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Ridiculing Catholicism

October 31, 2022  |  4,463 words | Religion, Philosophy, Economics, Politics   

Ridiculing Catholicism for being out-of-touch with the modern world is super easy, and it’s so much fun!  Okay, yes, that sentence is gratuitous, and designed to get your attention. 

You must admit, though, there does seem to be a thriving cottage industry that has grown up around trashing the Church’s track record.  As if this bloated, mean-spirited institution has done nothing but impede the overall progress of humanity, while keeping its followers depressed and guilt-ridden for the last two thousand years.

At least that seems to be the consensus among fashionable opinion-makers.  And I have noticed many practicing Catholics now taking up this line, actively participating in what has become a popular parlor game.  

Sure, some of them may be innocently-if-awkwardly expressing a wry sense of humor, or a good-natured anti-authoritarian streak.  But in the main I find such Catholics to be more than a little self-conscious and defensive about their faith.  Many have joined the chorus of complaint as if trying to establish their enlightened (or “woke”) bona fides for secular friends and co-workers.  These folks strike me as being a mite too ready-and-willing to distance themselves from their own narrative, without ever really spending time to learn the ins-and-outs of what went down.  Because, let’s face it, life has always been complicated, and history defies easy categorization.  Instead, they seem to be taking the accusers at their word, ready to assume the worst of their own forebearers.

I was reminded of this while reading an essay/book review by Timothy Egan that appears in the Sunday, October 2 edition of the New York Times (NYT)Mr. Egan’s reflections are prompted by a new “big book” about the Catholic Church’s last 250 years:  Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, by John T. McGreevey, a professor of history at Notre Dame and author of three previous books on Catholicism.

Not that I have any reason to think Mr. Egan himself falls into this slightly odorous category.  Though I am unfamiliar with his work beyond this one essay, the NYT identifies him as a winner of the National Book Award, with his most recent effort being A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith.  At the very least, it would appear Egan takes this stuff seriously, which is always a good start.

But he does manage in this short piece to touch on what has become a familiar litany of Catholic faux pas of the recent past.  The very points of contention secularists use to scorn the Church’s claim to any sort of moral authority.  The same faux pas that make so many Catholics cringe, and compromise their participation in public discourse.

Which is to say, many Catholics are no longer comfortable bringing an authentically Catholic perspective to the discussion of contemporary social issues.  Or comfortable even trying to figure out what that perspective should be.  They have, to a large extent, adopted “accepted wisdom,” and think/speak in the current anti-Catholic vernacular.

In fact, when it comes to criticizing the Catholic Church, Catholics can often be found leading the way, so as not to be criticized themselves for being three steps behind the times.

 

*

 

Timothy Egan begins his October 2 essay/book review with an entertaining anecdote about his fear of authoritarian nuns who wielded a stiff ruler back in grade school, and his disappointment with the priest who, charged with explaining the intricacies of Church history and papal doctrines to 12-year-old charges, could muster nothing better than, “Well, it’s a mystery.”

Mr. Egan and I are the same age, and I am willing to bet our experiences in Catholic school were very similar, even though we grew up on opposite coasts.  I, too, used to comment for comedic effect on how tough the nuns were on us, but did so as a source of pride.  I stopped once I realized this fond memory was being used to tar-and-feather my old teachers as repressed, sadist virgins out for blood.  Go ahead and denigrate me as just another too-polite “good Catholic boy” if you will, but I have always harbored a deep respect for the nuns who taught us in grade school.  These determined, purposeful women really had their you-know-what together, as we used to say.  Even as a kid that level of focus impressed me no end, as did their vocation.  They were willingly giving themselves to a life of service.  In this case, that service was attempting to educate and civilize a room full of six dozen chirping little people, half of whom were young male hooligans.  A sturdy constitution was an absolute prerequisite for taming that crowd.

And what of the fact little Timmy found “all those monarchs and ministers, the papal edicts and parsing of purgatory, (and) the vast inexplicability of the doctrine of infallibility” a spiritual muddle?  Well, can even the brightest twelve-year-old be expected to grasp the intricacies and inner workings of the oldest institution in the Western world?  Can a teacher of such tadpoles really be blamed for keeping things simple and going a little light on the details?    

