Is the Church Really in a Crisis?

Eamonn Clark

It has been said that the Church is in a crisis… Some have even said we are now in the “Fourth Great Crisis.” After all, it seems that about every 500 years the Church needs to face some massive doctrinal upheaval. First was Arius, next was the Great Schism of 1054 between East and West, then exactly 500 years ago was the Reformation. Aren’t we due? Isn’t the confusion over Amoris Laetitia the manifestation of a widespread sickness that has been plaguing the Church for some 50 years or more? We are facing serious novelties and ambiguities regarding the doctrine of grace, at least three sacraments, fundamental morals, the nature of the office of the papacy, and canon law. Indeed, there is a massive problem… But the Church is not in a crisis.

The Church is a crisis.

We, the Church on Earth, are no longer in Eden. This is the Bad News™ which makes sense of the Good News. We are caught in between the life of our corrupted nature and the life of Heaven, with the possibility but without the guarantee of making it to glory. The Church Militant is “militant” because of the continual working out of our salvation in fear and trembling… We must constantly fight against our weakened wills and darkened intellects. Either the battle is fought – with the help of God – or the battle is lost. If you are not fighting, you are dying… The one who stops fighting allows the Evil One to gain ground.

A city which is in a perpetual state of warfare would certainly be in nonstop crisis, but the Church Militant simply is the war itself on the part of the baptized. To be baptized is to have the power to fight for what the sacrament makes possible to obtain, namely, Heaven, and it makes one a special target of the Devil and the possible subject of a tragic fall into damnation. Therefore, the Church Militant is itself a war – or a crisis.

Yes, it is more than that. The Church is a communion of persons united with God through grace, it is the access to a supernatural storehouse of merit, it is the temporal participation in the Mystical Body of the Lord, and so on. But it is also essentially a dramatic fight for Heaven, where the Lord does battle with us and within us. Thus did Joshua enter Canaan, and so must we enter the true Holy Land. Our nature being what it is, however, there will be resistance to grace, and this will make a mess of what could have otherwise been an immediate victory – Joshua failed to purify the land of all its idols, which occasioned much trouble – and we have failed in much the same way. So long as there is sin within the Church, we have not yet succeeded, and this means that the war must continue.

There has always been widespread sin in the Church in every day and age. (Do you really think the pre-conciliar Church was that nice? Where, then, did the post-conciliar Church come from, I wonder?) However, there are moments where sin becomes more pronounced or more accepted as good among members of the baptized or even among the clergy. When this happens, it is something of a return to form… If you want to know how bad things can really get, reread the story of Our Lord’s Passion and Death, keeping in mind that the apostles are clergy – and one is the pope. (An attentive reading of 2 Kings 21 might also help – surely, you will have a legitimate complaint when your local bishop institutes the policies of Manasseh, King of Judah, and stays in power for 55 years.) Nonetheless, God made good on His promises then, and He will do so again. His own holiness and fidelity have the last word. He fights with us, and this is why the crisis – which is the Church in time – will not last forever. Until that day, let’s cultivate an eternal perspective on the failures of mere men who have a special office in Our Lord’s mystical body.

Let’s pray, too.

In Defense of Bad Priests

Eamonn Clark

I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?

Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)

The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively. (Others such as Abel and Noah and Abraham offered sacrifices, like priests, but they were not called by the name “priest.” More could be said about their sacrifices as well.)

Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.

The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.

The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)

Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.

The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.

Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.

What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.

We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.

Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.

The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.

There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”

Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.

Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

 

Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband

A Forgotten Sin

There is a strange and subtle fault that plagues human hearts. It is strange because it is committed only with other sins, and it is subtle because one already has forgiveness on his mind when he commits it and so is likely not to think it needs repenting from. What is this sin?

Presumption.

Presumption is opposed to the virtue of hope, whereby we desire and expect God’s forgiveness and help in obtaining Heaven. It is the contrary of despair… The presumptuous person throws aside the moral law on account of the excessive character of his hope. He expects too much from God: he expects a thing not promised. Salvation has not been promised to those who merely fulfill a formula (viz., announcing one’s sins in sacramental confession, for example) but rather to those who exhibit perfect contrition, which is the rejection of all to do with sin – its evil effects, its evil content, and its evil motivation – out of love for God (with the assumption of making confession soon, if not presently making one), and to those who at least have true “attrition” (fear of punishment) within the sacrament of confession itself. Presumption is a special kind of motivation… a “meta-sin” if you will. One is in danger of not having adequate repentance for the sacrament of confession to receive absolution if he fails to mention presumption, as he brings his lack of the fear of God into the confessional with him. For a valid confession, one must at least have true attrition – fear of punishment. The presumptuous person does not have this fear with regard to himself. (If you have just become aware of this sin in your life, you should assume that your prior confessions were valid unless you have a clear certainty that you were not really trying that hard to examine your conscience. Simply mention presumption in your next confession.)

