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A Sea Change Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 26 February 2012

In a sailing ship, a change in the direction of the wind and waves is occasion for all hands on deck to adjust the rigging and trim the sails. To appreciate the sea change in the Church’s presence in the United States after the HHS ruling, we have to go back for a look at the 1950s. Since then, a series of self-inflicted blows have left the U. S. Church weakened and confused about its identity in American society.

In the fifties, the Church was a comfortable pillar of the community compromising all along the way with the prevailing culture and craving the legitimacy that it imagined the U. S. culture could bestow. Obviously, this depiction is a little simplistic. But the fact is that the Church does not need legitimization from American culture. But for some time, many in the Church have read from the culture how they are supposed to behave and what the Church herself can say and do – and how.

At that point, going along with a largely conservative culture presented no real challenge. So bishops had mansions resembling the homes of the well to do in the secular culture. Religious became increasingly middle-class, clergy aimed to be upper-middle-class, and laity led more and more compartmented lives, to name just a few trends. Nobody did this to us. We did it to ourselves.

Then in the sixties, the sexual revolution and the overturning of obedience to authority far outweighed the teaching of Vatican II in their impact on the U. S. Church’s self-understanding. Indeed, the Church understood the Council through the lenses of American culture rather than vice versa.

The Church did not directly have problems with the government, but internally it denied its own integrity by practically caving in to the culture and by not implementing Vatican II, except in its more cosmetic aspects. So the Catholic population largely ended up out of step with the Universal Church despite the mammoth event of the council.

Vatican II reiterated the teaching of the Church. But the U. S. Catholic community did not retread and confirm Catholics in their faith. To this day Vatican II teaching is still not actively known by most Catholics in detail, despite John Paul II’s strenuous efforts to get people to take the Council seriously.

The love affair between Catholics and the Democratic Party has long and tangled origins, and it continued in the fifties. But then this alliance of clergy and laity with the party remained largely unshaken – even as the party adopted more and more fringe positions out of line with Church teaching.


            Holy card for the North American Martyrs, c. 1930

During the sixties there developed what Benedict XVI refers to as the “well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.”

The next great upheaval – again totally self-inflicted – occurred in the late eighties and nineties and right into the new millennium, with the abuse scandals. This onslaught had to be borne by a largely uninformed and poorly motivated community. And the community’s generosity is being diverted to cover payouts to victims, uses for which contributions were never intended.

And now, the Obama Administration is taking on the Church over exercising its conscience on payment for contraception, etc. The Church is in the reverse situation from the fifties. From prevailing acceptance and mutual tolerance, it is now facing separation from its own civil institutions by a hostile government, much like what Napoleon did to the Church in France in the nineteenth century.

The terrible irony is that the largely unformed – and uninformed—Catholic populace produced in the seventies and eighties actually helped put this government in place. Talk about a self-inflicted wound. And this year there is a good chance that they will do it again.

The sea change in the Church involves finally being forced to recognize that culture, even American culture, is never all that it is cracked up to be. The Church in fact is supposed to follow the Holy Spirit and not the culture. Actually:  “It is not a matter of preaching a word of consolation, but rather a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion and which opens the way to an encounter with the one through whom a new humanity flowers.” (Benedict XVI)

Because of its recent history, the Church in the United States finally finds herself – alongside other faith groups that cannot swallow the culture – in a highly hostile environment. This is actually a good thing. Traditionally Churches in this situation – we are not far from actual persecution – pull themselves together, raise up saints, and get serious about what it means to be active Christians in society.

Bishops become leaders not simply quiet managers. Clergy become the poor men who help others to find God. Religious let go of their middle-class aspirations and take their vow of poverty seriously. People take to following rather than making it up as they go along.

Most important of all the history of desperate compromise with U. S. culture might actually stop as it becomes painfully clear that there are higher principles at stake than simply not giving offense. Christ himself will show us what that means.

If we follow Him, the tide will indeed have changed!