*

The two above examples constitute the easy stuff, of course, and Mr. Egan goes on to raise many more challenging concerns.   Catholicism may be vibrant and growing steadily outside of Europe and North America, but “that vibrancy is due in part to a legacy of spiritual imperialism – cross and sword at the head of armed colonizers.”  “Spiritual Imperialism”?  That seems a rather harsh, broad stroke assessment of the admonition we were given in Matthew 28:19, to “Go, and make disciples of all nations…”

Egan is not surprised “a top-down insular institution did not know what to make of government by the people,” and “took a more cautious view of the many democracies that sprouted between the American Revolution and the various revolts of the 19th century.”  This is undeniably true.  But he ascribes the caution to “a faith that had long relied on kings and despots as staunch allies.”  “Relied”?  Couldn’t this so-called reliance just as easily be interpreted as a simple case of judiciously working with what was in place at the time, for the spiritual and material well-being of the population at-large?

Mr. Egan then takes a couple of high-profile 19th century popes to task for being late to the party when it came to appreciating the advantages and benefits of the ascendant liberal democratic order, based on pluralism, that was sweeping over the West.

Exhibit A:  In an 1832 encyclical Pope Gregory XVI wrote that freedom of conscience was likely to “spread ruin,” and freedom of the press seemed “monstrous.”  Exhibit B:  In 1864, Pope Pius IX is said to have formally rejected the idea the Vatican should come to terms “with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

These statements are so anachronistic The Times saw fit to feature them in its Page 3 above-the-fold feature, “Of Interest: Noteworthy Facts from Today’s Paper.”  Reading them, the natural reaction is to think:  Oh, my word, how can anyone with even a modicum of intelligence possibly take the Catholic Church seriously?

But if the reader can look at them in a broader historical context, they become more understandable as part of an intellectual and spiritual continuum that is still worth referencing, and yes, even preserving.

Take the hallowed concept known as freedom of conscience.  This, as we know, is a cornerstone of the modern age, which could be said to have kicked off with the Protestant Reformation (1517).  It then got super-charged by the Enlightenment, which became the ideological inspiration for the American Revolution (1776) and the soon-to-follow French Revolution (1791).  Our revolution, whatever its’ ideological flaws, did not result in the beheading of George III.  The king and queen of France were not so lucky.  Neither were French clergy and orders of women religious.  Somehow the rousing slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” translated into lots and lots of officially sanctioned murder, with much of the bloody mayhem directly aimed at the Catholic Church.  

Under the circumstances, Catholics (and the pope) could be forgiven for continuing to believe in the year 1832 that the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment understanding of individual conscience was still rather problematic, and ran counter to “not my will, but your will be done.”  One might say this is where Catholicism has always differed from the Protestant/Enlightenment ethos.  And still does.

On a side note, getting in touch with God’s will for us is what the Catholic mystics – some of whom are referred to as “doctors” of the Church – are always taking about in their visions.  I would only add that seeking God’s will should not be an idle pastime, reserved for quiet moments of contemplation.  When making important decisions, in either our personal lives or our public, economic/political lives, we should always be appealing to something more objective than individual conscience.  “Conforming our will to God’s” is a phrase Catholics still hear at Sunday Mass on a regular basis.  I take that to mean trying to base our actions on something more than what we may feel is true, or what we may desire for ourselves at any given moment. 

Then there is the old-timey idea that freedom of the press, if unleased on the world, would prove to be monstrous.  But hasn’t that actually come to pass?  Doesn’t our current for-profit free press seem sort of monstrous?  Think Russian hacking of our elections, rampant hate speech on the internet, and political attack ads.  If I was Pope in 1832, I could see myself saying pretty much the same thing Greg XVI did on these two subjects, in pretty much the same way.  Not that he had the last, definitive word, by any means.  Or that we should not continue to adapt/develop the teaching to better embrace/respond to changing times.

 As for Pope Pius IX supposedly condemning “progress” in 1864, that seems an oversimplification designed to get a rise out of those already prone to look down their nose at pre-Vatican II Catholic thought.  As the Church’s shepherd-in-chief, Pius was trying to respond to the rise of capitalism, socialism, and industrialization, and address how these big new developments were damaging the social fabric, and denying average citizens their inherent dignity as human beings.  While he may not have hit the nail on the head in every sentence he penned, he was at least giving it his best shot.  And you may have noticed society is still grappling with these same issues now, in 2022.  “Progress,” you might say, has been a mixed blessing. 

