This is the final installment of our review of Abbot Gabriel’s book. (Click Here for Part I / Click Here for Part II)
The “Regularization.” When Abbot Gabriel told me that there would be things Brother Francis would not agree with in his book, I assumed that these would be matters pertaining to the “regularization,” that is, the process by which many of the brothers and some of the sisters had apparent canonical censures removed from themselves and Father Feeney. What I found when I read the book was that the position of Brother Francis, Brother Hugh, and the majority of the sisters comes out looking quite good. In other words, our group (“the other side,” as Father Gabriel refers to us) is justified.
As one example of how this is so, I instance the secrecy surrounding the discussions of the community’s regularization. I had heard about this from some of the older religious on “our side” and the Abbot’s account agrees with theirs. Brother Francis, who would broach no backing down, no silencing of our doctrinal Crusade, was kept in the dark about what was happening. There was much cloak-and-dagger (or cassock and dagger, as the case may be). In short, those known to be “no-compromise,” were deliberately kept in the dark vis-a-vis dealings with the hierarchy.
Here is the Abbot:
The bottom line was that we coexisted for six years with the other group [of brothers] right in the same building — and we survived. There was a positive side, though: we discovered previously-unknown alcoves and niches where we could discuss matters in private! (p. 172)
It should be kept in mind that Father Feeney was weakened by Parkinson’s disease, whose cognitive effects had taken their toll; he simply did not know what was happening at times. Sister Catherine, the very capable administrator and motivator, had gone to her reward by this time. There were now new dynamics of leadership with other interests being guarded. In the new circle of leadership, whose secret meetings excluded any other voice, the desire to achieve respectability and ecclesiastical recognition was winning out over the drive to keep up the fight.
At one point, four brothers made a top-secret trip to Rome which ended up in something of a comedy of errors. Father Gabriel tells the story without any noticeable embarrassment or shame:
We knew that if word got out about our trip to Rome, the Sisters in St. Ann’s House and Brother Hugh (MacIsaac) and Brother Francis (Maluf) and the others with them in St. Pius X House would be furious. So, we pretended that the four of us were going for a visit to my home in Hornell, N.Y. Unfortunately for us, a student at the Angelicum (University), who knew the Sisters, chanced to meet me on a Roman street corner. He immediately telephoned the Sisters and told them we were in Rome. The Sisters, naturally, told Father Feeney and he, then, told Brother Xavier (Connelly) that “Brother Gabriel is in Rome.” Brother Xavier showed surprise at the possibility, but Father Leonard insisted it was true, saying “Sister Teresa (Beneway) told me that somebody she knows saw him in Rome this morning.”
Well, when we came back we didn’t admit to Father or to the Sisters or to anyone else “over there” — despite their insistence — where we had been. Nevertheless, they certainly believed we had been in Rome and they accused us of betraying Father and of betraying our past and they only intensified their efforts to have Father Leonard deny that he had been reconciled. (p. 160-161)
Not exactly the kind of behavior which engenders trust, is it? Neither does it stir up one’s admiration for the virtue of obedience in the brothers involved. The protagonists of these maneuvers were among those who later agreed to keep silent regarding “no salvation outside the Church.” It would seem, then, that the suspicions of the other side proved well founded.
The Abbot recounts every major step leading to the brothers of St. Therese House becoming a Benedictine Abbey. From Father Feeney’s regularization to the profession of Faith made by “the twenty-nine” to the various stages of ecclesiastical recognition the group obtained as religious to the ordinations and, finally, to the Priory being elevated to the status of an Abbey. The story is told with a narrative style that sustains the reader’s interest. But there is something of a funny aftertaste in certain parts. What struck me throughout this section was the frequent use of phrases like “and that was the next step on our becoming an Abbey.” The reader is tempted — or this one was, anyway — to think that the author considers the goal of the Crusade to have been the Abbatial dignity. After years of ecclesiastical oblivion and the shame of canonical irregularity, Saint Benedict Center is now an Abbey — this is the triumph. Our idea of victory would be much different.
