Action Alert!

Obstacles to “Rightsizing” the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 04, 2017

“This refusal to demand a desire for transformation in Christ cannot continue to be the way of the Church in our time. Her members must learn again to exclude those who refuse to respond to God’s mercy, lest these make a mire of the Gospel, polluting the work of God at its source.”

This is how I closed “The first requirement of Church renewal in our time”. But there are two huge obstacles to this necessary transformation of the Church. The first is the danger of swinging the pendulum too far—that is, excluding imperfect people who are not in direct rebellion against God and the Church but may be weak, lax or not yet awakened to the need for spiritual growth. Fortunately, I have already addressed this question about the proper use of exclusion. See my six-part series in 2014, “Smaller Church, Bigger Faith?”.

I would also like to mention, just in passing, that denial of Communion to those in manifest rebellion has always provided the Church with a middle ground between complete inclusion and complete exclusion. What folly it is to have largely given up this option in practice; and how sad it is now to witness even a pontifical attempt to reject this exclusionary mercy, which is calculated to awaken sinners and serve as a warning to the faithful!

We must recognize that it is precisely the unrestricted inclusion of those who rebel against the spiritual authority of the Church which does such irreparable harm. The evidence of such rebellion is the deliberate rejection of either the Magisterium or the Church’s disciplinary authority. It is the contemporary Church’s ill-conceived inclusion of those who fundamentally reject her which makes it rare for priests and bishops to insist upon the sinfulness of so many behaviors that are encouraged in our secular culture. It is this ill-conceived inclusion which undermines the credibility of those who insist that Catholics must believe certain things and commit themselves to a certain moral code. And it is the confusion about the very conditions for both membership and Communion in the Church which so seriously undermines the final command Our Lord gave his disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. [Mt 28:18-20].

The problem faced by lay reformers

The second obstacle to the exclusiveness necessary to Church renewal is the fact that, in our time, the vanguard of authentic renewal is the laity. Because of the widespread secularization of bishops, priests and religious during the Western sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s, a great many layman had to become active in studying the Faith, refuting the errors of the day, explaining and defending the teachings of the Church, and fostering the interior renewal of the faithful. In fact, the laity took up the leadership of authentic Catholic reform essentially because the normal clerical and religious leadership of the Church was rendered at best infantile, and at worst diabolical.

Unfortunately—and here is the obstacle—what this means is that the vast majority of leaders of authentic renewal in the Church possess absolutely no ecclesiastical authority. Accordingly, large numbers of Catholics at all levels feel perfectly free to dismiss them as irrelevant.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the influx of “JP2 priests” significantly upgraded the ranks of the priesthood in the West, as has the need to accept the services of priests from places where the Faith is still vigorous, such as Africa. There are many fine priests who are true agents of renewal. But very frequently what they can do is limited because of the continuing reluctance of many Western bishops to become zealous for authentic renewal themselves.

Nonetheless, the leadership of the laity in the cause of renewal is real. If you think I exaggerate, consider how the chief engines of legitimate reform in the Church are still powered by the laity even today, after fifty years of the most strenuous efforts to effect a widespread renewal. There are a huge number of examples, but I will confine myself to the United States because that is what I know best:

  • Mass Media: Magazines, newspapers, radio, television, websites, blogs and social media that emphasize spiritual renewal in fidelity to the Church are overwhelmingly both founded and managed by lay people. The most notable exception is the monumental work of EWTN which, although managed by lay people, was founded by a nun who had a very rocky relationship with the American hierarchy.
  • Book Publishing: Contemporary Catholic book publishers which refuse to publish dissenters are overwhelmingly controlled and managed by lay persons. These will publish only material which fosters authentic renewal by seeking always to express what we call “the mind of the Church”. Most were either founded or redirected by lay persons in response to the collapse of Catholic publishing in the 1960s. Sophia Institute Press is a perfect example. Even Ignatius Press, though founded by Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ (now in his late 70s), has always been run by lay persons and features a fine lineup of contemporary lay authors.
  • Education of Children: Parish and diocesan schools have slipped into dissent, secularism and the pathetic morality of our dominant culture. They have remained sound or been recovered fully only in a few of the very best dioceses. But large numbers of independent Catholic schools have been founded by lay persons. It is most often to these that the most dedicated Catholic parents send their children, if they do not teach them at home.
  • College Education: Colleges and universities founded and/or run by religious orders were almost universally secularized in the second half of the twentieth century. Few have been reformed. Meanwhile, the new faithful Catholic colleges established since the mid-1960s have been founded by lay persons—most on the patterns established in the 1970s by such still-thriving schools as Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom College (which now also has a graduate school). Some existing institutions have been renewed through the action of exemplary priests, most notably the Franciscan University of Steubenville under the late Fr. Michael Scanlan, though the leading faculty are lay. Even the faithful University of Dallas, which was founded under the auspices of the Diocese of Dallas in the 1950s, just before the collapse of Catholic higher education, has been controlled and led from the first by lay persons.
  • Special Schools: While founded under Bishop Thomas Welsh of Arlington, the unfailingly orthodox Catholic Distance University has always been run by the laity. Also in Arlington, the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a graduate school of psychology based on a Catholic understanding of the person, marriage, and the family, was founded by lay persons in 1999 and evolved in 2015 into Divine Mercy University.
  • Professional Societies: The old Catholic professional societies for doctors, lawyers, theologians, canon lawyers, and other academic disciplines all spun off into dissent and secularism beginning in the 1960s. Many are still dominant in their fields, but all the new ones faithful to the Magisterium were founded by lay persons, or by groups dominated by lay persons, including the Catholic Medical Association, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.
  • New Organizations: Nearly every new organization which has come on the American scene since the mid-1960s to foster renewal in fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church has been founded by lay persons. Here are a few of the names which have become household words among the seriously faithful in the United States: Catholics United for the Faith, the Couple to Couple League, Catholic Answers, The St. Joseph Foundation, Adoremus, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, The Augustine Institute, and The Cardinal Newman Society. There are many more; our own Trinity Communications is one of these.
  • Fraternal Organization: The list could go on and on, but I will close on this: The largest Catholic organization that retains its commitment to the mind of the Church in our time is the Knights of Columbus. Though it was inspired in 1882 by Fr. Michael McGivney, it is a fraternal benefit society run by Catholic laymen for laymen and their families.

