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Finding Christ in Present Sufferings Does Not Mean Embracing Abuse, Error, or Deformation

I publish here three consecutive letters written to a seminarian, which may be of interest to other readers—especially other seminarians—who are wrestling with the challenges of their vocation at this time in the Church.

Letter 1

Dear Amator Dei,

I understand why you maintain that we should always “find Christ in the present,” in the mess (so to speak) of the very imperfect situation we are given, as opposed to seeking Him “in the past” (i.e., in some imaginary favorable or perfect moment from which we have declined) or “in the future” (in some as-yet-unrealized state in which the Church will be healed, reformed, traditional enough again for Christ to be sufficiently honored). As part of this argument you say that we are called to suffer the imperfections attendant on Catholicism as now lived, including a less than ideal liturgical life—putting up with and even rejoicing in the absence of what might be superior and yet is unavailable. This, you say, is part of carrying our cross, denying ourselves, and prioritizing love.

While I do think we are always called to make the best of any given situation, to maximize its potential for good, and to tolerate certain evils as graciously as we can (if we cannot eliminate them), I also think there are fundamental flaws behind your approach.

Suffering has become a central theme for you, and it is right to see it as central—but not, I believe, in the way you are seeing it. It is normal to suffer from the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is abnormal to suffer from the Church, although obviously it happens per accidens, as when churchmen are abusive. The fact that we will never avoid suffering should not be turned into a positive justification for abuses, mediocrity, ugliness, or repudiation of Tradition. It seems perverse to say that being deprived of the goods with which Christ has blessed His Church in her pilgrimage across the ages, and even being deprived of one’s legitimate rights according to canon law and divine law, is part of the suffering God wills for us, and that we should embrace it. Admittedly, He may and does allow such deprivations, but we would dishonor Him by making Him their principal author. Rather, He hates them even more than we should hate them.

We could also say, from a different angle, that it is normal (in a way) for Christ to suffer from His enemies, which would include all of us to the extent that we are not converted; but it is abnormal for the liturgy to be an instrument for treating Him badly. If your argument were correct, there would never be an objective basis for seeing anything as better than anything else, or more pleasing to God, or more sanctifying for the faithful. At that point, you would be parting ways with any recognizable form of Catholicism from any period of its history prior to Vatican II. Why do I say that? Because Catholics “of old” had very definite opinions about what was better, more pleasing, more sanctifying—and therefore, necessarily, to be sought and achieved wherever and whenever possible. You see this, for example, in Pius X’s defense of Gregorian chant as optimal sacred music, but examples could be multiplied endlessly.

Why did the Curé of Ars insist on beautifying his church with gold and silver? He should have left it alone, since (on your premises) it was God’s will that it should be mediocre, and the money could have been better spent on the poor (but actually, that’s not true either, since the sufferings of the poor are the way they are going to be invited to sanctity and sanctified). Whatever is is God’s will. Why would any man in the world seek to leave the world to enter religious life? The world is the cross he is supposed to bear. Why might a Dominican seek to join the Carthusians, that is, seek a still more perfect state of life, as is permitted by church canons? For he would then be exalting an imaginary future perfection over the present imperfection he is called to embrace. Why would any individual at all seek church reform at any moment in the history of the Church (think of the Cluniacs and the Cistercians)? It seems that all such steps would amount to resisting the present reality and the suffering it brings us.

All this, it seems to me, is “ecclesiastical quietism”: all circumstances and situations would be relative, equally opportunities for accepting God’s will and then suffering whatever He sends. In fact, one might see it almost as a kind of Buddhism: our realm here below, with its disputes over versus populum and ad orientem, vernacular or Latin, contemporary music or sacred music, etc., would be the realm of illusion, where the ignorant, full of desires, attach importance to that which is destined to non-being, while all along the eternal unity beneath all things beckons them to transcend illusion.

It looks to me as if you are suffering from a profound case of Stockholm syndrome, in the sense that you are exercising all of your intellectual muscles to find a justification for the current state of affairs in the Catholic Church — be it in the exercise of leadership, the liturgical status quo, or other flashpoints. You are trying to find a path by which you can consent to the current mess while quashing the qualms of your conscience that tells you “This is not right and ought to be changed.” It seems to me that you are engaged in an elaborate attempt to build a system that would exonerate the architects and engineers of the present crisis and blunt or even bury your healthy instincts.

It is one thing to say: certain evils can be tolerated for a time, as long as I seek a remedy for them and do not consent to them.[1] It is quite another thing to say there are no evils to be tolerated; everything is good if you have the right perspective — or, perhaps, the evils are so relative that we have no right to treat them as evils in need of a remedy; they would be, after all, God’s means of purifying us of false attachments to creatures.

