The Catholic Thing
A Remarkable Renewal Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Wednesday, 16 June 2010

I just attended the twenty-fifth anniversary of a priest’s ordination, and it got me thinking about how far the Church has come in the past quarter century. Many journalists and even Catholics would say, yes, the Church has gone quite far in recent years alright – right into a global crisis of sexual abuse by priests and criminal negligence by bishops: some merely incompetent, others naive believers in psychological “experts” claiming they could manage manipulative predators. Yet this general impression, understandable in many respects, misses the main story. The abuse crisis has temporarily obscured what can only be called a remarkable renewal.

Think about it. John Paul II was shot and almost killed in the early 1980s by a Turk who probably had ties through Bulgaria to the Soviets. The Russians, as we now know, had active measures ready against him and his offices in Rome were bugged. Communists were squeezing the Church from Central and Eastern Europe to South and Central America to the Far East.

In addition to outside threats, the pope often faced open rebellion within the Church from radical feminists and dissenting clergy in America and Europe. Marxist-inspired movements like Liberation Theology were rampant in Latin America and elsewhere. A number of Catholics thought authentic Christianity simply was some sort of social revolution. Theological and liturgical chaos following the Second Vatican Council – to say nothing of the affronts to simple common sense – was still quite widespread. The Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, said that, of all the world leaders at that time, only JPII had the grandeur of one of Shakespeare’s kings. But if so, it was embattled grandeur.

In 1985, no one could have predicted that the pope would help bring down the Soviet Empire and raise the international status of the Vatican. Stalin famously asked: “How many divisions does the pope have?” As it turned out, quite a few, even within the Warsaw Pact. But  also in the “free” world. When he and Cardinal Ratzinger issued the two instructions on Liberation Theology in 1984 and 1986, they effectively put an end to the radical socialism that had marked certain social justice currents in the Church – without denying that social engagement is a dimension of the Good News.  

In roughly similar fashion, John Paul II and Ratzinger (later, as Benedict XVI) began to restore confidence in theological orthodoxy and renewed the liturgy. Both were called reactionaries, liberals during the Second Vatican Council who later betrayed the conciliar spirit. But neither sought a mere return to the past. Wojtyla’s studies in phenomenology and Ratzinger’s Augustinianism reflect something few believed was even a possibility: a first-order engagement with the modern world that did not liberalize Christianity into near-term self-destruction, as many Protestant churches have done.

This great leadership – over thirty years of it at this point – exceeds that of any institution or nation over the same period, errors and failures notwithstanding. JPII is now sometimes accused of mismanaging the abuse crisis. But in 1992 – a decade before the crisis erupted – he wrote Pastores Dabo Vobis, which heightened the sense of the necessary human and spiritual formation of men in seminaries. Many abusers came out of seminaries that, before the Council, ignored the human dimension or, after it, basically swallowed the values of modern culture. The better formed priests being ordained today owe much to what JPII set in motion.

Catholic higher education remains troubled. But it is not impossible to get a Catholic education at Notre Dame, Georgetown, or Boston College. It just takes more effort than it ought to. And even those institutions have begun to take tentative steps towards protecting “Catholic identity,” a halfway house from which they will either emerge as Catholic or go the way of formerly Protestant universities.

Most dioceses are now run by bishops appointed by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Again, those appointments haven’t solved every problem. Not least, world culture as a whole underwent a major shift on every continent in the 1960s and the Church continues to have to face all that. But the institution is much more secure in its own identity. One quite intelligent bishop remarked when the abuse crisis arose during the Long Lent of 2002 that not only was it a terrible tragedy in itself. It gave some of the elements in the Church that had been sidelined for the better part of two decades a new, undeserved lease on life.

In the true Christian perspective, the Church is always embattled because she’s battling the world for souls. Historically, when the Church gets too cozy with the world – as it has in past centuries and sometimes did in the 1960s and 1970s – we can be sure it’s partly failing at its main task. The media-dissenter complex now ascendant will not long prevail, if only because the older dissenter’s are dying out. As it recedes, a truth will become evident: On the whole, the Church today has stronger and surer energies than at any time in quite a while, including the sometimes idealized period before the Council. It’s a force to be reckoned with – which is why it it so often attacked.

