Haines on the Ladaria CDF Appointment

Wading into the politics of the Church of Rome doesn’t interest me these days even if my “Uniate” self must recognize that decisions emanating from the Vatican will invariably have ripple effects felt by Greco-Catholics as well. The appointment of Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer to head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) leaves me underwhelmed, not because he’s likely to take any revolutionary action, but because he will do nothing to ameliorate the ongoing doctrinal confusion in the Church. And for that reason (among others), I find Andrew Haines’s enthusiasm for the appointment over at Ethika Politika misplaced. While I understand why Haines might be happy that his former professor is moving up in the world, statements such as the following are both perplexing and troubling.

No matter the reaction we see, it’s important to remember that all members of the Roman Curia serve at the pope’s pleasure. He is not bound in justice to renew any of their terms. Any ire or upset directed at the Holy Father is unfounded in this regard.

Of course Pope Francis is not “bound in justice” to do much of anything vis-à-vis the Roman Curia, but just because he can institute a removal-and-replacement for this-or-that position doesn’t mean he should. Francis, for example, could place a hardcore Latin chauvinist at the head of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, one who has zero respect for the rites, theology, and spirituality of the Eastern churches, but should he (or any pope for that matter)? Would Haines wag his finger at Eastern Catholics who openly criticize such an appointment or would he tell them to be silent, fall in line, and accept such a disastrous appointment with a smile? If so, that smacks of some of the worst neo-ultramontanism available today.

My suspicion is that Haines would not go that far if the appointment concerned anything other than the head of the CDF. Haines, an open supporter of Amoris Laetitia (“watershed in the life of the Church”) and Francis’s “broad and substantial capacity for spiritual discernment,” knows that Ladaria will stay the course of this pontificate: more discernment, less doctrine. Clearly this worries conservative and traditional Catholics who have seen a substantial expansion in subjective approaches to Church teaching in recent years, up to and including local bishops’ conferences opening the door for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion while others struggle to maintain the Church’s longstanding discipline. Perhaps, given Haines’s dismissive tone, he has no concern that the catholicity of the Church is under fire.

As for the rest of Haines’s remarks on the appointment, they’re a mixed bag. Haines praises Ladaria’s theological works on the Holy Trinity without seeming to recognize that the Fourth Century has passed; Trinitarianism is not under fire. (Of course, a lack of sound catechesis on Trinitarian doctrine, not to mention Christology, is certainly one of innumerable ongoing problems in the Church today.) At this juncture in history, it is the Church’s moral teachings that are assaulted at every turn by both the secular world and within the Church herself. Discernment, thus far at least, has opened the door for doctrinal relativism. Is this a development Haines supports?

At the end of the day, it would behoove Haines and other supporters of Ladaria’s appointment to make perfectly clear why they are rejoicing over it. Certainly it is not because they believe Ladaria will correct confusion in the Church or try, as best they can, to move matters back to the status quo ante Vatican II. So where goes the Church now? What does the “Church of discernment” look like in concrete terms and how does Ladaria assist in this transition which many of the faithful worldwide find not only unsettling, but deeply damaging as well?

Looking for Antiques Near Sedevacantists

I am not a professional antique hunter; in fact, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it entails other than walking into stores, looking around, and waiting for something to catch my eye. More often than not, this results in a series of failed endeavors where some anxious owner of a small town shop puts his hopes of making a sale on me and I inevitably disappoint. If more of these enterprises sold bottled water or cigarettes, I would at least provide them a courtesy purchase. Instead, I typically find myself hoping another customer enters the premises so I can bolt for the door, walk briskly down the sidewalk to the car, and never look back. Similar scenarios involving yours truly have been played out at used booksellers, record stores, and comic book shops across the land.

Today’s tale, which went down with nothing in the way of either a successful purchase or the need to make a hasty exit (the shop owner paid me no mind), took place in the two-star town of Middleville, Michigan, a 30-minute drive south of Grand Rapids surrounded by farms, bars, and gas stations. The downtown area has benefitted from a bit of investment in recent years, though it’s nothing to write home about. Approximately 500 feet from the business district, on good old Main St., sits an old Protestant church building with a weatherworn sign out front reading: “Most Holy Rosary Church – Catholic Latin Mass – Sunday 6pm.”

