“O how I have loved thy law, O Lord! It is my meditation all through the day. Through thy commandment thou hast made me wiser than my enemies: for it is always with me.” Psalm 119: 97-98.
From Evangelii Guadium, to his synod address, and everywhere in between, Pope Francis has returned again and again to the same theme: the scandal of doctrinal rigidity – a disposition of a certain species of Catholic who are, in the Holy Father’s own words, “too wrapped up in their in their perfect system of laws… They are the slaves of superficiality…the slaves of rigidity, they are not free. The Holy Spirit has no place in their lives.”
Upon hearing such unflinching candor, it’s hard to avoid a lingering feeling of indictment. Who, we wonder, is he talking about? It’s a question that’s difficult to answer with certainty, because while Pope Francis is known for his frankness, it is not his custom – at least in the context of formal addresses – to point fingers and name names. His rhetorical style is one which paints critical assessments in broad strokes, rather than with surgical precision.
Despite these ambiguities, it is not impossible to identify the modern-day Pharisees that Francis most likely has in mind. We need only look to his actions to find the clues. Among the list of apparent intolerables (i.e. those not sufficiently open to “the God of surprises”) it seems reasonable to include the Franciscans of the Immaculate, the embattled Cardinal Burke, the former Bishop of Cuidad del Este, the current Bishop of Albenga-Imperia, and now, potentially, even the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — the same prefect who allegedly had the audacity to call the interim Relatio – which Francis read and approved prior to its release – “undignified, shameful, completely wrong.”
Of course, in each of these scenarios, alternative explanations can always be supplied to justify the selective application of Peter’s crook. In a fallen world, where not one of us could long endure the scrutiny of judicious inquiry, the ideological commissars will never want for reasons why – especially those appointed by a pontificate so studied in the art of plausible deniability. But as the number of such cases mount, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the proverbial elephant in the room: namely, that Pope Francis has a penchant for disciplining Catholics of a decidedly traditional persuasion.
With the exception of Cardinal Müller, who as of this writing maintains his position, all of the other aforementioned offenders share a conspicuous affection for the Traditional Latin Mass and the concomitant disciplines that characterized Catholic life prior to the second Vatican Council. In light of this reality, it is becoming uncomfortably clear that the Holy Father has precisely these kind of Catholics in mind when he rails against “temptations” such as the so-called Pelegian Solution:
“This basically appears as a form of restorationism. In dealing with the Church’s problems, a purely disciplinary solution is sought, through the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful. In Latin America it is usually to be found in small groups, and some new religious congregations, in tendencies to doctrinal or disciplinary ‘safety’. Basically it is static, although it is capable of inversion, in a process of regression. It seeks to ‘recover’ the lost past.”
Now, for someone like myself who loves Cardinal Burke, who actually considered a vocation to the Franciscans of the Immaculate, and who thinks that Catholicism could do nothing better than recover its lost past, I remain willing to give the pope the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he’s doing all this in pursuit of what he believes to be the good of the Church.
Still, what is ironic about the idea that taking refuge in doctrine and discipline is somehow harmful to the Faith is the fact that those religions with the strongest growth and high rates of retention (i.e. Islam and Mormonism) also happen to be among the most disciplined and doctrinally uncompromised on earth. And to this point, we see the same prodigious results within the Amish faith, a Protestant sect characterized by nothing if not an intransigent fidelity to a manner of life that is dogmatically countercultural to the world around it.
While the sociological data certainly has a story to tell, it is perhaps more credible to simply rely on St. Paul, who states quite plainly that when it comes to building up the Church, no one harkens to an uncertain bugle. This isn’t a great mystery. When doubt is exalted over certainty, and a preference for “what we still need to learn” is contrasted over and against proclaiming “the certitude of what we know,” there begins to appear a certain confusion about the Faith. And confusion, as Archbishop Chaput recently reminded us, is of the devil.
Returning to St. Paul’s analogy, if we wish to understand the struggle at work within the Church today, we could do worse than consider the first battle depicted in the film Braveheart. The scene begins on the field of Stirling, where we watch as a ragtag band of leaderless Scottish peasants finds itself hopelessly out-manned and out-armed by a superior English force. Called out to fight by Lords who stand for little and offer less, the men quickly take stock of the situation, and conclude that this is no cause worth fighting for.
