Church

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.

A Reply to Adam DeVille on Fatima

Let me begin by making two distinct but interrelated claims (at least for the purposes of this response).

First, I have the utmost respect for Adam DeVille, an associate professor at the University of St. Francis and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame Press 2011), a book I recommend to all who wish to gain a fuller understanding of the Catholic/Orthodox divide. His online resource, Eastern Christian Books, is a great asset to a bibliophile such as myself and his various opinion pieces, which typically cover issues related to ecclesiology and Eastern Christianity, are uniformly thoughtful, if not excellent.

Second, I have no love for Fatima hysteria.

And so I confess that I was deeply disappointed by DeVille’s recent web-log posting, “If She Was Silent, Why are Her Followers So Gruesomely Garrulous?” In it, DeVille heaps criticism upon the “avalanche of apocalyptic emoting about Fatima” that he predicts will take place this year, the centenary of Our Lady’s apparitions to three shepherd children in Portugal. His term for this? “Marian Mischief Making.” I like it. What I don’t like or, rather, what saddens me is to see DeVille rightly warn against falling into hysterics over the Fatima anniversary while apparently trying to deny that the apparitions occurred at all. He notes that in 1917, in the midst of the Great War, “everybody was claiming visions of some sort” (emphasis his). Well, sure, but so what?

There has probably never been any point in Christian history where the authentic visions, apparitions, and miracles approved by the Church did not occur side-by-side with false claims of visions, apparitions, and miracles, both within and beyond the boundaries of Christianity. (This is not to mention the innumerable demonic delusions that over occurred over the past 2,000 years, ranging from the visions of the false prophet Mohammed to the madcap religious awakening of Joseph Smith.) Moreover, following the East/West schism, both Catholics and Orthodox have claimed a range of divine interventions; are they all false because they were happening at the same time, perhaps even around some of the same global events? DeVille doesn’t say, which is too bad since it would be nice to know what his criterion for authenticity is.

DeVille’s next step is to posit a series of six questions which, surprisingly, read like a standard secularist (or, at the very least, non-Catholic/Orthodox) attack on any vision, apparition, or miracle. For example, DeVille questions why the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared only in 1917 rather than 1914, when she could have “attempt[ed] to avert the war” or “predict[] the rise of Hitler.” Similarly, DeVille is puzzled that Our Lady, being a Jewish woman, “was . . . apparently so anxious about as-yet unseen Russian dangers, but would see and say nothing about the impending Shoah?” Setting aside that these questions might strike some as almost blasphemous, why does DeVille believe he or anyone is entitled to ready-at-hand answers? Why not ask, “If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, why are there two creation accounts in Genesis? If the Gospels are true, why are there differing accounts of Christ’s temptation in the desert in Matthew and Luke?,” etc. Instead of taking the apparitions and the message of the Immaculate One for what they are, DeVille casts doubt on them because they don’t address his ex post facto concerns.

It gets worse from there. Not content to remain dissatisfied that Our Lady failed to predict everything from Truman defeating Dewey to the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series Championship, he tendentiously attempts to link Fatima to both Catholic hostility toward Russian Orthodoxy and “the mounting personality cult surrounding the papacy” which he traces to the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX. How much Catholic hostility there was toward the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 is debatable, especially in Portugal which was both geographically and politically far removed from the historic tensions between the Russian state and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (and, later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire). If one was going to look for a potentially fabricated, anti-Orthodox Marian miracle to occur in the early 20th century, wouldn’t one expect to find it in Poland or Galicia? As for the personality cult surrounding the papacy (something I have never been a fan of), the fact there was such a personality cult growing does not mean that Our Lady wouldn’t have something to say about the papal office, particularly since—like it or not—it holds the immediate reins of power over a vast majority of Catholics in the world.

The ultimate problem with DeVille’s critique of Fatima is that it attempts to explain (or, really, explain away) the things of God with the things of this world. I agree wholeheartedly with DeVille that far too many Catholics place far too much stock in Fatima and the meaning of the Blessed Virgin’s three secrets. At the same time, I support honoring the Fatima apparitions no less than I support remembering Our Lady’s apparitions at Lourdes, her appearance at Blacherna in the 10th century, or her numerous miraculous icons. As a Catholic, it is a great joy to me that Christ continually sends His Blessed Mother into the world to warn, console, and—when need be—rebuke us. Mary comes not, as DeVille opines, with “narcissistic and repetitive demands” but rather with concern for our salvation and the salvation of the world burning in her Immaculate Heart. Although the hysteria and apocalyptic ravings surrounding Fatima can sometimes obscure this love, they cannot destroy it. I hope in the end that DeVille would agree with that much.

A Needless Distinction?

