sexual-abuse story requires that diocesan officials be excluded from consideration as potentially sympathetic human beings. Because the story is about a dishonest conspiracy of silence by those very officials.
The question is: Do the men running the dioceses of the US (and the Holy See, for that matter)–do they deserve to be excluded from the lens of human sympathy, as this movie excludes them? Are the diocesan officials in Boston, or anywhere else, really just villainous foils for the dogged heroes who struggle to bring the truth to light, like the Globe investigative team lionized in this movie?
I know enough about the inner workings of enough Church bureaucracies to say that this total exclusion from sympathetic light does a disservice to the truth. The caricature of predators whispering behind the choir screen has nothing to do with reality.
And not every case of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest should get recounted in the newspaper or on the internet. When Judgment Day comes, some bishops will get vindicated for the discretion with which they dealt with cases that merited such discretion, rather than airing the whole thing on some front page.
So “Spotlight,” as admirable a movie as it is, does not capture all of the reality of this huge mass of pain. But the reality isn’t pretty anyway. In fact, it is now much more maddeningly ugly than it was before.
In 2002, the Church in the US supposedly had a “reckoning” with sexual abuse. Adopted the necessary “policies.”
And the whole time, the man in front of the cameras was Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, a man who had not reckoned with even his own sins.
Today I imagine the man whom Cardinal McCarrick allegedly fondled back in 1971, when he was a 16- or 17-year-old high school seminarian. I imagine that man seeing that priest standing before all the news cameras as the leader of the American bishops’ response to the sex-abuse problem in the hyper-dramatized atmosphere of the spring of 2002.
I think: How many eons of penance will I have to do to help that man’s soul get reconciled to the mystery of Jesus Christ living in His one, true Church governed by the pope and the Catholic bishops in communion with the pope? What miracle of grace would it take for that man truly to come home to Mother Church?
The scandal did not get properly identified in 2002. It has never been properly identified. Pedophilia had very little to do with it.
Good, faithful Catholic people got horribly scandalized because:
A lot of priests took advantage of teenagers (mostly gay priests taking advantage of teenage boys, but plenty of straight priests abused girls, too). And the bishops involved sympathized with the predators instead of the victims. The bishops excluded the victims from the circle of human sympathy.
That was the scandal. It was a bishops’ scandal, not a priests’ scandal.
Lord Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. We will also always have with us priests, teachers, coaches, restaurant managers, uncles, etc., who take sexual advantage of teenagers. It’s a terrible thing. But it ain’t going away anytime soon.
The scandal of 2002 was: The bishops of the Church have no earthly idea how to deal with this perpetual ugly fact of life. They have no clue. They run scared from it, as if from an approaching saber tooth tiger, instead of standing their ground like men and thinking first of the wounded one.
No Church official has ever acknowledged the simple fact that that was the scandal. And none seems likely ever to do so. Makes me mad and sad, and I don’t know which is more painful. But the whole thing sucks.
St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr in 1535.
Everyone present at his execution, and everyone who knew him, would readily have granted that England had no more intelligent, knowledgeable, and cosmopolitan a statesman than Thomas More.
And everyone knew that he died for one reason: Because he would not betray his Roman-Catholic loyalty to the pope.
Beautiful. Especially when we think of the pope as personally representing everything virtuous and true.
But which popes occupied the Chair of Peter during Thomas More’s lifetime?
When Leo X was elected pope in 1513, he was not even a priest. He famously said, “Now that God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!” Leo X enjoyed the papacy while St. Thomas More was in his late thirties and early forties.
St. Thomas suffered martyrdom at age 57, when Pope Paul III reigned in Rome.
Certainly Paul III was a holier man that Leo X. But Pope Paul did have a number of children by mistresses he kept while he was a young priest. And he did create his 14- and 16-year-old grandsons Cardinals.
So, we have to rethink this a little. St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr, rather than betray his loyalty to the pope. And the pope in question was not an altogether awesome superman of a white-robed pope. Rather, the pope at the time was what we would have to consider a mediocre Christian at best. A mediocre Christian like me, or you.
Does that make St. Thomas some kind of patsy? Should he have betrayed his loyalty instead of dying as a martyr out of loyalty for a mediocre pope?
Don’t think so. Christ never promised a succession of saintly super-popes. He promised that the unity and integrity of the Church would endure because the papacy would endure.
