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The Pride of St. Dominic: Muscular Renewal

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Aug 16, 2013

A few of our readers seem intent on rebuking me for not taking every possible opportunity to condemn bishops for their weak leadership, as if my job is to be a whistle blower. Of course, I’ve offered my fair share of criticism, and that is unlikely to end any time soon. But it is probably true that I was quicker to criticize when I was younger. Have I mellowed? Perhaps. But there is another factor at work, which if you are under forty you may not fully appreciate.

I suppose most readers are familiar with the tale of woe which haunted the Church, especially in the rapidly declining West, after the call for renewal in the 1960s was distorted to justify a neo-Modernist accommodation with rampant secularism. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we rapidly lost our Catholic institutions—religious communities, dioceses, parishes, schools, social services—to a false and highly accommodated vision of the Faith which ended up looking suspiciously like whatever was fashionable in the surrounding culture. The Extraordinary Synod called by John Paul II in 1985 is widely seen as the first cohesive shot across the bows of the Catholic-secular juggernaut. And this brings me to that factor which you might not recognize if you are just a little too young.

The institutional Church, in the West generally and in the United States without question, is substantially healthier now than thirty years ago. Back then, one could employ (to take but one example) the Wanderer tactic, of exposing one shameful situation after another, and end up reasonably close to the truth about the whole mess we were in. I do not for one moment mean that there were no good things happening in the Church; there always are. But on the whole, the Church (by which I mean the dominant leadership in the Church) was still sliding downhill in a fevered excitement to be just like everybody else, or splintering off into groups who wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But that is simply untrue today. Today the institutional effort at genuine renewal is palpable. There are notorious holdouts—especially among women religious, the Jesuits and the universities they influence (along with others like them), wide swaths of academic theologians, and some sectors of Catholic health and social services. But most dioceses have better leadership now than then, the seminaries have been largely reformed, the priesthood substantially revitalized, and the push for both the recovery of lost territory and a new evangelization is both very real and very strong.

Happily, this is no longer your father’s Church.

The Order of Preachers Sends a Message

I bring this up today because I am about to describe a very telling case in point in the Dominicans of the St. Joseph Province in the United States. I have always been drawn to St. Dominic and his wonderful Order of Preachers (their initials, O. P., come from Ordinis Praedicatorum). My doctoral dissertation way back in the dark age of 1973 was devoted to the connections of the Dominican observant reform in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—a long struggle to return the Order to the observance of its original rule after a period of laxity—with the overwhelmingly Dominican defense of Papal primacy against Conciliarism and, later, Protestantism. Then as now, the most deeply committed Catholics were also the most devoted to the Holy See.

In the twentieth century, the Dominicans suffered from the rising tide of secularization just as others did, but not quite so much as many. I am reliably informed by those inside that the Order today is fairly healthy worldwide, though of course it varies from place to place. As late as the early 1990s, the Western province in the United States suffered from the high-profile New Age operations of Matthew Fox, OP (a friar, actually, of the Central province) who worked for years illicitly but unscathed in California, along with his sidekick Starhawk the witch. Yet ultimately Fox was expelled from the Order and is now, predictably, an Episcopalian. Certainly most of the Order (including all of the American provinces) struggled with varying degress of Modernism in their ranks, but I mean what I say in referring to this as a struggle rather than a collapse. Moreover, this struggle has born good fruit. In recent years, the graduate philosophy program in the Western province and the well-known Dominican House of Studies at Catholic University in the East have become outstanding centers of orthodox Catholic education and formation.  

Problems with Dominicans in the Netherlands have proven less easy to solve; some of them made news five years ago by circulating a pamphlet advocating priestless Masses. And yet it was characteristic of the Dominican Order as a whole, as it would not have been characteristic of many other groups, that these wayward Dominican priests were officially reprimanded by their more universal superiors (see Dominican leaders rebuke Dutch theologians, 1/24/2008). I have not been able to verify rumors that the Order as a whole is planning serious steps to eliminate the ongoing scandal of their Dutch brethren, but because of the increasing spiritual health in other regions, it would not be surprising.

Even if you thought things were getting better, however, you may not have realized just how much things have changed. If I were to focus on the women, I could tell the inspiring story of the incomparable “Nashville Dominicans”, who are bursting at the seams and staffing school after school with sisters of deep faith and outstanding formation (see Schools of the Congregation). But it is easier at this moment to focus on the men, because a dramatic piece of literature from the Eastern American Province of St. Joseph is ready to hand. (For a look at the good things happening in the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, see Dominicans at Work: The Achievements of America’s Western Province.)