There is no sense in giving Emma-Kate Symons’s hyperbolic, over-the-top Washington Post op-ed too much attention. Riddled with factual errors and mischaracterizations, it is another in a long line of newspaper, magazine, and web-log pieces which, intentionally or not, attempt to conflate American politics with Catholic ecclesiastical politics. Give Symons some credit, however. Realizing no doubt that her anti-“far right” rant, which singles out Cardinal Raymond Burke, won’t stand on its own, she opts to reach back into the complicated history of the European Catholic Church in the 1930s and 40s in order to suggest, nay, declare a historic link between Catholicism and fascism. Given that, Symons “reasons,” Pope Francis, and indeed all Catholics of good will, must be on guard against “the virulently anti-Islam (“capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity”), migrant-phobic,  Donald Trump-defending, Vladimir Putin-excusing Burke is unrepentant and even defiant, continuing to preside over a far-right, neo-fascist-normalizing cheer squad out of the Holy See.” If only!

The truth of the matter is that though conservative to the core, Cardinal Burke barely represents anything close to “far right” or fascist. If anything, he is a continuation of the conservatism on sexuality and life issues found during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which explains why he has applauded Vladimir Putin and Russia for instituting laws intended to protect the integrity of the family. Granted, Burke’s outspokenness on Francis’s reform agenda is atypical for a Prince of the Church, but that’ because most hierarchs have taken to cravenly falling in line behind anything the Pope wishes. Whether she agrees with his views or not, Burke’s open criticisms of Francis should hearten Symon insofar as they represent a rebuke to the Pontiff’s authoritarian tendencies. And yet, in the end, Symon ironically longs for Francis to wield his authoritarian power to thwart an ostensibly authoritarian/neo-fascist Burke.

Despite all of the political turmoil currently afflicting the Catholic Church, it is safe to say that there is no concentrated movement within her walls to roll back the clock to a period before the controversial Vatican II documents Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate which, inter alia, let loose a wave of religious indifferentism that continues to drown souls to this very day. Instead, the Church continues to do everything it can to “play nice” with non-Catholic (even non-Christian) religions, particularly in the United States. Cardinal Burke, as a staunch defender of libertas religionis (rather than libertas ecclesiae), has no problem showing his liberal side out of a perhaps well-intentioned though ultimately misguided attempt to protect the rights of Catholics to be Catholics in an increasingly hostile, secularized environment. Perhaps the Trump Presidency will ease hostilities for a time, though judging by Symon’s piece, any Catholic who has something positive to say about the current administration and its policies is likely to be in the Left’s crosshairs going forward.

Still, to his credit, Cardinal Burke, along with a few other brave prelates and priests, have spoken out about the renewed threat to Christianity from Islam, both in the West and Middle East. However, such statements usually come packaged with a distinction between “radical Islam” and “real Islam,” the latter being seen as relatively peaceful and capable of “getting along” with Western liberal values. Scant attention is paid to how “real Islam,” that is, the normative Islam that has reigned supreme in the Middle East for 1,000 years has relentlessly turned Christianity into a river of blood. The price for “peace” in the region has often been Christians being relegated to second-class status (or worse), their institutions of learning closed, and their hierarchs reduced to puppets. So yes, Cardinal Burke is quite correct: “capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity.”

Most Catholics living in the West don’t see it that way, or at least not yet. While there are now heightened fears over terrorism due to the recent attacks in the United States and Europe, the dominant belief remains that if only “radical Islam” can be distinguished from “real Islam” in advance, then everything will be fine. Those Muslims adhering to “real Islam” will—so the story goes—embrace libertas religionis, too, and perhaps even lock arms with Christians to keep the forces of secularism at bay while upholding “traditional values.” This is the liberal Catholic dream—a dream that anyone with eyes to see knows won’t come true. More unsettling still are those few Catholics who have no interest in the false promises of liberalism and, perhaps out of an inferiority complex, see in Islam, including “radical Islam,” an anti-liberal force that ought to be admired. But addressing that problem will have to wait for another day.

Heaven Forbid

Given that every traditional argument for becoming a Catholic comes accompanied with an asterisk, I have suspended all efforts to kick-up any dirt over somebody choosing to join the Eastern Orthodox Church. What I mean is, it is difficult to expect a non-Catholic to easily embrace the “surety of Catholicism” and the “importance of the Papacy” during an unprecedented period of doctrinal chaos. Though it may be fashionable to look back into history and hold that today’s crisis “isn’t as bad” as the era of Arianism or the reign of Iconoclasm, the hard fact of the matter is that those tragic periods in Church history dealt primary with one central dogmatic issue (and then a host of peripheral theological ones). This time out, everything under the sun seems to be on the discussion table, with Catholic prelates all over the world sowing error on everything ranging from “same-sex marriage” to the historicity of the Resurrection. Maybe this could all be accounted for and endured if the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Francis, took affirmative steps to combat these problems, but he hasn’t—and nobody expects him to. Indeed, a mass of evidence has already accumulated that he knowingly contributes to the present crisis under a grossly distorted concept of “mercy.” Catholics of good will everywhere should, of course, give thanks to God that the Church still has good shepherds in her midst, but only after recognizing that those shepherds are few and far between. The hard reality today is that most Catholics are still lost in the wilderness.