In other words, the pope is the pope. The famous martyr for loyalty to the papacy, St. Thomas More, did not distract himself by judging the pope. Thomas simply kept faith with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, governed by the one and only pope there is, at any given time.
El corazón de Dios se estremece de compasión. En esta solemnidad del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús la Iglesia presenta para nuestra contemplación este misterio, el misterio del corazón de un Dios que se conmueve y derrama todo su amor sobre la humanidad. Un amor misterioso, pasión inconmensurable de Dios por el hombre. [English]
La raza humana responde con indiferencia e incluso con ingratitud. Pero no se rinde Dios ante la ingratitud, ni siquiera ante el rechazo del pueblo que el ha escogido; más aún, con infinita misericordia envía al mundo a su Hijo unigénito para que cargue sobre sí el destino del amor destruido; para que, derrotando el poder del mal y de la muerte, restituya la dignidad de hijos a los seres humanos esclavizados por el pecado.
Todo esto a caro precio: el Hijo unigénito del Padre se inmola en la cruz: Habiendo amado a los suyos que estaban en el mundo, los amó hasta el extremo. Símbolo de este amor que va más allá de la muerte es su costado atravesado por una lanza. A este respecto, un testigo ocular, el apóstol san Juan, afirma: Uno de los soldados le atravesó el costado con una lanza y al instante salió sangre y agua.
Queridos hermanos y hermanas, detengámonos a contemplar juntos el Corazón traspasado del Crucificado. Como San Pablo escribió a los Efesios, Dios, rico en misericordia, por el gran amor con que nos amó, estando muertos a causa de nuestros delitos, nos vivificó juntamente con Cristo, y con él nos resucitó y nos hizo sentar en los cielos en Cristo Jesús.
Estar en Cristo Jesús significa ya sentarse en los cielos. En el Corazón de Jesús se expresa el núcleo esencial del cristianismo; en Cristo se nos revela y entrega toda la novedad revolucionaria del Evangelio: el Amor que nos salva y nos hace vivir ya en la eternidad de Dios. El evangelista san Juan escribe: Tanto amó Dios al mundo que dio a su Hijo único, para que todo el que crea en él no perezca, sino que tenga vida eterna. Su Corazón divino llama entonces a nuestro corazón; nos invita a salir de nosotros mismos y a abandonar nuestras seguridades humanas para fiarnos de él y, siguiendo su ejemplo, a hacer de nosotros mismos un don de amor sin reservas.
Elections usually end with a concession speech. The defeated candidate acknowledges that the voters have chosen his or her opponent. The loser of the election promises to abide by the choice of the voters. The contest ends.
But who will concede the Irish referendum? Can the unborn children whose lives now stand in danger–can these little ones take to the microphones to acknowledge that the voters have chosen to grant abortionists the authority to kill them with impunity?
Pope Benedict wrote some penetrating, wise things to the Catholics of Ireland in the spring of 2010. He tried to help them recover from devastating revelations about pervasive child-sex-abuse cover-ups.
Seems like a good day today to consider a couple paragraphs of that letter. We could apply the Pope’s words to ourselves here in the US, too.
In recent decades the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The program of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it.
Young people of Ireland, I wish to offer you a particular word of encouragement. Your experience of the Church is very different from that of your parents and grandparents. The world has changed greatly since they were your age. Yet all people, in every generation, are called to travel the same path through life, whatever their circumstances may be. We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people. But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever. He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart.
A young person’s experience of the Church should always bear fruit in a personal and life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ within a loving, nourishing community. In this environment, young people should be encouraged to grow to their full human and spiritual stature, to aspire to high ideals of holiness, charity and truth, and to draw inspiration from the riches of a great religious and cultural tradition. In our increasingly secularized society, where even we Christians often find it difficult to speak of the transcendent dimension of our existence, we need to find new ways to pass on to young people the beauty and richness of friendship with Jesus Christ in the communion of his Church… By treading the path marked out by the Gospel, by observing the commandments and by conforming your lives ever more closely to the figure of Jesus Christ, you will surely experience the profound renewal that is so urgently needed at this time. I invite you all to persevere along this path.
We are pro-woman and pro-life. The referendum in Ireland means a crushing short-term victory for unrealistic propaganda and the empty promises of sexual libertinism.
Pope St. John Paul II explained very thoroughly how a Christian must be pro-life. And he explained how a pro-lifer must be kind and sympathetic.