Knowing immediately that this was no diocesan church, I repaired to my phone and after a bit of searching confirmed my suspicions that it was a sedevacantist chapel—one that happens to be run by the CMRI (Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen). Other than the American flag flying distastefully over the structure, there was nothing especially remarkable about it. I couldn’t see in the windows; but at least lightning didn’t strike me down as I walked around the property wondering if its ever visited outside the normal operating hours. Truth be told, I had hoped the front doors would fly open, with either a cleric or—more likely—sacristan there to inquire about my business. In the few minutes I was nosing about, I had even come up with a few form answers, my hope being to engage a real-life sedevacantist in everyday chitchat. Realizing that was not coming to pass, I hitched my horses to the wagon and moved down the road.

West Michigan, as most should know, is a deeply conservative region of the Midwest. Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America have their headquarters here, and for decades Grand Rapids and Holland were dominated by a Dutch Calvinist ethos. While that ethos has retracted in recent years, particularly in Grand Rapids, the area remains a conservative hub with neoconservatives, Tea Partiers, and old-guard movement conservatives uneasily occupying the political landscape together, self-assured that the political Left will never amount to anything more than a blip on the radar. Grand Rapids’s Easttown neighborhood may fly rainbow flags and boast lawns littered with anti-Trump and “Black Lives Matter” signs, but the ideologies they represent will never be politically relevant.

Catholicism in the region is, at best, a mixed bag. The “spirit of Vatican II” hit the diocese of Grand Rapids like a hurricane, leveling orthodoxy, liturgy, and good taste without compunction. The surrounding dioceses didn’t fare much better. Today, only a couple of “official” safe havens remain for those with a conservative-to-traditional sensibility. And so it came as little surprise that sedevacantists have set-up shop on the distant outskirts of the distant outskirts of town, though without much self-promotion or fanfare. Apparently to be with the sedevacantists requires special election, not advertising; a certain form of degraded Calvinism, as usual, gets the last say around these parts.

Had I come across one of the sede faithful who attend Most Holy Rosary, what might have happened? What would have offended them more? That I recognize Francis as the Pope of Rome or that I am a Greco-Catholic? Maybe they would have gone on to me about the horrors of married priests, the failure of “Uniates” to become “full Catholics” by adopting the Roman Rite, or the use of the vernacular in a large swathe of Eastern Catholic worship. Perhaps they would have thought of me as an “Eastern Orthodox schismatic.” On the other hand, maybe they would have been courteous, hospitable, and inviting. Could it be that they would have looked into the eyes of this poor sinner and felt a genuinely (albeit misplaced) longing to save my soul, to bring me closer to Christ, not for their own glory but the greater glory of God? I have met a Calvinist or two with similar hopes for my soul; it’s still possible I’ll come across a sedevacantist who wants the best for me, too.

Unfair to Dreher?

Recently, over at that great forum of learned and calm disputation known as Facebook, my friend Conor Dugan posted a link to his recent review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for Catholic World Report. Although I disagree with some of Dugan’s comments on the book, I am not interested in critiquing it. In response to Dugan’s post, Dreher himself wrote the following: “I do not mind at all constructive criticism, or any kind of criticism, as long as it challenges what I actually wrote in the book. But so many of these reviews don’t even do that. It’s bizarre. I wonder why that is?” This prompted me to write the following reply (to which I expect no answer to):

Because, in all fairness, much of what you wrote is derivative and seems divorced from the intellectual moorings you wanted it to have. Also keep in mind that no matter how much time goes on, people won’t forget the manner in which you left the Catholic Church; besmirched the Catholic Church for years in your writings; and yet repair to Catholicism whenever you need to add some heft to your positions (heft which you apparently cannot find from the Orthodox).

As I have noted elsewhere, people have been doing what you are now marketing for years—decades even. It’s not new. It doesn’t require a catchy title. And unlike what you are proposing, these folks—particularly traditional Catholic communities such as the one found in St. Mary’s, Kansas — aren’t backing down or retreating from the world. They are working — to quote St. Pius X’s motto—”to restore all things in Christ.” There is very little of that restorationist spirit in your book.

Please understand that I am saying this in all honesty and charity. While I would agree that some criticisms of your book have been uncharitable, I think in your understandable desire to defend yourself, you are overlooking some of the “meta” issues surrounding your work.

Although an argument could be made that Dreher’s confessional leanings should not affect the reception of his work, the truth of the matter is that he does strike a lot of people, particularly Catholics, as an opportunist who leans heavily on the Catholic tradition (or, at least, his own interpretation of it) while simultaneously rejecting the Church which gave birth to it. Moreover, Dreher appears to be insensitive to the fact that there are those in the West—including Catholics—who oppose Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church not out of some naïve love for secular liberalism but because of Russia’s longstanding and ongoing history of aggression toward the Catholic Church.

