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No More Platitudes: It’s Time to Take a Hard Look at the Crisis of Catholicism

A few years ago, my wife looked at me, after one of my rants about how bad things were getting in the Church, and asked me a simple question: “If this makes you so miserable, why are you still doing it?”

I understood her question to be about my work, in particular, but also about my fight for Catholicism against seemingly overwhelming odds. It was, truthfully, incredibly frustrating. And yet I immersed myself in it again and again, day after day. Don Quixote on his trusty Rocinante, heading into battle against an army of towering foes.

The truth was, I didn’t have an answer for her at first. In fact, it took me a few days before I thought I knew. I came back to her, and I did my best to explain it:

“I think,” I said, “It’s because my Catholicism is my entire identity. It’s all I’ve ever known, or been known for. I’ve been actively involved in the Church and defending the faith since I was a kid. And if the people in charge of the Church right now are right, if their side wins, it means it was all for nothing. It means the Church is a lie. And if that’s the case, I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

“Really,” I concluded, “I’m not just fighting for the Church. I’m fighting for my own survival.”

This is a question that has haunted and plagued me ever since: what if they are right? What if I’ve spent my whole life defending something that isn’t even real? Something totally changeable, and not timeless in its truth?

There are times when it really gets to me. There are others when old habits take over, and swatting down heterodoxy and promoting the true faith are as effortless and familiar as riding a bike.

But more and more lately, I’m feeling very restless. The question comes back to bother me more than I’d like to admit. I don’t like feeling guilty about asking questions I’m being forced to consider, as though that makes me the bad Catholic, and not the people doing this stuff. The surreality of the events of 2020 have only seemed to warp the fabric of what is known even more. There’s a profound sense, as my friend Kale Zelden wrote recently, that things are very broken, and that we desperately need to figure out how to make sense of the world again.

Here’s a snippet of Kale, right at the heart of the matter:

I was told amongst my tribe of conservative and traditional Catholics that “holy mother Church” is true, and in fact contains the fullness of truth.

I still actually believe that.

Yet, I have to confess further: it doesn’t feel all that true these last few years. In fact, it feels really broken and senseless. Confused and confusing, really.

As Catholics, we have a dogmatic and doctrinal framework around us that has an incredibly high tensile strength. We are constantly reminded that it will not, and cannot break.

So what are we supposed to do when the entire edifice it contains seems to be crumbling beneath its grasp? How do we avoid becoming entrapped or entangled in the cage of teachings, rules, and traditions as we seek the safety of solid ground?

I’ve been watching a bunch of videos from Jordan Peterson lately. If you don’t know who he is, we’ll be taking a deeper look at him in the near future, but suffice it to say that he is a clinical psychologist and fascinating thinker who has captured the minds of a generation seeking meaning without necessarily wanting to sign up for religion just yet. I don’t know what religion, if any, Peterson practices – I’ve read he’s quite evasive on the question – but he is a man deeply sympathetic to and appreciative of the Christian tradition.

When I watch him work through an intellectual problem, I’m not just struck by his passion for pursuing the truth, I’m actually moved by it. I found myself unexpectedly tearing up today watching him talk about the importance of art, and how it opens a door to the transcendent. He has this way of going after the essence of a thing like he is man dying of thirst in the desert, and he will let nothing stand in the way of getting to it.

I was also really impressed recently, when I listened to the first of his series of lectures on the Bible, with just how uninhibited he is when he tries to unpack the meaning of these stories, and the archetypes contained within them, and tries to contextualize the sense of this totally unprecedented thing, this set of stories around a coherent theme that is the bible, and the inexplicable but profoundly evident reality of human religious experience. Now mind you, he is coming at these topics as a scientist, a believer in evolutionary biology and psychology, a student of history, but most of all, a man absolutely fascinated by and in love with The Real. And although he is not a Catholic, when he talks about Catholic things, he awakens something in me — a fire I can’t explain — that no sermon I’ve ever heard has prompted.