We separate the moral failings that can lead to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy from the simple good of a human life. We say Go to Confession, and start fresh; we stand beside you. The abortion movement offers no helping hand and piles shame on top of shame, saying: Go, Kill the fruit of your dishonest sex.
Love will win in the end. Dear brother and sister Catholics of Ireland, we American Catholics welcome you to the trenches. We will work to build the Culture of Life from the ground up, until the Lord calls us home.
One hundred thirty-five years ago today, the Brooklyn Bridge opened. Twenty-one of P.T. Barnum’s elephants paraded across, to prove to the public how strong and safe the bridge is.
Exactly one hundred twenty years later, to the day, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, a native of New York, ordained your unworthy servant a priest.
Everyone will be salted with fire. But if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? (Mark 9:49-50) You can’t salt salt. Salt has to stay salty.
The Church of Christ must salt this earth, with the message of justice, truth, and selfless love. We do not merit such a mission. But God has summoned us to it anyway.
When Holy Mother Church met in solemn Council at the Vatican in the early 1960’s, She articulated a vision of universal solidarity among all the people of the earth. Our Church gave the human race hope for a worldwide civilization of love.
Vatican II did not base that vision on empty optimism or naïvete. The Church knows that She always faces a battle against evil. She spoke as She did at Vatican II because of the preaching of Her founder Jesus Christ, and because of Her hope in His unfailing grace.
The Catholic Church continues to have the guts to point out to the world that no one can adequately understand “the economy” without adequately understanding man—human nature, the meaning of life, of work, of social interactions and exchanges among people. And no one can understand the meaning of human life without Christ, the Son of God.
Even with the supposedly wonderful internet, it seems obvious that we have not really progressed toward a more unified and peaceful world over the course of the past generation. The rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer. Greedy people have enriched themselves by taking irrational risks with other peoples’ money, including public money belonging to entire nations and peoples. Someone has to have the guts to say this isn’t right. The Catholic Church has the guts.
Speaking of the poor and defenseless, and of entire nations and peoples, and of having some guts: Let’s pray hard for the voters of mother Ireland. Tomorrow they vote on making abortion legal.
Someday, to be sure, they will look back with horror and shame that they ever thought it prudent or good to put the human rights of the innocent to a majority vote. But still we must pray hard for a pro-life outcome of tomorrow’s national referendum on their constitutional amendment that protects the unborn child.
Those agitating for a repeal of the pro-life amendment argue as if making abortion legal involves a step “forward.” They forget that killing infants was perfectly legal under the inhumane emperors of old, like Nero and Caligula.
In fact, Ireland has the kind of forward-looking abortion laws that every country ought to have, including ours. May the Civilization of Love gain an electoral victory tomorrow, so that Ireland can continue to show the world the right way.
Holy Father had his name day yesterday (se llama Jorge). Mine comes tomorrow. So, to celebrate, I present my review of Ross Douthat’s new book…
Douthat sees a profound conflict in the Catholic Church. On one side, “conservatives,” who believe that the gospels give us the words of Christ the Lord, including, What God has joined together, let no man put asunder… Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. On the other side, “liberals,” who think that the Church must change with modern times in order to survive.
At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic conservatives and liberals struggled for… hmm…struggled for what, exactly? control?… The struggle continued for a decade under Pope Paul VI. Then the “conservative” post-Vatican-II popes, John Paul II and Benedict, reigned for over three decades, supposedly stabilizing everything by giving Vatican II a traditionalist interpretation. But the struggle never really abated; the liberal side did not exit holy Mother Church, as many expected. Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013 led to a surprising re-eruption of the year 1968.
Douthat marshals many illuminating details of Church history in order to lay out this narrative–details which I myself have lived through in my own little life. My fellow seventies’ child lays out so many accurate observations, and interprets them so well, in fact, that I could easily let myself follow him to his doleful conclusion.
Namely, that either 1) Catholicism as we know it is on the way out, or 2) the Church will trudge on, as a house deeply divided, until schism erupts, or 3) by some miracle, God will soon give us a Pope Pius XIII. Then we will give up on trying to win-over our contemporaries and simply retrench. Thoroughly retrench.
But I can’t follow Douthat the whole way to his conclusion, for all his mesmerizing eloquence. For one thing, Douthat falls into one of the traps dug by the EWTN commentators who endlessly fuss about Pope Francis’ supposed misdeeds.