My Kingdom for a Message Like This

The latest mailing from the St. Joseph Province tells the story. In it Fr. Gabriel Gillen, OP opens with this sentence: “The Catholic Church is undergoing a spiritual and philosophical attack that is more widespread, vicious, and uncompromising than anything that has come before.” Then after some introductory remarks, he introduces his first subhead: “Satan, Meet Your Match: New Men for the Battle.” He continues:

What is this latest, most ferocious attack on Catholic truth and morality? Pope Benedict XVI called it the Dictatorship of Relativism, and Pope Francis refers to it as the spiritual poverty of our age…. But relativism has a fatal flaw. Although it is profoundly irrational, modern relativistic man thinks of himself as supremely rational. And so when we can engage him with reason—why, there is our opening. And our advantage.
I believe it is this intellectual approach (grounded, of course, in sound philosophy, theology and spirituality) that continues to attract the “best and brightest” young men to the Dominican Order. For young men willing and capable of engaging in our great intellectual and moral debates, the power and attraction of Thomism is greater than ever.

Fr. Gillen (within the Order, he would be called Friar—that is, Brother—Gillen) goes on to explain how the 292 professed friars of the Province of St. Joseph, including 213 priests, preach God’s Word to people in every path of life, serving in parishes, as foreign missionaries, in universities and hospitals, and as military chaplains. And “everywhere we go,” he says, “we preach in Jesus’ name the salvation of all people. Everywhere we go, we honor our Blessed Mother and encourage Catholics to faithfully pray her Rosary. Our distinctive Dominican habit belies [Fr. Gillen really means the opposite, that is, signifies] our radical commitment to humble study, liturgy, prayer, the common life, and the apostolate.”

And perhaps this line deserves very special attention:

There’s a reason we’re called the order of Preachers. Our calling is to go out into the world and speak the truth—no matter what the consequences.

Authentic Renewal

Now just in case you think this is simply old and shopworn rhetoric from a bygone age, please note that the Dominicans know exactly what they are doing. They know they have engaged in the long and hard renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council and insisted upon by the popes since that time even when nobody else was listening. “There is no mistaking it,” Fr. Gillen writes. “The Dominicans—one of the most ancient and venerable religious orders in the Catholic Church—are rising again.”

And then, of course, there is the postscript:

The Dominican Friars are fighting relativism on the front lines of the culture wars. We have a track record of blotting out error, and a battle plan for defeating the relativists who deny the very concept of Truth.

This truly is preaching “in Jesus’ name the salvation of all people”—with the kind of muscle that can actually give salvation a fighting chance. It is also just one more example of how much better things are in the Church now than they were thirty years ago. There was much good in the Saint Joseph Province then, too, but it did not write letters like this one. When a mainstream order has gotten to the point at which it wants to say these things, at which it can say them without fearing rebuke on every side, and at which it can say them as a means of rallying others to support its mission—well, things are very much better, period.

I believe, in fact, that we have reached a tipping point, and that the rate of renewal will accelerate rapidly. Be that as it may, with 74 men in formation, the Dominicans of the St. Joseph Province have the most successful vocations program of men’s religious orders in America. As I said, this is not your father’s Church. And while it was never right to be only critical with respect to the Church, today that posture is without excuse. So have I mellowed? Perhaps. But perhaps I am simply glad to see that Father Gillen and his Dominican knights have not.


For more on renewal in the Dominicans, see my additional comments on another province in the United States: Dominicans at Work: The Achievements of America’s Western Province.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Aug. 20, 2013 5:49 PM ET USA

    Frodo1945 raises a fair question. By "institutional Church" I mean what Church institutions with their ecclesiastical leadership are doing. Obviously it will take more time to reevangelize the laity, though you will already find that those who attend Church regularly are getting "more Catholic" poll numbers. Great care is needed to interpret statistics about "the laity", since most who identify as Catholic are not under the regular influence of the "institutional church". Therefore, as the culture declines, so will they. Getting such persons to come back will take time, if it is possible at all in the short term.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Aug. 20, 2013 10:13 AM ET USA

    "The institutional Church, in the West generally and in the United States without question, is substantially healthier now than thirty years ago." I don't know if you are including the laity in the 'institutional church'. Every indicator that I have read is worse now than 30 years ago regarding the moral issues of the day - divorce, abortion, same sex unions, ..... We are no different (or maybe a little worse) than the dominant culture. Your assertions here just don't ring true with me.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Aug. 19, 2013 12:35 PM ET USA

    Renewal is always principally and fundamentally the work of God. Yet, God uses human agents and the principal human agent for this great turn around was the son of Wadowice whom the extremists of all shades continue to rhetorically assail in the manner of the Gerasene demoniac.

  • Posted by: Petronius - Aug. 17, 2013 12:07 PM ET USA

    This is the most hopeful thing I've read in a long time.

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