These are not the best of times. In fact, some folks say that the Catholic Church in the United States confronts today the greatest challenge in its history. Things were already tough before the November elections, but now they’re in the tank. The good news is that, this year, Catholic bishops were united as never before in defending the Church’s First Amendment right of religious freedom; the bad news is that, if the election results are to be viewed as a referendum on that issue, we lost.
Win or lose, it’s certainly time for some prayerful introspection. The battle over the HHS Contraception Mandate is only a skirmish in a larger war. Princes of the Church are publicly predicting that an age of martyrdom will soon follow the present age of chastisement. The Culture of Life now confronts, close up, the ugly and unveiled face of the Culture of Death. It brings to mind the passage from Ephesians 6 that my father underscored in his Bible long ago:
“Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”
The world is engaged in a spiritual conflict as pivotal as Tours in 732, Lepanto in 1571, or Kahlenberg in 1683. The enemy is wearing a different uniform, but he is just as dangerous: and today the world once known as Christendom is woefully unprepared.
What is to be done? Well, the great saints often warned us not to get too comfortable in our spiritual life, lest we fall into a rut. As an old friend of mine used to say, the only way you can coast is downhill.
Are we in a rut? In many ways, the Catholic Church in America has been coasting for 50 years – and yes, a lot of it has been downhill. In the rearview mirror, it looks like one, long, slow-motion train wreck. Take morality. Way back in the 1960s, the Church simply stopped talking about it. When the sexual revolution took over the secular culture, the Church wasn’t there to oppose it. There was no battle: our bishops didn’t even put up a fight.
Cardinal James Francis Stafford focuses on August 1968, when our country experienced an instance of “the awful consequences of God’s judgment upon sinful humanity.” On July 25, 1968, Cardinal Stafford writes, “Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter on transmitting human life, Humanae Vitae. He met immediate, premeditated, and unprecedented opposition from some American theologians and pastors.”
“Ideas have consequences,” Richard Weaver wrote, and, may I add, bad ideas have very bad consequences. “In 1968, something terrible happened in the Church,” Cardinal Stafford continues. “Within the ministerial priesthood, ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test.”
Indeed, many of those wounds never healed. They have left scars everywhere. Even the president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, candidly admits that our bishop are wounded. They have had “laryngitis” — since the 1960’s! — regarding the moral teaching of the Church. Looking back from 2012, Cardinal Dolan says that, for the American Church, Humanae Vitae was just “too hot to handle.”
To put it another way, the Church faced a “supreme test” in facing its responsibility to teach Humanae Vitae.
Once the teaching on morality disappeared, the Church’s entire approach to catechetics collapsed along with it. In 1967, led by Father Ted Hesburgh, longtime president of Notre Dame, universities that were once Catholic virtually declared independence from the Church (but not from their Catholic donors). They went for the big money, both from population controllers like the Rockefeller Foundation, and from the federal government, where LBJ had opened wide the spigots in the hot tub for Catholic universities who would hand over their operations to a lay board of trustees and camouflage their Catholic character.
All too often, it didn’t take much persuading.
Other dominoes fell quickly. The liturgy became a playground for egoists, both lay and clerical. The pulpit became a political podium. The Confessional became an anachronism, mortal sin became passé, and thousands of priests and nuns simply left religious life. The president of the bishops’ conference worried that the priesthood was becoming “dominated by homosexual men,” but his successor praised gay priests, insisting that they were “chaste and celibate.” Alas, that didn’t always work, and the Church lost not only billions of dollars as a result, but something much more precious: “Our credibility on the subject of child abuse is shredded,” admits Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, who heads the bishops’ office of child protection. The Church suffered the worst scandal in its history, and a third of American Catholics simply left the Church altogether.
After The Deluge
“What we have here is a failure to communicate”
(Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke)
Maybe it is time for a reset. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is giving us the opportunity that we cannot grasp ourselves, due to a lack of fortitude and, it is painful to admit, perhaps to a lack of faith. Our bishops recognize that they have a problem. They have encouraged all the faithful to prayerfully engage in the Year of Faith, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We should respond with energy, fortitude, and gratitude. But with what armor are the bishops girding for battle in the war we are in? Ah, they have hired new staff – a lobbyist and a lawyer! – and have now issued a “Strategic Plan” to implement the “New Evangelization.” How? “The Committees and offices of the USCCB are asked to integrate four planning strategies into the outcome objectives and projects” – over the course of the next four years!
I wonder, is the Church really asking us to “put on the armour” of more bureaucrats and more bureaucratese? Lawyers? Lobbyists? Do we really need to “finalize” three more years of research so we can communicate the Church’s position on human dignity in 2016? Is reflecting on “the value of continuing to strengthen strategies of developing collaborative relationships” really going to prepare the Church “to stand against the deceits of the devil”?
The bishops’ “Strategic Plan” (available in full at ussccb.org) strategically ignores the Church’s most profound strategic failures since the scandals: first, the Church opposes homosexual marriage, but refuses to explain why – because homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” and that homosexual acts are “an intrinsically moral evil,” as Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, authoritatively instructed the world’s bishops in 1986. Second, the Church opposes the HHS Contraceptive Mandate, but refuses to explain why – because, as Humanae Vitae plainly teaches, contraception is an “objective evil.”
Admittedly, these are unpopular truths in our culture. After all, we have just come through an election in which the victor ran on a platform of uninhibited, unlimited, and taxpayer-funded sex. Very well: we acknowledge that the popular culture rejects these fundamental truths of the Faith. What else is new? But do our bishops reject them? Homosexual marriage and the contraceptive culture are the very “deceits of the devil” with which “the rulers of the world of this darkness” and ‘the spirits of wickedness in the high places” intend to destroy the Catholic Church. Yet the bishops’ bureaucracy continues to ignore these truths, as it kicks the can down the road to 2016.
“Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
If Saint Paul were bringing the Gospel to the United States for the first time, would he build the church we have today? Would he urge the faithful to found charities that were little more than glorified contractors for an secular anti-Catholic federal government? Would he ordain candidates for the priesthood who flaunted their “objective disorders”? Would he found universities that scoff at the authority of the Church and plaintively pander for federal funding? Would he found religious orders that handed over our Catholic schools to paid staff while they marched off to Washington advocating political causes? Would he put all of these enterprises under the guidance and direction of a bureaucracy in Washington full of “experts” whose knowledge of their specializations went much deeper than the knowledge of the faith?
The bishops undoubtedly paid a lot for their strategic plan. They didn’t ask for alternatives, but I have one here. It’s free.
An age of martyrdom approaches quickly. We can hear its footsteps, and they are jackboots, pounding. Stop taking the government money, close down the bureaucracy, and preach the Gospel – all of it, even the unpopular parts.
Don’t wait until 2016. Start over. Now.