Mark 10 and Matthew 19 recount a conversation between Christ and some contemporary Jews. Lord Jesus said that divorce became legal for the ancient People of God “because of your hardness of heart. In the beginning God made them male and female, and the two become one flesh in marriage.”
As Douthat rightly points out, “only a professional theologian” could miss the meaning here. Christians cannot divorce. But, by the same token, this conversation of Christ’s evidently does not stand on its own. The Lord refers to the original creation, to Adam and Eve, and to the act of marriage. The act of marriage–vows and consummation–lies at the center of the contemporary ecclesiastical controversy, not chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s gospel, or chapter ten of St. Mark’s.
G.K. Chesteron explained how true love always makes a lifetime vow, in “In Defense of Rash Vows,” published in The Defendant.
It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.
The Holy Bible doesn’t prescribe the text of marriage vows, because it doesn’t have to. What the Lord said about divorce in the conversation recorded in Mt 19 and Mk 10 gets proved at practically every wedding. A lifetime commitment, sex, and forming a family with all its attendant duties and privileges–at a wedding, these are not distinct realities. They are one reality: marriage.
And, in this case, the sacramental grace does not come through the ministry of an ordained priest. A man and woman do this; a man and a woman minister the sacrament of marriage to each other. They make their life together an image of God’s love for mankind, an image of Jesus the Bridegroom’s faithful love for His Church, by taking vows and having sex.
What Jesus said in Mark 10 bears witness to, and confirms, the underlying reality of what marriage is. But marriage itself, which a man and a woman do (as God’s ministers): that’s the thing that lies at the heart of the controversy that occupies good Mr. Douthat.
I would say that both sides of the controversy miss what to me is this all-important distinction: the difference between a. ecclesiastical authority imposing itself or refraining from doing so, and b.the vows taken by lay people who marry. In other words, both sides want to put the pope and the clergy in a role which we do not in fact possess. That leads to unfocused and unhelpful rhetoric.
As I have tried to explain here before: According to the rhetoric, the controversy has to do with people being “barred from Holy Communion” vs. “admitted to Holy Communion.” But priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers do not bar people from Holy Communion. It simply doesn’t happen. I’ve never denied Holy Communion to any adult who approached the altar looking like he or she knew what she was doing, and wasn’t chewing gum. Everyone in the church is always “admitted” to Holy Communion. The decision lies with the individual: Should I approach the altar to receive, or not?
So the whole controversy gets out of focus from the outset, when people start talking about denying/admitting to Holy Communion. The real disputed point is this: What should a parish priest (or anyone else, for that matter) say to someone who asks for guidance about whether or not to go to Holy Communion? This is something that actually does happen on a regular basis.
I, for one, almost always respond to such requests for guidance with some questions of my own, to gather facts and try to clarify the matter. Like:
Well, did you make marriage vows to someone else? Including a vow of sexual fidelity until death? Is that person still alive?
So, let’s concede that we have a genuine controversy regarding what priests outght to say to people. Douthat plumbs the depths of this controversy with both penetrating insight and stunning blindness.
I. Douthat’s Insights
The Pope and his ”Twitter apologists” won’t answer questions. Not just the semi-famous “dubia.” But simple, honest questions that Catholics can and should expect their priests to help them answer, by providing authoritative criteria for judgment.
Let’s take two examples. The first comes from Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence.” (I have not seen the movie, nor could I ever manage to get through the joyless novel. But Douthat helpfully outlines the plot.)
The main character faces a crushing choice. The local Japanese shogun will stop at nothing to stamp out Christianity. He tortures fellow Christians in front of the hero. “All you have to do is put your foot on this image of Christ, and deny Him. That way, you can save the lives of your friends.”
The hero’s priest mentor also tries to convince him to step on the image of Jesus. “These people’s Buddhism has the same ethical teaching as our Christianity. This is a dispute over supernatural things that the Japanese will never understand. Your stepping on the image won’t cost anyone anything.”
Fr. James Martin, SJ, the leading American Pope-Francis apologist, wrote about this. Douthat recounts what the Jesuit had to say. According to Father Martin, “Silence’s” hero faced “an almost impossible choice,” a discernment “in a complicated situation where there are no clear answers.”