With one caveat. The priest celebrating his anniversary this weekend told a touching story. From his earliest days, he knew he had a vocation. An Italian grandmother would often take his hands between hers at big family gatherings and ask, “When will you become a priest?” The clergy shortage in the developed world is a weak spot. The number of ordinations in America, though much lower than before the Council, has remained basically even since the 1980s. But holding steady is not enough. Catholic parents and grandparents need to put that question again now. Because we can’t say how many very good potential priests were and are missing for lack of encouragement, good men who were needed not only to help avoid the crisis, but to fight the never-ending good fight.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
At the same time...
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., June 17, 2010
Yes, there a good signs that the Gates of Hell are not prevailing. They cannot, in the long run. But let us not ingore that there are still those preaching outright heresy from pulpits with impunity and that "Catholic" universities continue to allow "theologians" to undeermine students' faith. Long Live Pope Benedict XVI! Praise the Lord and pass out the Rosaries and Catechisms! The enemy is still at the gates, whispering through the walls to those with itching ears that there is no Truth. In many quarters,the pious are still mocked as "fundamentalists." The faithful can only infer from bishops' refusal to deny Communion to open pro-aborts that the Church is not serious about Life. Meanwhile prioitynis given to denyingn that ourn country has a right to defend its borders against an invasion by innocents whom anyone can see are be used to form a voting bloc that will be used to unwittingly support Marxism. Would anyone care to add this list? It's hardly a challege.
Seminaries and Universities
written by Jack Carlson, June 17, 2010
Robert Royal's column reminds me of my own experience last month at a conference on the role of philosophy in priestly education, hosted by Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland. (I do not myself teach in a seminary but rather in a typical Catholic university--although not one of the three referenced by the author. I was invited to the conference because some work I am doing may prove useful in the seminary context.) My experience was this: Several seminary professors of philosophy mentioned that, in order to reach today's priest-candidates, they must assure them that the philosophy they are presenting is in line with the mind of the Church. It occurred to me that the situation in typical Catholic universities is very different. The philosophy I present indeed IS in line with the mind of the Church, but if I were to announce this to my students, it would be a kiss of death! This difference in educational contexts reflects, I believe, two points mentioned in today's column: 1)the influence of John Paul II and now Benedict XVI on this generation of seminarians; and 2) the concurrent shift in much of the surrounding intellectual culture--according to which, if ideas bear a resemblance to ones propounded by a religious institution, they can't at the same time be grounded in rational reflection.
Pruning Time?
written by Willie, June 17, 2010
Things are getting better than they were in the last twenty years or so. I am still struck by the arrogance of the cafeteria Catholic and the irreverence with which some priests give Holy Communion. In a secular contemporary culture, such as ours, the gates of hell will not prevail, but how large will the Church be in the end? Where will the faithful be at that final sound of the trumpet?
written by Roger, June 17, 2010
You say:Because we can’t say how many very good potential priests were and are missing for lack of encouragement, good men who were needed not only to help avoid the crisis, but to fight the never-ending good fight. All good. But also nuns, we need more women religious.
Time is on our side
written by Margaret, June 17, 2010
It is of course the world that encourages us to believe that reality consists of what is happening right now - this minute. As children of God we know that reality exists outside of time and in that vast expanse our current problems will be all but forgotten. Even here and now, if we look back through the long history of the Church, many of the terrible scandals of the Middle Ages (which make today's difficulties look like a parking ticket) are obscurities known only to scholars.

There is an old saying that I find very comforting: "The dogs bark but the caravan moves on." The dogs have been barking very loudly lately and it can be very disturbing. But as it was pointed out, the dogs are getting older and are starting to die out. Meanwhile our caravan grows stronger.

Our enemies try to frighten us and confuse us into focusing too much on the present time but it turns out that time is actually the Church's secret weapon. The Church exists outside of time so time cannot harm us. Our detractors are creatures of the moment so time will destroy them. Time is on our side, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
A Crisis of Willful Blindness
written by Lee Gilbert, June 17, 2010
"Catholic parents and grandparents need to put that question again now..."

When Catholic parents STOP pumping mainstream mass media into their homes, START catechizing their own children (with the Baltimore catechism, preferably), START reading to them from the the gospels and the lives of the saints, we will have more priests and religious than we know what to do with. Far more.

As it is, by our negligence we Catholic parents are EFFECTIVELY deciding that we no longer want the Sacraments. We want Monday Night football instead. And no one is challenging us about this. No one.

Our Catholic leadership is too preoccupied with adult concerns such abortion, stem cell research, euthenasia etc. to have the time or energy to notice that our Catholic children are not only growing up uncatechised, they are being carried away by oceans of demonically charged electrons. They are being systemmatically catechized to abandon the faith utterly. Overstated? I don't think so.

We don't have a vocations crisis. We have a stupidity crisis. A negligence crisis. A self-indulgence crisis. A crisis of willful blindness.

written by gb, June 20, 2010
As a sister of 2 priests & the mother of another ordained 4 yrs ago, I think you're right about encouraging vocations in the family...with a big caveat: Encourage doesn't mean push. It means just basically live your Faith with Joy & keep the door open for questions etc. Since my son's ordination, I've had several mothers come up to me & say (2 within earshot of their sons!): He was supposed to be our priest. My heart just broke for their sons being put in that position. And, while I'm at it, I have to agree with the commentor who mentioned women religious too. Our God-daughter has been a Nashville Dominican for the last 3 yrs. The Church in the west has basically been gutted due to lack of Reliable Religious who formed the infrastructure of hospitals, schools etc. In writing an article re: the last 25 yrs, it should be mentioned that our daughters & granddaughters need to see & experience joyfilled women religious because most kids today have never seen one.

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