Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lamenting The Faithful Departed

My wife and I are Catholic converts. (Strictly speaking, of course, we didn't "convert" to Catholicism. We were already believing Christians when we came into full communion with the Catholic Church.) We each joined the Church in our mid-20s, after becoming convinced that the Catholic Church is the one true Church that Christ instituted while He was still on Earth. As converts are wont to do, we take our faith very seriously. This can be a problem as a Catholic in modern America, given both the indifference to their faith felt by many American Catholics (who sometimes view our insistence on orthodox Catholic teaching as weird or even offensive) and the hostility to the Catholic Church engendered (at least in part) by the priest sexual abuse scandals.

I've recently been reading Philip Lawler's account of the causes and results of those abuse scandals, called The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. It focuses on Boston's Catholic culture, which Lawler sees as emblematic of what's happened in the rest of America (and, to a lesser extent, the world). It's truly depressing stuff. Lawler's basic point, backed up by very well-documented evidence, is that the root cause of this collapse and this crisis is the abdication of responsibility by the American bishops, who came to view themselves as regional directors of Catholic Church, Inc. -- a secular institution that runs on public support -- and not as shepherds of the souls of faithful Christians -- a spiritual community that runs on the grace of God. This emphasis on running the institution of the Church led the bishops further and further from doing their real jobs, demoralizing faithful Catholics and delighting heterodox or apostate Catholics. As a result, the latter group of Catholics has largely taken over the American Church over the past 40 years.

I'm about halfway done with the book, but there's one (extended) passage that I felt compelled to put up here, since it sums up the process by which the corrosion and collapse of the American Catholic Church took place.

A bishop, Vatican II had taught (Lumen Gentium 23), is the "visible source and foundation of unity" in his diocese. American bishops fulfilled this role in a very odd way: not by restoring unity, but by declaring it. Since the bishop had announced that the local Church was one happy family, anyone who pointed out divisions was offending against that unity, fomenting discord, and subverting the bishop's authority at the same time. The greatest threat to the integrity of the Catholic faith was not someone who denied fundamental Church teaching, but someone who called attention to that denial, thereby fracturing the facade of unity. The bishops had found a foolproof way to blame the messenger for bringing bad news.

Dissent from Church teaching was not a new development. What is unique about the period of Vatican II is that doctrinal dissent entered the mainstream, and the vigorous defense of Church doctrine was marginalized. Pastors who encouraged married couples to ignore the Catholic teaching on birth control were not disciplined but praised for their "pastoral" approach. Priests who clung to the traditional teaching, exhorting their parishioners to do the same, were declared too "rigid" to handle larger assignments.

In the field of economics, the principle known as Gresham's Law dictates that bad money will drive out good money. When two different currencies are available, one inflated and the other holding its value, people will always choose to pay their bills with the less valuable currency, until the better money gradually disappears from circulation. Since the late 1960s the same genera principle has been at work in the Catholic Church: lax pastoral practice has driven out sound spiritual formation. Yes, the Church still bans the use of contraceptives. But for the past forty years, at least, a married Catholic has rarely had difficulty finding a priest who would tell him that in his particular case, the use of contraceptives could be morally justified. Similarly, a Catholic who was troubled by the Church's teaching on divorce or on regular Mass attendance has generally been able to find a sympathetic cleric who would salve his conscience. In practice Catholics have found that it is possible to flout Catholic teachings, with the tacit blessing of someone who represents the Church.

This odd dynamic has a demoralizing effect on any priest who honestly wishes to uphold Church teaching. If he demands that an engaged couple live apart until their marriage, they are likely to find another priest who will ignore the fact that they have the same mailing address. If he says that teenagers much attend Sunday Mass regularly in order to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, the youngsters may drop out of his religion-education program. If he preaches unpopular truths in his regular homilies, families may switch to another, "friendlier" approach.

If he refuses to compromise, the stalwart pastor may soon find himself with a smaller congregation to pay the parish bills. He may then acquire a reputation as a poor fundraiser and an inefficient manager to go along with complaints about his harsh and inflexible attitudes. He will never be popular with his fellow priests (since his rigor is an implicit rebuke to their sloth), now will he be considered for larger assignments. If he does compromise, on the other hand -- if he ignores the fact that a young woman has already moved in with the man she intends to marry; if he promotes students through the grades of religious-education program without giving tests that might expose their ignorance -- the young priest will reap a harvest of earthly rewards. His own life will be easier, unburdened of the frustrations that come from knowing that his advice has been rejected. He will gain a reputation for flexibility and pastoral judgment. He will be more popular with other priests, and probably with parishioners as well. He will be considered for plum parish assignments and might even be considered as a potential future bishop.

In short, the system rewards clerics who learn to dodge controversial issues and paper over serious problems. And watching the system work, ordinary Americans conclude, quite reasonably, that the Church is not really serious about those problems. If 80 percent of Catholic married couples are using contraceptives, and bishops do not treat that issue as a matter of urgency, they cannot really believe that birth control is gravely sinful, can they? If a pastor can maintain a friendly relationship with a parishioner, yet never admonish him for routinely skipping Sunday Mass, he must not really think that the man's eternal soul is in danger.

-from The Faithful Departed (2008 hardcover), pp. 125-127

In a particularly damning assessment at the end of the chapter from which the section above was taken, Lawler concludes that there is no more radically contrary proposition for the contemporary leadership of the American Church than Augustine's famous declaration, "God does not need my lie."

For a faithful Catholic, the diagnosis that Lawler lays out is painful and deeply, deeply saddening. I find myself enraged by the lowly state to which Catholicism has been allowed to fall in America. And not just in America. Focus on success on Earth -- political success, material success, and success in popular opinion -- has infected the Church worldwide. Lawler recounts an episode talking with Catholics from Latin America (I forget which country), where they say, in effect, "If you want to form a labor union, talk with a priest. If you want spiritual advice and counseling, talk with a Protestant pastor."

I'm reminded of the many Catholics I know who could really care less about the high rate of divorce or contraception among Catholics -- or for so many Catholics' support for abortion (and for candidates, like Obama, who are on record as literally favoring infanticide) -- but who become irate about their parish's failure to use Fair Trade coffee in the fellowship hall. The Fair Trade issue may be important, but it pales in comparison to the unmitigated slaughter of millions of innocent children annually, to the deaths of so many marriages annually, and to the ubiquitous and monstrous separation of procreation from sexual intimacy.

The problem is, however, that most of the energized and influential lay Catholics are socially and theologically Liberal, are firmly convinced of the Marxist conception of reality (that the only good in helping people is in helping them materially), and tend to be hostile to any limitations on sexual freedom or expression. They also have huge problems with Church authority -- which is a problem, since acknowledging and submitting to the authority of the Church in the areas of faith and morals is a sine qua non of the Catholic faith.

These are the people who run most parishes, who tend to be in charge of groups like Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (although there are many faithful Catholics in those organizations, too). They have also been in charge of the religious education of young Catholic children for the past 40 years. They -- and the failed bishops who've enabled them -- have been a scourge on the American Church that we will take at least a generation to recover from. The recovery has started, but it will be long in coming -- if it ever happens. God is always faithful, but we aren't. If we don't see this process through, the Church in America will wither and die the way others have in the past.

So that's the task we have before us. We, American Catholics, with the grace and power of God, must renew the Catholic Church in America. We have no time to waste.

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