Exhibit A of Jesuit sophistry. Who can fault Douthat for pinning it to the mat? Father Martin’s refusal to confront the moral facts: colossally obtuse. The “moral dilemma” here is actually not hard. How about this:
“Sir,” the hero says to the shogun, “I am not torturing and killing anyone. You are. Stop it. You send them to heaven by martyring them, but you do irreparable harm to yourself. For your own sake, stop this cruel nonsense.”
Then the hero adds, “Now, you think that I am going to step on the image of the one hope for heaven that we have, and deny Him? Deny the God-man, for Whose Holy Name countless of my smarter and more subtle-minded ancestors in the faith have gone to their deaths singing? If you think there’s any chance I will do that, forget it. May He have mercy on us all.”
Yes, it would require supernatural strength. (The sacrament of Confirmation promises precisely such grace.) But, at the same time, it would be the only moral option available. A difficult act, heroic martyrdom–but not a difficult decision, as far as right and wrong go. Apostasy is a sin that no situation can ever justify.
Now to the second example of a question which the “new paradigm” of pastoring doesn’t answer. This doesn’t spring directly from Douthat’s pages, like the “Silence” example. But it is the question upon which the entire controversy turns. Douthat regrettably never quite manages to lay it squarely on the table, but everything that he writes circles around it. It is the question which Pope Francis and his allies so studiously refuse to answer.
When should a person have sex?
Again, not a difficult question, when it comes to figuring out right and wrong. (It may be difficult to act in accord with the right answer, but that doesn’t change the answer.)
When should a person have sex? When you’re trying to have a baby with your spouse.
Like I said, not a hard one. To borrow Douthat’s trenchant insight, and apply it here: It would take a professional theologian to get that one wrong. Sex is for making babies: Human Anatomy 101.
But let me address the reasonable, well-founded objection you, dear reader, might make. Father, can’t I have sex–even when I’m not trying to have a child with my spouse–just for the sake of love?
To answer that one, I think we have to say this:
If marriage means something like finding a “soul-mate”–that is, a companion with whom I will truly share my entire life; with whom I will become the person God made me to be; without whom, when everything is said and done, I will never understand myself as a person, since my self will become part of a marriage and a family– In other words, if marriage is what God originally gave Adam and Eve, and which a man and a woman establish by taking vows at the altar and making love in private, to start a family– If that is what we’re talking about here, and it is: Then no one can doubt that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No one gets two chances at it. It is a beautiful mystery of God, having to do with getting people to heaven.
So: people involved in such a holy communion with each other–they don’t exactly have the freedom to make their own rules, but: who could say they should refrain from love-making simply because they know that conception at this moment likely will not occur? Not me. Couples having sex for the sake of love during infertile periods is no sin.
Nor would I tell a widower and a widow beyond child-bearing age not to marry. Though I would say: Pray in solitude awhile first, calling to mind that death and judgment draw nigh.
Anyway: Douthat hits the nail on the head when he calls the bluff of the “discernment’ rhetoric on the controversy’s liberal side. Their presumption is: Man must have sex. But that presumption is false. To have sex is a choice. Every individual soul must wisely make that choice–with a partner likewise making a wise, informed choice–or not. And we must make such choices according to sound criteria of judgment. Where do we start, in formulating criteria for such a judgment? The Nicene Creed. Life on earth is short; Christ gives us heaven; the Church guides us with the truth; etc.
All this is Christianity 101. Priests who won’t help their people make wise choices about having sex? Those priests suck. They suck as priests, at least. Douthat skewers that nonsense with aplomb. But…
II. Douthat’s Blind Spots
To Change the Church misses some extremely important facts of recent history. Douthat sees everything through the lens of political tribalism, so he does not understand the enduring significance of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate. Douthat calls JPII a “conservative.” He’s not alone in calling the saint that, of course. But calling Pope St. John Paul II “conservative” is like calling Michelangelo “talented.”
Seeing everything through the lens of politics, Douthat looks only for “the center” which can hold a political group together. St. John Paul II, on the other hand, lived and died for the Truth–which is what holds the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church together.
Douthat imagines that the “damage” done by Pope Francis has already undone the work of Pope St. John Paul II. The least convincing part of To Change the Church involves Douthat trying to explain why so few people seem to recognize this deep structural damage. It’s all happening silently because Christianity has lost its political and cultural power, Douthat argues. Therefore, only a few ardent Twitter users really know how big a problem we Catholics have on our hands.
