Why is there a resurgence of infidelity among Catholic leaders?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 24, 2017

Earlier this week, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus stressed the need to “discern” the meaning of Christ’s teachings rather than simply accept the way Catholic doctrine states these truths. This triggered an email from an obviously same-sex attracted reader who ecstatically thanked God that someone “besides the Pope” was finally willing to express the truth about the teachings of the Church: “They must be discerned!”

The email was so wild that I thought it might be a joke. In response I asked if he were joking, and explained that no amount of “discernment” can change the meaning that the Church has always ascribed to Our Lord’s words. I also cautioned against making up our own religion, reminding him that if religion is not revealed, it too easily becomes a human fantasy.

In response, this correspondent told me to stop being irrational and instead learn something about Scriptural exegesis. Then, apparently having exhausted his argument, he proceeded to call me a number of names. Presumably he thought that was the logical way to approach someone if you believed you had reason on your side.

The remarks of Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal in an interview with a Swiss journalist were, of course, a significant scandal. Among other things, he said that to understand Christ’s condemnation of adultery, “there would have to be a lot of reflection on what Jesus really said.” Asserting that this discernment is guided by the Holy Spirit, he acknowledged that a discerning soul could arrive at conclusions that legitimately contradict what the Church has taught. In other words, Fr. Sosa Abascal demonstrated his total commitment to theological Modernism, which holds that human culture determines what the truth is for us in every age.

The practical result of this is that the Church’s moral teachings, rooted so firmly in Scripture, Tradition and the natural law, can be reinterpreted in each age, to ensure that they mean exactly what we want them to mean, neither more nor less.

The workings of a faithless theology

This is the horror of Alice in Wonderland—that is, the horror of Scriptural exegesis in the modern period—something my correspondent very clearly knew nothing about (except as a slogan). For sixty years and more, the bulk of academic theology, especially moral theology, has been in the hands of professors who regard academic expertise as a superior substitute for faith. Far too much of our theology for a very long time has been served up by non-believers, whether members of the Catholic Theological Society or not. They use trumped up rationalist methods of interpretation to prove that the Sacred text means exactly what they have predetermined that it ought to mean. Accordingly, no hard saying ever means what we used to think it did.

Everyone understands by now that the most prominent weaknesses in our dominant culture are sexual weaknesses. Because college students find themselves with a particularly strong need to justify sinful sexual behavior, a great many students in mainstream Catholic colleges and universities eagerly absorb the message of their professors, choosing to agree that academic authority has proven traditional sexual morality wrong, and so has set them free. But the arguments these wayward theologians use are rarely critiqued. In most Catholic schools (and elsewhere), students do not learn how to do theology and/or exegesis. They learn to embrace the myth that modern scholarship has proven the Church wrong and themselves right.

If such self-serving souls ever did study (dispassionately!) the methods and arguments which lead to the dismantling of traditional sexual morality, they would recognize them as tautological—as arguments which assume what they are supposed to prove. The generalized approach can be described in the following imaginary quotation: “This Scriptural passage asserts a moral position that we now know to be false through modern scientific advances. Therefore, as stated, it does not properly represent what Christ said. It has been presented in the categories affirmed by popular culture at that time. But since Christ was always just as right as we are now able to be, we know that what he really meant was what we discern to be true in our more enlightened age.”

This is not a joke: It really is how exegesis and theology as practiced by those without faith always works. If you look at their arguments clearly, understanding each step, you will always discern a circle. Theology without faith always proves what the faithless theologian believes to be true, because his ultimate authority is not Christ but modern culture.

I have often mentioned the supreme example of this, which is to reinterpret the early accounts of the Resurrection as a first-century symbol of new life—in other words, the creation of a myth to explain the fresh joy people at that time found in the teachings of Jesus. But the argument is completely circular, as always. If you start with the rationalist conviction that miracles do not occur, then you know that the truth must really be something other than what the Church has always taught.

All of this has been compounded (as was revealed once again recently in the voluntary outing of Gregory Baum) by the remarkable sinfulness of moral theologians. It has been obvious for decades that the trends in moral theology among mainstream scholars have been guided, to put the matter succinctly, by moral turpitude. Catholic moral theologians, including priests, who were homosexuals or having affairs quickly learned how to justify new conclusions about Catholic morality by using “advanced scholarly techniques”.

The awful truth

Unfortunately for Fr. Sosa Abascal and others like him, the truly “discerning” reader understands that when such theologians claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit, what they really mean is that they are guided by the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the age—which is anything but holy. Once again, this is the language of Modernism, now expressed more openly than ever. The positions Fr. Sosa Abascal took in his recent interview, while they may in some circles appear to be academically astute, are simply proof of the state of the Society of Jesus—which still has a commanding role in Catholic higher education. Such positions disqualify those who hold them from identifying themselves as Catholics, for theology which cannot explain Revelation without explaning it away is utterly worthless.