Among the unpleasant realities of the long process of achieving this dignity was the strange set of alliances which formed. Cardinal Wright, who never really changed, is transformed from being an enemy to a friend of the Center. Abbot Primate (later Archbishop) Rembert Weakland is given prominence as one of the Abbey’s advocates. So, too, is Father Basil Pennington. Now, Archbishop Weakland’s crimes against nature were not yet notorious, I guess, but his liberalism was sure known. Yet, he comes across as a good guy in the book.
Father Pennington deserves special mention as one who gave counsel to Brother Gabriel and his side:
At about that time, Rev. Basil Pennington, O.S.C.O., a Trappist friend of the Center family at St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, in southwestern Worcester County, suggested that we investigate an affiliation with the Order of St. Benedict. Father Basil, a gifted writer and internationally-renowned authority on monastic spirituality who, for a time, was abbot of the Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., noted from the beginning both our identity (St. Benedict Center) and our lifestyle had been Benedictine in orientation. …
Accordingly, with an introduction by Father Basil, Brother Cyril and I went to St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., in September of 1975 to explore the possibility with the Benedictines’ abbot-primate, Abbot Rembert Weakland, O.S.B. (pg. 190, emphasis mine)
The reason I italicized the words “a gifted writer and internationally-renowned authority on monastic spirituality” is that the man deemed worthy of these laudatory comments has distinguished himself as one of the concoctors of false spirituality known as “Centering Prayer”:
In the mid-seventies, Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating asked the monks, “Could we put the Christian tradition into a form that would be accessible to people . . . who have been instructed in an Eastern technique and might be inspired to return to their Christian roots if they knew there was something similar in the Christian tradition?” (Intimacy with God, 15). Frs. William Menniger and M. Basil Pennington took up the challenge, and centering prayer is the result. In a few short years it has spread all over the world.
Centering prayer originated in St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. During the twenty years (1961–1981) when Keating was abbot, St. Joseph’s held dialogues with Buddhist and Hindu representatives, and a Zen master gave a week-long retreat to the monks. A former Trappist monk who had become a Transcendental Meditation teacher also gave a session to the monks. (From “The Danger of Centering Prayer” by John Dreher)
As the author of that article goes on to show, Centering prayer is not Christian prayer. There is a beautiful Cistercian-Trappist tradition of prayer and spirituality, with wonderful authors like Dom Vitalis Lahodey, Dom Chautard, and Father M. Eugene Boylan (some of our own favorite spiritual writers), but Father Pennington is more of the Thomas Merton syncretic stripe of spirituality. Something is very wrong when one of Father Feeney’s disciples gives such praise to a habited new-age guru.
I should hasten to add that, although the strange association with Father Pennington is something I find reprehensible, I am not making any accusation that the brothers at the Abbey have adopted any of his weird spirituality. To the best of my knowledge, this is not the case. But the association (and, especially, the public praise) manifests a disturbing spirit of indifferentism and ambiguity. If becoming Benedictines was the right thing to do (note the hypothetical), then dealing with Abbot Rembert Weakland was something they had no choice in, given that he was the head of the Benedictine Order at the time. But having such a dangerous spiritual eclectic in your circle of friends is a matter of choice. In short, while you can’t pick your Abbot-Primate, you can pick your friends.
The political agreement to keep silent on no salvation outside the Church is related to these strange associations. Without the associations the silencing would not have been an issue. Both betray a degree of disloyalty to the foundational principles upon which Father Feeney’s Crusade were based and that disloyalty had its effects, some of which have been brought out by the criticisms I have already made. Probably the most tragic effect was the serious doctrinal compromise in one of the original members. Father Cyril Karam, one of the four brothers on the above-mentioned Rome trip, began to embrace modernist theology. He became enamored of the likes of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and other theological miscreants, to the scandal and protest of many in the community. (As Harvard to Harvard relates, Father Cyril left Still River to begin St. Mary’s Priory in Petersham, Massachusetts.)
While I find it necessary to put the foregoing paragraph in the public record on the matter, I do so neither as blanket statement against everyone in the Abbey nor an ad hominem against the Abbot.