And so, as I listened to him speak, accepting at the outset that his beliefs were unlike my own, I was able to disregard the filters I would apply to a Catholic speaker and simply watch him work. I was unconcerned if he stepped on the toes of this or that dogma, or whether he gave credence to a scientific theory a Christian would be scolded for. As though I were a time traveler who landed at the feet of Aristotle, I merely wanted to marvel at the beauty of the conceptual outlines he was weaving as he peeled back layer after layer of meaning. I did not need him to reassure me he was a man of Christ; it was enough that he was a man who cared about getting it right and wasn’t going to pander or lie to me.

And then the mirror flipped, and I realized that I have never felt so free. That even though I started 1P5 so that I could say the things that needed to be said that were considered taboo, I am nevertheless still trapped within that adamantine framework of the Church. Consequently, whenever I write about a difficult topic, or fire off a tweet, or speak into a microphone for a podcast, I can count on an army of amateur theology-checkers and censors to ferret out my mistakes (of which there are no doubt many) like some Monty Python-esque version of the online inquisition, looking to correct or prove me wrong, or perhaps even to humiliate me in articles and posts without ever addressing me at all — me, the person, the fellow brother in Christ — all because I colored outside the lines.

I cannot overstate how inhibiting that awareness is to authentic curiosity, or problem solving. I can’t tell you how much it feels like a cage, when all you want to do is hash things out, deconstruct the concepts, get your hands dirty, and figure out what makes it all tick.

The freedom to make mistakes, to sincerely get things wrong, and to keep digging is what we need right now. More than ever. We don’t need our intellectual hands and feet to be tied, or to get zapped with a cattle prod every time we step out of bounds. Because what we’re dealing with is way too important to simply gloss over. In a way, we need to do what Pope Francis says, and make a bit of a mess.

What do we do when time and again, we are confronted with the unthinkable? What happens when the pope himself — THE POPE HIMSELF — says contraception is OK, or approves Holy Communion for people living in adultery, or changes the Catechism in a way that reverses the Church’s infallible bi-millenial teaching on the moral liceity of the death penalty (in a way that opens the door to reversing everything else), or signs an interfaith document that undermines the exclusivity of salvation through the Church? What do we think when we hear again and again through one of the pope’s most trusted confidants that he thinks hell doesn’t actually exist, and that the souls of the unrighteous are merely annihilated? What about when he says the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 wasn’t really a miracle – wasn’t “magic” – but just some act of sharing? What about when he says of the Blessed Mother that she wanted to accuse God of lying to her? Or that Jesus actually “became sin“? What of a hundred or a thousand other troubling things?

What are we to think when we recognize that his immediate predecessors did some similar things, even if they did them less openly or egregiously? What do we make of the idea that Paul VI, who ushered in the single most destructive period in the internal life of the Church in history, who smashed to pieces the liturgy of the Roman Rite and replaced it with some cheap imitation, and drove countless multitudes of Catholics straight out of the Church with his novelties, is a saint?

What do we do when we’re told that despite our profound misgivings about this, tough luck, his canonization is infallible?

What are we to think of all of the bishops who are not just spineless, but actively opposed to the living of the true faith? What of the selling of their offices for government money, their embrace of immoral politicians and policies, and their spiritual abuse of priests and faithful who desire only to live out orthodoxy?

What of the wanton sexual abuse that has run rampant through the clergy, in part because of the even more wanton homosexuality that has been welcomed in? What of the unrepentant coverup of abusive clergy, that goes all the way to Rome? What of a clergy that preys upon and perpetuates the misery of those who are confused about their sexuality and come looking to the Church for aid and solace?

