The Catholic Church is perhaps the most troubled religious organization in modern times. No other sect or group is going through the same crisis Catholics are undergoing today, although this is not immediately apparent to those on the outside. This century – the 21st century – will truly determine the shape of the faith for generations to come. But before we move on, a bit of background information is welcome.
In the 1960’s, the Catholic Church held a worldwide council of bishops, called the Second Vatican Council. This was the 21st of the so-called Ecumenical Councils, the deliberations and decrees of which are meant to expound and explain Catholic doctrine in light of contemporary challenges to the faith whilst seeking unity with all other Christian sects. This youngest of the councils was meant to be the Church’s response to the modern world—an attempt at providing a modern discourse not unlike the philosophical consolidation provided by the great Thomas Aquinas.
Since then, the Church has focused more on dialogue rather than debate, collaboration rather than conflict. After nearly a thousand years of separation, Pope Paul VI met with Patriarch Athenagoras of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the two hierarchs lifted excommunications which had been in force since 1054. After centuries of war and bloodshed, the Church reached out to the Lutherans and the two groups even drafted a joint declaration on the most controversial point of doctrinal difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. Hopes are high for an eventual reunion of all Christians. And the more general calls for dialogue and peace have been extended not merely to other Christians but even to the various religions of the world, from the folk traditions of North America to the now-resurgent Islam. The Church has not, of course, diluted a single point of Church teaching (both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI make that abundantly clear), but the practice of the Church has changed.
From the outside, things might appear to be warm and merry. But under the appearance of serenity lies a harsh reality. The Church is in a state of great turmoil.
In the early 20th century, Pope Pius X spent much of his time and energy as head of the Catholic Church to combat a movement called “Modernism”. The Modernists were clerics and laypeople who, while professing to be Catholics and uniting themselves with the external structures of the Church, nevertheless watered down and diluted several elements of Church doctrine and teaching. Pius X was particularly ruthless – he ordered that all priests and seminary professors take the “Oath Against Modernism”. Needless to say, under his pontificate, the modernists were forced to go underground.
However, after the Second Vatican Council, under the guise of “pastoral reforms”, the Modernists have had a remarkable resurgence. While they have failed utterly to change official Church teaching, they nonetheless hold opinions at variance with what many consider to unchanging dogma.
All of the Popes post the Vatican II have been very strict against this newly resuscitated trend. John Paul II, in particular, reaffirmed orthodox doctrine in his catechism and encyclicals and Benedict promulgated reforms that led to a revival of traditionalism among clerics and laypeople. But the most recent ascendant to the Throne of Peter does not appear to be in the same vein.
“Is the Pope Catholic?” was considered to be a joke English Catholics said to themselves in the 19th century. It isn’t funny anymore as the current pontiff, Pope Francis, repeatedly makes ambiguous statements that appear to: firstly, question the necessity of faith for salvation; secondly, allow for divorced and remarried couples to receive Communion; thirdly, imply that Catholic couples should control the number of children they have (which some might interpret as a contradiction of age-old Church doctrine on contraception); and fourthly, call for a change in the teaching on the death penalty and sympathy for homosexuals.
All of these statements are ambiguously worded, and it is not always clear if a denial has taken place or if it is simply yet another case of authentic doctrine being stated in a slipshod manner. But what is certainly without question is that this is the most controversial pontificate in recent memory. The situation became so bad that it prompted four high-ranking Church leaders to make public an appeal (called “dubia”) to the Pope seeking clarification on his statements – an appeal which, since then, has gone unanswered. There was even talk of a “public fraternal correction” of the Pope, and there has already been a more grass-roots level “filial correction” involving scores of distinguished signatories.
But what is even more worrying is the Holy Father’s response to his critics. When calls for clarification come, the Pope is silent. Subtle attacks on his critics and dissenters abound in his Sunday homilies. Conservative laypeople are up in arms, not least among them being the historian Henry Sire, author of the controversial bestseller The Dictator Pope. While Francis tries his level best to maintain an image of compassion, can that really square with what many are now calling a tyrannical method of internal governance?
On August 25, 2018, a prominent prelate, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, released a damning 11-page letter describing a network of sexual abuse cover-ups that had spread its tentacles all the way to upper echelons of power. In a move virtually unprecedented in recent history, the bishop called upon the pontiff and the others complicit to resign. This is more than a question of moral corruption. In the eyes of countless conservatives, the laxity of moral standards among prelates and priests is not separate from but is rather a direct result of the “Modernist conspiracy” to liberalize Catholic doctrine. The fact that the majority of these abuse cases are instances of homosexual abuse has only added fuel to the fire.
This is not just a regional crisis. This is a battle for the very heart of the Church.
As a conservative Christian with deep sympathy for the Catholic Church’s mission and an appreciation of the richness of her theological heritage, I propose a three-point programme to deal with this crisis once and for all.
Initiate a Church-wide search-and-destroy operation – better still, if this is handled by outside non-ecclesiastical bodies. Defrock priests found guilty of sexual abuse and hand them over to the secular authorities.
Allow, for the time being, married men to become priests, in accordance with the historical precedents of the Byzantine and other Oriental traditions.
Renovate the formation process in theological seminaries – restore traditional practices abandoned since Vatican II and work to foster ascetic rigour among candidates for the priesthood.
If these three points are successfully implemented, we may find ourselves with a smaller Catholic Church. But this will not be a loss. It will be a victory, and the Church will finally have a chance to reclaim her former glory in the modern world.
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