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Look, I realize liberal democracy based on pluralism is the form of government we must now work with, and I am not pining for the good old days of a confessional state.  But forgive me if I do not enthusiastically raise a glass and give a robust, revolutionary toast to “the people, the source of all legitimate power.”  Because, based on the two-hundred-year plus record with “the people” being in charge, I am not that impressed with the results.

There is no question these 19th century popes and their teaching are what todays’ reform-minded Catholics want no part of.  They would like nothing better than to see this stuff expunged from the permanent record, to use a contemporary legal phrase.   

I hope my seeing value in the entire two-thousand-year history of how Catholicism has been trying to figure out how best to apply the teaching of a man whose time on earth was short and seemingly inconsequential, does not make me out to be a traditionalist stick in the mud.

It has become commonplace to view the last 250 years of Catholicism’s history as an epic struggle between two opposing factions: reformists and traditionalists.  But I consider myself to be neither.  As an example of my lack of partisanship, I feel no need to play the “good pope, bad pope” game that most everyone I know seems to be caught up in.  Especially since the designations are subject to change depending on the season, and on who is doing the evaluating.

“Pope” strikes me as being a particularly thankless job, one I would not want for all the tea in China.  And the popes of the last few centuries I’ve read something about have all struck me as putting their best foot forward under some trying circumstances.  Even if none of them ever managed to get everything exactly right.

*

Timothy Egan continues his book review/essay by tackling The Jewish Question, and Catholicism does not fare very well in his estimation, as you may have gathered by now.  He writes that author John T. McGreevy, in the recently published Catholicism: A Global History under consideration, “is dutiful, and at times outraged, in sections that show how the contagion of antisemitism infected so many Vatican leaders.  Social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism turned into ugly and undisguised tropes against Jews.”

While my academic prowess certainly cannot hold a candle to that of either Mr. Egan or Mr. McGreevey, I have been reading the Church’s social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism for a few years now, and have yet to notice a particular ethnic group being called out.  The excesses of capitalism are to be found in certain behaviors, and are not the unique purview of any one ethnicity, as far as I can tell.

Mr. Egan continues: “It was the same story in criticism of the rise of communism.  Father Charles Coughlin, the most famous Catholic priest in the United States, promoted conspiracy theories of Jewish global cabals and defended the 1938 Nazi violence of Kristallnacht.”

I am keenly aware the Fr. Coughlin of 1930s fame is one of those lightning-rod figures any respectable Catholic is now supposed to shun out of hand.  And I am certainly not here to come to his defense or make his case.  For one thing, I confess to not knowing anything about the Nazi violence of Kristallnacht in 1938.  But Coughlin was far from a lone voice in drawing attention to what many at the time saw as the undue influence of international bankers that seemed to be driving world conflict.  And while not claiming to be an expert on the matter myself, the Catholic Church did apparently see communism as the greatest evil facing Christianity in the 1930s, before Hitler went nuts.   The record would also seem to demonstrate unequivocally that communism derived its intellectual firepower from a core group of Russian Jews that took the reins there in 1917.  

Then for some reason at this point in his review Mr. Egan drops in a note about how Pope Pius IX, in the middle of the 19th century, condoned the forced conversion and kidnapping of a Jewish boy from Bologna.  Again, pardon me for not knowing the details, but something tells me there is another side to this story, one that does not paint Pius IX in such an appalling, unforgiveable light.

Next, we read about “(a) pair of notorious Vatican agreements – one with Mussolini in 1929, the other with Hitler in 1933 – (that) were designed to protect Catholics.  They were quickly broken and gave the Nazis and Fascists cover for some of their crimes.”

This anecdote almost borders on being a crude exaggeration, not worthy of a serious scholar.   What are we to make of it?  That the Vatican, along with the rest of the civilized world, had yet to learn Mussolini and Hitler were, in fact, the worst possible bad actors?  That the Vatican was wrong to try to protect Catholics?  Or is it to simply show the Vatican was mis-guided in its perception of communism as the greatest threat to humanity?

Yes, that last sentence seems to be the main thrust of this section.  For Mr. Egan then tells his readers: “Thanks to the dogged scholarship of David Kertzer, we know much more now about the unholy alliance between fascism and the Catholic Church.”

