I recently saw the movie Darkest Hour. It is the story of Winston Churchill’s first days as Britain’s prime minister, just nine months into the Second World War.
It is late May, 1940, and the Nazis have pushed into France, where the British, French, and Belgian forces have been trapped against the English Channel at Dunkirk. Churchill orders a garrison of British troops at a small nearby fort to fight a delaying action in order to allow as much time as possible for an evacuation of the hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers from the beach. When they have done all they could, the garrison is given the command “every man for himself,” freeing the soldiers from the necessity of obeying orders and allowing each man to survive as best as he can.
That’s where I am with my beloved Catholic Church. At age 72, I am in that small garrison that knows that the end is near. For us, there is no time to see how the mess that now engulfs the Catholic Church turns out. For Churchill and Great Britain, it all turned out well…five years later. But the soldiers in the sacrificial garrison never saw a sunrise in June. There was no help coming for them from Mother England.
I think of myself and people like me as “Bishop Sheen Catholics.” Over time, we have become the outpost. We know our faith. We know its doctrines, its dogmas, its morality, and its requirements. We are loyal. We are good soldiers. We follow orders. But we know when something is amiss. We know a contradiction when we see one. We hear the general giving ruinous orders and his lieutenants responding, “As you were.” Yet the general is not deterred.
For me, it started with Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge?” remark in 2013. I remember thinking, Wait a minute. When Christ created His first bishops and gave them the power to forgive sins, didn’t He say, “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained?” Doesn’t this imply, or even require, making a judgment? How can a pope be asking such a question?
Since then, there have been so many actions, pronouncements, appointments, dismissals, attacks, defenses, exposés, and ambiguities that the Bishop Sheen Catholics have reached what Steve Skojec calls “outrage fatigue.” Each new affront to our faith sets off waves of profound commentary by extraordinarily well educated and experienced experts. They give us careful analysis, all based on well grounded scholarship, arguments, and opinions. It is exhausting to keep up.
As an attorney, I persuade and am persuaded by evidence, logic, and argument. But it was two powerful and scandalous images from this papacy that pushed me to my Dunkirk. The first was the postage stamp that the Vatican issued on October 31, 2017 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the riforma protestante.
This stamp depicts the Crucifixion. At the foot of the cross is Martin Luther, holding a Bible, and his theologian friend, Philipp Melanchthon, holding the Augsburg Confession. The image is a copy of the scene found on the tympanum above the doors of All Saints Lutheran Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
That the Vatican should even wish to commemorate this event raises questions enough, but to replace the traditional figures of the Blessed Mother and St. John at the foot of the cross is outrageous. The unspoken message could not have been clearer.
The second image was the 2017 Nativity scene erected by the Vatican in St. Peter’s Square. Augmenting and overwhelming the figures of the Holy Family were figures that ostensibly represented the seven corporal works of mercy. Among those figures, one stood out: a robust young man with hipster stubble who had obviously spent considerable time in the weight room. He represented “clothing the naked.” But this figure was no pitiable wretch. Quite clearly, he wanted to be naked, and he darn near was.
Even if you didn’t know the actual sodomitical connections within this travesty, you knew in your gut that Christmas had been hijacked with the Vatican’s approval. The unspoken message could not have been more clear.
So go ahead, you theologians, canon lawyers, and bloggers: keep up the commentary. But this Bishop Sheen Catholic does not have the time to wait for a resolution of the current mess, for consensus as to how the faithful should respond, or for help from Holy Mother Church that will not come in my lifetime. For us, it’s every man for himself.
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I used to have a condescending view of Protestants, with their 50,000 different denominations and their personally tailored relationship with God. We Catholics, on the other hand, had the “fullness of truth,” a single, coherent theology, and an unerring pope. To be truly Catholic, it was necessary to accept all of it without reservation.
Comes now this papacy, bringing with it a Catholicism that Fulton Sheen would not recognize. If I reject this new Catholicism and cling to what I know to be the authentic Church founded by Jesus Christ, am I no better than one of those Protestants, who also reject Catholicism and adhere to a belief system more to their liking?
Of course I pray for the pope. But I cannot bring myself to pray for this pope’s intentions. Not that I know the man’s mind. But I have seen enough of the fruits of this tree to be wary of it. No more plenary indulgences for me, I guess.
Someday in the future, people will look back at the reign of Francis and understand what was going on. For those of us living in the here and now, however, especially those of us nearing the end of the journey, we must decide how to conduct ourselves based on the best available information. We must process this information using our own education; experience; and, yes, conscience, and act accordingly.
How do we continue to follow the general’s orders?
Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómini.
Raymond Kowalski is from Rochester, New York. He is a product of parochial elementary schools and The Aquinas Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University and a law degree from The George Washington University. After a forty-year career in communications law, he is retired and living with his wife in Gainesville, Virginia. They are the parents of three and grandparents of five.