Infiltration: An idiot’s guide to the problems of the Church
To my great sadness, Sophia Institute Press has just published Taylor R. Marshall’s Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within. The publisher is offering it under its “CRISIS Publications” imprint, designed to address problems “with clarity, cogency, and force” through books that are “destined to become all-time classics.” Infiltration is certainly an all-time classic…in the category of conspiracy theories.
It is hard to know where to begin a review, since discussing the book is rather like pointing out the absurdity of a crazy relative who always has an answer to every objection, pulled out of a world that exists only in his head. The fundamental stupidity of the book arises from the author’s felt need to explain the normal human condition in terms of a series of conspiracies. Developments and ideas the author considers bad—from the loss of the Papal States through the Second Vatican Council and right up to the current pontificate—are ascribed to the secret machinations of the Masons, the Modernists, the Communists, the gays, the St. Galen Mafia, you name it.
The technique is reminiscent of McCarthyism in America in the 1950s. If you have an idea that is similar to one held by one of the conspiratorial groups, it is a sure sign of the effectiveness of the conspiracy. If you happen to know someone in one of the conspiratorial groups, it is a sure sign that you have been successfully recruited. Even more absurd, the normal manner in which all human individuals and groups pursue their own interests is tagged, whenever convenient to the argument, as conspiratorial. Finally, in one of the classic tactics of the Catholic far-right, Marian apparitions and papal visions are adduced to confirm all, so that, from a few cryptic utterances, one’s version of history seems to be confirmed infallibly in every detail by God Himself.
The loss of sanity
One of the reasons certain groups in the Church tend toward conspiracy theories is that they have so little understanding either of the complexity of the issues they are considering or of the Church’s perennial reflection of the larger culture from which she draws her members. For such groups, there is always some high point of Catholic history after which every change has been a bad change that must have been caused by a conspiracy. The reader’s sanity may be restored by the simple expedient of defying offending authors to identify any time in history in which the Church was not beset by both external hostility and internal weaknesses.
Take the thirteenth century, which is commonly considered the height of Catholic civilization, making it a great example. The Church in that period, and for a considerable time before and after, drew her bishops from the younger (non-inheriting) sons of the nobility, and so was beset by prelates who were in general preoccupied with worldly affairs and fortunes, and were guilty of all of the political errors and sins of their age, not excluding luxury, self-indulgence, spying, bribery, secular expediency, immoral punishment of opponents, and sometimes open warfare. My point is that the weaknesses and sins of the dominant culture from which the Church draws her leaders and her rank and file are always reflected in major ways within the Church, even if the corresponding level of sin is never as great as in “the world”.
But when some Catholics idealize a previous period—and particularly when they dislike both the popular ideas and the ecclesiastical changes of their own time—they are prone to what I call Traditional-ISM—the insistence that the particular forms of Catholic life that were characteristic of some mythical golden age are part of Sacred Tradition, and that whenever these idealized forms are changed, it is a mark of the triumph of Satan, brought about through the conspiracies of Satan’s human tools. It’s the Modernists! No, wait, it’s the Communists! No, wait, it’s the Masons!…. Yet 999,999 times out of a million, we are simply dealing with the complexities and lukewarmness of a frail and sinful humanity, of which each of us—including each conspiracy theorist—is a card-carrying member.
An intellectual wasteland
I mentioned the profound lack of understanding of the complexity of the issues which such writers seem so easily to diagnose as good or evil, while attributing the evil to a plot. In the pages of Infiltration we find profound misunderstandings and gross oversimplifications of just about everything. I will offer just five examples:
- The Papal States: Marshall regards the loss of the Papal States as the beginning of the end for the Church, never recognizing the ways in which the possession of territory interfered with the Church’s mission, so much so that many—including the great convert Blessed John Henry Newman (who is expected to be canonized later this year)—were convinced that the Papal States ought to be given up for the good of the Church. Yet somehow the territorial claims of the Pope, which did not exist for the first 700 years of Church history and were based at least in part on a forgery called the Donation of Constantine, are regarded by the author as central to the Catholic presence in the world.
