THERE is a bit of a sinking feeling in my gut. I’ve been processing it all week before writing today. After reading public comments from even well-known Catholics, to “conservative” media to the average layperson… it’s clear that the chickens have come home to roost. The lack of catechesis, moral formation, critical thinking and basic virtues in Western Catholic culture is rearing its dysfunctional head. In the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia:
…there’s no easy way to say it. The Church in the United States has done a poor job of forming the faith and conscience of Catholics for more than 40 years. And now we’re harvesting the results—in the public square, in our families and in the confusion of our personal lives. —Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Political Vocation, February 23rd, 2009, Toronto, Canada
Today, many Christians are no longer even aware of the basic teachings of the Faith… —Cardinal Gerhard Müller, February 8th, 2019, Catholic News Agency
The “results” resemble a trainwreck—as, for example, “Catholic” politicians who frequently lead the charge to mandate abortion, assisted-suicide and gender ideology; or clergy grappling with sexual abuse coverups while remaining conspicuously silent on moral teaching; or the laity, nearly shepherdless for decades now, either embracing moral relativism as their informal creed, or on the other extreme, publically damning anyone who does not subscribe to their view of what spirituality, the liturgy or the pope should be like.
It’s a mess. Go onto any Catholic news website, blog, forum or Facebook page and read the comments. They are embarrassing. If I was not a Catholic, what I read on a regular basis on the internet would probably ensure that I never would be. The verbal assaults against Pope Francis are almost unprecedented (though on par with Martin Luther’s sometimes rancid remarks). The public condemning and damning of fellow Catholics who do not follow a certain liturgical style, or who embrace a certain private revelation, or who simply disagree with one another on other matters constitutes in itself a scandal. Why?
Because the unity of the Church is her witness!
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
This is why my heart is sinking today. While the world closes in on the Catholic Church (in the East, literally beheading Christians and driving them underground, while in the West, legislating the Church out of existence) Catholics themselves are tearing one another apart!
Starting with the Pope…
I remember the very day that this pontificate began to be publicly rejected by many “conservative” Catholics for the direction he chose to take the Barque of Peter in:
The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise, even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow. —POPE FRANCIS, September 30th, 2013; americamagazine.org
He elaborated further in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, that at this time in the world when mankind has become so intoxicated by sin, the Church must return to the kerygma, the “first announcement”:
On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” —Evangelii Gaudium, n. 164
As someone who has evangelized in the Catholic Church for over thirty years, I totally got it, as have many others I know in ministry. The heart of our faith is not our stance against abortion, euthanasia, gender experimentation, etc.. It’s the love and mercy of Jesus Christ, His quest for the lost and brokenhearted and the salvation He offers them.
But what a firestorm the Pope’s initial statement created! And the Pope, perceiving too legalistic a mindset in the Church, has chosen not to bend, not to answer most questions asking him to clarify some of his confusing statements or actions since then. I’m not saying the Pope’s silence is necessarily right. Confirming the brethren in the faith is not only his duty, but I think would only strengthen his evangelistic exhortation. But it’s up to him how he feels best to do that. So perhaps others should be much more silent, especially when publically charging the Holy Father with “heresy” while seemingly not understanding what canonically constitutes a heresy or a heretic.  Ambiguity is not the same as heresy.
No. This Pope is orthodox, that is, doctrinally sound in the Catholic sense. But it is his task to bring the Church together in truth, and it would be dangerous if he were to succumb to the temptation of pitting the camp that boasts of its progressivism, against the rest of the Church… —Cardinal Gerhard Müller, “Als hätte Gott selbst gesprochen”, Der Spiegel, Feb. 16, 2019, p. 50
Another area of division is over the liturgy. In a kind of blowback against modernism and Pope Francis (whom some deem its proponent), there is a growing trend of Catholics seeking out the Tridentine Liturgy, the old Latin rite. There is no problem with those who want to worship in that, or any of the other authorized rites. Moreover, the present Roman liturgy, the Ordo Missae, and the rubrics, sacred music, and reverence surrounding it, have indeed been greatly watered-down and wounded, if not omitted altogether. It’s a real tragedy, to be sure. But what is even more grievous is how some Catholics who prefer the Tridentine rite are turning against the clergy and laity, who remain in the ordinary form of the Mass, with the most rancid public comments, images, and posts. They openly mock Francis, ridicule priests and condescend others who aren’t apparently as “pious” as them (see Weaponizing the Mass). It’s an embarrassment on top of all the other embarrassments we are enduring in the Church today. I can’t be mad, tempted as I am. We have to be merciful toward one another, especially when people are obviously blinded by hubris.
