By Charlie Johnston
The last few weeks for me have been something of a foreshadowing of what lies immediately ahead. Besides a three-day power outage and a five-day Internet outage I had a week’s worth of floods. The heavy snowstorm brought the power outage as its date to this dance. It has kind of been an indoor pilgrimage.
Besides my sister, Kim, I am adding my son, Charlie, and my godson and nephew, Denton, as editors of the website. In addition to clearing comments, I will have them begin to solicit guest columns and handle some mail. I am finally making a little bit of a dent in the email load…only about three weeks behind now. I am developing some guidelines for the new editors here…need to have them in place before I hit the road.
Friday I will meet for a final layout of the “Go Forth” booklets on prayer groups – and get them ready to be printed. I will also work out the logistics for the first trip to the southeast, which will come in late June. I have a checklist up for people who want to host a visit – and I will make final plans for the first trip based on that and the contacts who are already waiting.
Meantime, I have been contemplating what is ahead. I don’t worry so much about the turmoil in the world, though I stay aware of it. As I have often said, much of that I put in the “These things must come” category. I am far more concerned about the contours of the turmoil that is growing in the Church.
Last year’s first session of the Synod on the Family revealed some of the fissures that have opened up at the highest levels. I had no fear of the outcome, in part because that session could not do anything binding, but mainly because Christ promised that the Pope and assembled Bishops will be protected from doctrinal error on matters of faith and morals. I believe Christ – and fully trust in what He promises. But it did reveal that there are a host of high clerics and authorities who are determined to force the Church to break faith with the Lord – or they will go their own way.
The most obvious challenge comes from the “progressive” wing, which believes we have outgrown those absurd Biblical injunctions. They actively conspire to undermine Church doctrine – and were eager to claim the Pope, himself, as their patron. They had to be shocked and disappointed at his stately, concise confirmation of orthodoxy to close that first session. You can almost feel it bubbling up that they will either have their way or go their own way. Already, in Germany, Bishops have spoken of what I call the “Henry VIII option:” – they will decide in their conference what Church doctrine is for their country regardless of what the Pope and Magisterium have to say. I find myself thankful that Cardinal Raymond Burke is free enough of pressing responsibilities that, like a doctrinal handyman, he can attend to leaks wherever they spring up.
The progressives reveal that they don’t actually believe in God. They think the Church an ingenious creation of man, rather than the gift of the Risen Lord, and so think it can be amended as it suits their fancy. But if it is not from God, then it is merely a kingdom designed to support their comfort, ambitions and sinecures by leaching off the faithful. I didn’t sign up for that. If they ever got their way, progressive enthusiasts would find that neither does much of anyone else who doesn’t actually have a sinecure supported by the faithful. The old mainline Protestant Churches in America have discovered that since the 70s, as they have gotten progressively more “relevant” and found themselves facing extinction. But these internal dissidents are arming for battle and will have sway for a time.
Then there are certain extreme traditionalists who are gripped by a restless and unseemly eagerness to declare Pope Francis an antipope and tool of the devil. Shoot, a big chunk of these had already so declared him before his election – before they even knew who he was. These have the virtue of actually believing in Christ, but it does them a fat lot of good, for they believe in a Christ of their own making and completely ignore His assurances if it gets in the way of them showing their dominance over everyone else. They will quickly and eagerly condemn you for the merest trifles. I react viscerally because it so reminds me of the Fundamentalist Holiness denomination I saw as a child – a denomination that, at the time, called God “beautiful” but painted a picture of a bloodthirsty monster ever on the lookout for excuses to smite His poor children. I reject it now as I rejected it then.
I do not fear an antipope so much as I do a procession of them. I know it is not Francis, for a validly elected Pope cannot be an antipope. I don’t even have to ask my angel about that. But I see rising, across the world, a host of people determined to set themselves up as their own popes – some to enhance their power and expand their sinecures, others to savor the thrill of condemning the rest of us poor mopes.