Unlike academic theology today, discerning the signs of the times (as Our Lord insisted we do) requires only faith and spiritual understanding. Those who possess both should not play the game of engaging men like Fr. Sosa Abascal in academic debate, as if their mistakes consist in anything other than a prior commitment to conclusions which directly contradict what God has revealed.

Although such faithless attitudes are still widely represented in universities around the world, we should also recognize that a slow, halting reform had been gaining ground until just a few years ago. Modernism was on the wane. The most important Catholic theologians in the first decade of our century have been sound men and women whose work has been reignited by the insights of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI), especially in the critical areas of moral theology (Wojtyla) and exegesis (Ratzinger).

Yet now, all of a sudden, dissident voices are raised again in the highest places. As a great Yankee catcher famously quipped, it is déjà vu all over again. We have those like Bishop McElroy in San Diego who are eagerly inviting men and women in every kind of relationship to think things over and decide for themselves whether they should receive Communion, and we have those like the Superior General of the Jesuits insisting that everything, including Scripture, is up for grabs. We cannot avoid asking, then, what has prompted the confidence of such men, who operated with greater discretion or even secrecy just a few years ago. How is it they now possess such an extravagant boldness that they are perfectly comfortable in firing off ill-disguised broadsides against Christ, the Church and the truth?

We would be lying if we said we did not know. Let me repeat that: We would be lying if we said we did not know. The intellectual culture in Rome has been deliberately and radically changed. We have a pope who, immediately after La Civilta Catholica reopened the definitively closed question of ordaining women, met with the magazine’s staff and told them: “Stay in open waters! The Catholic must never be afraid of open waters, and must never seek the shelter of safe harbors. You above all, as Jesuits: avoid clinging to certainties and security.” We have a Pope who never corrects his proponents even when they publicly depart from the clear teachings of the Church. And we have a Pope who continues to lay the blame for everything on those who adhere to Catholic doctrine so strongly “as written” that they may, on very rare occasions, frown on a legitimate new insight. He makes a straw man of these “rigid doctors of the law” and regularly knocks it down.

Like the correspondent I mentioned at the outset, Pope Francis also calls them names.

It is no wonder, therefore, that new signals from Rome have emboldened the same sorts of people whom his predecessors placed on the defensive, seeking not to encourage but to correct and convert. And yet, in the last analysis, what can we really say about it all?

What I will say is simply this: Pope Francis may be able to accomplish some good through the sincere efforts of faithful Catholics to rid themselves of the faults he unfairly ascribes to them. He may also be able to accomplish some good through the selfless determination of faithful Catholics to interpret his statements in ways that can actually increase the faith of others, to avoid scandal.

But any good he accomplishes by thus hammering the faithful will be totally undermined by the far greater numbers of unfaithful Catholics who take the Pope at his word. Today I have in mind particularly those ostensibly Catholic leaders whom Francis consistently refuses to correct, no matter how hard or how directly they strive to undermine our Faith.

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: Bveritas2322 - May. 03, 2017 3:16 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, I've read many of your essays, and this is one of your best ever.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Apr. 28, 2017 4:22 PM ET USA

    I finally get it. I’ve been wondering for decades why clerics, at all levels, are not scandalized by the absence of Saturday afternoon confession lines. You would think this would cause them to doubt the wisdom of an ecclesial culture that has downplayed sin for half a century, ironically starting at a time just twenty years after the horrors of World War II. What they’ve managed to do is discern for themselves that sin and self-deception doesn’t really exist anymore. What a profound discovery.

  • Posted by: aprolifer - Feb. 25, 2017 8:41 PM ET USA

    I don't know where you are on Medjugorje but the message coming therefrom today seems particularly appropriate given what you're talking about in your article: "Dear children! Today I call you to profoundly live your faith and to implore the Most High to strengthen it, so that winds and storms cannot break it. May the roots of your faith be prayer and hope in eternal life...work on yourselves in this time wherein God is giving you the grace...to be people of clear and persevering faith & hope..

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Feb. 25, 2017 3:13 PM ET USA

    Jesus summed up their motivation in few words: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be" (Mt 6:21). Their "treasure" is the hubris of being convinced they speak for the Holy Spirit, even as they contradict the Spirit's previous utterances. Their "heart" is entranced by an intellectual idol bearing their own face & speaking their own words. Jesus' following words about the eye being the lamp of the body & one's light being very dark if the eye is not sound, applies perfectly to them.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Feb. 25, 2017 12:30 PM ET USA

    I think you blew the lid off the situation with this essay. Goodness, what clarity! And yes, goodness does have something to do with it. May God Bless you. I can only thank you.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 25, 2017 8:51 AM ET USA

    What more needs to be said? A good summary: "Pope Francis may be able to accomplish some good through the sincere efforts of faithful Catholics to rid themselves of the faults he unfairly ascribes to them. He may also be able to accomplish some good through the selfless determination of faithful Catholics to interpret his statements in ways that can actually increase the faith of others, to avoid scandal." Of course, approaching a problem sideways might accidentally contribute to its resolution.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 25, 2017 1:57 AM ET USA

    "We would be lying if we said we did not know." The Orwellian continues, and Pope Francis is receiving too much criticism. He is doing only what he BELIEVES. "It's" always been about what we believe. Canonize the pope who introduced altar "girls" to the Chruch but condemn Pope Francis for exploring women ordination? Seriously? Has not something deliberate and plodding simply been catalyzed unsettlingly by seasoned men of conviction? Is it possible the truth has eluded us for some time?