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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Comments (21)Add Comment
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written by Other Joe, February 26, 2012
Yes. Exactly.
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written by dinie , February 26, 2012
It's amazing how the bishops have aligned themselves with the Democratic party throughout the decades who are rabidly pro-abortion with a million or more babies slaughtered year after year; the reason I suspect that their institutions will receive billions of dollars from the government to fund their institutions. So, be nice to the hand that feeds us! I guess their "social justice doctrine", e.g. helping the poor, is more important than saving the lives of innocent babies. The bishops were red hot in supporting Obamacare. In return they got egg thrown in their faces. What a surprise and what about the consciences of individuals who did not support Obamacare who, as taxpayers, are being forced to pay for contraceptives, sterilizations, abortifcaients? Did only the catholic "institutions" matter to the Bishops? Is that why Sister Carol Keenan is such a staunch supporter of Obama - to protect her million-dollar-a-year job and to have the billions of dollars continue flowing in annually to her hospitals? Whatever happened to the gospel of Christ?
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written by senex, February 26, 2012
As a person who is old enough to remember the American Church in the late 1940s and the decade of the 1950s, the Catholic Church was much more influential than the author intimates. Catholic schools flourished and there were nuns teaching. Catholics were taught the Baltimore Catechism. They knew what the faith was and what was expected of them. After Vatican II the nuns largely abandoned their calling and went off to all sorts of diversions to preach the social gospel of liberation theology in Latin America and abandon community life to engage in business pursuits. Likewise, the Legion of Decency was a strong incentive for movie producers not to engage in pornographic and other anti-religious subjects. In fact the 1950s witnessed a number of religious inspired movies, e.g., The Ten Commandments, Song of Bernadette. And the bishops were no nonsense authoritarians-perhaps a little to authoritarian, but they recognized the importance of both faith and morals.

While Vatican II on paper said many good things, in practice the Council was hijacked by the liberal movement that had sprung up in Northern Europe and was beginning to spread to the Americas. It was the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’, and not the documentary statements emanating from the Council’, that became dominant in succeeding decades.

Unfortunately also were the views of John XXIII and Paul VI who adopted a decidedly socialist bent. As I read two encyclicals of John XXIII, the significant difference between Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris is that the former concentrated on the economic side of socialism, eliminating the social and economic differences among people through the redistribution of wealth imposed by government social programs. In Pacem the focus was on ‘rights’, where the government is not only to assure the protection of human rights, but to establish and enforce every conceivable benefit on every person as a ‘right’ through government action to be taken in the name of the common good. What was truly astounding to me was the Pope’s creation out of whole cloth of some 17 new ‘human rights’. Although some of these ‘rights’ seem to parallel ones found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, I do not look upon the UN as the most reliable articulator of human rights.

Despite John Paul II’s attempt to pull back in Centesimus Annus on John XXIII and Paul VI’s socialist views, the rest of the hierarchy still follows the socialist theme. Even the current pope’s Caritas in Veritate has elements of the socialist mentality, although I sense a bit of schizophrenia in this encyclical as though Benedict has one view and the Peace and Justice Commission had another, and the encyclical is a compromise with both views appearing in the document.
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written by Alexander I., February 26, 2012
The elephant in the room is: Do the Bishops of America believe that abortion is murder? Or better said, with the increasing higher annual numbers, is it a slaughter? If the NCCB claim to say 'YES', where is the outrage? where is the courage to fight for the innocents? there is NO PRICE nor COMPROMISE when it comes to the value of a human being. YET somehow the Bishops of America believe that 'we' the faithful are blind to their 'hypocrisy'... Jesus himself said that "poor will always be with us"... so what reasoning other than "love for the money" would Bishops, for the sake of the poor, give up the life of the helpless? There is no Christian ethical reason to do so, to compromise, to look the other way. Even God himself, when speaking to Abraham said: "even if there are 10 righteous (in Sodom and Gomorrah) I will not destroy it for the sake of 10"... Even if there are 10 lives that would be spared for the sake of going without health care, the Bishops should not give in to the temptation of comfort, health and alleviating the suffering of the poor... that is a classical temptation from which we have learned time and time again, it is a mistake to fall in. I would like this comment to be seen as a call to conversion to the bishops of America, rather than seeking to gratuitously criticize or divide the Catholic Church.

Sr. Keehan and Fr. Jenkins should be dismissed from their positions as their views are a SCANDAL and an undermining of the official teaching of the Church i.e. "Humanae Vitae"
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written by Alexander I., February 26, 2012
@dinie

