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Confidence in the Church: What do we do when we want to cry?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 14, 2016

It’s been a difficult year for deeply-committed Catholics, by which I mean those who accept all that the Church teaches and who sincerely try to conform their lives to Christ in accordance with Divine Revelation and natural law—of which the Church alone is the custodian. This is the year in which doubt has hardened into certainty on the question of Pope Francis’ apparent lack of commitment to the Church’s “hard sayings” (Jn 6:60).

For this reason, we have rapidly grown to accept the understated wisdom of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, former Vicar of Rome, when he said in September of Pope Francis: “I pray to the Lord that the search for the lost sheep—which is indispensable—does not disturb the consciences of the faithful in the flock.” I call this “understated” because, in fact, our consciences are already disturbed, and for good reason. We have been scandalized often enough by Pope Francis to be discouraged about a very important question: Can we trust the Catholic Church?

What is there to say about this? How are we to regain our confidence as Catholics?

Admitting reality

The first thing to be said is that we must be honest about the problem. Despite our human tendency to trust our own judgment, we cannot claim absolute certainty about each aspect of the most contested issues. As a general rule, there are too many hidden variables. But we can, at a minimum, be morally certain that Pope Francis is an exceedingly “uncertain trumpet”. As Saint Paul put it:

If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will any one know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? [1 Cor 14:7-8]

It is important to face this reality. If it bothers the laity among us, just think how much it must concern our pastors! Yet a Catholic columnist recently claimed that because we are unqualified to criticize popes, his own approach is the only right way—the approach of explaining what the Pope really said, so as to make everything okay again.

To such naiveté I can only say that when I wrote the second part of my own series on criticizing the pope, I too covered the possibility of explaining what the Pope has said in a way that “shows—contrary to how things may appear—that it fits perfectly with what the Church has always understood in the past.” But I presented this tactic as just one of twelve different possible approaches to pontifical gaffes and weaknesses, to be selected according to the nature of each situation.

The readers and writers of CatholicCulture.org, though they may be wrong at times, are not idiots. It is disingenuous to pretend that Pope Francis, when he says something that is received as new, different and unsettling, always really means exactly what the Church has taught previously. By now, each one of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s famous schoolboys knows that this is not true. When the emperor’s wardrobe is depleted, it does not help anyone to pretend that he is well-dressed—unless it is preferable for us to doubt our sanity.

And here is a second point to be admitted: For whatever reason, Pope Francis frequently applies the same secularizing techniques which we have battled so hard to eliminate from the Church under the leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In other words, he repeatedly insists that we follow his own prudential judgments (on matters such as immigration, the environment, and ecumenism), while seeming to give a pass to those who fail to adhere to God’s absolute judgments concerning the intrinsic evils which we must avoid and combat (such as sins against chastity, against the permanence of marriage, and against the sacredness of human life).

Sadly, just as we were beginning to see its fruits, a hard won Catholic renewal is being dismissed in favor of focusing on those few Christian values which the world is still willing to tolerate. For the past fifty years, this has been a recipe for Catholic laxity and disintegration. It has also hastened the ascendency of a dominant secular culture which relegates Catholics (and other sincere Christians) to a second-class status, and that’s putting it mildly. Americans are experiencing this more strongly than usual right now because of our current Presidential race, but it is common throughout the West.

At this precise historical moment, then, we are far too much like children betrayed by their own father. Thus the final truth which we must openly admit is simply this: If these difficulties were painful before, they hurt even more now, by at least an order of magnitude. Our situation is, to use a carefully chosen word, excruciating.

The suffering is bad enough, but it carries with it a grave danger. To state the problem baldly, faithful Catholics are learning once again the very hard lesson that we cannot fully trust our shepherds. Unfortunately, the resulting confusion and pain can almost inadvertently push us toward a conclusion which sounds the same but is really very different and far more damaging: The conclusion that we cannot trust the Church. It is just here that we need to consider things even more carefully. We need to navigate our way around the corner from discouragement to hope, from spiritual death to life.

Trusting the Church

To put the matter succinctly, Catholics have never been able to “trust the Church” in the sense of having unqualified trust in their pastors. There has never been a period in Catholic history, from the public ministry of Christ forward, in which all pastors have been reliable. It is an immense myth to look back to some “golden age” in which all priests were faithful, all bishops were wise, and all popes were smart, capable and holy. That desirable situation transpires with exactly the same frequency as the complete spiritual commitment of the laity.

We are speaking universally about sinners here. Without ceasing to be thankful for Christ’s wonderful promises to His Church, we need to remind ourselves at times how very thin (compared with our desires) these promises really are: They are thin but no less important, thin but no less astonishing, thin but no less trustworthy. Actually, they are just thin enough to be compatible with the freedom of our wills.

The history of Catholicism, for all the Church’s mysterious longevity and spiritual fecundity, shows massive failures among her members, including those who are members of her hierarchy. Faithful Catholics have never been short of legitimate reasons to lament the quality of ecclesiastical leadership, the cultural blindness of the faithful to endemic faults, the spiritual lethargy among the Church’s members, the misunderstanding and maltreatment of holy souls, and the unfortunate attachment among Catholics at all levels to the blandishments of the world—not to mention frequent confusion!