As I have opined before, the Orthodox Church, by and large, has more doctrinally sound bishops, priests, and laity than contemporary Catholicism does. (I should note here that it appears that all of the Eastern Catholic churches, by and large, have more doctrinally sound bishops, priests, and laity than contemporary Latin Catholicism does.) What I have meant—and still mean—by this is that on any given Sunday, one is less likely to hear raw nonsense, if not objective heresy, preached from the pulpit in an Orthodox temple compared to a Catholic parish. Although I have witnessed many an Orthodox priest struggle to mutter an intelligible homily, what often makes it out of their mouths are simple, everyday reminders of what the Gospel message means coupled with a bit of history (depending on the liturgical day). Maybe it’s not “profound,” and certainly at times the Orthodox fall prey to clouding up basic points with useless mystical jargon and ahistorical declarations, but all of that is much easier to swallow than a cleric who begins his sermon with, “Today’s reading concerns what the author of the Gospel we attribute to John placed on the lips of Jesus . . .”

This is not to say that Orthodoxy—particularly American Orthodoxy—is not without its troubles. Just the other week, the Greek Orthodox Church presented pro-abortion, pro-homosexualist New York Governor Andrew Cuomo with the “[Patriarch] Athenagoras Human Rights Award.” Why? Because he helped the Greeks get the permits necessary to rebuild St. Nicholas Church, which was destroyed on 9/11. As most should know by now, the Greek Orthodox in America, much like their estranged Catholic brethren, have a long history of cozying up to Democratic politicians. Maybe this was all fine and well during the days when “Democrat” meant “New Deal” and “New Deal” meant social safety nets and industrial restraints intended to help laborers and the under-privileged, but those days are long behind us. No less than many average American Catholics, the Greek Orthodox seem content with the “privately opposed/publicly accepting” dichotomy on most pressing moral issues and cannot be bothered to take a stand against the rising tide of secularism in America.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those Orthodox who seem to align politically with certain traditionalist Catholics in believing Donald Trump and the alt-right will save them. Most of these poor souls are infected with “Russophilia” and believe, contrary to all available evidence, that “Holy Russia 2.0” is upon us. (If anybody needs a sobering account of why “Holy Russia 1.0” was not all that and a bag of chips, please see about purchasing a copy of the late Metropolitan Evlogy’s two-volume memoirs from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.) For them, Kirill of Moscow is Pope, Vladimir Putin is Tsar, and the only crucial political issue of the day is, “How can we appease Russia?” Now, granted, many of these Orthodox have their instincts in the right place. There is, after all, no benefit in following Hillary Clinton’s plan of picking a war with Russia so that jihadists can control Syria, nor can any Christian be blamed for being leery of the Democratic Party after what it has done to help raze Middle Eastern Christianity over the past eight years. Still, it is unsettling how easily a noticeable segment of American Orthodoxy can have its political orientation steered by romanticism.

All of this is to say that while the choice to choose Orthodoxy over Catholicism makes sense on a certain level, particularly as far as “basic orthodoxy” is concerned, those wishing to acquire a “total package” of “pure Christianity” with an unbreakable moral compass may wish to take a few steps back. As confused as Catholic thinking is today on a great many issues, no one can seriously contend that the Catholic Church has not spoken—and spoken forcefully—on matters such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, just war, just wages, and so on and so forth. While Orthodoxy has exhibited moral clarity in the past, its confederate-style makeup coupled with (uncanonical?) jurisdictional overlap has created something of a free-for-all when it comes to moral choices. For instance, if a couple doesn’t care for what Fr. Barsanuphius has to say about the pill and rubbers, Fr. Panteleimon down the street can put their consciences at ease.

At the political level (the lowest level?), American Orthodoxy is weak—so weak as to be almost nonexistent. And that’s fine. Those faithful bands of Catholics truly dedicated to what the Church teaches regarding the common good are also weak numerically and materially. The vast majority of Christians living today, regardless of confessional adherence, have made their peace with liberalism; they have no use for a Gospel that still speaks literally of living in the world and not being of it. Orthodoxy, for all of its apparent “other-worldliness,” is just as susceptible to secularism as Catholicism. What is still unclear is that if Orthodoxy, in its modern American iteration, has the capacity to step outside of these times, to find that horizon beyond liberalism, and then push forth with the Great Commission in hand. Or, in the end, will its seemingly most faithful adherents retreat from the moment of decision to dwell in figurative caves where they might cry out to the sky to be saved from the absolute corruption into which they have been thrown? And will the Catholics join them? Heaven forbid.