For instance, Dreher is quick to defend Russia from its Western critics, but fails to take note of Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and east Ukraine, including backing the persecution of Greek Catholics in the region. While Dreher recently opined that he “bristle[s]… at restrictions on religious liberty in Russia, in particular on the freedom of minority forms of Christianity,” he quickly writes this off as little more than an expression of his “Westernized view of how religion relates to society.” Now that Dreher is apparently cognizant of this, does that mean he now realizes that his “Westernized view” is wrong and that, as an Orthodox Christian, he should adopt the “Russian view”? That’s all fine and well if he does, but he should realize that by aligning with the ideology of the Russian state and its vassal church, Dreher places himself directly at odds with Catholicism—the very thing he needs above all else to advance his idea (or career).

There is more. As already noted above and elsewhere on this web-log, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” brand has been chided as derivative, incomplete, and retreatist. There are Catholic communities all over the world which have been living out what Dreher calls the “Benedict Option” for decades, and none of them saw fit to promote themselves through blogs, TV appearances, and book deals. They are simply working and living as they are supposed to be—in accordance with the timeless principles of the Catholic Church. And even those who find it impossible to relocate to an intentional Catholic community still find it possible to practice their faith without succumbing to the machinations of secular liberalism. And so it shouldn’t be difficult to see why Catholics might be put off that Dreher—an unapologetic rejecter of Catholicism—is hijacking their way of life in order to fill his bank account.

While some lines of criticism against The Benedict Option book do miss the mark (particularly those lines of criticism coming from liberal Christians), I do believe that in Dreher’s race to defend himself from all charges, he overlooks why so many Catholics are unsympathetic to his various projects. What can he do to correct that situation? One might hope, at the very least, that he publicly repents of the ways in which he has uncharitably attacked the Catholic Church since his departure more than a decade ago. I don’t see that happening, however, but with God all things are possible.

Some Thoughts on The Keepers

Less is being made of the new Netflix murder-drama spectacle The Keepers than I had anticipated. After the rousing success of Making a Murderer and, prior to that, the podcast Serial, I had assumed that The Keepers would become the talk around the water cooler at thousands of offices across the country. Apparently not. That is not to say that there hasn’t been some discussion of the miniseries’ contents. The graphic depictions of sexual abuse on teenage girls at a Baltimore Catholic school in the 1960s are as difficult to overlook as they are to stomach. Personally, following the grotesque revelations made in episodes 2 and 3, I had to hit pause on the show lest I find myself overtaken by irrational anticlericalism. Yes, I am well aware that the abuse accounts contained in the series are a gross exception, not the general rule, but acknowledging that fact does not relieve the burning sense of betrayal all Catholics should feel when presented with evidence of priests who violate all standards of decency and care in pursuit of their vile desires.

Like any expose of the Catholic Church, there are points where The Keepers tries to exaggerate the extent of secrecy, malfeasance, and general vice within the Church. There are, naturally, stories of people losing (or, rather, abandoning) their faith because of the abuse that went on, and the “hero” of the story—Sister Catherine Cesnik, who was murdered because she was apparently prepared to expose the abuse scandal in 1969—was a “hip” nun who had been granted permission to live outside of the cloister sans habit prior to her death. (It is hard to not shake the feeling that if she had remained living with her order rather than a mid-grade apartment complex, she might still be alive.)

Beyond the tales of abuse, corruption, and cover-ups galore, The Keepers provides an indirect, but interesting, snapshot of Catholic life during the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. While the image of Catholicism as it appeared in decades prior is still present, there is a noticeable shift in attitude among some of those interviewed about what it meant to be Catholic. For instance, one interviewee, an ex-Jesuit priest, had at one point proposed marriage to Sister Catherine just prior to his ordination and before she was to take her final vows. He was unashamed in his recollection that he had grown to love her; and though she apparently talked him into fulfilling his vocation, it didn’t “take” as they say. Like so many priests and religious after Vatican II and the laicization of the Church, he opted to abandon his calling, perhaps no longer seeing any “value” to it.

As the series proceeds, it’s hard not to notice the shift in aesthetics and tone that are presented over the decades. Well-adorned temples that had been standing for more than a century give way to barns decked out with modernist statuary surrounding priests vested in horse blankets presiding over an emaciated rite. One of the abuse victims, up until her grueling trial of attempting to get the Diocese of Baltimore to take action against the priest who repeatedly raped her, boasted of her involvement in the Church, complete with serving as an “Extraordinary Minister” of the Eucharist. Now, however, the unconsecrated fingers that once held the Body of Christ have been washed of all dealings with the Catholic Church. There was, in her mind, nothing left for the Church to give in exchange for everything some of its priests had taken from her decades ago.