In the face of such circumstances, it is easy to imagine what would have happened had William Wallace decided not to deliver this stirring call to arms, but had instead offered some equivocating, carefully nuanced, and mealy-mouthed speech about how the Scots actually had a lot in common with the English, and could probably negotiate their freedom after a prolonged period of dialogue and inter-aristocratic hand-holding. The men would have certainly left in droves, probably laughing, to either forsake hope, or pray for a leader more interested in defeating their enemy than winning his approbation.
I can think of no better analogy to describe what happened to the Catholic faith in the wake of the second Vatican Council. Rather than forthrightly condemning the errors of the world, convicting the consciences of men, and calling them to the repentance and renewal that would save their souls, the Church instead got cozy with her enemy, compromised her teaching, and ultimately succeeded in convincing most everyone that none of it really mattered. (There’s no need to rehash it all here, but if you wish to revisit the long slow defeat in all its agonizing detail, this five-part series will take you on quite the tour.)
Since marriage is so much on the mind of the Church these days, it seems a fitting example to contrast the content of Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubii, with the Synod’s interim Relatio. (For those of you who just raised a hand in protest, yes, I understand that the final Relatio is not quite as disgraceful as its predecessor; but at the same time, neither am I willing to pretend that the interim document wasn’t part of a carefully orchestrated agenda intent on altering global perceptions about the Church – an agenda which has largely succeeded already.) I’m not going to quote the interim document again here; it’s done enough damage already. Instead, I present a sampling of the kind of clarity and self-confidence that we find in Casti Connubii.
On cohabitation :
“Indeed there are some who desire and insist that these practices be legitimized by law or, at least, excused by their general acceptance among the people. They do not seem even to suspect that these proposals partake of nothing of the modern ‘culture’ in which they glory so much, but are simply hateful abominations which beyond all question reduce our truly cultured nations to the barbarous standards of savage peoples.”
On contraception [54-55]:
“A deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious. Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.’”
On public officials :
“And if the public magistrates not only do not defend them [unborn children], but by their laws and ordinances betray them to death at the hands of doctors or of others, let them remember that God is the Judge and Avenger of innocent blood which cries from earth to Heaven.”
On indissolubility :
“Let that solemn pronouncement of the Council of Trent be recalled to mind in which, under the stigma of anathema, it condemned these errors: ‘If anyone should say that on account of heresy or the hardships of cohabitation or a deliberate abuse of one party by the other the marriage tie may be loosened, let him be anathema;’ and again: ‘If anyone should say that the Church errs in having taught or in teaching that, according to the teaching of the Gospel and the Apostles, the bond of marriage cannot be loosed because of the sin of adultery of either party; or that neither party, even though he be innocent, having given no cause for the sin of adultery, can contract another marriage during the lifetime of the other: let him be anathema.”
There. Don’t you feel better? So do I – at least until I recall that the Church would be too embarrassed to even mention, let alone publish this document today. Somehow she has become ashamed of her own voice. That’s a big problem. If the Church doesn’t take itself seriously, no one else will either.
All of this raises some difficult questions. Why do so many Catholic prelates appear oblivious to the reality that doctrine properly understood and adhered to is essential for a healthy Church? Further, why do some prelates seem not just oblivious to this truth, but actively opposed to it? Or as St. Vincent of Lerins put it:
“I cannot sufficiently wonder at the madness of certain men, at the impiety of their blinded understanding, at the lust of error, such that, not content with the rule of faith delivered once for all, and received from the times of old, they are everyday seeking one novelty after another, and are constantly longing to add, change, take away, in religion, as though the doctrine, ‘Let what has once for all been revealed suffice,’ were not a heavenly but an earthly rule”
Undoubtedly, the answers to this riddle are many and varied, but from a broader eschatological perspective, I think there are two primary and related factors at work. The first can be found in the most recent 1P5 Podcast. If you’ve not yet listened to episode nine, stop reading and queue it up; Ann Barnhardt and Steve Skojec do an excellent job unpacking the idea that the presence of wayward prelates in the Church is nearly always a sign that God is angry with his people and is punishing them accordingly – an idea that finds its origin in the writings of St. John Eudes:
“The most evident mark of God’s anger,, and the most terrible castigation He can inflict upon the world, is manifest when He permits His people to fall into the hands of a clergy who are more in name than in deed, priests who practice the cruelty of ravening wolves rather than the charity and affection of devoted shepherds. They abandon the things of God to devote themselves to the things of the world and, in their saintly calling of holiness, they spend their time in profane and worldly pursuits. When God permits such things, it is a very positive proof that He is thoroughly angry with His people and is visiting His most dreadful wrath upon them.”
