“But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil.” – Mt. 5:37
Every parent knows the truth about setting an example. Children are perceptive. They’re wired for subtext. They don’t care about what you say nearly as much as what you do. If you say, “No chocolate cake before breakfast” and then reach for a slice the minute they leave the room, they know. They can smell chocolate from a mile away. They will come running from wherever they are, sniffing you out like zombies hunting for brains. Hiding in the bathroom with the fan on so you can eat the cake isn’t just kind of gross, it’s futile. They are on to your hypocrisy, and they are quickly forming the opinion that what you are doing is okay for them too. “As long as I don’t get caught,” they think, “I can have whatever I want. Even if it’s against the rules.”
Do as I say, not as I do, has never been a particularly fruitful parenting philosophy.
Let’s envision a slightly different scenario. Imagine a father who is at home with his children while his wife is away somewhere. He says to them, “Your mother says we can’t have chocolate cake before breakfast.” As he is speaking, he reveals the cake, then begins cutting slices, a conspiratorial look on his face. He begins arranging them on plates. “So you’re not allowed,” he says with a wry smile, handing them over to his giggling little ones, “to have chocolate cake before breakfast.” He passes out forks. “And if your mother asks, you can tell her I told you she said you’re not allowed to have chocolate cake before breakfast.”
The latter scenario, as amusing as it may seem at first glance, is more than just harmless mischief. The father acknowledges that the rules exist and he knows what they are, but then actively ignores them, and in so doing, undermines the authority of his children’s mother. He is telling the children implicitly by his actions that he doesn’t respect his wife or her wishes, and that they don’t need to do so either. He conveys to them that the rules are only for sticklers, and the real fun is to be had by breaking them.
It should be obvious where this will eventually lead.
The same thing holds true when it comes to the example of our spiritual fathers — priests, bishops, and most importantly, the pope. The refrain is often repeated in our public debates about the current direction of the Catholic Church: “The Holy Father hasn’t actually changed any doctrine.” And of course, this is so. But if the doctrines are left in tact and even reiterated from time to time, how much do these things benefit the faithful when they are circumvented by action and insinuation?
We have any number of examples, of which it will behoove us to name just a few:
- Francis’ harsh words about clerical sexual abusers have been noteworthy, and yet he has appointed and empowered men accused of such crimes.
- Francis makes occasional statements about the importance of traditional Catholic teaching on marriage, but he also empowered and praised (the then much-diminished) Cardinal Kasper, thrusting him back into the spotlight and allowing him to push communion for the divorced and remarried, even allowing him to do so in the pope’s name; he stacked the Synod with unorthodox prelates; he personally approved of and maintained the most controversial language in the Synod documents; he publicly scolded the Synod fathers who tried to maintain the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality; and he even called into question the Catholic teaching on contraception.
- Francis says we must “evangelize” but has notably told others of his disinterest in converting them — even going so far as to discourage Anglican bishop Tony Palmer from conversion to Catholicism when he expressed interest in doing so. (Palmer later died in a motorcycle accident, never having crossed the Tiber.) And then there is this testimony from two American Protestant leaders who met with Francis in Rome:
- Related to the previous point, the pope’s prayer intentions for January, 2016, were shared in a video that strongly implies the idea that all religions are essentially equivalent, and none is superior to another:
- Francis has also strongly insinuated that Lutherans may receive Holy Communion if they search their conscience and pray about it. “Talk to the Lord and then go forward,” he told them. “I don’t dare to say anything more.” Last week, a group of Lutherans in Rome did exactly that, citing his words as the precedent-setting moment.
- He also met, smiling broadly in a very public photo op, with a female Finnish Lutheran bishop known for her support of same-sex marriage, and yet not a word of fraternal correction reached the press. The implication was clear: “I don’t have a problem with what this person is doing, which is why I’m perfectly fine being photographed with her in public.”
- Yesterday, it was announced that the Holy Father will go to Sweden in October “for a joint ecumenical commemoration of the start of the Reformation, together with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation and representatives of other Christian Churches” that will “include a common worship service in Lund cathedral based on a Catholic-Lutheran ‘Common Prayer’.” This despite long-standing prohibitions against such activities, perhaps best encapsulated by the encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Mortalium Animos, in which he said
…it is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ. Shall We suffer, what would indeed be iniquitous, the truth, and a truth divinely revealed, to be made a subject for compromise?
These words and actions, insinuations and images, and yes, even the refusal to use his authority to prohibit or forbid things which must not be allowed, all have an effect exactly like that of the father who gives his children cake for breakfast while parroting the rules laid down by their mother. In fact, I received a message from a reader this morning — a message which included a letter the reader had just written to Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In it, he wrote (with my emphasis):
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! I thank God for your faithful service to the Church. I have derived much joy and comfort from your writings, especially your most recent book, “God or Nothing.”
In your role as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, I wanted to share with you a recent personal experience which I believe provides witness to the immense confusion we are now experiencing in the Catholic Church.
Let me begin with a bit of background. I was raised in the Lutheran faith, but converted to Catholicism about 30 years ago. About that same time, my Lutheran parents divorced. Several years later, my mother remarried a Catholic man, but never converted to Catholicism.
My stepfather was a very faithful man. He treated my mother well. He loved the Eucharist and volunteered regularly as a Eucharistic minister at his parish.
Two weeks ago, my stepfather passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. My family traveled out-of-state to attend his funeral. Much to my surprise, my mother was encouraged to participate in Holy Communion at the funeral Mass, despite the fact she was still Lutheran.
I later learned a priest provided her with several articles in advance of the funeral, making the case for her receiving the Holy Eucharist. I believe one article quoted Pope Francis’ recent response when he was asked about Lutheran reception of Holy Communion. The second was a story about several Lutheran bishops who had recently received Holy Communion during their visit to the Vatican.
I realize Church teaching has not changed on this matter. However, it grieved me greatly to witness my own mother participating in sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion at the prompting of a Catholic priest.
My wife and I have three teenage children. We have worked diligently to raise these children in the Catholic faith. After the funeral, our children asked about their grandmother’s receipt of the Holy Eucharist, wondering if Church teaching had changed its teaching. It saddened me to have to explain to that Church teaching had not changed and that their grandmother had been falsely advised to receive Communion.
I have informed the diocese where the funeral occurred of the situation. I bring this matter to your attention simply to underscore how the seeds of confusion being sown by some Church leaders are leading people into sin.
Again and again, we see it borne out: the absurdity of the idea that because nothing has been explicitly contradicted, asserted, or changed, everything that is transpiring is within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.
If that makes sense to you, go right ahead and keep believing it. For the rest of us, there’s reality to contend with.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.