In addition to the abuse accounts themselves, nothing is more chilling in the series than the descriptions of how these perverted clerics used the confessional to their advantage. Without compunction, these priests excommunicated themselves by violating the sacred seal of Confession in order to manipulate their victims into submitting to their carnal desires. While the abuses detailed in The Keepers are undoubtedly excessive, they do call to mind the more general problem of how clerics can use confession to inflict psychic and emotional harm on others, all in the name of being their “spiritual fathers.” Rather than dispensing God’s infinite mercy, they seek to aggrandize themselves by micro-managing the souls entrusted to their care, often leading them not to virtue but to emotional confusion and spiritual despair.

It is difficult for me to recommend The Keepers to everyone. Those who have suffered some form of abuse, regardless of the source, will find the graphic depictions contained in the miniseries difficult to stomach. Those already inclined to blame the Catholic Church for so many of the evils in this world will probably find the series to be little more than a confirmation of all of their prejudices. Even faithful Catholics might be so put off by what unfolds during the documentary that they may begin to question their place in the Church generally. Heaven forbid. However, despite its flaws and occasional biases, The Keepers should remind us that the Church is both a divine and very human institution. It is not, by virtue of its divine establishment, immune from satanic machinations and the corroding power of sin. Its history is one riddled with crises, both moral and doctrinal. While it may be difficult to acknowledge that, particularly in a day and age when “religion” is believed to be either outdated or representative of little more than easygoing sentimentality for the “spiritual,” there’s no good reason to look away from that reality, either.

Paralytic

As I have mentioned before, it is not uncommon for me to have recourse to the extensive archive of sermons by Fr. Patrick Reardon (Antiochian Orthodox) housed over at Ancient Faith Radio. While I wish I could say I keep up on them from week to week, the truth is that I often “binge” three or four, especially on long car rides. In a sermon entitled “The Danger is not an Armed Guard,” Reardon reflects on the Gospel of St. Mark in both its historical context and deeper theological meaning with respect to the Cross, Baptism, and the Eucharist. As those who follow the Byzantine Rite perhaps know, St. Mark’s Gospel is read throughout the Lenten season due to its emphasis on Christ’s Passion. It is a Gospel which was produced during a time of intense persecution in Rome and therefore places starkly before the reader (or listener) the cost of following Christ. To be baptized in the Lord, Reardon emphasizes, is to be baptized into his death; to accept the Chalice is to accept all that comes with it, including the pains of martyrdom. What should be obvious to all Christians is today obscured by the world, particularly our desire to be a part of it, to compromise, to find a “middle way” between the demands of secularism and liberalism and the law of God.

Reardon concludes his sermon by admonishing those who are ashamed to make the Sign of the Cross in public to not come up for Holy Communion. And if a person is embarrassed to stand firm for the Faith, particularly in the face of those who would denigrate it, then do not approach to kiss the Cross at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy—for it is the kiss of Judas.

In hearing this, I wondered to myself how many priests and bishops of any Apostolic confession would ever say such a thing, especially in the United States where it is “commonly understood” that one ought to check their “private religious convictions” when walking out the front door. It is not uncommon to find even conservative Catholic priests (and, no doubt, a very traditional ones) adhering to certain liberal doctrines which demand that Christians only express openly those beliefs which can be “squared with reason” or to only preach a Gospel evacuated of all eschatological import. American Christians, particularly Catholics, are so desperate for public recognition, for being “good Americans,” that they do not think twice about implicitly denying Christ when engaged in “discourse” or “dialogue” with non-Christians, including atheists, Jews, and Muslims. Catholics have been told for the past 50 years that they must see the “good fruits” and “laudable aspects” of these other pathways through life; mutual understanding, not conversion, is now the order of the day.

Aside from a handful of holy souls that walk among us, no one is left from the temptation to compromise, to turn away from our Lord publicly (“just a bit”) and be overtly pious behind closed church doors (“for all to see”). And how pathetic it all is. At this juncture, we do not fear prison, torture, and death. Rather, we are paralyzed by the thought of losing social recognition, a career advancement, or the companionship of a worldly friend.

As I write this, I find it fitting that tomorrow is the Sunday of the Paralytic according to the Byzantine Rite. This poor man waited to be placed into the Pool of Bethesda after the troubling of the waters before Christ cured him of his paralysis of 38 years (mine has lasted only 37). And what did this man do upon finding out it was Jesus who cured him? He proclaimed it to the Jews. He did not remain silent about the unmerited gift of physical healing our Lord bestowed upon him. But what do we say about the far greater gift of Baptism that has been given to us? What words do we speak about the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? If the Paralytic was admonished by Christ after his physical curing to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you,” what awaits those of us who sin mightily after the curing of our souls? Do we fall down on our knees in Confession, seeking God’s infinite mercy, or do we continue denying Him by our public words and deeds while thinking that “popping in” for Sunday liturgy and partaking in its attendant rituals will lead us to a better end than the Iscariot?