On my goodness, an “unholy alliance”?  I certainly would not have wanted to be put in the position of having to choose between the fascists and the communists.  Would you?  Are we to hold the Church in contempt for trying to make some sort of accommodation with what it saw as the lesser of two evils? 

I am also not sure why Joseph Stalin’s massacre of some 20 million Christians in the Soviet Union during this same stretch never seems to make it into these accusatory overviews of the Vatican’s so-called reprehensible calumny with fascism.

*

Egan closes out his review with the same thing John McGreevey’s book apparently does – the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  This is generally heralded by progressive Catholics as the singular event that wiped away the Church’s historical sins, and re-made Catholicism for the modern era.

Again, I am no expert, but after reading my fair share of the sixteen (16) documents of Vatican II, I’ve yet to come across anything that strikes me as a paradigm shift in the Church’s self-understanding, or what progressives enthusiastically refer to as “new” theology.  

Though we should give the hopeful progressives their due for the boatload of welcome changes ushered in by the Council which the more radical traditionalists still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge.  As author George Weigel shares in a new book, The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, a few of the highlights would include greater lay participation in all aspects of Church life: liturgical, educational, managerial, evangelical.  Along with fully realizing Catholicism’s claim as a global institution, as churchmen from outside its historic European core began to take prominent roles in shaping the Catholic future.  Then by formally recognizing the altar-and-throne alliances of the past were no longer possible under modern political conditions, the Church has been transformed from a supporter of the political status quo into one of the world’s foremost defenders of basic human rights, and a leading critic of the political status quo.  No matter what your preferred political status quo happens to be.  

Regarding those grouchy traditionalists that do nothing but bash the Council, Weigel, who most would consider a rather staunch traditionalist himself, has this to say:

“Thoughtful assessments of Vatican II and its legacy must acknowledge that the pre-conciliar Catholic past was more brittle and fragile after two world wars, and more vulnerable to the cultural tsunami of the 1960s, than some nostalgic traditionalists imagine.  Moreover, bunker Catholicism is a betrayal of the commission that was central to John XXIII’s original intention for Vatican II: ‘Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).’”

Which is not to dismiss the critics of Vatican II altogether, since they have also managed to make a few valid points along the way.  Such as how the council decided to replace the Latin Mass, lock, stock, and barrel, with a Mass said completely in the local vernacular.  While intended to make this central act of Catholic worship more accessible, the effort has in many ways sort of back-fired.  By dispensing with any hint of Latin, Vatican II ushered in a liturgical era in which things have gone a little off the rails, where the Mass has “often been dumb-downed into banality, if not downright silliness,” in the words of Mr. Weigel.  As many a practicing Catholic can attest, you do not have to be a radical traditionalist to recognize a deficient modern liturgy when you encounter one.

So we now have a contentious situation in which hard-core traditionalists refuse to participate in the new “Novus Ordo” Mass, and go to great lengths to find an out-of-the-way Latin Mass.  While progressives accuse such people of causing schism, by failing to acknowledge the Novus Ordo rite that became the officially-sanctioned norm after Vatican II.

Which is a shame.  Both sides in this controversy have a legitimate perspective that deserves a fair hearing, as is so often the case.  There was (and is) an obvious middle ground when it comes to the Mass.  Why not preserve Latin in the major parts, such as the Sanctus, etc., and use vernacular in the other parts.  The traditionalist view that the world went to hell in a handbasket once Latin was thrown out is too extreme.  But so is the progressive view that all Latin should be done away with as a vestige of a claustrophobic, hierarchal past.

*

Getting back to Timothy Egan and his October 2 review/essay, he notes there is still much debate over whether Vatican II is responsible for the dramatic decline in the number of practicing Catholics across Europe and North America, and for the thousands of Catholic priests and religious sisters who abandoned their rectories and convents in the decade after the council, in the largest such exodus since the 16th century Reformations.

Because this decline and abandonment follows a corresponding trend in Protestant faiths, Mr. Egan theorizes it could be more than a strictly Catholic issue, and might mean much of the world “simply has little use for religion in modern life.”

Here Egan perfectly captures the spirit of our age, but I am disappointed at how easily he seems to acquiesce and even endorse it.  This runs counter to an earlier, more expansive view of Catholicism as “the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”  Apparently, some really smart Catholics no longer see their faith in such liberating terms.  

