Feeling disconnected from the Church?
I am out of the country as I begin to write this, and my time is generally not my own, so we shall see how far I will get with an idea that surfaced already several days ago when I was checking our own news stories. The idea is that, owing to the constant infidelity and confusion we encounter in contemporary Catholicism, it is sometimes very hard to feel spiritually connected with the Church. Two news stories particularly reminded me of this while I was otherwise happily minding my own business.
The first story was Vatican releases working document for Synod on Synodality, along with Phil Lawler’s commentary: The Synod working document: a recipe for confusion. Here we see realized our worst fear about the synodal process, the fear that it will be used as one more point of leverage to move the Church toward infidelity, especially the infidelity that arises not from a rejection of clear teaching but from endless confusion about what the Church really teaches about anything, most notably (of course!) in the realm of that most intimate area of human reality—the truth about sexual morality.
The second story was: Pope Francis, Cardinal Dolan send greetings to Father Martin’s LGBTQ conference. Here we have, at the highest levels, praise, thanks and congratulations for a man who, more than any other, has confused what the Church teaches about human sexuality, making it far easier for Catholics and others to deliberately identify themselves with behaviors and commitments which are at odds with both nature and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me clarify this again: There is nothing at all in the experience of a temptation, a disposition, or an inclination that separates us from Christ. In experiencing temptation of whatever kind, we experience what Christ Himself experienced. But in converting a temptation into a “good” and advocating it as a way of life, especially in the name of Christ, we decisively separate ourselves from Christ, a problem for which repentance is the only solution.
What I am really highlighting here is the ways in which the Church mirrors the dominant culture—in this case a fairly close to worldwide culture which affects nearly every nation and people on earth. There are, of course, also particular problems (such as famine, poverty, overt persecution or war) which strike harder in particular regions, and these may well throw our typically Western angst into perspective. Nonetheless, even the perspective of “we don’t have it so bad here” tends to trivialize the most important problems which afflict us, which are spiritual and moral. It also tends to make us believe we Catholics, along with other proponents of the natural law, are not persecuted or marginalized by those who wield power, even though we are.
But of course the dysphoria we feel in such historical moments—in this case “a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life” specifically in the Church—is primarily due to our ecclesiastical marginalization, the constant pounding we take within a Church in which orthodoxy, clear thinking and effective discipline seem to be on holiday, even at the highest levels. Long gone are the days between, say, 1968 and 2013, when we could say, in similar local circumstances, that at least the Pope had our backs. The Francis pontificate seems urgently engaged in letting all the fundamentally anti-Catholic and anti-Christian currents of modern Western culture bubble up to the very top, in the hope (perhaps) of finding unity between the Catholic project of conforming our lives to Christ and the worldly project of conforming Christ to human fashion—to what we moderns “now know to be true”.
There is always a tendency among the Catholics most deeply committed to the Faith to solve this problem by exclusion. It may be argued that inclusion is the more Catholic approach, but that is only true in the sense of including all those who—no matter what their background, ethnicity, or besetting temptations—are willing to subject themselves to Christ through a strenuous effort to live in accordance with the teachings of His Church. It is not true in the sense of allowing any and all who disagree with these teachings to engage in a “Christian witness” of changing what Christ taught, or what His Church has always taught in fidelity to Christ as her head and spouse.
There is, for example, a fine line between affirming the human person and refusing to help each person to overcome his or her fallen, sinful tendencies. To put this another way, there is a fine line between accepting sinners in the Church and accepting the defense of sinful behaviors. Unfortunately, these distinctions—which are always and everywhere critical to the reception of the Gospel itself—are blurred into non-existence by the modern habit of identifying people by their particular proclivities, and so proclaiming at one and the same time that both the sinner and the sin are fundamentally good.
It is absolutely incompatible with Catholicism—and so with the love of Christ—to identify people as LGBTQ, etc. on the assumption that they are defined as persons by the particular temptations they face. This forces us to the supremely illogical conclusion that Catholic inclusion demands that we proclaim the objects of their temptations good. In this manner, by the same argument, we must proclaim violent behavior good when it arises from habitual feelings of anger or a yearning to punish; or owning slaves as good when this arises from the temptation to cupidity or egoism or status-seeking.
We may at times, and for very limited reasons, in some sense classify people by the temptations which arise from personal tendencies they did not choose to have. After all, different practical remedies and apostolates may be appropriate to those who suffer from different sorts of immoral attractions, from vanity to sexual indulgence to laziness to over-eating. (For these we may read pride, lust, sloth and gluttony). But it is just past the point of applying the appropriate spiritual and habitual remedies that such classifications must stop. When we proclaim that person X is, at the root of his or her identity as a person, a “bleatophiliac” (or chronic complainer) and that person Y suffers from “aristocraciosus” (or a desire to be always on top), we dramatically increase the chances of relieving the persons in question of their innately human moral responsibility to recognize and seek to conquer their own moral weaknesses.
In other words, we diminish their desire to depend not on their own inclinations but on God’s grace.