Confusion grows. Initial reports that Pope Francis had called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace” have now been somewhat rebutted by the Italian press which maintains he expressed the hope that Abbas would become an angel of peace. The issue was obscured when the official Vatican spokesman said he was not quite sure what the Pope said, but that he knew the Pope MEANT that he hoped Abbas would become an angel of peace. I think we can safely assume that that is what the Pope meant. The controversy obscured the much larger issue of the Vatican’s formal recognition of Palestine as an independent nation. I imagine it was done to try to protect Christians under siege in the Middle East. I can’t say I am an enthusiast for protecting some people by turning your back on others under siege – but it is not new. The Vatican pursued a similar strategy in the 60s and early 70s with the Soviet Bloc to try to minimize persecution of Catholics. On the other hand, if I were a Jew, a lot of the steady work of solidarity formed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI would seem inoperative now and I would be looking at the Catholic Church with a more jaundiced eye.
Coming on the heels of a downright chummy meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro a few days earlier, it is discomfiting. To be a practicing Catholic in Cuba has been an imprisonable offense under both Raul and his more famous brother, Fidel. I suppose that, too, is an effort to protect Catholics on that benighted island. I wish the meeting had been a little less chummy, though.
The Pope, alone among Bishops, is a head of State and must engage directly in international diplomacy and certain political matters. That is, in fact, his secular responsibility, as distinct from his Magisterial responsibility. I think we were a bit spoiled by the late St. John Paul, who was one of the four or five most gifted statesmen and diplomats of the last century. I don’t recall him ever cozying up to or appeasing a tyrant to protect Catholics…but it was pretty common practice before him.
I was amused at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warning that without nuclear disarmament, the world would be in danger. The world IS in danger. If the conference wanted to speak credibly, it would support vigorous means of enforcement, but it has generally taken a delicate hope for the best from the promises of tyrants approach. If the responsible world disarms without such a vigorous enforcement mechanism, it will usher in a nuclear apocalypse. But that was just a bit of silliness.
I was shocked when the Pope’s top advisor lambasted opponents of giving governments massive centralized power to combat climate change as simply greedy. Without going into details of the merit of the climate change issue, I would have expected the Vatican to speak to the science of the issue, the evidence, the facts, rather than to just attack the character and motives of opponents, like some cheap Sunday morning talking heads show. One might look at how well the environment is cared for by nations that have strongly centralized power. I hope the Vatican is not planning to adopt the Russian or Chinese model to fix things, but the top advisor sure made it sound that way. If the Vatican does come up with a plan that will shift massive power to centralized government authorities and supports the sort of plans that will put millions out of work and consign more millions to lives of poverty and servility, I hope actual evidence and facts play into it somewhere rather than just insults and smears.
There were four or five other events that shook me while I was in the mountains. Fortunately, I have been expecting this since my visitation back on December 20 of last year. It is not just we, the laity, who get a little panicked at how out of control things are getting. It happens to clerics in top positions, as well. Certainly this Pope seems to have a bit of a predilection for trusting authoritarian government power to force people to do good. That has not been the way it works out in practice, nor is it the way Christ set things up. When Catholics set up the first major hospitals, they did not petition Caesar to do it on their behalf. Our forbears actually did it. When the secular kings of the dark ages tried to destroy all the classical texts of knowledge, Catholics did not petition them to adopt a different policy. Rather, our forbears formed monasteries and took it on themselves to preserve that knowledge by copying the texts and preserving them for future generations. It is always tempting to recruit government to be the Church’s agent in forcing people to do good. But whenever the state takes the power necessary to be such an agent, it quickly takes on the role of master and oppresses the faithful.
Many clerics think that if they endorse some leftist, progressive policies, it will get them out of the target zone of statist authoritarians. My friends in the faith, we ARE the target. It does not matter what sops we give those who would be master. We will ever remain ground zero for the secularists artillery.
