Church in crisis: The scourge of a sycophantic society
If I do say so myself, what a title! A nice, round sixteen syllables. Pleasingly alliterative. Hissingly sibilant. You could call it both sinister and sassy at the same time.
Of course it helps if the reader actually knows what it means. A “sycophant” is a “servile flatterer”. So a sycophantic community would be a community in which leaders and followers tell each other what they want to hear. In a Catholic sycophantic community, we call such leaders “false prophets”. And we call their followers “hardened sinners”. All are blameworthy, though in general the more serious punishment will be meted out to those in authority—the watchmen who fail to sound the alarm. We know this, among other reasons, because we have read the Old Testament book of Ezekiel (see especially chapter 33).
This much is clear, but what then is the “scourge” of a sycophantic society? That is actually something that God Himself has told us.
I am speaking here of cardinals, bishops, priests and religious who echo the slogans of the dominant culture, assuring the Catholics under their care that the Church’s moral teaching is simply an ideal. Thus they insist that a truly evangelical Church will kindly pretend that those who pointedly reject her teaching are simply pursuing lesser goods. Any other approach would smack of pure evil, which is now called “rigidity”.
I am speaking also about countless Catholic university professors and other “experts” who equate theological enlightenment with sophistic approval of whatever the dominant culture approves and sophistic condemnation of whatever the dominant culture condemns. Morality and truth are said to be rooted in cultural perception. The signs of the times, as read in the most influential movements of the day, are positively interpreted as fresh messages from God Himself. It does not matter what God is thought to have revealed in the past, for past revelations are imprisoned in the myopia and misunderstanding of peoples not yet enlightened by the great developments of our own day.
In addition, I am speaking of Catholic politicians who speak lies under the guise of a noble tolerance. These regard social acceptance, wealth, status and influence as signs of a greatness that transcends even the moral, economic and intensely personal destruction of the family. All this, both the status and the destruction, come from the policies they follow and the prophecies they repeat.
Not to mention the adulation they receive in return: For I am also speaking of all those with itching ears who wish only to hear what titillates their passions and satisfies their lusts. You can fool most of the people most of the time, if the people prefer to live as fools.
How honored are such Church leaders by a thoroughly secular society! How happy the Catholic professoriate, replete with grants and student adoration! How successful the vacuous politicians, propelled ever higher by those who not only welcome but insist upon their lies! And how satisfied the people, unchallenged amid the destruction wrought by their self-absorption!
This is not the first time massive numbers of leaders and people have abandoned God’s covenant. It is not really even the first time in Christian history. But the prototypical process of abandonment and its consequences is recorded for our benefit in the account of God’s relationship with Israel given in the Old Testament. With the benefit of that example, of course, Catholics should know better. Sadly, should and do are very different verb forms.
I do sense a growing dissatisfaction on the part of the faithful with our absurd state of Catholic affairs, but the range of effective options is rendered rather narrow by the nature of the Church herself. The temptation to throw her over and start again is as strong as it is deadly. She is, after all, the body of Christ on earth, despite the scarlet sins of her members. Her leaders do not mirror the Father as Christ did, but in a deeper mystical sense, the Church does exactly that. “Will you too leave me?” Let others say “yes” as often as they will; we must say “no”.
Considered as a sycophantic society, however, the Church in human terms is locked in the MAD pattern we remember from the Cold War: Mutually Assured Destruction. Indeed, if we turn again to the Book of Ezekiel, we find this to be precisely the scourge of a sycophantic society. It is described in Chapter 14, on the occasion when prominent elders of Israel came to Ezekiel pretending to seek his wisdom. The word of the LORD came to Ezekiel:
Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces; should I let myself be inquired of at all by them?
Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away from all your abominations. For any one…who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to inquire for himself of me, I the LORD will answer him myself; and I will set my face against that man, I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people….
And if the prophet be deceived and speak a word, I, the LORD, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel.
And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike—that the house of Israel may go no more astray from me, nor defile themselves any more with their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God. [14:1-12]
Now read the passage again, substituting the phrase “members of the Church” for the expression “house of Israel”. This is indeed the scourge of a sycophantic Catholic society, of a sycophantic Church. To understand it exactly, we must recognize that Jews at that time did not distinguish, in their manner of expression, between God’s active and permissive will. In this light, we see clearly what the passage means: God permits lies from the prophets (or the religious leaders) as a punishment for the rejection of God by the people; and God permits flattery in the people as a punishment for the rejection of God by the prophets.
The prophets tell the people what they want to hear, and the people acclaim and honor the prophets for their message. This is indeed mutually assured destruction. It is the blind leading the blind, the darkening of the intellect on all sides by sin—of which Our Lord says, “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:14).
If, as this pattern becomes clearer by the day, there is indeed a growing militancy on the part of the faithful, it is a very good thing. The time has come, I think, to err (if error there must be) on the side of an impassioned recognition of reality. The destruction of truth is most easily accomplished through the constant making of allowances. I do not wish to be a bad Catholic, encouraging self-styled Catholic prophets to lie to me. Nor do I wish to be a false Catholic “prophet”, encouraging bad Catholics to praise and honor me.
And if I would not be either of these, then I certainly do not wish to appear even for a moment as if I am. So if you prefer the scourge of a sycophantic society, hold your comments, and see me after the bell.
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