Swiss Catholics remind us of the iron law of Faith
The Swiss are now on record (see Swiss Catholics call for same-sex partnerships), though their record is arguably worse even than that of their German neighbors. But the Swiss report includes critical information which we outsiders learned about Germany only by juggling multiple news stories.
In relationship to the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, readers will recall that the crisis of faith in Germany first became obvious based on the bishops’ polling of the faithful. It was only in subsequent reports that we learned how much that crisis was being fueled by key members of the German hierarchy, who themselves do not want to see the Church’s traditional doctrine and discipline on marriage upheld. But the Swiss report is based from the start on discussions orchestrated by the bishops among a large group of clergy, catechists and active parishioners—in other words, those who work hand-in-glove with ecclesiastical power in Switzerland.
Sometimes my view of the relative health of the Church in the West is conditioned by my personal experience in the United States. Major instances of carefully-orchestrated group dissent could (and did) occur in America twenty-five to fifty years ago. Today such open dissidence is confined mostly to fringe groups. There has been a clear if painfully slow renewal of Catholic life in the United States. I still think this is also generally true of the Church as a whole. But there are a few regions so far gone that the ecclesiastical establishment still favors infidelity. Germany and Switzerland are unfortunate cases in point.
Even in Germany and Switzerland, the willingness of some bishops and cardinals to fight such trends openly is generally on the rise, though my impression is that the Swiss hierarchy has fewer courageous prelates than the German. But apart from a few fearless episcopal voices, the ecclesiastical establishment in these countries still very much resembles America a generation ago.
It is all just so seventies! One envisions such bishops wearing their hair long and their pants flared.
The Western Crisis of Faith
A visible secularization of both social conventions and private morality swept Western culture beginning in the 1960s. It became very clear that huge numbers of Christians had gradually lost their interior life over the preceding generation or two, if they ever had it at all, and so there was very little substance underlying the Christian social conventions which still served as a kind of received code of conduct as late as the 1950s. The cultural markers of what had once been a generally Christian social order were rapidly swept away.
Unfortunately, a great many Catholic bishops, priests, religious, and intellectuals had quietly secularized at roughly the same pace as the culture. Neglectful of prayer and captivated by a vision of peace and prosperity without the cross, these combined to mislead the lay faithful as soon as they realized their treason would attract not ecclesiastical discipline but public acclaim.
Sadly, the renewal architected at the Second Vatican Council came a little too late to take effect without massive disruption. The alleged “spirit” of the Council was really nothing but the zeitgeist seizing its opportunity, but this fooled even many nominally orthodox Catholics into jumping ship. These argued that Vatican II had been tried and found wanting, when in fact (as Chesterton said of Christianity) it had not really been tried at all.
The bishops, aided by the Holy Spirit in an ecumenical council, had managed to articulate more clearly than ever the deeply personal and missionary character of the Christian life which must animate the whole Church. But left to themselves, they too often returned home to unexamined lives of confusion, complicity or fear. The collapse was as immediate as it was obvious.
Even so, today I am not sure which is more remarkable. Was it the failure of the first post-conciliar generation of bishops throughout the West to meet the challenge of secularism? Or is it the continued insistence of the Swiss and German hierarchies, against all the evidence, that secularism is not only inevitable but good!
We are witnessing once again the iron law of religion as revealed by God. It is not unfamiliar. We have encountered it again and again in the Old Testament, and we find it spelled out in the prophets:
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,” says the Lord of hosts. “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land, says the Lord, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
In making himself sin (as St. Paul put it in 2 Cor 5:21), Our Lord fulfilled this law preeminently in Himself, becoming totally vulnerable to punishment without any personal fault. But the result for others was also inescapable. “You will all fall away because of me this night,” He told His disciples, “for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’”
Sometimes a good bishop will be struck down, snatched from his flock with no replacement, unwillingly leaving his sheep without a shepherd. But the worst case is when bishops succumb voluntarily to the attacks of the Devil, abusing their spiritual authority, leading their flocks to the wolves, welcoming the wolves inside, or even proving their own kinship with wolves. The result is all but promised in Scripture: Two-thirds of the sheep will be lost or scattered. The rest will be injured or terrified.
There are still too many bishops who read the signs of the times not so much to counter error as to avoid trouble by tolerating or even embracing it (cf. Mt 16:2-3; Lk 12:55-6). But God’s plan for the transmission of the Faith remains what it is: When the shepherd is struck, the flock pays an enormous price.
Most of my older readers will already have lived through such horrors. The entire West has been afflicted with them within living memory. But the Swiss and the Germans are still living with the wolves at their ravenous worst. Such a prolonged suffering should break our hearts. Such an intense suffering should move us to prayer.
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Posted by: -
May. 09, 2015 11:10 PM ET USA
Thank you Jeff for this very insightful piece. Although I am a recent "revert" to the Catholic Faith within the last five years, after spending nearly two decades away from the Church, I do remember the "falling away" even in my own life as a teen in Catechism (CCD classes). That experience in the late 80s's made me question my faith and assume (erroneously) that the Catholic Faith was corrupted even then- I left. I hear you sound the alarm, and I agree...but is anyone listening now? I hope so!