And yet, my certainty that Pope Francis IS the Pope appointed by the Holy Spirit to carry us through the Storm is undiminished. His manner of acting, his flamboyance, his intense engagement are characteristics I long saw before he came on the scene. The Pope, himself, has said he believes he has been inspired by God. Frankly, I believe him. His immediate two predecessors bolstered the solidity of the doctrinal foundation, which had been shaken by post-Vatican II misinterpretations and enthusiasms. Pope Francis is profoundly pastoral.
Let me speak bluntly for a moment of part of what I was shown last December concerning the Church. In this age where everything has been politicized, we think our friends are those who agree with us on policy and our enemies those who disagree with us. It pleases God to show us that not all who agree with us are our friends nor are all who disagree with us our enemies. It also pleases God that each of us should have the humility to play our position well without abandoning it to kibitz at another. The Pope and the Bishops are central – like a pitcher and a shortstop on a baseball team. But they err if they wander too far from their position to tell the more mundane left fielder or first baseman what to do when the game is on. If they spend much time at it, they are not helping the team, but abdicating their responsibility. When your responsibility is scary, meddling extensively in another’s is a way to avoid your responsibility while seeming to do something important. But it will not do.
At the center of everything is the heart. What is the heart of the person involved? I find myself in disagreement on several things with the Pope these days. Even so, I do not at all get the sense he is vested in whatever he says being right, regardless of the consequences, like so many secular politicians are these days. When modern politicians’ plans lead to massive failure, they usually double down and do more of what caused the failure in the first place – because vanity and self-worship are what is at the heart of their ethos, not service and a seeking after what is right, true and just. I think Pope Francis is a pragmatist in the noblest sense of the word: he wants what builds up, not what tears down. At the preliminary session of the Synod on the Family last year, many progressives insisted they were speaking for the Pope. Though it was gentle, they got their heads handed to them when this Pope closed the Synod with a profound confirmation of orthodox doctrine. This is not a man who is afraid to take a risk, nor a man who can be easily played. I know Abbas and company think they have won a great victory. They may have. If they abandon their genocidal ambitions of extermination they may, indeed, have found a new friend and patron. If they go back to business as usual, I think they will discover they have made a relentlessly implacable opponent. Don’t forget that when ISIS showed it would not abandon savagery, this Pope did not dither. He called for coordinated military action to defend the oppressed. He is slow to decide forceful action is needed, but unlike most clerics, he is not queasy to call for it when the evidence is irrefutable. I think Pope Francis is determined to do the most right thing he can think of at all times. I may disagree with him on what that is at times, but I have confidence that is his guiding star.
I get many readers who think dealing with angels and heavenly beings makes everything easy. Ha! If you only knew. Actually, you get some snippets of information, usually very incomplete, and then the instruction to come up with something…figure it out. You then have to step out with courage, knowing full well you may make a huge blunder. Your successes surprise you and please the angels. Your stumbles often amuse them, even as they help to clean up the mess. But you have to have the courage to put yourself on the firing line all the time, knowing that sometimes you are going to get wounded because of your own clumsiness. I think Pope Francis is doing just that.
We have to live a certain solidarity. We have to build each other up, even when we don’t agree with each other on various issues, though with a core of fundamental values. I certainly have not been shy about publicly disagreeing with a Bishop – or conferences – if I think a situation merits it. But I think most of our Bishops want to do the most right thing they can, too, and take their job seriously. I have been grieving for several months over something I don’t understand. Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley has been a Bishop I admired.