But a reasonable appraisal of the current state of the Church would recognize: The influence of Pope St. John Paul II endures. Pope Francis himself cites JPII’s Catechism not infrequently. The Novus Ordo of the Holy Mass, which grew to “adulthood,” so to speak, under JPII–it gets prayed by validly ordained priests and their people all over the world, with sincere devotion and spiritual profit for countless souls, continually. In other words the Church continues to live Her life, largely unaware of the current “controversy”–and not the worse off, for not knowing about it.
Ok, yes: JPII had a way of not answering questions, too, when he didn’t want to. He did not answer the question of whether Latin-rite priests might be able to marry. He made it more of a question than it was before, in fact, by authorizing the ordination of quite a few married men–men who entered the Catholic Church in the middle of a career as Protestant clergymen. I remember serving Cardinal Hickey at the ordination of a married Methodist-minister-convert while I was a seminarian in the late 1990’s. I wondered to myself, Why don’t any of our spiritual fathers talk to us celibate seminarians about how to deal with this–watching a married man get ordained in front of our eyes? No one ever had that talk with us.
I still cannot forgive Pope Benedict for abdicating. But 2013 did not leave us in a re-booted 1968. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla inherited a papacy struggling to find its center of gravity again. That giant of a man proceeded to spend all his energies finding it. He gave the clergy and the whole Church their center of gravity back. Namely Jesus Christ. That center holds and will hold.
Douthat opines that Vatican II did not resolve the central modernism-vs.-tradition question of “religious freedom.” Again, let’s take a supposedly “difficult” moral case to try and get to the heart of the matter.
In 1858 papal gendarmes took Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents. The boy was Catholic, having been baptized by the maid when he was in danger of death. The Mortaras had hired this maid in violation of Papal-State law, which forbad Jews to hire Catholic household servants. The law stood on the books not out of bigotry toward Jews, but precisely to avoid such situations.
At that time, Pope Pius IX ruled not only the Church, but also a large part of Italy. So he had not only Cardinals and monsignori at his command, but also police officers with weapons. When the Pope learned that young Edgardo Mortara was Catholic, he insisted that the boy’s parents offer their child a Catholic education. When the parents refused, the Pope sent the police.
Now, Edgardo grew up happy and became a priest. He loved Pope Pius and insisted that the man was a saint.
But: be all that as it may, the question is, Should the Pope have sent armed men to take the boy away from his parents?
Moderns howl, “of course not!” On the other hand, conservatives say, “Well, it’s complicated. He was baptized, after all, and we have a supernatural understanding of the effects of baptism.”
In fact, however, it is not complicated. Yes, we of course have a supernatural understanding of the effects of Holy Baptism. Edgardo was a Catholic, with a right to a Catholic education. All true. But do we Catholics with a supernatural understanding of things claim that the Pope has a right to employ armed men to remove a child from his parents? We most assuredly do not.
Pio Nono had gendarmes not as the Vicar of the Prince of Peace, but as the head of the Papal States. The pope wrongly held such a temporal office. Religous freedom does not mean that Catholicism isn’t always true, for everyone. It is. What religious freedom means is: The Church of Jesus Christ does not employ force to win souls for Christ. Because force cannot win souls for Him. Or, to put it better: No force can win a soul for Christ, other than the all-conquering power of His Truth.
Pius IX rightly insisted that Edgardo had a right to a Christian education. But the pope wrongly sent armed men to vindicate Edgardo’s Christian right. That doesn’t seem like a difficult distinction to make.
The rhetoric of “modern vs. traditional” clouds minds. It doesn’t really help anyone resolve his or her moral problems. We Christians hold fast to the Sacred Tradition, and we deal with the times we live in, as they are. I wouldn’t call our times “modern.” I would call them pagan. The useless modern vs. traditional-Catholic distinction is a trap into which Pope Francis’ liberal advocates, his conservative enemies, and Ross Douthat all fall.
Pope John Paul II refused to fall into that trap. He lived his twentieth-century life ready to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but always as a loyal son of Pope St. Pius X. Pius X settled the Modernism controversy well over a century ago, with the encyclical Pascendi. (I summarized the encyclical here.)