When Our Lord said no servant is greater than his master, he was not referring only to the situation outside the fold. Those with the richest blessings have always fostered a significant share of the devil’s mischief, both inside and outside the Church, beginning with Judas himself, and continuing through any of us who has ever sinned—all but two Catholics! The reality is that Our Lord never promised that all of His ministers would be intelligent, accomplished and saintly, or that the overwhelming preponderance of the “faithful” would be, well, faithful. He promised, rather, to remain with the Church so that no evil would ever ultimately prevail against her.

What is required for this promise to be made good is that the Church’s sacraments will never fail to effect what they signify; that no ecclesiastical authority, whether a pope or an ecumenical council, will ever bind the whole Church to error; that despite the enormous deficiencies and sins of her members, the Church will remain Christ’s body and Christ’s bride (without spot or wrinkle); that the Magisterium of the Church will always be a sure guide to the Father’s self-communication through Revelation and the natural law; that the Church will retain her spiritual jurisdiction over the entire world; and that she will always possess all the means Our Lord has made available for our salvation—our spiritual growth into union with God.

Beyond what we may regard (from a certain point of view) as a set of rather thin guarantees—and despite the fact that no other body in this world has any guarantees at all—the visible success of the Church has always depended on a mysterious combination of her Divine character, the holiness of her members, their sins, and the power of her adversaries. When the Church has been weak in a worldly sense, holiness has often grown by leaps and bounds, and yet Catholics have typically found themselves in serious straits. And when the Church has been strong in a worldly sense, holiness has often given way to complacency, so that Catholics were once again in serious straits.

This should surprise nobody. We remain always in need of suffering to open ourselves to grace, a fundamental fact of life which even Our Lord knows first-hand. There is never a time—there can never be a time—when Catholics are at home in this world, or when the Church is not beset, along with each of her members, with both exterior and interior trials. Are we not called to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church (Col 1:24)? When we join the Church we do not escape this reality; we embrace it.

In other words, the suffering of good Catholics in response to the frequently alarming devastation within the Church is not a punishment but a vocation. Therefore, before going on to discuss the more positive aspects of our situation (in a second installment), I believe we will benefit now from what I choose to call a pregnant pause. We will never be happy if our expectations are unrealistic. We have a compelling need to consider our situation in the right context and from the right point of view. That is exactly what I have tried to do here.

When we question God’s Providence by complaining that our current situation is both intolerable and unfair, Our Lord invariably replies just as he replied to Peter’s questions after His Resurrection. He always answers in the same way. He always uses just two simple words: The first is “follow”; the second is “me”.


Next in series: Confidence in the Church: Our position of strength

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Oct. 17, 2016 7:58 PM ET USA

    Thank you. While I don't like to see others suffer, I feel consoled to know that I am not suffering alone. Part of my suffering stems from my reluctance to complain aloud out of respect for the papal office. God knows that I do plenty of mental complaining, though. It doesn't have the same cathartic effect that bit--ing aloud has, but I suppose it's the most I can do without finding myself in the confessional.

  • Posted by: MWCooney01 - Oct. 17, 2016 10:36 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this ... it helped to keep from sliding into total despair. I have tried to look at all that Pope Francis has done in the most generous light, but his clear accommodation to the current secular zeitgeist (with a few, wonderful exceptions) shows how foolish that attempt is. The Church has survived less-than-worthy pontiffs before, but I worry for the souls that will be lost because of the confusion generated by the current occupant of the Seat of Peter. Pray the Rosary daily!

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 15, 2016 4:31 PM ET USA

    We also had a right to a Universal Pastor who is faithful, not to himself but, to the Church he was to govern. If Cardinal Bergoglio wasn't willing to "change" his beliefs to those of the Universal Church, he should never have accepted election. Because the Protestant Revolution is in its denouement does not mean we have to prepare for the next performance. The Pope is creating a very grave distress in the Church. And now this bullying at the JP II Inst and kicking out Cdl Sarah. Enough already!

  • Posted by: garedawg - Oct. 15, 2016 10:12 AM ET USA

    Whenever anyone in my mostly Protestant family quotes something from Pope Francis that seems a bit odd, I just say, "Wake me up when he actually changes the Church's teaching!".

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 14, 2016 9:58 PM ET USA

    Romans 5:3 says, "We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance proven character, and proven character, hope." Romans 8:22 says, "We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now, and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved." Thus we have the answer to the question of suffering, w/Col 1:24

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 14, 2016 8:26 PM ET USA

    It's refreshing that "admitting reality" is granted due place. Two things, however, portend poorly: 1) The Holy Father made clear at his election that he is too old to change. 2) He has consistently maligned those who look to the tradition of the Church. "We have a compelling need to consider our situation in the right context and from the right point of view." If we cannot confront reality or consider rightly it is always simply a matter of time before reality or situation will confront us.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Oct. 14, 2016 7:54 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus, for your honesty and clarity.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Oct. 14, 2016 7:06 PM ET USA

    ...and Peter's reply when Jesus asked him if he was going to leave; "to whom should I go Lord?" I think the real question we might ask is not "Can we trust the Catholic Church?" But, more specifically, "Can we trust Pope Francis?" He wouldn't be the first "Bad Pope" in history! I'm not smart enough nor educated enough to address that question and I certainly don't want to get mixed up with the "there is no Pope" schematics. Perhaps you could address that potential situation in Part 2.