We have some mutual friends – and I have prayed for him daily since the day he was assigned to Boston. I admired the way he stabilized that Archdiocese after the brutal fallout of sexual abuse scandals. Just a few years back, he served as the firewall keeping legalized euthanasia out of sweeping through the northeastern states. He has some marvelous accomplishments to his credit. But I was dismayed by his 60 Minutes interview a few months back. It troubled me how eagerly he threw Bishop Robert Finn to the wolves when the interview got tough. I have discussed before how deeply troubled I am that Bishop Finn, an orthodox prelate who had rejuvenated a moribund diocese, committed the equivalent of a confused misdemeanor and got the book thrown at him while progressive Bishops who have actively participated in unambiguous cover-ups and offenses get slaps on the wrist and are treated with honor. But I also got the nagging sense when the Cardinal spoke of being the Pope’s key advisor on these sexual abuse matters, that he saw himself as a sort of inquisitor general, looking for Bishops to smite, rather than seeing himself as taking the lead among his colleagues to set things right and restore confidence among the faithful. It suggested to me a lack of respect for the many fine men who are trying to lead the flock and a hint that he would be a further burden to them rather than one who would help them carry the load. That nagging sense was jolted into a conviction when Cardinal O’Malley fired a janitor in a Catholic school for using a proper restroom, but at the wrong time of day, because of the potential for it looking bad – then fired the principal of the school and a teacher who objected to his over-reaction…particularly because NO ONE had even hinted there was anything sexual or even amiss about it. That is not justice; it is the sort of dark obsession that would do Inspector Javert proud. I have thought so highly of Cardinal O’Malley and his accomplishments that I want to think he means well. But my confidence is shaken. Most of our Bishops are good, holy committed men who often stumble, but try to stumble forward. They ought to be accorded respect for that, even in disagreement. And they ought to be accorded that respect by other Bishops, as well.
I think that most of our problems arise when we depart from the culture of faith, the simple straightforward directives of Christ, and replace it with some secular enthusiasm of the moment. The sexual scandal was caused, I believe, primarily because we traded in a culture of faith for a dependence on secular therapy and psychology. A serious Christian does not need a psychologist to tell him whether a man who collects crotch shots of children is fit for ministry: he knows the man is not fit. If a psychologist tells him otherwise, a serious Christian knows that psychologist is a dangerous idiot. Bishops are not primarily administrators, fundraisers, theologians, strategists, or orators – though all of those may be useful tools in carrying out what they really are, which is Apostles of the Living Christ. When Bishops lose sight of that and start behaving as if they are the secular board of directors of Catholicism, Inc., they are headed for the shoals. The answer to most of our problems is to re-commit to the fundamentals. In 25 years as a Catholic, I could count on one hand how many times I have heard the Real Presence preached. If Catholics are versed in the Real Presence, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family, most of our problems would evaporate like dew on a sunny day. On that score, I am coming to appreciate my own Archbishop, Samuel Aquila, more and more.
Though not known as a “hail fellow, well-met” sort of guy, he generally refrains from merely political matters while applying himself to matters of faith and morals. Right now he is intensely working on a program so that confirmation becomes a deepening of the life of faith rather than a graduation away from it. That has the potential to bear real fruit – and change the culture. I would that his brothers would spend more time on such things.
So here is the blunt reality of what is ahead: I am afraid that many of our best Bishops over the course of the next few months are going to say and do some dumb and, sometimes, offensive things. Many of the worst actors are going to carefully guard what they say, the better to lead the unwary away from the one ship of safety later. You need not agree politically with a Bishop – or the Pope. When you disagree, you need to do it while maintaining awareness of their humanity and a due respect for their office and person. Do not let even the severest disagreements on policy matters be confused with doctrinal error. This is the only ship that can carry us through the Storm. Do not let a squabble with the captain or crew inflame you into scuttling the ship. Let our squabbles be of the fraternal sort, ultimately geared to building each other up. This is the barque of Peter, guaranteed by Christ to weather even the most violent storms. Where else would we go in these stormy waters?
When I was running large political races, occasionally a Regional Coordinator would make the error of telling me he had made no mistakes in his region. I would almost always tartly respond that if he had made no mistakes, he was not doing enough – and had better up his game. No one can say Pope Francis isn’t doing enough.