Countercultural Catholic, chapter 7: Ritual Purity

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 02, 2014

When roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, is it reasonable to expect that couples are preparing for marriage with a proper understanding of Christian matrimony? When surveys show that most Catholics do not believe in (or at best do not understand) the Real Presence, is it logical to assume that parishioners approach Communion with the proper reverence? When only a handful of parishioners come to confession (the same familiar few each week), is it plausible that everyone who comes forward to receive the Eucharist is in a state of grace—since there is no indication that serious sin has become less popular?

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in Countercultural Catholic, my forthcoming book on building a Catholic culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


Looking at the “big picture,” any diligent pastor should recognize a serious problem.

Theologian and evangelist Ralph Martin observes that many pastors avoid grappling with such problems by embracing a false optimism: assuming, against all evidence, that there are no problems. Thus for example:

  • When the bishop comes to a parish for a Confirmation ceremony, he assumes that the young people have been adequately instructed in their faith. In fact, when a Catholic Press Association survey asked Catholics aged 15 to 17 to name the four Gospels, only 37% could do so, and 56% could not name even one; 24% could not explain why Christians celebrate Easter.
  • When the pastor presents those young people to the bishop for Confirmation, he assumes that they are—as required by canon law—regularly practicing their faith. In fact he recognizes very few of their faces, and he realizes that after the ceremony many of them will never be seen in the church again—until, perhaps, their weddings.
  • When the director of the parish religious-education program prepares those confirmandi for the sacrament, she assumes that they are absorbing the lessons, even though they do not reply to her questions. In fact the young people have realized that as long as they attend the mandatory sessions, absolutely nothing else will be required of them.

Now in the case of a given Confirmation class, it is conceivable that the young people know their faith, but are too shy to respond to the teacher’s questions in class. It is logically possible that they are attending Sunday Mass regularly, in some other parish. It is a remote possibility that this particular class is well instructed, even if most young American Catholics are not. But to make all those assumptions is to strain credulity. This is the false optimism that Ralph Martin observed.

A false sense of optimism should never be confused with the Christian virtue of hope. Hope is a reasonable expectation, based on our recognition of the need for redemption and our confidence in the promise of Jesus Christ. Unreasonable expectations, held against all evidence on the basis of nothing more than wishful thinking, are much closer to presumption, which is a sin against hope.

Yet these unreasonable expectations are held, even encouraged, by Church officials. Consider the case of a pastor who insists that young people establish a pattern of attending Mass regularly before they are confirmed. Some parents will complain; the priest will develop a reputation for being intransigent, and many of the teenagers will be confirmed at another nearby parish where the rules are less stringently enforced. Or imagine that the pastor, after interviewing a young couple, concludes that they are not prepared to undertake a Christian marriage. The couple will find another more accommodating priest, and the pastor’s reputation as a troublemaker will be strengthened. That “difficult” pastor, who does his best to fulfill both the letter and the spirit of the Church’s law, will lose any chance of ecclesiastical advancement. His colleague, who bends the rules and ignores the realities, may be on the fast track to become a bishop, if he shows enough skill in explaining away problems.

The ability to make problems disappear—not by resolving them, but by defining them out of existence—is the knack of a seasoned bureaucrat. A loving father, on the other hand, faces problems directly, to protect his family; he even anticipates problems, and counsels his children on how to avoid danger. Sadly, a priest with the skills of a bureaucrat, rather than one with the valor of a protective father, is more likely to advance in the American hierarchy.

The key to that advancement is the capacity for maintaining a sort of ritual purity: avoiding any direct conflict with Church teachings and disciplines, preserving a “plausible deniability” regarding failures and abuses. Commenting in 2013 on the American bishops’ long-running dialogue with the presidents of Catholic universities, John DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, told the Reuters news service: “There is a dance that has to be done with the Church and the students.” Ambitious young clerics learn the steps of that dance, and others. The most agile dancers learn to cloak even their failures in the language of success, so that a lifeless parish with declining Mass-attendance figures is a “vibrant faith-filled community.”