While the United States leads the way in the sheer range of such faithful Catholic organizations, there have been similar developments in other countries, such as England, Australia, France and Germany. In addition, a number of the growing international movements designed to foster renewal in various ways throughout the twentieth century were also founded by lay people, including Focolare (1943), L’Arche (1964), and Neocatechumenal Way (1964). Finally, Opus Dei was founded by a priest and has the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross to guide it, but it is nonetheless ordered to the laity and represented primarily by deeply-committed laity in every profession. However, outside the United States, my direct knowledge is very limited.

Bottom Line

On the other hand, in all the areas I mentioned above, you will find that the preponderance of institutions and organizations which profess a false form of renewal, rooted ultimately in the secular prejudices of our dominant Western culture, and committed to dissent from the Church’s Magisterium, are still run by Catholic clergy and religious orders. Examples are far too numerous to mention. We hear of their scandals by the day. The brutal reality is that, throughout the West, without Catholic renewal spearheaded by the laity, there is as yet depressingly little effective renewal on offer, except in a very few exemplary dioceses. Even projects of renewal sponsored by the last two popes, such as the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, are being rapidly undermined under the current regime.

In other words, the greatest proportion of the energy going into genuine Catholic renewal (that is, true renewal in fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church) comes from the laity. I hasten to add that this is not a damaging or anti-clerical sort of energy. Most of these organizations have been able to secure excellent priestly spiritual direction. Some have been directly approved by bishops. Even more promising, some of this energy is being effectively placed in the service of dioceses and parishes (one thinks particularly of programs developed by the Augustine Institute and Sophia Institute Press).

This is all good. But by now I am sure you can see the problem. These organizations have no ecclesiastical authority which requires others in the Church to pause and reflect on “what the Church is teaching us, what the Church is asking us to believe, how the Church is asking us to pray, or what might happen to our status as Catholics if we reject the Church’s demands for doctrinal commitment and spiritual growth.” Lay persons, as we know, have no power to control the message from the pulpit, or apply spiritual sanctions, or to select priests and bishops, or to excommunicate. In a word, the laity cannot directly create a smaller but more effective Church.

It is always extraordinarily difficult to renew the Church from the ground up. This is the greatest problem faced by authentic Catholic renewal today, which was slowly being pulled into the mainstream by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but which the current pope does little to encourage and much to discourage. The next logical question, then, is simply this: How do we expect this constantly growing group of deeply committed lay leaders in the Catholic Church, and the outstanding organizations they have developed, finally to grab the brass ring—that is, to precipitate a sea change in a far too stagnant Church?

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: Retired01 - Apr. 05, 2017 3:32 PM ET USA

    After I retired I got a Master of Arts degree in Theology online from the Augustine Institute (AI). All my professors were lay and faithful Catholics. I would recommend the AI to anyone interested in orthodox Catholic studies. One of the best decisions I have ever made.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 05, 2017 10:38 AM ET USA

    "During the Arian crisis of the 4th Century,... Arian bishops went to Constantinople to ask Saint Basil the Great to join them in their cause. They were perplexed that he was among the only bishops in the world not to side with them. Saint Basil responded, 'Perhaps you have never met a Catholic bishop before.'"-John Vennari RIP, writing of peer animosity for AB Lefebvre. Lefebvre always prioritized proper priestly formation in the SSPX mission. Maybe this vital work will soon prove a catalyst.

  • Posted by: ColmCille - Apr. 05, 2017 6:32 AM ET USA

    We all want Palm Sunday in the Church, but it doesn't last. Jesus cleanses the temple (making the Church smaller, more pure), then comes the garden, betrayal and abandonment, the Passion and Cross. Only then can we have Ressurection. I believe a time of suffering and grace is coming, and it will require the blood of Western Martyrs. Our hour is at hand; the Church is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Are you ready to stand with John at the foot of the Cross, and drink from Jesus' chalice?

  • Posted by: bruno - Apr. 05, 2017 4:54 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this thought provoking essay. Priests and religious are the fruit of strong Catholic families. So it really is the laity who will ultimately write the history of the church. At the end of the day, error is mere fashion and it's adherents are the rakes of our day.