This attitude, as I have said, would utterly preclude any church reform of any kind. Indeed, I think it is still more sinister than that. I think it is part of the logic that has driven and continues to drive the dark underworld glimpsed in (but far from exhausted by) the McCarrick scandal. Either the Church cannot harbor such evil, and therefore it must not exist; or if it appears to exist, we need to readjust our understanding of human nature and God so that it can be seen as something natural and normal. That is certainly what the secular world is doing, busily “knowing” good and evil, redefining it, as Adam and Eve once dared to do, at the cost of paradise; and many within the Church, having the secularist mind, are following suit, eliding good and evil and eluding the gaze of God as much as they can get away with it.

If you are prepared to object to clerical abuse, then I would ask: Is the liturgical abuse of Our Lord and of the faithful not as grave a fault? Might it not be, on the contrary, even more grave, inasmuch as it stems from and promotes indifference, disbelief, irreverence, sacrilege, toward the Holy One, Christ Himself? For St. Thomas, unbelief or infidelity is the worst sin of all. Have you read my book The Holy Bread of Eternal Life? That book, which takes a strong position on the sinfulness of our liturgical abuses against the Holy Eucharist and the need for a radical reform of our habits and practices, was endorsed by Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, Dan Burke, Michael O’Brien, Fr. Gerald Murray, Fr. David Meconi, Fr. Serafino Lanzetta, and Msgr. Charles Pope. You might not have heard of all of them, but you’ve surely heard of most of them. Are all of us really just altogether missing the most fundamental truth of the spiritual life, as your position about embracing “present suffering” would imply?

Yours in the risen Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewski

My correspondent replied that the saints embrace evils done to themselves, even if they strive to deflect evils from being done to others. Moreover, he said that one may seek to avoid evil for the sake of good, because something is just or required, but not for the sake of avoiding suffering; in fact, they sought suffering.

Letter 2 

Dear Amator Dei,

Yes, the saints are remarkable at allowing themselves to be injured or to suffer, and they even seek it out. But I do not think they do it at the cost of the honor (etc.) due to the Lord or His Mother or His saints. And that includes, for example, if a priest were commanded not to offer the old Mass, or not to privilege and preach Communion on the tongue (many examples could be given), where it might seem that it’s just about the priest himself, but it’s really about the whole body of the Church. We are relational beings, as you well know, and therefore some forms of personal injustice might contaminate others with injustice, and even detract from the exercise of the virtue of religion as the giving to God of what we owe to Him.

I, too, think that too many people try to run away from suffering. Still, it’s one thing to run away from suffering caused by our sins, our disordered concupiscence, our past mistakes, or the mistakes of others; and it’s another thing to want to run away from objective evils that cause subjective grief and recoil. I’m not able to go into this too much but I’m sure you understand what I mean. Some causes of suffering are also evils that deserve to be combatted, not in order to feel good, but in order to overcome those evils and to promote the good.

If these observations are true, it’s certainly possible that a saint would work for the reform of the liturgy (or any ecclesial reform) because he is responding to an injustice done to another (both God and neighbor) and because he is working for a justice that love demands. These saints would know that the more they work for the reform of the liturgy, the more they will suffer (they are under no false illusion that they will suffer less once the abuses are mitigated). If we are seeking God’s glory, He will ask us to suffer for Him, out of love. This will take a lot of forms, such as, e.g., delays, obstacles, setbacks, confusions, betrayals.

Most Catholics I know who are upset about bad liturgy are upset because they either feel or know that something is wrong; and that is what causes them suffering. It’s one thing to accept a liturgical abuse as a one-off blip, or as an accident, but quite another to make oneself a consenting party to a life of liturgical abuse, just because “it will sanctify me.” That would strike me as perverse.

Discernment of spirits: you are right, that is indeed the great challenge. My thinking on this, which is not authoritative by any means, is that we have to be careful about embracing simplistic solutions. There are dominating principles that we can never lose sight of, but there are not cookie-cutter answers, especially in an age of such anarchy and meltdown as the present one. Therefore, a solution such as the one I’ve seen proposed by many — namely, that we should simply “always obey our rulers,” even blindly, as the Jesuits say — strikes me as not only incorrect, but extraordinarily dangerous. And the view that we should always welcome whatever church leaders have given us and abide by it without any critical judgment or comparison to past practice (etc.), is no less problematic.

As I’m sure I’ve said to you before, I believe our time in the Church brings us to some vexing questions of conscience and priorities that have not existed in quite the same form at other times in history, and this is forcing a rethinking of some axioms that, while true enough generally, are showing their weaknesses now. This is particularly true in the area of ecclesiology, where some of the old “certainties” seem strangely inapplicable today.

