Tradition tells us that as Saint Thomas Aquinas was approaching the end of his life, Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision and spoke to him from the cross, inquiring as to how he may reward the great Doctor for his contributions to the Church’s body of thought. “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you have?” According to a sacristan who witnessed the earthly half of the exchange, Saint Thomas answered simply, “Non nisi Te, Domine. Non nisi te.” — “Nothing but you, Lord. Nothing but you.”
To this day, I feel a stirring in my heart when I think about this favorite saint of mine, nearing his hour of death, being drawn ever closer to Our Lord, boldly telling Him that he desires nothing but to be with Him in eternity. I certainly want to give such an answer to my God in everything I do.
I love that our faith calls me not to mediocrity, but to greatness. That even a poor sinner like me is called to follow Jesus Christ radically, and to strive become a saint, is what motivated me to convert in the first place! And yet, the more I learn about the collapse in the life of the Church, the more I fear that my initial unreserved support of the universal call to holiness, particularly as espoused by Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, may have been misguided.
Despite my frequent criticism of Vatican II, the destruction of the traditional Latin Mass, and of many actions by the conciliar popes, this was one area where I didn’t see a problem. After all, there is no question that the Church has always taught that there is a universal call to holiness. We find this exhortation to perfection in Scripture itself, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, summed up in Matthew 5:48 — “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” — and the Church in her wisdom has always understood this teaching and transmitted it to her children. Three hundred years before Vatican II, Saint Francis de Sales published his famous “Introduction to the Devout Life,” specifically to instruct the Catholic laity in attaining perfection outside the clerical or religious state.
However, it is not always outright error that wreaks havoc in the human element of the Church. Often it is ambiguity, such as we find in documents like Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate in regard to religious liberty. Most often, however, it is a combination of both, cobbled together into an impious pseudo-Catholicism with the additional influence of internal and external trends. It’s a warped emphasis, a warped spirit, a warped theological and philosophical epoch.
After all, it is the synthesis of all heresies that got us here, and we cannot afford to the make the mistake of examining any event or popular idea in the life of the Church (and most especially recent history) in isolation, even if tying up the loose ends is complex.
In volume three of his masterful Liturgical Revolution trilogy, Pope Paul’s New Mass, Michael Davies dedicates an entire chapter to the destruction of popular Catholicism.
The thesis of the article [Davies is making reference to a 1977 piece in the National Review that examined the post-conciliar crisis from a purely sociological standpoint] was that pre-conciliar Catholicism gave a sense of identity to the ordinary believer, it answered the questions as to what he was. He was a Catholic. What did this mean? It meant that he heard Mass on Sunday; it meant that he didn’t eat meat on Fridays; that he went to confession; that he never went to Protestant services; that he was supposed to marry a Catholic and send his children to Catholic schools even if this meant financial sacrifice. To define Catholicism in this way would horrify the committed Catholic of the Conciliar Church. Theoretically the committed Catholic is right — the mark of a believer should be a desire to transform the world, to make the Kingdom of God present on earth. But Our Lord came to save sinners, and His Church is primarily a Church of sinners. It seems reasonable to surmise that a denomination consisting in the main of committed members could not possibly be the Church founded by Our Lord[.] … The Church of Christ must resemble the crowds who followed Him while He was on earth — few of them very committed, few really depraved — mostly content to follow Him, to listen to Him, but not wanting too many demands made upon them.
This idea of a populist, minimalist Catholicism is a difficult concept for me to swallow. I have a devotion to Saint Alphonsus Liguori — not because he comforts me, but because he convicts me. His writings are a stark reminder of the fewness of the saved and the narrowness of the gate. They fill me with a healthy fear of Hell, but I am also driven to love God more for His own sake when I meditate on His perfect mercy being impossible without his perfect justice. For me, imperfect contrition is always a stepping stone to attaining the goal of perfect contrition, and I struggle to understand those who are content to stop at step one.
An additional line, quoted from one Sir Arnold Lunn in the same Davies work cited above, gave me pause. Lunn contended that the primary goal of the Catholic Church was, and (presumably) should remain, “to get as many souls as possible into purgatory.” The wisdom of this seems clear to me — we are called to be perfect, but in God’s mercy and knowledge of our weakness, our perfection is not typically attained on Earth. Our Lord has given us a place of purification after we die. Hated by Protestants, spurned by the Eastern Orthodox, and ignored by the vast majority of Catholics today, it is in the flames of Purgatory where most of us — this writer almost certainly included — will truly “live out” the universal call to holiness.
