Upon returning to his childhood faith, Fr. Robert Sirico could have opted for a quiet life of peace and piety with nary a soul knowing. Instead he opted to found the Acton Institute, an international think tank committed to promoting liberal economic ideology largely at odds with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church. Rather than commit himself solely to a life of humble service in the Church he renounced in his youth, Sirico spends his time courting high-level donors for Acton while using the platform the institute gives him to water-down Catholic social teaching and “correct” the Pope for his “economic errors.” As a liturgical conservative, Sirico has managed to draw an impressive following to his parish in Grand Rapids, believing—rightly—that most people are willing to dial-down demands for strict doctrinal orthodoxy in exchange for a pretty Mass and a semblance of communal stability. (It’s hard to argue with this compromise given the number of priests in the diocese who openly reject core tenets of the Catholic Faith.) Some folks in these parts murmur against those who choose, out of conviction, to bypass Sirico’s parish in favor of the chapel established by the Society of St. Pius X on the outskirts of town, never once stopping to consider that consistency and coherency are principles some people can’t let go of. As numerous individuals have expressed to me over the years, it’s not that Sirico espouses bald heresy from the pulpit or lacks good pastoral sense; it’s that they cannot bring themselves to support a parish with priests and laity who believe it is their right to dissent from the Catholic Church when it does not comport with economic—and sometimes social and religious—liberalism.
This is not the time or the place to go into the Acton Institute’s ideological orientation or the specific statements of Fr. Sirico. I make mention of them mainly because I can find few reasons why it is meet and right for any priest of the Church to so flagrantly and unashamedly involve themselves in politicking and propaganda when the flock of Christ is so dreadfully under-served by the dwindling number of clergy left to care for it. Even “politically neutral” enterprises, such as Bishop Robert Barron’s “Word on Fire” ministry, raises certain problems insofar as it risks creating “celebrity clergy” who, intentionally or not, publicly fail to conform to the virtues of Christ. This development is particularly distressing at a time when there is a renewed thrust in the Church to uphold the discipline of priestly celibacy with the idea of the priest as an image of Christ being one of the primary arguments for it. Although not every Latin priest takes vows, there is still a great deal to be said for the ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience, to say nothing of humility and self-effacement.
None of this is going to change anytime soon, of course, and really, a lot of the blame rests on the shoulders of bishops who fail to police their priests and make sure that their time is spent in the confessional rather than a FOX News studio. The laity, perhaps, share some of the blame as well. Long gone are the days of viewing priests for what they are, ministers of Christ’s Sacraments with an indelible mark upon their souls made by the Holy Spirit. They are now “part of the gang,” common-folk with no particular distinction except that they happen to be unmarried. In this era where the clergy have become “secularized” by the perception of the people, doesn’t it make sense that they might be tempted by “secular purists”? Or perhaps something more pernicious and complex has taken place in the Catholic Church over the past 50 years, and that helps explain the present situation better than hierarchical laxity and lay indifference. There will be a time and a place to discuss that in more detail soon enough.
They say that in France and several other parts of Europe that the only Catholicism set to survive the century is traditional Catholicism. I wonder: What sort will survive in the United States? America lacks the cultural fiber and communitarian ethos to give any form of traditional religiosity a fighting chance. There will always be pockets, but that’s all they will ever be. American Catholicism, no less than American Protestantism and Orthodoxy, is a bourgeois religion which lacks both an eschatological horizon and transcendent orientation. And unlike most of American Orthodoxy and pockets of traditional Protestantism, much of American Catholicism is ugly, if not grotesque. In no way do I believe that Catholicism in America will “die out”; it will just continue to capitulate until there is almost nothing authentically Catholic about it. Whether that means it’s no longer Catholicism will have to debated, though hopefully long after I have parted ways with this earth. I shudder to think that the most enduring form of Catholicism will be the “conservative” type, the one which takes its bearings from “classical” American liberalism and pro-capitalist sentiments rather than the Gospel.