To help understand this sin, here’s a natural, human form of presumption. Imagine a child who stays out well past his curfew. When he comes home, his parents are upset, but he apologizes for his lateness and they forgive him. Then, on their way to bed, they hear their son talking on the phone to a friend – “Yeah they were mad but they forgave me. I knew they would, that’s why I did it.”

Ouch. What parent wouldn’t then proceed with an even more severe punishment than what mere lateness merited?

Unlike an unsuspecting parent, God is wise to this game. A person has “too much hope” if he thinks that “God will forgive me” is an excuse for doing whatever he wants and then only confessing the faults he commits because of his expectation of forgiveness. He must also confess his motivation – presuming upon God’s mercy. In this sense, presumption is “an inordinate conversion to God,” as St. Thomas puts it. This is strange to our ears, but it is indeed what this sin is; a person hopes so much for forgiveness that his servile fear is entirely demolished and replaced not by filial fear but by disobedience.

Presumption is a daughter of pride. One who thinks he is so great as to deserve Heaven is likely to fall into halfhearted repentance, or even into no repentance at all. What a calamity! Pride can also lead to another kind of presumption, namely, the rash assumption that God has blessed one’s endeavors in such a way that failure will be impossible or at least improbable in the project one has undertaken. For example, a man decides to become a missionary in China. He prayed, but he did not seek the approval of any ecclesial authority nor take counsel with a prudent spiritual director. How does he know that this is really God’s will? He does not. He would be guilty of this secondary kind of presumption. So too would a person who thinks himself to have “the gift of healing” and so goes about laying hands on people without authentic discretion. This is presumptuous of God’s grace and also exposes the Gospel to ridicule.

Knowing you have committed this sin is not always so easy. There is a difference between the hope of forgiveness motivating a sin and the hope of forgiveness occasioning a sin… I have given an example of the former in the context of human relationships. An example of the latter would be something more like a child who has become used to his parents forgiving him and so loses some respect and fear of punishment. He does not consciously choose to violate their legitimate demands on him because he knows they will forgive him, but a kind of vicious habit has been ingrained nonetheless. Where is the line between these two cases? It might not always be so clear. What we can say is that a person who consciously makes forgiveness a condition of his sinful action has certainly committed this sin, and a person who has lost respect and fear of punishment is in serious danger of committing this sin.

To reiterate, presumption requires its own mention in confession, as it is its own distinct sin. Often a person will know he has done something seriously wrong by using “God will forgive me” as a motivation for sin but will not have the vocabulary to explain himself in confession. The word is “presumption.”

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Pope Francis goes to confession – via Catholic News Agency

Should Christians Dance?

A young priest sets out into the countryside to journey to his new assignment… He is not quite sure how to get there, but in the evening, while walking in a field he finds two boys. They tell him he has just crossed into the parish boundary. Father gets on his knees and prays in thanksgiving for being sent there and in preparation for the work he will do in the little country town. The first and most important job, he would find out, will be to eradicate “the scourge of dancing.”

Of course we are speaking of the one whom they called “the saint” even during his lifetime – St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars. We are not speaking of Rev. Shaw Moore, the antagonist of Footloose… Although the two might have gotten along, ecumenical issues aside.

Dance is commonly assumed to be an art form and a generally good way to recreate. Such assumptions are in fact so deep that the suggestion that it might be better to do away with public dances is seen as rigid, cruel, “medieval,” etc. One can only imagine the reactions of North Dakota’s teens to then Bishop Aquila’s decision a few years ago to ban dances (and pajama days) in one of his Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fargo… Maybe even some parents and faculty were upset. But would they have told John Vianney that he had been “too rigid” after he finally conquered the last of the dancers in the tiny village of Ars, which by that point had become the brightest beacon of holiness and civility in all of France?