It is true that bishops have 'traditionally' aligned with the Democratic party, especially when it comes to social issues, but in the last 10 years it is the Democratic party that has openly abandoned the Catholic Church and joined forces with the GBLT activists as they are better organized politically, they are effectively using their money to manipulate policy, legislation, education, mass media and lobby to put forth their agenda. The GBLT activists have successfully demonized the Catholic Church ever since the APA declassified homosexuality from the DSM in the 1973/74 vote. The Catholic Church "appears" to suffer from an inferiority complex, shows a lack of backbone/leadership and seems to be paralyzed or unable to lead in front of the attacks of the secular world. The fact that the Bishops did not see Obama for what he is, as you well put it, utter blind-love-for-money. IMO the fact that Sr. Carol Keehan and Fr. Jenkins still have a job is the bigger scandal as it says PUBLICLY that the bishops care more for money than the life of the unborn... that is if the Bishops believe that a fertilized egg is a person... i.e. if they agree with Pope Paul VI "Humanae Vitae"... i.e. if they are in communion with the Vatican = Peter.
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written by valerie, February 26, 2012
The social justice issues subscribed to by The Church have mostly unwittingly devolved into form of marxism which fits nicely in today's democrat politics. Social justice can best be understood and trusted when it is in the manner that is taught at Trevecca Nazarene University. There you will learn how best to serve the poor and end poverty. Social justice as practiced on the left,serves the left.
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written by Louise, February 26, 2012
And the sooner the Church loudly and publicly disavows the name John F. Kennedy the better. Everybody knows, now, who and what he was, and we should not be elevating him as a model president, let alone a model Catholic president. I was appalled at a recent visit to the Knights of Columbus museum to see photos of JFK in the line-up of great American Catholics. And, while we're at it, one might say that Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald were the epitome of the kindly priests in such movies as "Going My Way", but they were really just declawed pussy cats--just beloved family pets. More proof for the Democratic party that the Catholic clergy could be manipulated and molded to serve their needs.
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written by Deacon Jim Stagg, February 26, 2012
It is, indeed, a sorry state of affairs when such a good and thoughtful article as this is mis-represented by, perhaps, good and honest people who believe they alone are possessors of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It's a "blaming" situation, so let's blame the pope, the V2 Council, everything except OURSELVES.

As Father Branwell notes, we, inclusively as a Church, are responsible for what has happened. There is surely enjough blame to pass around for each of us to say "mea culpa", instead of ranting at dragons that may/may not exist.

May I humbly (and I do mean that) suggest that we drop to our knees and pray the Confiteor, whether in whatever language we may use, and PRAY for our Pope, our Bishops and our Church.....which we should have been doing since at least the 1950's.

Walt Kelly's Pogo, a prophet before his time, should lead us: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Holy Spirit, guide us, guide our shepherds, guide our Pope.
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written by Manfred, February 27, 2012
Mr. Stagg: Please don't try the collective guilt routine with some of us. In my FSSP parish we do not have permanent deacons, extraordinary ministers, lectors or any female presence in the Sanctuary. Nor do we have Lord of the Dance in our hymnal (see Brad Miner's column of 2/27). We are in full accord with Rome. The blame for the heterodoxy and heresy of the last fifty years lies with the leadership of the Church and the foolish laity which followed them. Louise is absolutely correct. We have been condescended to by the outside world which has considered those who bought into these novelties as fools.
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written by Stephen Spencer, February 27, 2012
"...by not implementing Vatican II, except in its more cosmetic aspects...."

What EXACTLY has NOT been implemented from Vatican II that was taught at, and only at, Vatican II? What did Vatican II teach that was NOT taught by Scripture, prior Councils, and the writings of the saints?

"Vatican II reiterated the teaching of the Church."

That is not the function of a Council: that is the function of a Catechism. A Council is primarily for the purpose of resolving doctrinal disputes. By restating the teachings of the Church--but in terms that were occasionally ambiguous, novel, or otherwise confusing--the Council left the impression in the minds of too many that prior Councils did not really count somehow.

We can continue to focus on, and debate about, Vatican II until Christ returns: and not one soul will be saved by it. However, if we change the question to "What should we do?" then the answer is quite clear: what the answer has ALWAYS been. Prayer. Fasting. Holiness. Authenticity. Formation. Courage. Fortitude...
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written by Chris, February 27, 2012
Manfred -

As a supporter of the FSSP, I find it incredible you don't hear the Pharisiacal tone of your response to Deacon Stagg.
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written by Ben Horvath, February 27, 2012
Thank you. Needless to say, the truth that persecution for the faith leads to blessedness for the persecuted isn't something that's been emphasized recently. I kind of worry for the people who are on the margin of the faith. Some will find themselves pulled in, but I fear that many will prefer themselves to be out.
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written by Clare Krishan, February 27, 2012
ditto Deacon Jim
contra Manfred's "In my FSSP parish" none of its "our" patrimony, its God's, freely given to be shared unconditionally in Trinitatian coherence. We are in full accord with Rome. is the dualism of the Pharisees, adherence is not coherence (note Semitic rhetoric of today's (novo ordo) scripture readings, the AB-BA of requited love not the AB-AB-AB of discordant dissent of the 'holier than thou's'.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 27, 2012
Hi Stephen, just a few points. Since so few people are clear what is in Vatican II, only a few things were fully implemented in the years that followed - bits of the liturgical constitution, bits of the decree on bishops, most of presbyterorum ordinis come to mind. The issuing of the Catechism has changed some of that but we lost at least a generation in the process.

