Julian Kwasniewski: Your Excellency, thank you for agreeing to this interview. With continued assaults on the family from every quarter including Rome, I wanted to speak with you regarding the family and its place in the contemporary world. Sometimes there is a controversy among conservative Catholics as to whether or not it is legitimate to continue living in the modern world with a missionary spirit. The alternative frequently proposed is complete withdrawal to a rural setting in order to cultivate the virtues and traditions of the Church. It seems that since God calls individuals to serve him in different ways, both must be acceptable. Yet might there come a time when the modern world has become so corrupted that immersion in it can no longer be healthy for the majority of Christians? Has such a time come already?
Athanasius Schneider: Our Lord sent the Apostles to go to all nations and to preach the Gospel. In those days most of the nations were immersed in a pagan and often immoral public life. St. Paul admonished the first Christians not to withdraw to a rural area, but to give witness in midst of a corrupted world: “Be blameless, and sincere children of God, without reproof, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation; among whom you shine as lights in the world.” (Phil. 2:15)
The mission of the Church and of Christendom consists in the words of Our Lord being “the light of the world,” and “a city seated on a mountain, that cannot be hid” (Mt. 5:15). The mission of the Church consists in conquering the entire world for Christ and establishing His social kingship without fearing the widespread moral corruption of a concrete society. The words of the “Letter to Diognetus” from the Early Church (dated ca. end of the 2nd century) remain memorable and timely; it is worthwhile to quote the following larger section:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then, they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred. To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body (Chap. 5).
Indeed, Catholicism never chose a kind of “Amish-method,” according to which Amish Christian groups seek to maintain a degree of separation from the non-Amish world.
JK: Do you think that the rapid rise of gender ideology in the past five years has fundamentally changed the climate of secular society to the point that families ought not expose themselves to situations where this confusion may in turn create confusion in their children? Ought Catholics work to have their own “safe-spaces” where their peace is not disturbed by such depravity?
AS: Catholic parents must protect their children from moral depravity which in our day has penetrated almost all public and governmental schools in the Western world. The solution is not to withdraw completely from society, but to create our own “safe-spaces,” e.g., homeschooling, Catholic private schools, youth associations, systematic training and formation courses or meetings for youth and adults, public marches and pilgrimages.
JK: What is your view of modern technology? Do you think it is a good ascetic and spiritually beneficial practice for Catholics to reduce the use of social media or abandon it altogether? How does one balance “meeting people where they are at” with encouraging other modes of communication?
AS: The tools of modern technology are not evil in themselves, but often abused for evil. The Christian virtue consists in making good use of modern technology. In this consists the cardinal virtue of prudence and above all of temperance. It is easier to abandon altogether, for example, the use of a smart phone or of the internet rather than to use them with the virtue of temperance, which will provide us with supernatural merits. It is important that people should give preference, if they have the choice, to a direct and physical communication rather than using online or “virtual” communication. Catholics must promote the culture of concreteness, visibility, and common sense. Such a Catholic culture reflects the deeper truth of God’s Incarnation, the incarnational method.
JK: In your book The Springtime That Never Came, you speak of avoiding the “mental gymnastics” caused by theological confusion. Do you think that Catholics have a duty to know at least general Church news, even when it can be so discouraging? Or is it fine—commendable, even—to ignore the news on theological and liturgical controversies caused by the current world Synod and similar events?
AS: Catholics cannot live in a kind of a greenhouse. We must not flee reality, but face reality, however discouraging it may be. Catholics are obliged to know their faith. St. Peter admonishes us: “Be ready always to satisfy everyone that asks you a reason of that hope which is in you. But with modesty and fear, having a good conscience: that whereas they speak evil of you, they may be ashamed who falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ” (1 Pt. 3:15-16). Certainly, an average Catholic need not know in detail the current theological and ecclesiastical debates. It would be sufficient for him to know the main topics in the current Church debates and events. Indeed, he should exercise restraint in the use of online news portals.
JK: In his recently published book of essays, Joseph Shaw speaks of the family as not just a natural institution, but a sacrament as well, and consequently having a unique and ultimate power in the contemporary conflict. “The effect of the sacrament is to make the natural bonds of marriage unbreakable, to sanctify the natural love of spouses, and to reinforce with divine assistance their natural efforts in raising their children,” he writes. These sacramental gifts are not given “to lay associations, to magazines, or even to parishes.” Does the Sacrament of Matrimony give couples the unique grace to live in their own time of history? Would it be true to say that this Sacrament may be giving strength to face evils today that spouses never had to deal with before?
AS: God elevated natural marriage to a supernatural and sacramental level in order to provide it with a moral power to fulfill its mission in the world. Being a “domestic church,” Catholic marriages and families have an inherent mission and power to contribute to a civilization of love.
Pope John Paul II, the pope of the family, said:
The family itself is the great mystery of God. As the “domestic church,” it is the bride of Christ. The universal Church, and every particular Church in her, is most immediately revealed as the bride of Christ in the “domestic church” and in its experience of love: conjugal love, paternal and maternal love, fraternal love, the love of a community of persons and of generations… The history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family. The family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man. The family will be strong with the strength of God (Letter to Families Gratissimam Sane, nn. 19; 23).
A Catholic family will always draw its spiritual power to resist the world’s evils and to sanctify the earthly realities from the graces of the sacrament of marriage and with the power of the Cross of Christ. Pope John Paul II wrote in this sense:
May the Lord Jesus repeat these truths to us with the power and the wisdom of the Cross, so that humanity will not yield to the temptation of the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44), who constantly seeks to draw people to broad and easy ways, ways apparently smooth and pleasant, but in reality, full of snares and dangers. May we always be enabled to follow the One who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6) (Letter to Families Gratissimam Sane, n. 23).