JPII left us a Church very much alive and well, and equipped to march into the future with confidence. We will all die before the resources he left us run out. Pope Francis and his friends may decline to answer questions about sexual morality, and God will judge them. But we can still find the answers we need easily enough. They are all there, in beautiful black and white, in JPII’s Catechism.
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life. (John 6:27)
We kept the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council a few years ago, between 2012 and 2015. But maybe some of Pope Francis’ more-recent teachings lead us back to the Second Vatican Council again.*
Here’s one question: Was Vatican II overly optimistic in focusing on what Protestants and Catholics have in common?
One side would say: Yes, Vatican II was wrong there. It was a betrayal of sacred Catholic Tradition and the Council of Trent to affirm that Protestants and Catholics share the same faith in Christ.
–But isn’t that’s going too far? There’s only one Jesus. And we all personally know Protestants who truly and sincerely believe in Him. So Vatican II was not altogether wrong to emphasize what we have in common.
On the other hand, the other extreme would say: No, Vatican II had no misplaced optimism whatsoever. Christian re-unification is right around the corner, if only we could get over ourselves!
–But that’s going too far, too. No reasonable observer can deny that, in spite of a lot of common enterprises, and a lot of good intentions, the last fifty years have not seen a whole lot of real ecumenical headway. Quite the contrary.
During the third week of Easter we read from John 6 at Holy Mass. Seems to me like we Catholics could lay down this marker, and live at peace with it:
We believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And we believe that He makes Himself present on the altar at Mass to be our food unto eternal life.
It seems to us that these two aspects of the faith—namely the Resurrection and the Real Presence—are really one aspect. It makes absolutely no sense to separate them. And why would anyone want to?
*I have been reading Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church. Douthat illuminates things enormously, I think, by outlining the two alternative understandings of the past 55 years of Catholic history, “liberal” and “conservative.” But there’s more to the story, I think. And I want to try to bring it to light, as the opportunity allows.
Parrhesia. Childlike boldness in praying to our heavenly Father. And fearless boldness in bearing witness to Christ before men.
Christian boldness springs from our conviction that God has spoken His Word of love in Christ. And we—obtuse and klutzy as we are—serve that Almighty Word.
Gamaliel the Wise counseled the Sanhedrin during the first Easter season: Leave these ‘apostles’ alone. If they act out of real obedience to God, then nothing will stop them anyway. If not, then their misplaced fervor will die out on its own.
So the Sanhedrin had the Apostles flogged and released, instead of jailing them pending execution. And St. Peter and Co. rejoiced—for having the opportunity to share in the sufferings of the crucified Word of God.
Pope has used the word parrhesia over and over again in his teachings. And he has dedicated an entire section to the word parrhesia in his new exhortation to holiness. Let me quote the Holy Father:
Holiness is also parrhesía: it is boldness, an impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark in this world. To allow us to do this, Jesus himself comes and tells us once more, serenely yet firmly: “Do not be afraid.” …Parrhesía describes the freedom of a life open to God and to others…
Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite…
Parrhesía is a seal of the Spirit; it testifies to the authenticity of our preaching. It is a joyful assurance that leads us to glory in the Gospel we proclaim. It is an unshakeable trust in the faithful Witness who gives us the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar… He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! (Gaudete et Exsultate 129-135)
Then the pope quotes himself, from the speech he gave as a Cardinal, right before the conclave elected him pope.
We know that Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts. We read that in Scripture. But maybe He wants to go out “to escape from our stale self-centeredness.”
Some people find the pope controversial. A lot of people don’t. Regardless of whether we find him controversial or not, we have to hear what he is saying here. We have to let the Vicar of Christ remind us about this fundamental aspect of Christianity: Every human being searches for the meaning of life. And we cannot live in the truth ourselves if we do not take the risks necessary to form relationships with other human beings searching for the meaning of life like we are.
Especially the ones we do not want to form relationships with, because they do not presume the same things that we do. Relating to them is hard. It requires the very hard work of sincere communication. Which we can’t do without working hard at understanding ourselves. Which will ultimately lead us to the point where we have to acknowledge: we are fundamentally just as weak and clueless as any confused child.
Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of…that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace…A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths…unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. (Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate 25, 76)
Christian joy is usually accompanied by a sense of humor…Ill humor is no sign of holiness. “Remove vexation from your mind” (Ecclesiastes 11:10). We receive so much from the Lord “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17), that sadness can be a sign of ingratitude. (Gaud et Exul., 126)