What of the endless scandals at every level of the Church on earth, both theological and moral? The sermons that range from mediocre to malicious, the financial malfeasance on a mass scale, the cronyism, the religious indifference, the elevation of ecology over the eschaton, the praising of intrinsically evil ideologies like Communism or the welcoming without any request for repentance of those who advocate for intrinsic evils to use the Church as a platform to spread their ideas? What of the never-ending sacrilege, or the rapid and merciless punishment of faithful priests who speak out, but the complete neglect of discipline for those who spread every error and evil under the sun?

This list feels too long already, and yet I know that it isn’t long enough. Many of you, having just gone through it, are no doubt thinking of more that I could have mentioned.

Are we supposed to console ourselves with platitudes? Do we simply repeat the phrase, “The gates of hell will not prevail” until our brains fall out? Do we still, even though we strongly disagree with their decisions, feel that we have the moral high ground to cast aspersions on those who have left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, or who have thrown up their hands and walked away from it altogether? Do we really lack empathy and compassion for these souls even now? Do we merely dismiss them as traitors and deserters?

This is not the time for triumphalism. But neither is it the time for sedevacantism and its associated errors, which essentially take as a basis that the Church as we know it has defected, and so the only way out of the mess is for us to imagine some gnostic version of a hidden, true Church that is completely pure – but only by immediately casting out any pope or prelate who might taint it by association. A Church like this, one that can really only exist in our imaginations, and not in a real, living hierarchy, with real apostolic succession and an unbroken line of successors to St. Peter, isn’t worth a damn. And I do mean that somewhat literally, since it’s a dead end road that is at the very least schismatic – in the real, full throated sense of the term.

It’s the wrong answer, even if I’m sympathetic to the reason people wind up there.

I was born in 1977. As I stand here at mid life, the oldest of six children, the father of seven of my own, and now a grandfather to one, I must be honest enough to admit that I have never for one moment in my life seen a healthy Catholic Church.

I must admit that I no longer even know how to evangelize with confidence, because I don’t know why, outside of a triumph of grace, anyone would want to become a Catholic today, or what kind of madness I’d be sending a new convert into. I wouldn’t even know, if recent revelations both here and elsewhere are any indication, if they’d be validly baptized. Humanly speaking, I can see no reason a person would seek to cross the Tiber these days.

Those of my generation have never seen a Church not at war with herself. Never known a Church where there were not two competing sets of doctrines, two fundamentally incompatible liturgies in her central rite, two entirely different sets of sacraments, two completely disparate versions of a thing we’re told is characterized by unity, of all things, as one its four distinguishing marks.

No amount of preference for one way of doing things or another is going to make the dichotomy go away. No amount of fence-straddling the pre and post-conciliar worlds will make either one feel like it’s really part of the same religion. No amount of wishcasting will make the hermeneutic of continuity believable. I have spent approximately half of my life on each side of the fence, and although I can tell you which one I think is better for the life of the soul, neither is without significant limitations and drawbacks.

But they are certainly not equal, and the Church throws all her weight behind the inferior things. It’s as if she wants us to lose our faith.

So now, as the Church faces inevitable post-covid demographic collapse, those of us who are left on either side of this artificial and carefully-designed divide need to find a way to work together. We will be, before long, all that is left.

And we need to find a way to answer, or at least live with, the questions that my litany of observations above prompt in our minds with utmost urgency.

We are obligated, I think, to ask hard questions. Questions, even, that we’ve been told that we are not allowed to ask.

Here are a couple: “Does infallibility mean what we think it means? Is it really a valid safeguard if it does not stop the kind of things this pope is doing?” This intertwined pair echoes through my mind as I watch the madness unfold, loud as the bells of St. Peter’s – and questions about indefectibility go right along with them.

There are other questions, too, but these are central. The problem with being Catholic is that to question one fundamental teaching is to question them all. And so, I risk being Catholic Canceled for even uttering such a thing.

I have been chastised for asking questions like these even obliquely in the past — once, I was even reminded in no uncertain terms that I may be damned for doing so — but I can no more quiet these unbidden inquiries than I can make the sun rise or set through sheer force of will. How honest can I be if I do not seek the answers?