Feria Quarta infra Hebdomadam III in Quadragesima

For those following the Julian Calendar, today is the Feast of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. As the story goes, 40 Roman soldiers who had professed Christianity were sentenced to die by being forced to stand naked in a freezing lake. One, however, apostatized and left the cold waters, only to be replaced by another Roman soldier who, moved by the sight of the other 39 soldiers’ heroic martyrdom, embraced Christianity. It is hard not to draw a parallel between this brave Roman soldier who entered the freezing waters voluntarily and Mathew Ayairga, a native of Chad and non-Christian who voluntarily accepted martyrdom at the hands of the Islamic State in February 2015 along with 20 Coptic Christians. Like Ruth of old, this young man confessed, “Their God is my God.”

Both acts of faith are difficult for contemporary minds to comprehend, even among Catholics. Religious liberalism, one of the hallmark dogmas of the modern age, destroys the sense that one ought to die for the truth rather than genuflect before error. Today, while hundreds of thousands of Christians are subjected to violence in the Middle East, there are Catholic bishops and priests who wish to promote the idea that the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the same as the false deity Allah. However, ask any Muslim who takes his religion seriously if this is true, and he will respond, “Allah had no son.” And he’s right. For only the Christian God, that is the true God, “came down from Heaven” and “by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This truth, and all that flows from it, is what both the Martyrs of Sebaste and the New Coptic Martyrs gave their lives for. (And though the Copts remain estranged from the Catholic Church, they are—following the careful theological distinction of Pope Benedict XIV—martyrs coram Deo even if they cannot right now be considered martyrs coram Ecclesia.)

There may have been, some 50 years ago, a misguided sense among some in the Church that religious liberalism, rather than breeding indifferentism, might be pressed into the cause for peace across the world. These misguided souls bought into the liberal myth of progress and the notion that integrating cultures, economies, and political structures across the globe would compel people to set aside their differences. These men misunderstood the power of religion, specifically the power that the search for certainty and truth can have over men’s souls. For 1,400 years the peoples of the Middle East and beyond have been poisoned with mistruth; their certainty, borne out of fideism and fanaticism, has been a scourge on human history. “Free markets” and “open elections” were never going to eradicate that. For the Muslim, unlike far too many Christians, has not lost his sense of the transcendent, of the higher things that stir the soul—sometimes to great evil.

If 39 men stood in a frozen lake for refusing to renounce the Faith, I have to imagine that a good many Catholics would shake their heads in disbelief. They would then laugh at the man who strips down to join them, “knowing” as they do that all one has to do to get to Heaven is “follow your heart.” What, I wonder, would Pope Francis say about such a thing? Would he call it a waste of life? An act of religious fanaticism fueled by needless rigidity? Or, upon hearing of their deaths, would he make mention of it during one of his off-the-cuff interviews, choosing to focus on the intolerance of the persecutors rather than the heroism of those who would die rather than deny the truth. It is hard to imagine that the Holy Father (or most of the world’s bishops) would point to such men and proclaim, “Here! Here are your examples! This is what the Faith means! This is what we must be ready and willing to do for Jesus Christ!” He died for us, but the idea of us dying for Him is now anathema.

Many Catholics today speak of a crisis in the Church or, at the very least, of “serious problems” in the Church. Comparatively few write on the shallowness of our faith, on how distorted and worldly our collective outlook has become. No doubt that is due to the fact that no one wants to admit openly the weakness of their own faith, nor acknowledge that when push comes to shove, they would rather flee the garden of Gethsemane rather than face death, nay, even an ill-word from a coworker or friend. If we really looked hard at how fragile our faith is, we wouldn’t dare call ourselves Christians. Christians, by definition, are those who take up their cross and follow Christ. We today would prefer to follow our hearts and assume God’s approval and understanding, even if the path we have taken is manifestly contrary to natural and divine law.

Who do we blame for this? Because that’s what we like to do: we like to blame. Do we blame Pope Francis? Do we blame our local ordinary? Do we blame our parish priest? Granted, all three might have something to do with sowing the seeds of confusion in the Church today, but what about ourselves? What have we lost (or failed to gain) in this “journey on life’s way”? Those who are aware of the crisis in the Church and the falsehoods that circulate daily within her cannot plead ignorance. Our first reckoning should not be with the “authorities in Rome” or Fr. Bob down the street; it should with ourselves. And yet look how far away we are from doing just that.