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Feb. 24, 2017 11:22 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your honesty. I, too, have been reminded of the bad old days when I was young & nuns were exchanging their habits for miniskirts & bright-eyed young Catholic couples were agonizing over whether to have kids & "transubstantiation" was an outmoded word. Here we go again.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Feb. 24, 2017 8:42 PM ET USA

    How about articles on the great saints who opposed their Popes, some of them exiled and/or excommunicated, but who were eventually exonerated. Or articles on the Popes who taught erroneous doctrines which were eventually corrected. Young Catholics have never heard of these things. Modernist teachers tell their students that the Pope is always infallible, except, of course, when he disagrees with them. Heresy is almost always followed by schism. They will need to know how to discern these things

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Feb. 24, 2017 8:31 PM ET USA

    "[...] theology which cannot explain Revelation without explaning it away is utterly worthless." Amen.

  • Posted by: billG - Feb. 24, 2017 8:25 PM ET USA

    Have you been reading those "hard sayings" again, Dr. Mirrus? Don't you know that they will make you "rigid"? And you actually have the nerve to speak clearly and forcefully in black and white rather than gray. I have criticized you in the past on other subjects, so it's only fair to say "thank you" for "tellin it like it is." We live in discouraging times. I am reminded of the server's response from Psalm 42: Spera in Deo, quoniam adhuc confitebor tibi, salutare vultus mei et Deus meus.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Feb. 24, 2017 7:09 PM ET USA

    And as these Church leaders - Bergoglio and others - discard Church teachings the way they do, people in America and Europe continue to leave the Church in droves. Why should they bother remaining in the Church when their conscience is "at peace" with their not remaining? Meanwhile, the German bishops and others seem to think they can stem the hemorrhage of people out of the Church by allowing Communion to adulterous couples. Isn't there a name for people who suffer from such delusions?

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Feb. 24, 2017 6:57 PM ET USA

    The posters seem to have made the Pontiff and his circle nervous. Maybe we need to see more of them. Also maybe some Romans need to carry tomatoes around with them on Wednesdays to express their sentiments should the opportunity arise.

  • Posted by: pmongan9665 - Feb. 24, 2017 6:32 PM ET USA

    Amen Brother!!! Thank God we have been prepared for this by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict. They were Faithful and True. If someone contradicts the Catechism, St. John Paul II, or Pope Benedict you can bet I will go with these 3 every time. Remember Cardinal Ratzinger's words about a small purer Church? we often talk about our "cafeteria Catholic" brethren, what about cafeteria priests, deacons and even bishop?

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Feb. 24, 2017 5:47 PM ET USA

    Abascal's interview is frightening - especially if his thoughts run at all parallel to Francis'. This kind of "discernment" could easily be turned on credal matters far from the sexual revolution. Certainly "substitution" or "atonement" could be eliminated in favor of "solidarity" to explain Christ's mission. The physical reality of the resurrection was up for grabs by many theologians after VII - Haight and Schillebeeckx were only two of many. The list goes on. Pray for the Church.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Feb. 24, 2017 5:45 PM ET USA

    A good read for university students - Catholic as well as secular.

  • Posted by: mgmoran8035 - Feb. 24, 2017 5:36 PM ET USA

    2 Thessalonians 2:9-17 Or is this too rigid. Greg

  • Posted by: MWCooney01 - Feb. 24, 2017 4:43 PM ET USA

    Another spot-on essay on the perilous condition of the Church today, led to such circumstances by the very shepherds who are supposed to be leading us away from this danger. I pray that Our Lord will use this 100th anniversary of the visits by Our Lady at Fatima to put a stop to this and save us from further decay, but I know that God's ways are not our ways, so not my will, but Thy Will Be Done! I also pray for the many souls who will follow these false shepherds to their common doom.

  • Posted by: ALC - Feb. 24, 2017 4:31 PM ET USA

    You are so on target with this article. I heard all this same garbage back in 1978 from a nun who was teaching a Scripture class. Same things: we don't know if Jesus really said that, we don't know of those things really happened, Jesus didn't know who He was until after the Resurrection, etc. I was the only one out of 40 people who told her she was teaching heresy. I thought I had lived long enough to get past all of this, but I guess not.

  • Posted by: Jerome - Feb. 24, 2017 3:24 PM ET USA

    "The most important Catholic theologians in the first decade of our century have been sound men and women whose work has been reignited by the insights of ... (Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI), especially in the critical areas of moral theology (Wojtyla) and exegesis (Ratzinger)." And now it's almost like these two witnesses have been killed and their bodies (legacy) left lying dead in the streets. Let us pray that God will breathe new life into the legacy these men have left us.