The Abbé Trochu, in his famous biography of the saint, notes that, while St. Francis de Sales “wore gloves” when treating the topic, Vianney did not. “Go on! Dance! Dance all the way down into Hell!” Thus spake the saintly curé from the pulpit, time and time again. After decades, Ars was perfectly obedient to its pastor and was much happier for it.

Imagine the efforts it would have taken to accomplish the same feat in a 21st American century town even of normal size by today’s standards.

The people of Ars were not having dainty upper-crust waltzes, but neither were they “grinding,” “twerking,” or doing any other kind of categorically pornographic actions, which no reasonable person would think to call morally acceptable. They were simply dancing like country folk, having some drinks, and then getting too familiar with each other. The saint saw that this was not an accidental relationship, and he thought “the dance” to be the single greatest occasion of sin in Ars.

Note that it was seen by him as an occasion of sin, not necessarily a sin in itself, except perhaps inasmuch as a certain recklessness therein could be an expression of a lack of due care to avoid offending God. So, the question remains: can a Christian dance?

It depends.

The downfall of dance is usually what is touted as its greatest quality – the ability to arouse and express the passions. It is violent, it is sensual, it is angry, it is sad, it is joyous, it is whatever you need it to be. It intensifies all these things and shows them to others, while “freeing the spirit.” That’s the point. And that’s the problem.

In expressing the passions haphazardly, one can lose a grip on reason and be drawn to wherever that passion leads. The main problem is with sensuality.

First of all, we can, without hesitation, discard the utterly obscene motions and actions that have no other purpose than to sexualize the participants. These are not only done out of inordinate desire for the pleasures of the body, but they are also scandalous. Scandal here means a “stumbling block” to the spiritual lives of others – to cause sin in them. We are bound to avoid causing sin in others inasmuch as it is possible while not neglecting other duties. Nobody has ever had a duty to do anything like one would find going on at the average American high school dance. And it can never be good art, if art is the good expression of something good to express.

Secondly, we must examine the motivations and circumstances of those dances which are less clear. Should a desperate bachelor engage in a romantic tango with a beautiful woman he’s just met? Perhaps this will be a real challenge to him interiorly, urging him to go further and further… The same may hold true for her, which he must be careful about as well. Such a dance loosens the foundation on which chastity rests.

But what about a professional dancer who is so used to these movements and is so concentrated on his craft that he is greatly fortified against temptations? It seems the difficulty begins to disappear. And if a man is dancing with his wife, certainly there is no problem.

The case becomes different according to the abilities and circumstances of those involved, and according to the capacity of a dance to evoke problematic urges.

What would John Vianney think of the teens of Bomont jumping on the Kevin Bacon rock-n-roll-will-free-your-soul bandwagon? If we are honest – which we are here to be – we must say that he would probably be just as indignant as he was when he arrived in Ars, if not more so. He would think Rev. Moore was a wuss and a bad leader for finally caving. He would go to his bedroom, scourge himself to a bloody pulp, not eat for a few days, then start preaching, if his approach in Ars is any indication.

While the final scene of the film doesn’t have anything too bad (especially since these kids who have apparently never danced before are actually professionals), it is the culture and ideas which are introduced by the habitual loosening of inhibitions in social settings with the opposite sex (that often also involve alcohol) which sends up red flags. It is the dark cloud on the horizon: there is not yet a storm, but one is coming.  Just as well, the spirits of angst and rebellion are not spirits from God, but they are exactly what Kevin Bacon’s character and the whole idea of rock-n-roll are about.

There are ways to “cut loose” and socialize that do not involve the dangers of “the dance.” Running, golfing, hiking, and yes, even spelunking are all appropriate alternatives. I simply can’t imagine John Vianney giving a sermon against spelunking… Can you?

“But wait!” some will say. “There is that scene where Bacon’s character goes before city council and throws down some verses from Scripture about how great dancing is! Ha. Game, set, and match, you Jansenist clown!” Unfortunately, we will have to save the detailed examination of the Scriptural treatment of dancing for another post. For now it will suffice to say that the Holy Bible decidedly does NOT encourage us to “kick off our Sunday shoes” so that we can do the worm to impress our friends.

Here is a challenge to those who have charge of Catholic schools: take a good, long look at the reality of what is going on at your dances, and whether it is worth the spiritual risk.

 

Main image: screenshot from “Footloose” (1984)

Post by: Eamonn Clark