In late January, on his way home from World Youth Day in Panama, Pope Francis made a telling statement in one of his infamous in-flight interviews. When asked why it is that he believes that so many young people are leaving the Church, he said, in part (emphasis mine):
There’s a lot! Some are personal, but most general. I believe that first, it is the lack of Christian witnesses, priests, bishops. I’m not saying that of the popes because that’s too much… but it is also! The lack of witness! … I emphasized pastors, but also Christians, the hypocritical Catholics, right? Hypocritical Catholics, you know? They go to mass every Sunday but they don’t pay a bonus and they pay you under the table, using people, then they go to the Caribbean on vacation all through the exploitation of people. “But I’m a Catholic, I go to mass every Sunday.” If you do that, you give a counter-witness. This, in my opinion, alienates people from the Church the most. Even the laity, all of them. But I would say: don’t say that you’re a Catholic if you don’t bear witness. Say ‘I am from a Catholic upbringing, but I’m lukewarm, I’m worldly, forgive me, don’t look at me as a model,’ this must be said. I’m afraid of Catholics like that, huh? That they believe themselves to be perfect!
This is the open, inclusionary, merciful, sheep-scented Church of Vatican II, brought to its logical fulfillment in the words of our supreme pontiff.
At a time when polls indicate that about 25% of Catholics are fulfilling Sunday obligation, when over 90% of Catholics have used or currently use contraception, and when over 50% of Catholics believe in the so-called woman’s right to choose — in other words, at a time when the vast majority of Catholics will die in a state of mortal sin and go to Hell (insofar as we can observe their actions in the external forum) — our pope is blaming the most likely venial sins of the minority who even bother to go to Mass every Sunday for the state of the Church. This would be shocking if it didn’t follow so perfectly from the logic of the new orientation of the post-conciliar Church.
Before the 1960s, the Catholic laity were fish-eating, veil wearing, rosary-clutching, statue-bowing, votive-lighting idiots who didn’t know how to participate in the Mass! We know better now. We’ve opened the windows to the world. We’ve smelled the sweet savor of the nouvelle théologie. We’ve crafted a New Mass for a New Man, a Mass he can understand and actively participate in in his own language, with his own modern customs, to his own individual taste.
This is a vital point: it is not only the traditionalists who are treated as the enemy. To attempt to simply be a Catholic, to stay in a state of grace, to spend time with their families, to abide by the precepts of the Church, to go to Mass, to say “memorized prayers” is not insufficient — it is an unacceptable way of being a member of the Body of Christ. These people are worthy of utter contempt and derision by those who have crafted a radically elitist Catholicism under the facade of inclusion and accompaniment.
These Catholics who refuse to subscribe to the warped modern vision of personal holiness and perfection (marked, presumably, by meditating on one’s hatred for national borders and air conditioning from the comfort of a prayer closet) cannot be tolerated. It is this messy and human flock whose scent Pope Francis and his confreres cannot bear to be tainted with.
They aren’t traditionalists, they don’t go to the Latin Mass, but that doesn’t matter. They are the populist wing of Catholicism, and they must be crushed, for it is the swaying of the uncommitted crowd that determines the success or failure of any revolution. These people fell to the whims of the revolutionaries at the time of the council, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they will stay there without a little bit of prodding.
They represent tradition in a way that “Catholic enthusiasts” like us cannot — they represent a time when Catholicism was a Church dedicated to saving as many souls as possible, even souls who would go on to spend a very long time in Purgatory.
As frightening as Saint Alphonsus Liguori can be to read, he still knew that all that is absolutely required for Heaven is to die in a state of grace. We need to start with the basics. We need to get our brothers and sisters to stop committing mortal sins, to go to Mass, to avail themselves of the sacraments. For so many of us, and I place myself first in blame, traditional Catholicism can become an ivory tower. We need to walk an impossible line, to be committed traditional Catholics who will not compromise on the truth while also making it clear that we are the voice of the everyman. We need to get as many people as we can to become Catholic, to stay Catholic, and to make it to Purgatory.
There is no shortcut to perfection in this life, and for many people mired in earthly concerns, a shortcut is the only acceptable path to bother treading. Mercifully, there is a long and thorny path to perfection in the next life — and maybe, just maybe, renewing popular Catholicism can get the populist masses over the threshold.
Stefanie Nicholas is an unexpected Catholic convert from a (very lapsed) Greek Orthodox background. The history of the Crusades played a positive role in her faith journey, and she believes firmly that the Rosary will save the world. Readers can connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @StefMNicholas.