The contemporary notion that we have intellectually evolved to the point of having outgrown the need for religious conviction and religious practice is highly presumptuous, in my view.  It implies we are each a god in our own right, and no longer require any guidance beyond what our own unerring conscience provides.  No need to reference any objective moral standard, or attend to the straight and narrow.  This sort of hubris makes me think maybe Gregory XVI was barking up the right tree back in 1832, after all.

Which leaves the sexual abuse scandal as the elephant in the room, accompanied by what Timothy Egan describes as “its ongoing waves of official hypocrisy.”  Many would say this is the biggest single reason one-time Catholics have stopped practicing their faith, and have started to criticize the institutional Church instead.  And who can blame them.  The perpetrators of this abuse have certainly earned their place in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.  But this appalling story might still have a redemptive Christian twist before all is said and done.   We are taught even such desperately troubled souls are worthy of mercy should they choose to repent with a contrite heart.

Although Mr. Egan does not touch on the following aspect of the scandal in his short piece, many critics think this tragic turn of events proves the Church’s all-male, celibate priesthood is a hopelessly unworkable policy.  But others have suggested what the scandal reveals more than anything else is a post-conciliar breakdown in seminary training and discipline of the clergy, both of which became major contributors to the crimes of clerical sexual abuse.

As George Weigel implies, one could view the scandal itself and our reaction to it as a window into how “the once-thriving Catholicism of Western Europe – countries whose theologians and bishops were the principal movers and shakers of Vatican II – has largely disappeared since the council, replaced by a Church of the Zeitgeist that seems far more liberal-Protestant and woke-progressive than Catholic.”

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Timothy Egan closes his review by observing Mr. McGreevy’s 528-page history features “too much infighting among long-forgotten church gatekeepers wielding Latin encyclicals and proclamations on sex. And not enough on the simple spiritual philosophy at the center of the world’s largest faith.”  This easy-going, live-and-let-live refrain comes across as a Catholic-lite sort of remark, and does make it feel like many of the Church’s intramural critics are more woke-progressive these days than Catholic, to borrow Mr. Weigel’s formulation.  

The encyclicals Mr. Egan seems to dismiss as elitist are indeed always composed in Latin.  But left unsaid is how these documents are then routinely translated into a slew of different languages, and disseminated to the four corners of the earth.  Each one is readily available for download on the internet, and written in clear, concise language that is easily accessible to the lay man and woman in the street. 

Tim Egan is certainly not alone is wishing the Church’s simple spiritual philosophy could be imbibed and enjoyed without having to put up with what now strikes our emancipated sensibilities as a tangle of restrictive rules and regulations.  But wishing does not necessarily make a thing so, and experience continually reminds us doing what feels good in the moment does not always yield the best results.

Without wanting to get too preachy, the spiritual philosophy which appears to be so simple has proven itself devilishly hard for most of us to implement.  That may have something to do with our inherently fallen nature, despite what folks like Jean Jacques Rousseau have preached on the subject.  

You may have also noticed Christ’s message is rather deceptive in its apparent simplicity.  This should not be surprising, since we have it on good authority the messenger himself was the most radical and counter-cultural individual you could ever hope to meet.  Unsettling in the extreme, some have testified.

Attempting to discern the deeper meaning of Christ’s various parables, and apply that meaning to all manner of situations to be found in daily living, is what has taken humanity so long to figure out.  But we keep trying, despite our many fits and starts.

*

There are many things in my life for which I am grateful, but at the top of the list is being Catholic.  No doubt Timothy Egan feels the same way.  In my case, returning to the fold at age forty after an extended period of youthful rebellion was the best thing I could have hoped for.  I don’t regret my long sojourn sampling other intellectual traditions and spiritual disciplines, because it broadened my outlook and helped me develop a rich appreciation for fellow travelers who actively seek the truth.

It’s the extensive exploring I did in my twenties and thirties that has helped me “know the place where I started” in a much more comprehensive way. 

So then dear reader please allow me to end my brief defense/rebuttal with a tip of the cap to Timothy Egan, John McGreevey, George Weigel, and yes, even David Kertzer.  I feel a special kinship with anyone who takes things seriously and is trying to put their best foot forward.  Even when they disagree with me.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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