- The New Theology: So abysmally ignorant of theology is Taylor Marshall that it never crosses his mind that La Nouvelle Theologie was not primarily the creature of Modernism (by which it was certainly abused) but grew in large part from the fervent desire of many of the greatest and most faithful theologians of the twentieth century to “return to the sources” (ressourcement), to revivify theology through a return to Scripture and the Fathers, and to escape a heavy-handed neo-scholasticism. Theological inquiry tended, at this time, to be subjected to a philosophical system that was considered determinative of orthodoxy and enforced as such by the Holy Office. This often undermined not only legitimate theological freedom but both the Christian sense of mystery and the relational dynamics of the Gospel. Anyone who chafed under this system in the 1940s and 1950s—men like de Lubac and Congar and von Balthasar, and later even Ratzinger—is dismissed summarily by Marshall as a Modernist.
- The Liturgical Movement: There was a strong liturgical movement in the first half of the twentieth century which later bore fruit in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium). Whatever one may think of the implementation in various places over the years, the liturgical movement was concerned to eliminate the inessential encrustations that had been added into the Roman Rite over the centuries in order to restore the famous “noble simplicity” of the rite, so that it would be easier for Catholics to unite themselves with the essential action of the Mass through what is now called “active participation” (understood as spiritual participation). Encrustations and accretions that had crept in included such things as the “prayers at the foot of the altar” (which were originally prayers the priest said to prepare himself for Mass) and the “last gospel” (with which the Mass closed long after the Liturgy of the Word had been completed), and a number of other less obvious things. Moreover, the Mass, which was originally deliberately said in languages (Greek and Latin) that most people knew, could no longer be understood by the vast majority. But in a breathtaking fit of classic Traditionalism, Marshall takes the changes called for by the Council to mean that the Council Fathers wished to obscure the central nature of the Mass, when the purpose was just the opposite.
- Religious Liberty: The author ascribes the wildest abuses of Catholic teaching on religious liberty to the Second Vatican Council, never recognizing that the Council’s simple point was that the human person must be free of political coercion in matters of religion because the human person has a serious duty to seek the truth. Therefore, as with all reciprocal relationships between moral duties and rights, religious liberty must be protected by the State as much as possible within the limits of the common good. But Marshall seems to believe that such a notion is a conspiratorial concession to the Modernists or the Masons…or somebody.
- The Promises of Christ: While Marshall does not deny the promise of Christ to be with the Church, the alleged success of the endless conspiracies and infiltrations he recounts are sufficient to undermine any reasonable confidence in these promises, or at least to confuse inessentials with the essentials which are guaranteed—which amounts to the same thing. To his credit, at the end of the book, the author considers the various responses we might make to his extravagant claims, and he rightly concludes that any proposed solution which suggests that the Church does not remain intact, or that we no longer have a true pope or true cardinals and bishops, must be rejected in favor of simple resistance to the evils that now appear to dominate the Church. But he is unwilling to allow even those modern popes who have already been canonized to instruct him or his readers on what the key evils are. Instead, he must cling to his private judgment, his conspiracies and his plots to prove that everything he personally dislikes has arisen through a devious orchestrated manipulation by particular evil groups.
Institutional or missionary?
Infiltration, as I have indicated, displays an understanding of human history typical of your mad relative. What else can we expect from a book which makes wild assertions about plots, conspiracies and complex theological or institutional problems, each of which the author claims to treat decisively and beyond doubt in roughly three to five pages! Moreover, Marshall seems not even to realize that culture cannot be explained by conspiracy, and conspiracy cannot be proved by correlation.