Feria Tertia infra Hebdomadam III in Quadragesima

In one of his many talks on Catholic/Eastern Orthodox relations, the sometimes irascible Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. declared that if you want to know what the Catholic Church teaches, look it up; it’s all written down (somewhere). Fr. Taft was responding in part to the tendency of some Orthodox to fudge on, if not fabricate, the Catholic Church’s position on any number of matters, ranging from Purgatory to the Papacy. Granted, it certainly doesn’t help that many Catholics themselves are less-than-clear on what the Church professes about these and many other things. With respect to Purgatory, for instance, the dogma itself is a lot less “grandiose” than many assume. In an article I wrote for The Angelus last December, “Latins and Greeks on Purgatory,” I pointed out the distinct (but ultimately unified) approaches of the Latin West and Greek East to praying for the dead, noting throughout that the dogma allows for several different emphases and opinions. The same can be sad as well of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God; Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition artfully avoids declaring whether or not Our Lady endured a bodily death before joining her Son in Heaven.

Reading is not only essential to learning what the Catholic Church professes; it also goes a long way toward understanding what her various members hold to as well. And so, when Latin Catholics or Eastern Orthodox begin going off about what the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church may or may not teach or emphasize based on its Byzantine patrimony, it would behoove both to consult that church’s recently translated catechism, Christ Our Pascha. Or, when it comes to the pending regularization of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), those wishing to know what the SSPX has to say on certain teachings from Vatican II, the Novus Ordo Missae, or the tumultuous pontificate of Pope Francis can click over to the SSPX’s U.S. District Website or pick-up one of the Society’s many publications. It’s not difficult. In fact, it’s really easy, especially in the “information age.” Then why, I wonder, is there so much misinformation being spread, not by word-of-mouth gossip in the pews, but in online forums! If one knows how to navigate to “Holier Than Thou Super Traddie News,” then surely they can type in s s p x dot o r g.

There are times when I am almost forced to believe that people remain willfully ignorant in order to perpetuate half-truths or outright fabrications that bolster their private narratives of how the world, and the Church, “really is.” Make no mistake about it. The potential regularization of the SSPX will splash cold water on the persistent neo-Catholic narrative of Vatican II being not just a “dogmatic council,” but the beginning of a “New Springtime” or “New Pentecost” in the Church. Similarly, those who have virulently defended the New Mass from any and all criticism emanating from traditionalist circles will have to come to grips with the fact that the classic Roman Rite as preserved by the SSPX and the various Ecclesia Dei groups has a right to exist not as “an exception,” but the norm. These two developments are probably even more revolutionary than the regularization of the Society itself. And so it is little wonder then that neo-Catholics and liberals avoid learning why the SSPX professes what it professes; it’s so much easier to spread misinformation under the banner of willful ignorance than to actually engage with positions and ideas one happens not to like. So much for the pursuit of truth.

I am sometimes asked by my secular friends, “Why are you Catholic?” Aside from the fact that Salvation can only be found through the Church, I try to emphasize that she is also “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). I like to further go on that her teachings are clear, available, and flow from both reason and revelation. But then I find myself stuttering a bit as I explain that despite the clarity of the Faith, there are many out there who actively seek to distort Church teaching in order to advance their ideological agendas. I have to explain, for example, how the Acton Institute can be run primarily by Catholics; actively promote their publications and lectures to Catholics; and insists on professing ideas that are unambiguously contra fide. At that point I realize how difficult it is to tell the “man on the street” to sit down with Leo XIII and Pius XI when ostensibly more learned men can’t seem to be bothered to do that very thing. It’s not that the great encyclicals condemning social, political, and economic liberalism are too “heady” or labyrinthine”; it’s that they disrupt a certain narrative of how the Church is supposed to relate to secular democracy, including secular democracy’s preferred economic system: capitalism.

Of course, from the beginning the Church has wrestled with misunderstandings, dissent, and heterodox teachings. As time has marched on, some of these misunderstandings have come to be seen as culturally or linguistically driven rather than clear instances of formal, obstinate heresy. Today, however, Catholics have the advantage of ready-at-hand access to what the Church teaches in full, along with theological explanations calibrated to a number of learning levels. And yet, distressingly enough, so few seem to care. They approach Church teaching in the same way the Clinton Administration approached homosexuals in the military: “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” As such, they can cozy up to their personalized narratives of what Catholicism allegedly is without letting the truth get in the way. Whatever comfort this irresponsible approach to Catholicism provides here on earth surely won’t be there in the next life. If any truth can penetrate the hearts of such persons, I pray it’s at least that one.