By wrath, we need not envision only some extrinsic penalty brought on by the hand of a vengeful Father. Instead, as St. Augustine notes, the punishment brought on by sin is most often the sin itself in full flower; that is to say, punishment arrives at the point where God ceases to assuage the natural consequence of sin, and in so doing allows the sinner to experience the fullness of its destructive power. Is it uncomfortable? Absolutely. And that’s precisely the point: punishment supplies a grace all its own, a degree of discomfort so pronounced that souls, otherwise intent on perdition, are finally able recognize their need for repentance. Thus, in the end, God’s punishment is paradoxically a means of His mercy, such that when men become incapable of straightening their lives, the hammer of Divine Justice will strike to straighten it for them.
And in our case, the thing that seems most in need of straightening is the Church’s crooked and century-long entanglement with the forces of modernism. For too long she has been eager to capitulate to the world – to seek out and affirm those elements of sanctification and truth in the very institutions (and even behaviors) she once unequivocally condemned. As a result of this, it now appears that God – in order to bring his bride back to her senses – is allowing the Church to experience a greater measure of the suffering that comes from compromising her sacred mission. In short, having chased after novelty, she is now being punished with teachers intent on putting those novelties into practice; and while this remains an obvious danger to the faithful, by God’s providence, we may yet derive from it some spiritual benefit.
Which leads us back to St. Vincent and the second reason that God will, at times, visit his Church with wayward prelates. Drawing on Moses’ admonition in Deuteronomy 13, St. Vincent explains that
“Divine Providence sometimes permits certain doctors of the Church to preach new doctrines… ‘For the Lord, your God, tries you, to know whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.’”
I think there is some real wisdom here. Simply put, salvation is not for the faint of heart. It’s a difficult business, and when measured alongside Our Lord’s singular distaste for lukewarm souls, we can see, at once the vital necessity of trials in the Christian life. This a fact that ought to frighten us, especially in a society grown soft in the velvet embrace of modern luxury. More than ever, we need to recognize that unless some trial arrives to rekindle the ardor within, we too are going to perish. Which is precisely why Our Lord told us plainly: only those who persevere to the end will be saved.
If we are to follow the wisdom of the Saints, it appears that there are at least two providential purposes paradoxically at work behind the manifest confusion currently reigning in the Church. The first is to arouse the faithful from slumber; to begin sounding the alarm within the soul of every Catholic in the hope that we will finally awaken to the need to forsake our allegiances with the devil, the flesh, and the world, and to instead hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints.
The second is like it, for even as we experience a deep frustration with feckless shepherds and a longing for spiritual leadership, we may nevertheless find in the very midst of these trials the perfect opportunity to prove our love for God.
It is my hope that these exhortations will help to assure us that no matter how sick with sin and error the Church may become, we still have a Savior who uses all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.
It remains a scandal that many of those charged with proclaiming the truth of the Cross, by their failure to do so, have themselves become crosses for the faithful to bear. Yet through the mystery of our God who draws good from suffering and even the wickedness of men, we can still trust that it pleases Him to use even these shepherds as a means of our salvation.
Alongside his career in the insurance industry, Brian Miles is an avocational author of fiction, poetry, and the occasional essay. He received a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado and an MA in Divinity from the University of Chicago. He is a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism. He lives with his wife Elizabeth in Dallas, Texas.