Never Post About Fasting, But…

A recent post appearing over at Taylor Marshall’s web-log compares Islamic fasting practices during Ramadan with those that existed in the Western (Latin) Church during the Middle Ages. Setting aside Taylor’s cringe-worthy commentary on “hot Christian princesses” and the “toughness” of medieval Christians, the post illustrates just how far the Latin Church has drifted from its aesthetical roots. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that when Western Christendom followed an austere Lenten discipline, life was, well, rather terrible. Food consumption occurred at a radically lower rate than what we experience today and foodstuffs such as meat and dairy were not widely available to most of the population. Moreover, as Taylor’s post highlights, the relaxation of the Latin Church’s fasting discipline came first at the behest of monastics (many of whom lived better lives than laymen) and the rich who exchanged gifts to the Church for dispensations from fasting.

Today, only the Eastern Christian churches (most of which are out of communion with the Catholic Church) mandate regular fasting with a special emphasis on Lent. Before saying anything in its favor, it is important to note that the “fast heavy” culture in the East, particularly among the Orthodox, is often exaggerated and romanticized. A good number of so-called “cradle Orthodox” (i.e. those born into Orthodoxy) take their communion’s fasting rules in stride, and while some will follow them strictly, many do not. This often scandalizes converts to Orthodoxy who sometimes turn fasting into an idol, as well as a point of pride that makes them stand out from other Christians. Too often this degenerates into the unedifying spectacle of converts and cradles arguing over disciplinary minutiae with particularly sensitive souls fretting over whether “the Fathers” would have condoned the consumption of peanut butter during Lent.

The Latin Church, with its penchant for disciplinary legalism, today provides a fairly easy path for its faithful to adhere to the rules strictly under pain of mortal sin. The Orthodox, by contrast, have a far more rigorous conception of fasting, albeit without the attendant penalties—maybe. An Orthodox cleric of note once told his parish that there was no need to confess falling short of Orthodoxy’s fasting prescriptions period. (The exception to this counsel would be breaking Orthodoxy’s Eucharistic fast and still receiving communion.) Another I have come across told me that any deviation from mandated fasting is a sin that should be confessed, though there may be mitigating circumstances such as being a guest in a non-Orthodox home and being served meat or accidentally ingesting a forbidden product because one forgot to thoroughly read the ingredients on the back of the box. All Orthodox appear to agree that any pastor can dispense a member of his flock from all or part of the fast on a case-by-case basis.

In an effort to “upgrade” the prevalent of fasting, at least during Lent, many traditional Latin Catholic outlets and publications will call attention to the Catholic Church’s fasting disciplines as they existed in the first half of the 20th century. Many traditional Catholics, for instance, honor the Ember Days despite their abolishment decades ago. Still, this is a minority of Catholics overall and even these disciplinary rules fall far short of what was expected in the Latin Church a millennium ago.

It is easy, and perilous, to problematize fasting. Instead of becoming an act of self-discipline that assists a soul in drawing closer to God, it turns into a legal debate. One has to wonder if the Latin Church, again with its penchant for legalism, could even redirect Christians toward greater austerity without mentioning fire and brimstone. In other words, without a culture of exhortation with a hefty dose of tolerance toward limitations and weakness, inspiring (rather than threatening) people to do better for their own spiritual benefit will prove difficult. Proposed canonical rules with an “or else” attached will be resisted and likely never come into effect anyways.

Uplifting Year-End Thoughts – Part 3

Accompanied by Q, that immaculate collection of our Lord’s sayings that so many “Biblical Christians” routinely ignore, a man could find his way through this life with nary a worry. For this uncontroversial text, attested to by a great cloud of witnesses for nearly 2,000 years, forms the cornerstone of Christianity. In fact, it is such a powerful collection that it is said at pulpits across the world that it, along with the Gospel of St. Mark, shaped the formation of Ss. Matthew and Luke’s gospels. No doubt this is why children are taught from the earliest age to appreciate the sweet science that is textual criticism, for without it the careless scribal errors of ages past may very well shape the souls of those living today. The horror.

Facetiousness aside (well, not entirely), nobody today contends that Catholics and Orthodox alike are woefully ignorant of the Bible. While some schoolchildren are fortunate enough to be handed cute songs and rhymes to assist them in remembering the titles of the Biblical texts, a vast majority of them will never read a single verse of Scripture outside of what may be contained in either their hand Missals or quoted in a “spiritually uplifting” book. When I come across a Protestant at one of West Michigan’s numerous Christian-themed coffee shops, I have to confess off the bat that they have bells n’ smells Christianity beat when it comes to the Bible just before reminding them that the existence of the Bible presupposes the Church which canonized it. Most folks, particularly young folks, aren’t terribly impressed by that, and for good reason. For if I or any other Catholic/Orthodox take such pride in the production of the Bible, why don’t we make a firmer effort to read it? Woe to us, I suppose.

One common justification for not reading the Bible that circulates among Catholics and Orthodox is that it is up to the Church to determine what Holy Writ means; reading it “alone” will only lead us to commit the Protestant of error of imposing our own subjective meaning on the text. Maybe. Again, given how many Protestants I have met who are sure of what Scripture means and yet offer up wildly disparate readings of the same pericopes does affirm, at a certain level, the reality that Scripture can be manipulated along a number of mutually exclusive lines. A Protestant rebuttal to this line of thinking is that if it is for the Church and the Church alone to interpret the Bible, why bother reading it at all? Why not simply look to what the Church has to say and leave the text of Scripture to the side? While this line of questioning is often intended to instill shame, more often than not it seems to bolster Catholics and Orthodox in holding that “ignorance [of the Bible] is bliss.”