Summary of the Book’s Value: “The Issue.” Having just been so negative in my commentary, I feel the need to conclude with some positive aspects of the book. One of these is a wonderful defense of monasticism. Not all of us need be missionaries in the active apostolate; the Church has always had monks whose life was exclusively (or nearly so) dedicated to prayer. It is one of the condemned tenets of Americanism that such a contemplative life is useless. Another fine passage is the chapter entitled “Our Spirituality in Summary.” Leaving out what is specifically Benedictine in this chapter, its contents are equally applicable to us.
The last word will go to the Abbot himself, but first I would like to comment on what I consider the book’s real worth. No matter what disagreements exist between Saint Benedict Center in New Hampshire and Saint Benedict Abbey in Massachusetts, the Abbot is now telling the world very unambiguously that Father Feeney was right, that he was treated unjustly, and that his cause must prevail if the Church is to overcome the crisis now afflicting her. These are all good things. What is particularly encouraging in this regard is the Abbot’s position in the Church. The fact that such a man has “gotten away” with stating the case so clearly gives us hope that things are on the mend, at least in some small measure. (Let us not be naïve!) In recent years, people have begun to let their guard down regarding the institutionalized liberalism plaguing the Church. The “Great Facade,” while still in place, has many cracks in it. Frank estimates of the disastrous nature of the liturgical reforms coming from high places and honest acknowledgments of the non-binding character of Vatican II’s teachings are among these cracks. Father Gabriel’s book is a chisel to make at least one more fissure in the Great Facade.
Estimation of the Present Crisis. In a chapter entitled “The Theological Dialectic,” we read Father Gabriel’s estimate of the doctrinal state of affairs in the Church, something he blames largely on the Marchetti Selvaggiani Letter:
In the last sixty years, whenever a Church document would assert or imply that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ, that fact or the implications drawn from it would be seemingly conterbalanced by statements declaring the opposite. Some in authority have even proposed the idea that, “You can hold what you hold if you allow us to hold what we hold,” even when the two positions appear to be contradictions. (p. 237)
This lament will resonate loudly with those of us who have heard these remarks from bishops! Later, we come by these insights into the clerical abuse scandal:
In the recent past, the Church has been rocked to its core by the abuse scandal among clergy. However, the priest’s vital role, the salvific effect of his priestly ministry, was obscured many years ago. In fact the obscuring started as far back as 1949 when the Church, especially the Church in America, most notably the Church in Boston, the epicenter of clerical abuse today [!!!], rejected the doctrine that the Sacraments of the Church were necessary for Salvation.
In the Old Testament, whenever the Covenant was rejected, the people became corrupt. In the New Testament, when the salvific value of the sacraments was no longer considered necessary, the priests began to become corrupt. Quicker than anyone realized, the frailty of human nature took over weak souls. While their path to sin is considered so abominable even by secular society, it was surprisingly logical. If Sacraments are not necessary, my priesthood is not necessary. Grace, salvation, heaven, what do these mean any more? What I do, or do not do, matters little.
Should we be surprised at the horrific drama of new names, more names in the daily headlines? No, the surprise is that there aren’t more. Father Leonard always said, “If you lose your Faith, you lose your morals. If you lose your morals, you will lose your Faith.” (243-244).
This subtle job of connecting the persecution of Father Feeney with the clerical abuse scandal is, we think, not baseless. Holy Scripture is insistent on the connection between sexual perversion and sins against Faith (cf. Romans 1 and 2). The book of Isaias lists among the punishments for Israel’s infidelity: “the effeminate shall rule over them” (3:4). As a fact of historical record, the first documented case of clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston was in 1949!
What immediately preceded the mention of clerical abuse was a passage of great beauty, worthy of Father Feeney himself and with this I shall conclude:
Not it’s time to show by our lives what we believe. … [W]e will show by our actions that we are living for eternity, that salvation is the most important goal in life. Salvation is the reason for our existence. What did the old catechism tell us? We were put here on earth “to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next.”
With this perspective in mind, everything we do as monks makes sense. Without it, nothing makes sense. A lot of the confusion and chaos that hit the Church with all the changes in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s was because priests and religious were bored with praying the Divine Office. Frankly, if one is not motivated by the salvific value of that prayer, it will become boring! But if you are excited about salvation practically every line in the Psalms leaps out at you declaring God’s saving power or praising Him for His saving love.