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The Void in Church leadership: Is damnation possible?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 31, 2022

Today I am offering a “guest post” by the late Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, taken from the new collection of his pseudonymous works, Diogenes Unveiled, now available from Ignatius Press.

This column originally appeared in our “Off the Record” section, which we later discontinued. I reproduce it here not just to call attention to the “Diogenes” collection (although that would be reason enough), but also to offer readers an explanation of how we might approach what is clearly a crisis in our Church.

The column was written nearly fifteen years ago; Diogenes often saw beyond the horizon. It explains the approach taken in “Off the Record” (OTR) at a time when we often worried about wayward bishops, but still had full confidence in the solidity of pronouncements from Rome. Today—when Vatican statements often raise our eyebrows, our blood pressure, even our righteous anger—the logic that Diogenes laid out is all the more compelling.

If I were asked to explain what I hope to achieve with my own commentary on Catholic affairs, I might repeat the final sentence of this guest column, as I present it today.

—Phil Lawler

Off The Record has now been in existence for a span of five years and to the extent of forty-six hundred postings, and it may be opportune to do what we’ve heretofore left undone, namely, to explain what we think we’re up to.

Though sub-tagged “Notes from the Newsroom,” OTR had its beginnings in an ongoing exchange of e-mails between half a dozen correspondents wryly exasperated by the failures of senior ecclesiastics to conduct themselves as Catholics, and by their even more distressing failures to permit others access to the Church’s spiritual bounty. Many of our exchanges took the form of routine grousing about the flakiness of this or that homily or pastoral letter or interview, but underneath there was a deeper sense of unease. Bad churchmen are a vexation, but an understandable and probably unavoidable vexation. Harder to explain—and progressively harder to deny—was The Void at the center of the Church’s activity: the absence of concern for souls in jeopardy.

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” said St. Paul, “for it is God who is at work in you.” OTR was created to grapple with the problem (never articulated as such by the contributors): how does a Catholic work out his salvation when his pastors don’t believe there is any damnation to be saved from?

Perhaps no Catholic bishop or religious superior has publicly stated his disbelief in the possibility that a soul might be lost. Yet it is so rare for a churchman to affirm this doctrine that it’s stunning when it does occur—think of the amazed indignation in response to the disciplinary actions of Bishops Bruskewitz and Burke.

More disquieting than the bishops’ silence, however, is their “performative” repudiation of a salvific component to their ministry. Whatever their personal opinions may be, they don’t act as if it were possible for a man to lose his soul by making a spiritually lethal choice.

Imagine a mother whose toddlers crawl past her legs under the kitchen sink, open various bottles marked with the skull-and-crossbones, pour the contents into sippy-cups, and then trot off drinking the contents while she shakes her head in bemused resignation. Either the woman is criminally negligent, or she doesn’t believe the marked bottles really contain poison. There is no third possibility.

The eerie but incontestable fact is that most Catholic pastors behave like this unnaturally nonchalant mother. The Church still labels certain bottles with the skull-and-crossbones—i.e., she still professes a belief in mortal (soul-destroying) sins, but even those of her clergy who give verbal assent to Church doctrine seldom conduct their office in a way that is intelligible if the doctrine were true.

Take a simple example: weekly participation in the Sunday Eucharist is a Precept of the Church, failure at which the Catechism calls a grave sin (§§2180, 81). Less than a third of U.S. Catholics abide by this precept. That means more than 60% of the laity are at grave spiritual risk. Yet perhaps one clergyman in a thousand displays the concern toward the 60% he’d show toward someone in danger of bodily death. It’s likely that many among that 60% are too poorly catechised to commit a deliberate mortal sin by skipping Mass, but inasmuch as this compounds the failure of the clergy, it should increase their alarm rather than allay it. By their insouciant inaction they announce they don’t take damnation—theirs or their flock’s—as a serious possibility.

Or again, think of the Church’s missionary outreach to the unevangelized: once a prime concern for Catholics everywhere, now emptied of urgency by the sentimentalism that surrounds the Anonymous Christian and his exotic spiritualities. Missionaries return to give us glad news of wells dug or dances learned, rarely of pagans baptized.

One can examine ecclesiastical endeavor along any axis of Catholic teaching and find further performative confirmation of The Void. But it was the crisis of clergy sexual abuse that changed unease to outrage. Shocking as the abuse was in and of itself, the truly unsettling aspect of the scandal was the reaction to the abuse on the part of bishops, religious superiors, and other clergy in positions of responsibility. The official denials, the cover-ups, the silent transfers of offenders, the hardball tactics with victims pointed to a moral callousness than appalled even civil agencies. Still worse, and immeasurably harder to reconcile with the Faith, was the near-total absence of concern for the spiritual destiny of the victims, the perpetrators, and (in view of their lying under oath) the bishops themselves. OTR was born out of our stammering attempts to make sense out of a Church governed by churchmen drowsily indifferent to her supernatural ministry. Either they are malign, or they don’t really believe anything important is at stake. There is no third possibility.

OTR has permitted itself disparagement of “empty suit” clergymen, especially senior ecclesiastics, disparagement that many good-willed Catholics find repellent in itself and contrary to Christian discipleship. We do not doubt the good faith of their objections; we hope our critics are right and hope that it is we who have misread the situation; we wish them success at proving us wrong. But the key sticking point is that these critics deny what we find undeniable: the bishops indulgently beaming at the little ones with Liquid Plumber in their sippy-cups.

Unlike the liberals or the factionalist Right, OTR is not calling for “structural change” or some newfangled system of accountability. Individually we’ve each written numberless letters of appeal to numberless ecclesiastics, but OTR does not circulate manifestos or canvas signatures for petitions. We want the clergy to do today what the Church has called them to do from her beginnings. If our dismay sometimes takes a sardonic form of expression, it should be remembered that we’re measuring our pastors not against an idiosyncratic standard of our own devising, but against the promises they themselves made on taking office. The goal is to alert high clergy and low that some Catholics still count on these promises, and to remind them—in terms they’re likely to remember—that their spiritual duty is not optional.

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: johnhinshaw8419405 - Nov. 01, 2022 9:09 PM ET USA

    If someone had asked me in 2010, given the Church problems then, what could possibly make the problems worse - it would have taken me only 10 seconds of thought and I WOULD have said - The Jesuits take control of the Vatican. Nuff said

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Oct. 31, 2022 2:06 PM ET USA

    Yes, the situation described here is so much worse today. Now the occupant of St. Peter's Chair himself (I cannot call him Pope) gives cover to battalions of hell-denying Catholics in teaching that climate change and immigration are the Church's true priorities.