The larger cultural truth about modern history is that the Catholic Church is going through a long transition from being one of the pre-eminent institutions of Western culture—with all the attendant personal complacency, ossification, and worldly complicity—to re-engaging the world in terms of Christian mission. It was just this problem that Pope Saint John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council to consider under the heading of “renewal”, and just this transition which Pope Saint Paul VI and Pope Saint John Paul II tried to effect against all odds of quick success.
For this purpose, it was necessary to streamline or even jettison many things, but above all to explore the important roles of bishops, priests and, yes, laity in the Church’s mission, which must not be understood as an institutional task administered exclusively from Rome, with the Pope as a kind of corporate head issuing memos to his branch offices. One of the greatest fruits of the Council, hastened immeasurably for a time by the default of so many clergy, is the growing sense of dynamic Catholic mission among the laity, nourished by the sacraments and guided as needed now by spiritual direction from growing numbers of outstanding priests.
But because the Church was such an institutional presence in our society for so long, she is still filled in the West with millions who are Catholic only in an attenuated secular way. Nobody said the transition would be easy, especially when so many of the Church’s members would rather baptize their cultural values than engage in Catholic mission to that culture.
In the midst of this inescapable jumble, Taylor Marshall has offered readers a rehash of the same tired Traditionalist narrative which instantly—but deceptively—puts him and his allies in the right. He even has all the same tired old heroes, like Cardinal Ottaviani (who famously opposed Paul VI on the matter of liturgical reform, after having caused John XXIII to retreat from Rome occasionally just to escape the constant neo-scholastic nitpicking) and Archbishop Lefebvre (who famously launched an allegedly superior Catholic movement rooted in disobedience to the Vicar of Christ). I have been told that many people encouraged Sophia Institute Press to publish this book, with only a few dissenting voices (mine, for one), but this can only mean that Sophia is far more firmly rooted in Traditionalism than its previous offerings had led us to believe, and that most of those invited to give an opinion were from that single camp.
At the very end, the book includes a list of the alleged members of the “Infiltration Launch Team” who are said to have read the book prior to publication and to be helping in promotion. It may be an unprecedented step in publishing, since I estimate the number of names at over 2,000. But again, from what pool of desperate predisposition were these people drawn? When a book this obviously bad is touted as sure to become an all-time classic, something is terribly wrong with the whole process.
In the spirit of Catholicism, then—and I hope in the spirit of CatholicCulture.org—I will simply propose four key rules for authors who wish to be taken seriously as Catholic thinkers, rules that readers should also learn in order to know which authors deserve attention, and rules consistently broken throughout Taylor Marshall’s Infiltration: (1) In making serious judgments, suspend personal preferences; (2) Sentire cum ecclesia (think with the Church); (3) Learn the rules of evidence before making claims of wrongdoing; and (4) Never explain as a conspiracy or a plot what is out in the open, especially when it is endemic to the dominant culture.
I said at the outset—and I meant it—that I greet this book with great sadness. As soon as I saw the pre-publication copy, I advised Sophia Institute Press not to go through with publication, but to no avail. It is therefore a very great sadness to me that I can no longer count Sophia Institute Press among those publishing houses with unswervingly sound Catholic editorial judgment. For a long time, I recommended Sophia’s books unreservedly as a safe bet, and I have every hope that the company will publish many more good things. But I can no longer take the good for granted. Not only must we beware of the titles in the CRISIS Publications imprint, but everything—and I mean everything—will have to be checked.
Taylor R. Marshall, Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within
CRISIS Publications (Sophia Institute Press) 2019 (333 pp.)
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Posted by: a son of Mary -
Jun. 21, 2020 3:23 PM ET USA
Thank you Jeff for bringing to bear your considerable intellectual weight to this review. Your clear steady voice is much appreciated. I almost bought this book but wanted to hear more about it. It is especially important today to have a thoughtful dissection of what is presented as fact or truth otherwise much harm is done to the Church when analysis and erudition are lacking. Many books become like jello to see what sells/sticks to the wall for the lowest common denominator thought process.