Unity Is Not Always Good

In the Gospel Commentary translated and published by the Old-Rite Church of the Nativity, which contains sermons attributed to St. John Chrysostom that are appointed to be read at Matins throughout the Russo-Byzantine liturgical year, one can find this arresting reflection on Matt. 10:34-36 for the Sunday of All Saints:

Unity is not always good; it sometimes happens that division is good. Nor is every sort of peace worthy of praise; it often happens that peace is harmful, and drives out men far from divine love. If we made peace with the destruction of truth, it is most sinful and inappropriate. Christ did not come to bring such a peace, but rather its opposite. He wishes us to separate from one another when it is for the sake of a good cause. Not all peace and unity is good; there are occasions when contention and separation are great and divine deeds. Thus, one should not be joined in love with the wicked or be at peace with them. Even if father or mother, child or brother be found in opposition to the law of Christ, we should resist them as enemies of truth.

It is almost impossible to read these words without reflecting on the present situation in the Catholic Church where unity is encouraged perpetually, even with “enemies of truth.” Indeed, to even say that there are today “enemies of truth” within the Catholic fold is looked upon as not simply intolerant, but quasi-heretical. For there is a line of thought—quite pernicious—that holds that priests, bishops, and even the head of the Universal Church are unwavering founts of orthodoxy; to suspect otherwise places oneself under suspicion of being “crypto-Protestant” or “quasi-schismatic.” Those twin charges (and others) have often been directed at traditional Latin Catholics by both liberals and conservatives alike. And though some conservatives today may acknowledge that “enemies of truth” are actively attempting to rot the Mystical Body of Christ from the inside out, their first instinct is not to separate themselves from such enemies, but rather to pen long apologias for why such persons are not “true enemies” but only “apparent enemies.” Truth, as a general matter, is often not considered at all.

But let’s not forget that the message of St. John’s message can be abused. Consider, for instance, the relative ease with which autonomous Eastern Orthodox churches will break communion with one another over perceived ecclesiastical slights. Among the Latins, sedevacantists, too, feel justified in rupturing unity with the Universal Church on the grounds that they have privately judged popes, bishops, and priests to be formal heretics. To their credit, they see that there are “enemies of truth” within the Church; to their discredit, they rely on archaic manuals twisted into novel theories in order to justify themselves without much in the way of self-criticism. It is not that they are wrong in seeing certain figures and ideas within the Church as dangerous, but perhaps the choice for separation ought to be made with greater care.

Still, is it not possible to separate oneself from those “enemies of truth” without undertaking a formal act of breaking communion? Arguably, Catholics do so all of the time when they choose to go to Parish X rather than Parish Y; X houses orthodox sermons, sound catechesis, and a solemn liturgy whereas Y is completely off the rails, as they say. On a slightly grander scale, traditional Catholics have sought refuge in traditional chapels and churches run by institutes such as the Society of Saint Pius X or those fraternities that fall under the guardianship of Ecclesia Dei. These Catholics, too, have separated themselves from the “enemies of truth,” though without exiting the Catholic Church (despite what their detractors may say). Some of these folks worry that drawing too close to the institutional Church in the name will lead to a “sort of peace [not] worthy of praise.” It will be a peace predicated on compromise. Are they correct? It’s impossible to say in advance, though the fear and pessimism which sometimes animates such genuine concerns are not Christian virtues.

Of course, when speaking of “enemies of truth” it is, sadly, not possible to limit the list to just those high-ranking officials who, for instance, seek to subvert the Church’s moral and doctrinal teachings related to marriage and the sacraments. There are those “everyday Catholics,” both clerical and lay, who subvert the Church’s social magisterium regularly by offering up selective readings of key papal documents and ignoring altogether the precepts of the natural law when they purportedly conflict with infallible “economic science.” These “enemies of truth,” by internalizing the tenets of social, political, and economic liberalism, are happy to trade worldly success for fidelity to the law of Christ. In ages past, there was still a risk that such promoters of injustice would find themselves separated from the Church; today it may behoove Catholics to separate themselves from these “enemies of the truth,” these individuals and the institutions or businesses they operate which are carried out in service to mammon, not God.

Christ, as St. John reminds us, did not come to bring peace with this world, particularly a world beholden to the ideology of liberalism. Separation therefore is not always evil, just as unity is not always good. Fraternal correction, given in charity and truth, remains above all else necessary. However, when the corrections have been made, when the arguments and evidence have been presented, and still many persist in error, then what must come next? Suspend the final decision forever or make the hard choice, not in the name of pride or emptyheaded judgmentalism, but in the Name of Jesus our King?