Warm regards,

Dr. Kwasniewski

The correspondent replied in a way that seemed to suggest it would be wrong to be “attached” to anything created, including a liturgical rite or some customary practice or the dimension of aesthetics. Rather, with St John of the Cross, one should seek to be stripped of all attachments, to be indifferent to all things, and to accept whatever Providence gives. Or, at St Thérèse of Lisieux maintains, we should seek the roses only in the midst of the thorns, and the more thorns, the better.

Letter 3

Dear Amator Dei,

When I talk about Tradition and the traditonal liturgy, I fear you mistake me to be speaking about inessential “bells and whistles,” about matters of taste — the loftier equivalent of “I could have steak or shrimp, but I’m indifferent to either, and content with what they give me.” Or even: “I could have blueberries cooked in dog fat, or oysters on the half shell.” And when it comes to an elaborate gold chasuble vs. a worn-out polyester one, this perspective is okay; perhaps one can’t afford a better chasuble in a poor rural parish. In this way of thinking, we are dealing with objects: things that one can have or not have, take or not take. One should be indifferent toward and detached from objects in that way.

But when I talk about Tradition, I am referring to something that pertains to the subject(ivity) of the Church and the soul of the believer as a member thereof. In other words, not at the level of spirituality but at the level of ecclesiology; not having to do with ethics but having to do with epistemology and ontology; not concerning what it means to be holy but rather what it means to be Catholic. We should not be “detached,” for example, about embracing and cherishing the “received and approved” ancient liturgical rites, or about giving due honor to Our Lord and avoiding sacrilege; and why? Because these things are not mere indifferent objects or matters of personal taste, but subjectively part of the Church’s reality, part of what the word “Catholic” means.

My concern for you is that if you push your level of analysis too far, and you confuse these two orders, it plays right into the hands of the Modernists who want the Faith to be malleable to the will of the pope or the bishops or some synod. If everything were allowed to be reduced to the status of objects, like furniture that can be rearranged, then nothing need remain where or even what it was before. This applies not only to liturgy but even more so to doctrine: think Amoris Laetitia and the death penalty. The commandments and the records of the Faith are (on this view) nothing more than instruments, means, symbols, reference points, inspirations; they are not meant to be permanent and fixed, they should be changeable and disposable according to our changing perceptions of what will be useful to our spirituality or our “walk with God.” If a pope can change immemorial liturgical tradition (lex orandi), which already expresses the Church’s lex credendi and lex vivendi, why can’t he change the immemorial teaching itself, or lead the Church into a brave new morality?

What I maintain is that living in and from Catholic tradition is the normal condition of the Christian, intended by God, like water for a fish — and, until recently, always assumed by the Church as a wrap-around environment.

Every great heresy has been a revolt against Tradition. We can see this first in the Arians of the fourth century, and then in a much more developed way in the Protestants of the sixteenth. The response to such attacks was often slow, clumsy, and haphazard because it just took everyone by surprise that anyone would question “what we’ve always believed” or “the way things have always been done.” (Note how often Pope Francis rants against the notion of doing something “because it’s always been done that way.”) Sooner or later, in the midst of upheaval, it was necessary for someone to take pains to make explicit what Catholics already believed and did, and why. So, too, with the Modernists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: their new and more subtle errors brought forth a defense of elements of Tradition that had never been attacked or rejected before, and to that extent, had never needed defending.

Today’s traditionalists explain why it is abnormal to live apart from or in the absence of the fullness of the lex orandi, credendi, vivendi. It may be tolerable for a time; it may have to be tolerated for a time; but it remains abnormal. It is like a sickness in the body: it can be an instrument of our sanctification, but it is still an evil, and something we rightly seek to overcome by taking care of ourselves, using medicine, exercise, rest, and fresh air, etc. Similarly, no matter how spiritually perfect we are in detachment and indifference, we must not and cannot “bless” the abnormality that has invaded and permeated Catholicism after the Council. In that sense, each of us must work, according to our possibilities, for the restoration of Tradition. For some, the possibilities may be very limited; others will have a greater scope of activity. But none should be indifferent to a matter that pertains to the being, identity, vitality, and mission of the Church; none should be detached from the gifts Our Lord has given to His bride.

Remember me in your prayers, as I will remember you in mine.

Tuus in Domino,

Dr. Kwasniewski


[1] After all, Leo XIII says in Libertas Praestantissimum that a government may have to put up with certain evils for the sake of maintaining greater goods—but under no circumstances are the evils to be consented to, much less praised, and, as a matter of fact, the more evils there are, the worst the condition of the government. The goal should be the gradual, patient elimination of evils, by good laws, good education, and the support of religion.

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