Chaos and the Visible Church

“The Church is now in a full-blown civil war over doctrine” screams the headline from the U.K. Catholic Herald. The body of doctrine being fought over is not limited to the hot-button issues surrounding Amoris Laetitia, either. Those issues certainly remain a casus belli — for Cardinal Coccopalmerio has just added his own contribution by way of a 51-page booklet published by the Vatican Press, the curious presser for whose publication was described as “Kafkaesque” by The Tablet’s Christopher Lamb. But in addition to the increasing scandal and division surrounding Amoris, the civil war mentioned by the Catholic Herald’s Dan Hitchens now includes a new front, one formerly thought to have been tightly secured: the male-only sacramental priesthood of Jesus Christ.

The recent promotion of women priests comes not from the National Catholic Reporter or some other organ of progressivist lay opinion, but from La Civiltà Cattolica, every page of which is vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State. That once great publication has always been a Jesuit production, and it has changed over the years in sync with the evolution of the Society of Jesus, whose Father Antonio Spadaro is its current editor. La Civiltà’s Rev. Giancarlo Pani, S.J., authored the piece dismissing all tradition and the authoritative teaching of Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on Holy Orders. His reasoning? Not exactly rock solid theological criteria: the “developments that the presence of woman in the family and society has undergone in the 21st century.”

Besides La Civiltà Cattolica Jesuits — the Company traditionally conceived as the papal shock troops — the vanguard of the progressivist side in this civil war includes a group of cardinals who thought it good to issue a very unusual vote of confidence for the Roman Pontiff and his Magisterium.

On the other side is that dark and sinister character, the subject of recent conspiracy theories, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke. Mild mannered Midwestern churchman and canonist by day; by night, he turns malevolent co-conspirator with surly Steve Bannon and despotic Donald Trump, or so we are led to believe. It seems that the Washington Post’s Emma-Kate Symons thinks that Cardinal Burke is playing Saruman to Trump’s Sauron, with Bannon being a sort of orc go-between. (Weren’t traditionalists supposed to have a monopoly on nutty conspiracy theories?) This is truly rich fantasy writing worthy of the Southern Poverty Law Center, but its factual claims have been concisely debunked by Christian Browne, writing for OnePeterFive.

Less frantic than Symons but no more credible is Massimo Faggioli, writing for Commonweal. For him, the alleged Burke-Bannon nexus is inspired by notions of “American supremacy” and the “culture war, itself based in part on the rejection of Vatican II.” Notably, Mr. Faggioli presumes the existence of cooperation between the Cardinal and the Trump advisor even as he expresses this doubt: “There may be no strategic coordination between Burke and Bannon.” The anti-scholasticism of the Modernists really does render them very fluid in their approach to truth.

With all that as a background, I would like now to consider two much more important questions, questions as practical as they are ontological: The first: with all this scandal in the Church, why be Catholic? The second: (again) with all this scandal, where is the Church’s visibility, so necessary for men to see the Church that they might join it?

Among the myriad answers to the question why be Catholic, the one that is going to have enduring value is not going to be because of our beautiful liturgy (what happens in most parishes is easily bested by the Orthodox and sometimes even Anglicans), the quality of our schools, the cohesiveness of parish life, and the superiority of Catholic culture (which is so often rejected by Catholics ourselves), etc. I am not discounting any of those good things as good, but the ultimate reason to be, and to remain, Catholic is that this Church founded by Christ is the only way to Heaven, as the Popes and Fathers have taught, and as the Martyrs have testified.

As things get worse and worse in the Church, and as the temptation to reject Christ’s Bride increases because of the confusion and division that will likely increase, it will be required of us to maintain heroic Faith, such as that described by Father Garrigou Lagrange when it is being purified by trials: “In order to believe, there is left only this sole motive: God has revealed it; every secondary motive has momentarily disappeared” (click here for a longer excerpt). Or, as Guigo I, Prior of the Charterhouse (+1136) said it: “Without form or comeliness, and nailed to the cross — thus is truth to be adored.”

Just as Jesus had “no beauty in him, nor comeliness” (Is. 53:2) during His Passion, so the Church is being made ugly today as Her beautiful face is beaten and spit upon by those who should love Her. It takes the Faith of Saint Dismas to see the divine in that face.

And what of the visibility of the Church?

The Church is visible by its very nature. She cannot not be visible so long as she exists, but she can be more or less visible in particular times and places. As Hamish Fraser admirably showed in an excerpt from his book, Fatal Star, that we have just posted on, the Church is often practically invisible to the non-Catholics in a given area because the Catholics are not sufficiently visible in their living of the Faith. His proposal is simple: for Catholics to live like Catholics in their daily life, not only in the home, but in the marketplace, the factory, or the office. He called for Catholics to live the message of the social encyclicals and thereby to heighten the profile of the Church. This, of course, must be in addition to pursuing individual holiness and sanctifying the “domestic Church” of the Christian home. (See here for a brief theological treatment of the visibility of the Church.)

Fraser was well aware that there are certain functions that are to be performed by the clergy, and he in no way wanted to clericalise the laity. But to participate in the apostolate of the Church by way of sanctifying family life, working to leaven the temporal order with Christian principles, and even winning converts is in no way the exclusive domain of the clergy. Neither is the open profession of the Faith, or the bold public display of one’s religion. Certainly it is to be lived by assistance at the Holy Sacrifice (at a minimum) on those days when doing so is obligatory. Certainly, too, the Faith is to be lived in the home or it is not real. But outside both of those domains, the religion is to be lived. This average non-Catholic is not going to saunter into a Catholic Church to check on what it is his Catholic neighbors do. Nor is he likely — unless a close friend (which is always possible) — to be observing the Faith as it is lived in the home. But if you, a Catholic, work among non-Catholics, then your living the Faith in the workplace is an invitation to them to see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.

In this matter of raising the Church’s profile in society, such public displays of piety as pilgrimages, external processions, and Rosary crusades are also a big help.

It may be argued that things are so very bad today in the Church that now is not the time to try to win converts. That is the reasoning of a practical atheist — one who neither believes in God’s providence, nor in the necessity of the Church for salvation. You’re baptized. You have the Faith, so you can act as an instrument to pass it on to another. In fact, as bad as things are, now, more than ever, is the time to make the Church visible to non-Catholics, in whatever way you can.

I will end with three passages from the New Testament that encourage public, visible Catholicism:

  • “Let your modesty be known to all men” (Phil. 4:5).
  • “Having your conversation good among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by the good works, which they shall behold in you, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
  • “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).