We also notoriously undermine the ministry of the Church. Our Lord died to win us the supernatural help to overcome our fallen nature and draw into ever-closer union with Him. Our Lord established the Church to welcome sinners into His transforming embrace, sacramentally applied and infallibly explained. The whole point, as St. Paul wrote in another context to the Ephesians, is that we are not to think of ourselves as already so good and wonderful that God must take us to Himself, but rather we must remember that we were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12) but now we are to be God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:10).
Gethsemane is difficult
Right now, of course, the dominant worldly culture, which is constantly swirling around the Church, hoping to dissuade her with punishments and persuade her with blandishments, fosters deep confusion about “sexual identity” and “sexual liberation”. The dominant culture has sung this same song to the Church before. In the eleventh century, for example, St. Peter Damian had to war incessantly against homosexuality in the ranks of the clergy. One of the common errors of our present distress is that we vaguely “remember” past ages in which the Church seemed to speak with a surer voice, not realizing (perhaps) how much this too was a product of a particular culture that was, as always, only partially formed under the influence of Christ.
But we should not be fooled by rosy memories of more religiously obedient ages, for that obedience (speaking broadly of cultures) has always been selective. The Church was infected by Gnosticism in the second century; nearly overcome by Arianism and related errors in the fourth and fifth centuries (even the results of more than one ecumenical council hung in the balance, preserving orthodoxy by a thin numerical thread and very close attention by bare majorities to the Pope); plagued with homosexuality and concubinage among the clergy in the eleventh century; struggling with anti-popes in several periods; nearly overcome with worldly and aristocratic clergy in the first half of Christianity’s second millennium; rent by Protestantism in the sixteenth century, skepticism in the seventeenth, and secular “enlightenment” in the eighteenth; and of course rocked by cultural upheaval even in still-Catholic regions in the nineteenth; not to mention the persecution and upheavals engendered not only by world conflict but by ideological collaboration just a century ago.
In all these cases, the Church revealed herself as extraordinarily weak in terms of her members. History is not only a record of Catholic solidity and growth in some places and periods but a more constant record of Catholic failure in her members and in her leaders. She has experienced general weakness, widespread ignorance, worldly bishops, rebellious religious communities, public disrespect, schisms, antipopes, and very poor legitimate popes along the way. We recall again Belloc’s observation that it is remarkable, given the Church’s leadership, that she should have survived for more than a fortnight.
But my point, after arriving back home and having the time to finish, is simply this: When we find it hard to sense our spiritual connectedness to a Church in such obviously human turmoil, we need to recall that this is simply a kind of corporate equivalent to a personal dark night of the soul. There are times when simple perseverance is the most important of the Christian virtues. There are times when our openness to grace itself must supply for what we do not see and what we do not feel. We cannot trust in our own righteousness or the feelings we have about it, and this is part of the point of Habbakuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38, from which we learn that the just must always live by faith.
Or put it another way: There is both light and darkness in faith. We cannot expect all of our spiritual yearnings to be fulfilled here and now. Sometimes a good spiritual life is shared with Christ in the Garden. It is a trick of the Devil to tempt us to despair and then present more comforting alternatives. At such times, a good spiritual life includes a distressingly dark fidelity. We must never forget that this is always a vital part of what it means to be a Catholic.
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Posted by: rfr46 -
Jul. 05, 2023 3:56 AM ET USA
The confusion is of course intentional . . . and diabolical. Thank you for this insightful summary of the woeful state of senior Church leadership. As you aptly suggest, the solution for the faithful is to avoid dispair, to stay close to the sacraments, and to realize that God plays a long game and we should too.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jul. 02, 2023 12:48 PM ET USA
Regarding what CorneliusG wrote, Christ was "rigid", i.e., He was both just and merciful. Christ was "black and white": it was His way or the highway. Christ was usually a respecter of "rules and doctrines", but without fail the "rules and doctrines" declared by His Father. Christ was "backwards", frequently citing the inspired Scriptures of His time on earth as reminders of "this is the way it has always been done" when condemnation of sin was demanded. He was cast out by many of His fellows.
Posted by: CorneliusG -
Jul. 01, 2023 11:33 AM ET USA
I think "disconnectedness" is rather an understatement. I feel I am at war with the institutional Church, and have a palpable sense that I am hated by the powers that be in Rome - perhaps not personally, but in the sort of Catholic I am. I am despised.
Posted by: grateful1 -
Jun. 30, 2023 8:59 PM ET USA
Yes. Perseverance. But it's wearing so thin.
Posted by: edenjohnson364256 -
Jun. 30, 2023 6:50 PM ET USA
Thanks for this solid and comprehensive commentary; you strengthen my hope and prayers.
Posted by: padre3536 -
Jun. 30, 2023 6:39 PM ET USA
Welcome back! The confusion is a clear part of the rejection, the confusion is an element of the rejection reality, and not in form and shadow but in substance and reality. It really clearly is rejection, not simply confusion. Blessings.