What, I wonder, would become of Christianity were the Bible to be read and read often. Would there be less sin? Would there be a greater thrust to remake the world and evangelize those lost to heathenry? Might streaming television and video games go the way of the dodo as people spent their well-earned hours of leisure in heated but charitable discussions over the meaning of Job or why God would allow his most obstinate prophet, Jonah, to become His most successful one? Perhaps the only magazines and books to be produced would be Biblical commentaries, each one invested not so much in scoring polemical points or advancing careers, but rather disclosing the meaning of the single most important book (or, rather, collection of books) in human history? Maybe, under the guidance of the Word of God, a real effort would be made across the nations to restore all things in Christ. Or perhaps people would just find more reasons to despise, vilify, and ultimately murder one another—just like in the good old days.

Some More Unpopular Remarks on Alcohol

A post from last month, “An Unpopular Remark on Alcohol,” received some negative feedback on social media, partially because certain individuals thought I was calling for a return to the temperance movement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Still, I would be remiss if I did not state that I continue to be suspicious of the “alcoholism-as-Catholicism” mentality that is still present in and around the Church. Moreover, no one with eyes to see can deny the “drink [insert craft spirit/beer]-as-sign-of-sophistication” posturing that is all the rage these days, not just among Catholics, but certain brands of hipster Protestants and Eastern Orthodox as well. Far be it for me, of course, to ruin anyone’s fun. For the life of me, I don’t know how anyone is supposed to imbibe from the wells of contemporary Catholic writing without a stiff chaser. However, instead of single-barrel bourbon or the latest quadruple hops IPA, let me suggest that the tripe which fills Catholic bookshelves today is best paired with either Wild Turkey or Miller High Life.

In 1933, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) linked arms with a pro-temperance movement to stop the purchase and use of alcohol and tobacco. According to the account from Stepan Bandera: The Life and Aftermath of a Ukrainian Nationalist, “OUN activists urged Ukrainians to publicly pledge that they would not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Drinkers who could not resist buying alcohol were beaten up. Taverns were demolished.” Ah, the good old days.

In reality, the OUN had little concern with temperance per se, even though Bandera, their leader, was not a fan of alcohol. What’s striking about this little snippet from history is that it would likely appall many Catholics today to learn that any of their religious forebears could not only perceive problems with alcohol, but would take active measures to see its use diminished within society. I have heard over the years from more than a few gents that to be “anti-alcohol” is, in essence, to be “anti-Catholic.” When I pressed one young fellow on this point, he ultimately defended his position by pointing to the alcohol content in communion wine. This is where we are in 2017, folks.

At the close of business, it is less alcohol per se which is the problem and more the attitude most Catholics believe they have to have toward it. How many of us have heard, “I can hold my liquor, I’m [insert random ethnic identity here]”? I wonder how many of them still feel “Chestertonian” when they are vomiting last night’s gin into the toilet the following morning.

An Unpopular Remark on Alcohol

Over the past six years, I must say that one of the most annoying aspects of contemporary Catholic culture, at least as I see it in the United States among those 10 years north or south of my age (37), is this sense that in order to be a “true Catholic gentleman” or, worse, a “true Catholic (pseudo-)intellectual” one must posture with cigars, bourbon, and craft beers (preferably of the Quadruple Hops Belgian Style Cherry Blended Whiskey Barrel Aged IPA variety). In fact, it’s not just so much posturing as it is consuming all of these things in so gluttonous a manner as to make Chesterton blush. And truth in point, it is probably Chesterton and Belloc—or certain conceptions surrounding these two towering figures of British Catholicism—that leads unsuspecting young men down a false pathway of sophistication where the spirit to be consumed is more crucial than the point of theology to be discussed. Moreover, let’s be honest. Most of those who claim to have some professional-academic knowledge of theology or philosophy typically lie about what they’ve read and understood; the booze just makes it easier for them to fib while deadening the senses of their fellow man to call them out on it. The end result is not just a deadening of the senses, but a descent into parody—one which Catholics should be thankful that no one outside the fold notices or apparently cares.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with indulging a bit here and there. As one priest in Chicago told me, the virtue of being Catholic is that you can drink, smoke, spit, swear, and chew—all in moderation. Moderation, unfortunately, seems to be in short supply these days judging by some of the spectacles I have witnessed and the innumerable others I have heard about. I think perhaps this is less a problem among previous generations who both understood the proper limits of consumption and did so because they properly understood the Catholic tradition which, in merry times, they come together to discuss. I consider it a privilege to have spent time among such men; it’s a sobering contrast to the obnoxious bantering of millennials and gen X’rs fueled by the latest concoction emanating from a microbrewery which, if successful, will soon become another subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch. (As an aside, it should be known that on the hierarchy of things in life one is allowed to be snobbish about (e.g. classical music, wine, and art), microbrew snobbery is 19 rungs down the ladder from pro-wrestling snobbery.)

Some may say it is unfair for me to make mention of this given my own restraints, but I disagree. Had I not, for a time, bought into the idea that alcohol—and lots of it—was part of contemporary Catholic culture (just as it is indeed very much part of contemporary Eastern Orthodox culture), I might have faced up to my problem a lot sooner, or at least not exacerbated it as the years went by. Granted, much of that was my fault; I am a grownup and I realize full well that many people drink regularly without being ensnared by fermented beverages. Another Chicago priest, this one a member of the Antiochican Archdiocese, remarked that if you can’t give up drinking during the fasting seasons of the Byzantine Rite (Advent, Great Lent, Apostle’s Fast, etc.), then you have a problem. I wonder: how many young Catholics, Latins and Easterners alike, could hold themselves to such a standard? Would they even want to try? And if they failed, would they admit defeat and seek help, both spiritually in the confessional and naturally through programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or individual counseling?

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?