JK: Recently, several authors have newly addressed the idea of patriarchy and male headship, trying to promote a return to a correct understanding of the role of the sexes. Yet “male-headship” can often be explained simplistically in traditionalist circles, and many women who desire true femininity and family feel demeaned by claims which seem to treat them as less rational or less capable than men. How can a restoration of a conception of patriarchy as something which ennobles, protects, and serves women be accomplished?
AS: The true concept of patriarchy is the Catholic one, not the pagan or worldly one. The male-headship in marriage and family is based on the order of creation. Through original sin the order of creation was deeply wounded and with it also the male-headship in marriage and family, infecting it with the egocentric and proud vice of the lust for power. Through the graces of the redemption, and especially the sacrament of marriage, Christ heals this wound in the soul of a man and his headship in marriage and the family can become like the fatherhood of God and the redemptive love of Christ the Saviour.
The teaching of St. Paul is in this regard a luminous guide and a constant appeal to each husband and father: “Men ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife, loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, as also Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:28-29). A wife, whose husband truly loves and respects her, will never feel demeaned by the headship of her husband. He is the head, but she is the heart. Both depend complementarily on each other. Where there is the heartless power of the head, there is tyranny and spiritual coldness. Where there is the irrational power of the heart, there is disorder and spiritual unsteadiness.
JK: The growth of the Latin Mass is closely connected with the most flourishing Catholic communities with many young and growing families. How do you see the traditional rites as helping us understand the nature of men and women, and their place in society and the family?
AS: The traditional Latin Mass conveys in a marvelous manner the values of a supernatural, sublime, hierarchically structured and beautifully ordered world. Such values attract each human person already on the natural level, since the phenomena of nature irradiate hierarchical order and a calm beauty, to which even an unbelieving person is spontaneously attracted. This fact applies even more to a Christian soul, who knows the Catholic faith and nurtures the sense of religious awe. The one who believes in a truly Catholic manner is always imbued with the sense of filial love, inseparably united with a filial fear and reverence of God. The traditional Latin Mass shows unambiguously the beauty of the complementary roles of both sexes in public Divine worship. The exclusively male ministers in the sanctuary represent Christ the Bridegroom and with the minutely established ritual they resemble a kind of a troop in order. The women have their place in the nave of the church with their heads covered with a veil like Our Lady and all the saintly women in Holy Scripture and the great women Saints of the Church. All this helps a family very much to live in daily life the advantageousness and beauty of the Divinely established order.
JK: Do you see the actions of Pope Francis in attempting to restrict the Vetus Ordo, and his seeming acceptance and promotion of a non-traditional theology of marriage and sexuality, as an attack on “true love” rather than an encouragement of it?
AS: Unfortunately, this is so. It is first an attack on the principle of tradition, of sacred tradition. Behind this attack there is basically hiding a rejection of the principle of the immutability of the natural order and of the Divinely revealed truths. And since the Old Mass represents and proclaims adamantly the principle of immutability, it became the object of hatred and persecution, because it is a living rebuke to those in the Church who promote a non-traditional theology and morals.
JK: Clerical critics of the Old Mass often say that it “gives the priest too much importance” or does not allow him to “take his place in the assembly of the people of God where all are equal.” How has your celebration of the Old Mass—and pontifical liturgies in particular—influenced your view of such statements? How does a healthy Catholic culture integrate the lay and clerical families?
AS: The contrary is true. The Old Mass protects the celebrating priest from the possibility to be a showman, since its strict ritual rules do not give any space to the celebrant to present to the faithful a display of freely invented words or gestures. A faithful exterior and interior celebration of the traditional rite of the Mass leaves one with the salutary impression that you as celebrant, being a participant of the ministerial priesthood of Christ, are only a servant, a servant of Christ, Who is always the main celebrant. The lay faithful have their own specific role in the traditional Mass, which expresses very clearly the truth of the common priesthood of Christ. They are therefore in the nave and follow, especially in their heart, the exterior rites performed by Christ the Head through His ministers. This reflects more beautifully the harmony of the Mystical Body of Christ, characterized by hierarchy, order and peace, as St. Paul said: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).
JK: In closing, perhaps you could say a few words about the books you have published over the past few years: The Springtime That Never Came, The Catholic Mass, and Christus Vincit. Which of these is your personal favorite? Which would you recommend to someone first?
AS: I would recommend Christus Vincit for those who want to have an overview of the current spiritual diseases within the Church and the secular society with an indication and verification at the same time of the roots of the diseases and providing some proposals for their cure and hopeful future for the Church. I would also recommend the book The Catholic Mass, where I tried to show the amazing theological, spiritual and ritual beauty of the Mass, particularly of the traditional Mass, and proposing the centrality of God with concrete steps to heal the deepest liturgical wound within the Church in our day, that is to say anthropocentrism. There will be no true reform of the Church unless the centrality of God will be restored in the liturgy. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wisely and aptly affirmed: “The Church’s existence lives from proper celebration of the liturgy and the Church is in danger when the primacy of God no longer appears in the liturgy nor consequently in life” (Foreword for the Russian edition of his book Theology of the Liturgy), and: “The Church stands or falls with the Liturgy. The celebration of the sacred liturgy is at the center of any renewal of the Church.” (“Reflections on the Liturgical Reform” in Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger, ed. Alcuin Reid [Farnborough: Saint Michael’s Abbey Press, 2003], p. 141).
Photo by Allison Girone.