Perhaps as a last example is the ugly division over the mystical aspects of Church life. Here I am speaking of “private revelation” or the charisms of the Holy Spirit. I have read recent comments, for example, calling the priests, bishops, cardinals and millions of laity who go to Medjugorje yearly as being “fanatical Mary-idolaters”, “apparition chasers” and “zealots”, even though the Vatican continues to discern the phenomenon there and even recently encouraged pilgrimages. These comments did not come from atheists or fundamentalists, but “faithful” Catholics.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, St. Paul said that a time would come when there would be a great rebellion against Christ and the Church. This is mostly understood as a revolt against the true teachings of the Faith. However, at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, Jesus issues Five Corrections of the Church toward both “conservatives” and “progressives.” Does this rebellion also involve an element of revolt against the Vicar of Christ, not only by those who reject Catholic teaching, but those who reject papal authority in the name of “orthodoxy” (ie. who enter into schism)?
The common thread in everything I’ve outlined above is essentially a repudiation of the authority of the Vicar of Christ and the Magisterium that, in fact, is itself scandalous as it undermines a credible united Catholic witness:
They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it. —POPE PIUS XII, Mystici Corporis Christi (On the Mystical Body of Christ), June 29, 1943; n. 41; vatican.va
At the end of his discourse on the coming of the Antichrist or “lawless one,” St. Paul gives the antidote:
Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours. (2 Thess 2:13-15)
But one cannot hold fast to the traditions we have been taught without at the same time remaining in communion with the Pope and bishops in communion him—warts and all. Indeed, one can readily see in those who have entered into schism with Rome the deviations in their beliefs from the one true faith. Christ established His Church on one rock only, and that is Peter.
It is on [Peter] that He builds the Church, and to him that He entrusts the sheep to feed. And although he assigns power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair, thus establishing by His own authority the source and hallmark of the Churches’ oneness… a primacy is given to Peter and it is thus made clear that there is but one Church and one chair… If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church? — St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, “On the Unity of the Catholic Church”, n. 4; The Faith of the Early Fathers,Vol. 1, pp. 220-221
But what happens when the Pope is confusing or when he seems to teach something contrary? Oh, you mean like the first pope did?
But when [Peter] came to Antioch I [Paul] opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned… I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14)
Two things to take from this. It was a fellow bishop who issued a “filial correction” of the first pope. Second, he did it “to his face.”
Asked what he would advise Pope Francis to reply to the “Dubia” cardinals who were still waiting for an answer from him, [Cardinal] Müller said the whole affair should never have been made public but should have been settled internally. “We believe in the one Church of Christ united in faith and love,” he said. —The Tablet, May 17th, 2019
Jesus did not establish a willy-nilly Church on earth, but a body, organized with a hierarchy upon whom He bestowed His own authority. To honor that authority is to honor Christ. For to His disciples, He said:
Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me. (Luke 10:16)
…this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86
You can see what’s coming brothers and sisters—and why I feel a rock in my gut. We appear to be moving toward, and are already in a time when there will be those who will promote a false church, an anti-gospel. On the other hand, there are and will be those who will reject the papacy of Pope Francis, thinking they are remaining in the “true church.” Caught in the middle will be the rest who, while holding fast to the traditions of the Church, will still remain in communion with the Vicar of Christ. I believe it will constitute a great part of the “trial” coming which the Catechism says will “shake the faith of many believers.”
If you do not wish to be deceived by the spirit of antichrist prevalent in society today, a spirit of rebellion, then “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught.” And you were taught, brothers and sisters, by Peter and the Apostles and their successors throughout the centuries.
[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. —St. Irenaeus of Lyons (189 AD), Against Heresies, 4:33:8
If you want to walk safely with Christ, you must walk with His Church, which is His Mystical Body. There was a time when I struggled with the Church’s teaching on birth control. But rather than become a “cafeteria Catholic” who picks and chooses when he will agree with the Magisterium, my wife and I embraced the Church’s teaching (see An Intimate Testimony). Twenty-seven years later, we have eight children and three grandkids (so far!) that we would never want to live a second without.
When it comes to papal controversies, to private revelation, to the Charismatic Renewal (“baptism in the Spirit”), to doctrinal questions, do not become your own magisterium, a little vatican, an armchair pope. Be humble. Submit to the authentic Magisterium. And recognize that the Church is at once holy but also consists of sinners, from the top down. Discern with the Mother, taking her hand, not casting it aside because of a hangnail or callouses.
Trust Jesus, who has not built His Church on sand, but rock—that in the end, the gates of hell will never prevail, even if things do get a little hot from time to time…
This is my commandment:
love one another as I love you.