Four Years Ago (and Then Some)

Four years ago I awoke to the stunning news that Pope Benedict XVI would abdicate the Throne of St. Peter, unintentionally paving the way for Jorge Bergoglio to be elected as Pope Francis. At the time, it had only been two years since I returned to the Catholic Church after seven in Eastern Orthodoxy and four as a “weak atheist” (or “strong agnostic”—take your pick). While Benedict’s reign had very little to do with my decision, I certainly believed in 2011 that the Church was in (relatively) safe hands, particularly given the former pontiff’s decision to liberate the traditional Latin Mass from the exclusively ghetto existence it enjoyed following the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae. My rather naïve belief at the time was that the Tridentine Mass would continue to spread and that within a generation, the New Mass itself would be organically reformed along traditional lines. Growing up as I did my own ghetto—an Eastern one—I was never that invested in the politics of the Latin Church. Since most Latin Catholics I met expressed genuine admiration for the beauty and solemnity of the Byzantine Rite, I reasoned that the second they were able to have access to the splendor of their own tradition again, they’d jump at it. Boy, was I wrong.

It had not occurred to me that 40 years of liturgical banality could have such a deleterious effect on Catholic consciousness, nor did I consider that the very same post-Vatican II prejudices about “the bad old days” which were alive and well in the 1980s and 90s had survived. Granted, an increasing number of Catholics I came across after 2011 freely admitted that “mistakes were made” after the Second Vatican Council, but very few outside of traditionalist circles were willing to pin the blame on the Council itself. Instead they wanted to keep faith with Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” (HoC), arguing that the problems in the Church were caused not by Vatican II, but by the “interpretation” and/or “application” of the conciliar documents. Having what I feel is a fairly good grasp of the law of noncontradiction, I could never bring myself to accept the HoC; it struck me as overly optimistic, if not absurd. If indeed the conciliar documents can be read in continuity with the traditional doctrines of the Church, then the burden of proving as much is on the proponents of HoC. It is little wonder then that those who champion HoC typically spend an inordinate amount of time tarring-and-feathering their critics as quasi-schismatics or crypto-Protestants; proving the HoC to be anything else other than a pleasant fiction is too difficult.

But I digress. Returning to that fateful day in 2013 when the Sovereign Pontiff announced his plans to step down, my initial reaction was a mixture of disappointment and sympathy. I sympathized with Benedict’s decision because the truth was that he had lived far longer than most of the men who had stood in the Shoes of the Fisherman and, more likely than not, he did not wish to see the Church fall into turmoil as it did during the closing, and largely ineffectual, years of John Paul II’s pontificate. Some warned that Benedict had set a “dangerous precedent,” but it was a warning that was lost on me. Other patriarchs and local church heads retired before death all of the time, especially when they were no longer physically or mentally fit to do the job. Why should the papacy be any different? Yes, the papal office carries unique authority over the Universal Church and, with that authority, greater responsibilities than those assigned to other bishops; but is that not itself an argument that popes should be especially circumspect about whether or not they have the strength to discharge their duties?

Here in 2017 I still don’t know what to think about papal abdication, even if I have some very strong ex post facto thoughts about Benedict’s choice—thoughts informed by what has occurred in the Church during the Francis’s unsettling reign. I confess that not a day goes by when I don’t hold the hope that he will announce his own resignation for the good of the Church. Whatever their faults, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI saw themselves as “great reformers” of the Catholic Church even if both allowed far too many reform-minded prelates and priests run roughshod over tradition. Still, as I have opined to numerous friends, I have little confidence that the next pope, regardless of his convictions, will be able to undo the damage wrought by Francis; that will take several generations, if not more. And then there is still the problem of the Second Vatican Council, though part of me still believes that its importance to the life of the Church will begin to fade as more and more of its champions move on to their eternal reward.

Knowing what I know now, would I have still chosen to make my way back to Catholicism six years ago? While there was a period where I could not answer that question honestly, particularly in light of my own personal struggles and failings, I am at full peace with the decision even if the decision itself has been anything but peaceful. To be clear, this peace comes not from some hubristic confidence in my own intellect nor as a byproduct of pro-Catholic, anti-Orthodox triumphalism. Rather, it is the unmerited peace that can only be felt through God’s grace and the assurance He gives to the weakest of his sheep that despite the capitulations, contradictions, and compromises which are prevalent in the Church today, she will never submit fully and that it is only by the light which she possesses, the Light of Christ, which can lead us out of the present darkness.