We are afraid to ask things like these, no matter how much what is going on right before our eyes suggest them to us, because we have been told, as an article of faith, that we are not allowed to do so. I have carried this prohibition within me my entire life. I have chastised myself with the response that I must not question.

But my musts are all in conflict. The damned questions must be asked. The propositions must be examined. For if the Church is what she claims to be and her doctrines are true, they can bear any scrutiny we throw at them. It’s not for her sake, but for ours, that we seek to understand how to make sense of what appears to be contradictory.

If the Church is what she claims to be and her doctrines are true, we can only come to understand them better and more completely by scrutinizing them rather than insisting on taking them for granted while we choke on cognitive dissonance.

If the Church is what she claims to be and her doctrines are true, then there is an explanation for all that is happening that we just can’t see quite yet. 

Some of us simply have an abundance of faith. For those with such a profound gift, questions such as these don’t pose so much as a temptation.

For others, like me, faith is a gift given in much less abundance than we would like. For those of this disposition, there is a need to understand the thing we cannot yet grasp. I can’t live with the suggestion — one I’ve actually received, including from a priest — that I should just try not to think about any of this. How can I take this advice, while each day that passes reinforces my profound conviction that what is going on in the Church is deeply, deeply incongruous with what I have always believed?

The twist that has come with the challenges and upheavals the world has faced in 2020 is that Francis and his agenda of devastation under the guise of reform have become less and less significant in our minds as Catholics move to confront real battles much closer to home.

But this pope was never the soul of the thing that has infected the Church. He was only its most potent embodiment. The battle we face over Catholicism is existential. There is a deeper, more ancient evil at work here, and I think that deep down, most of us know it.

We also know that it is not a battle we can actually win. It’s a battle we are mostly powerless to fight at all. The most we can do is pray that God will offer us the mercy of decisive victory. But we know that He moves in His own time, not ours, and only He has the power to defeat such dragons.

And so we sit, wracked with an overpowering sense of urgency, and wait.

This is why, I believe, there is such an escalation in tribal posturing right now, at least within the community of very online Catholics with whom we often find ourselves in discussion. People complaining about infighting among our own should recognize that there is an absolute vacuum of leadership in the Church, and we can do nothing about the corruption in the heart of Catholicism in this vail of tears. So instead, we wind up charging in to fill the gaps, carving out little ideological fiefdoms within the faith, complete with purity tests for prospective members, and we engage in skirmishes over minutiae because it’s something we feel as though we can actually control. All of this is, I think, a manifestation of our helplessness. (It does not actually help.)

We can’t unite, because we have no true leader. We have a common enemy, but not a common cause. And we do not have a unified vision of what the Church on Earth should look like, even if we could wave a magic wand and make it so. The fact that Archbishop Vigano has brought half-century old critiques of Vatican II back to the forefront of Catholic debate, with no resolution in sight, should be evidence enough of this. We have so few truly good bishops in the world, and yet even they can’t agree on this.

It is my conviction that right now, we need to put a premium on broadening the tent and even, where appropriate, lowering the bar for entry. We must bridge the gap wherever possible between the old Church and the new. As carefully as we are able, we should be hammering away at the questions that demand answers. Though circumstances vary, we should strive to persuade more than to admonish, because many are finding their faith in a very fragile state right now, and they don’t need an extra push towards the door. We should absolutely promote those practices within the faith we believe are most efficacious, but have the patience not to demand that others do as we do. We can offer our best positions for consideration, then step back, letting folks know we’re there to help if they want it. It’s a deeply troubling situation, and anywhere we can offer positive, constructive approaches that make people feel they have a safe haven among us is going to help.

And we should remember to do what is perhaps the most seemingly obvious thing, but one which is so easy to forget: ask God, every day, to bring resolution to this mess, and in the interim, to strengthen our faith and help us to find hope, and understanding.

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