In 1986, after investigating the state of American religious orders, a commission led by San Francisco’s Archbishop John Quinn reported that “in general religious life in the United States is in good condition.” How could that report possibly be squared with the facts: the steady decline in the number of men and (especially) women religious; the rising dissidence within the religious orders; the widespread rejection of Church authority? Blessed John Paul II was more candid in his appraisal of the situation, when in 1989 he wrote to the American hierarchy: “An unwillingness to admit authority at the level of religious life leads to a self-direction and autonomy which are incompatible with being identified with Jesus, who came to do the will of the Father.” Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was more candid still in an address to the Synod of Bishops in 1994, when he remarked that “at the very least, for one to be considered a religious, he or she must be what we euphemistically call a ‘practicing Catholic.’”

When a young man and woman begin their marriage preparation, and the priest notices that they have listed the same address on their personal-information forms, he might excuse his silence by saying that he does not know they are engaged in premarital intercourse; they could have separate bedrooms. When the bishop hears that a young priest has been frequenting a gay bar, he can rationalize inaction by theorizing that the priest might not be an active homosexual; he might just be visiting with old classmates.

If he can believe—or pretend to believe—that nothing is wrong, the pastor can avoid a potentially unpleasant confrontation. Priests today are encouraged to keep doors open, to maintain lines of communication, to guard against the possibility that angry parishioners might leave the church for good. Certainly there is a value in keeping the flock together. But an approach that masquerades as dialogue might actually be surrender: a collapse on principles, a forfeiture of authority.

The Pharisees performed multiple ablutions to fulfill the letter of the law, to maintain their ritual purity. But while their hands were clean their hearts were stained. Pontius Pilate also washed his hands, in a symbolic statement that he did not want to be held responsible for his decision. He too failed in his attempt to excuse himself. A superficial gesture is never a substitute for effective action.

Previous: 6. The Enemy Within
Next: 7. Habits of Clericalism

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 04, 2014 10:09 AM ET USA

    Defender: You're free to believe whatever about medieval peasant religion, but I suggest you read Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation by Michael Lambert before forming an opinion. For what really happened among Catholics in Europe just before and during WW II, see From Enemy to Brother by John Connelly. What you say about the A bomb is a textbook example of consequentialism. And your final point begs the question of just where this laxity came from.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 04, 2014 9:39 AM ET USA

    The faith cannot be taught it must be caught. If parents do not instruct their children on the faith by word and action they will not have knowledge of their faith. It is obvious that if parents are not excited about their faith then the children will not be. Everyone needs to do a better job at living and explaining their faith and if they lack words then action is a good replacement. Will all go to heaven? If yes - presumption. If no - you better work on hope. Above all we need to pray.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Jan. 03, 2014 1:27 PM ET USA

    Phil, at this rate, you'll never advance at all in the American hierarchy.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jan. 03, 2014 12:20 PM ET USA

    If I had to guess, I'd bet the medieval peasant knew their Faith more than people do today. Not enough credit is given to people (including the Church) who tried to save others in WWII. The A bomb usage in WWII undoubtedly saved thousands of US Army and Marines from losing their lives. The scandals are not a generational problem as much as they are the seminaries and the bishops not doing their jobs (and how they are also also chosen).

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 03, 2014 11:53 AM ET USA

    Thanks Phil! This is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. It touches not only the habits of our pastors, but really goes deep into the human heart. Many times I have fallen into the trap of thinking that Pharisaical belief is principally about judgment, but it is also ultimately about absolution. Today, I absolve myself by absolving others--out of fear.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 02, 2014 7:23 PM ET USA

    Cold comfort, to be sure, but perhaps it has always been thus. How much did medieval peasants really know about their faith, after all? Many look back on the Church of the 30s and 40s as a golden age, but they forget some unpleasant realities: millions of Catholics in Europe looked on passively as their neighbors were exterminated; American Catholics never protested the criminal use of the A bomb; that generation gave birth to the homosexual scandals generation. What is 'golden' about all that?

  • Posted by: Defender - Jan. 02, 2014 6:14 PM ET USA

    Confirmation is much like CCD at the parish level and Religion is the Catholic school levels. There is no check to see what the students know (or for that matter what they should know) and the classes lack any foundation of the basics. Having attempted to introduce change into this system bucks the status quo and discloses how much the teachers don't know. The suggestion that students pass a comprehensive test at each level halts all talks. Small wonder that so many adults don't know the Faith.