What did Vatican II teach that was not taught . . . Nothing. Which is why I can say that "the council reiterated the teaching of the Church."

Vatican II was not held to sort out doctrinal disputes. Look at John XXIII opening address.

"the council left the impression" - the problem here was that most people learned about the council through the media who were plainly hostile to the teaching of the Church. Actually the council is pretty clear if you read it in the light of the tradition which is the only way to study a council's teaching. Hence I am not debating the teaching. I am however saying that a lot of people still have not learned the council teaching in a way that influences their thinking. That kind of appropriation was not promoted by the Church at the time except by a bishop by the name of Karol Wojtyla. There may have been others but it was not a general activity taken on by those who returned from the council.
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written by Frank, February 28, 2012
Pray, Pray, Pray and continue to Pray! I will pray for the Church in this matter and that His will be done. In concert with prayer is the fact that our Lord also puts the ball back in our court to step out in faith and action, which at times can be uncomfortable, unnerving and downright scary.

After 18 years of struggle, I finally will become a full Catholic on 7 April. The third time had to be the charm for when one is a two time loser at being a Protestant, a third failure is not acceptable.

For 18 years I attended mass because I initially saw a church, led by the Great Pope John Paul II speak lovingly and firmly to a world gone utterly mad in the 20th Century and continuing in this rather young century. Through daily prayer, His Holiness put the proverbial pole in the ground to the world bringing God's love and will but that love and will I would argue was heavily laced with the tenet, "THIS FAR AND NO MORE!" Secular humanism was challenged and blocked by our Lord through John Paul II. This is what I saw and I cheered all the way. Why it took so long for me to "Cross The Tiber" I don't rightly know other than to say that God's time is perfect.

Now, I find myself once again in a Church that needs to find its legitimate voice; a voice lost in the aiding, abetting, and enabling of a political party embracing the culture of narcissism and death. Oh there's plenty of criticism for the Republicans as well but the Democratic Party has unfortunately crossed over into areas that oppose and threaten the very tenets of civilization throughout many millennia. I too used to be a Democrat but like Ronald Reagan, I did not leave the Democratic Party, it left me.

When a majority of our Bishops and a majority of Catholics voted for this President, what is left to state other than the bitter taste of buyers remorse? I take no pride or self justification that many of us warned the community about this man. The handwriting was already on the wall to see. Obama supported infanticide as a state senator and then called an unwanted pregnancy and hence a child, "a mistake." THE RED FLAGS had already been raised high enough and large enough for all to see. The foresight was there along with the denial so many Catholics allowed to get the better of them. Sorry, there can be no hindsight here!

And to add insult to injury, Catholic politicians elected to high office are leading the charge against the Church. We see Biden, Pelosi, Sebellius, De Lauro, and Murray in opposition to the Church. So this begs the question. When are the American Bishops going to step out in faith and push back against elected Catholics acting so cravenly and against Christ and His Church?

Are the Bishops afraid of a backlash? Do they not know 2000 years of history that there will always be backlash when evil faces the opposing force of righteousness? Thomas Becket is a Saint of the Church stood firmly against Henry II, over two hundred priests and religious were executed and martyred in the French Revolution and countless and nameless martyrs paid with their lives for Christ and His Church against Communism. The Church is still here. Have we forgotten Christ's promise that "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against His Church."

This is a serious, very very serious time for the Catholic Church. This is gut check time and a time when Bonhoeffer's warning about "cheap grace" is insufficient to the task at hand. It is once again time for the entire Roman Catholic Church to loudly rise it's voice, put the Cross in the ground and proclaim, "THIS FAR AND NO MORE!"

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written by Stephen Spencer, February 28, 2012
Fr. Bramwell,

"Vatican II was not held to sort out doctrinal disputes. Look at John XXIII opening address."

Yes: therein lies the problem. The Church is primarily reformed by Saints, not Councils. Councils excel at resolving doctrinal disputes, and therein lies their protection against error.

In my RCIA class, all of the truths of the faith were supported by references to Vatican II. How do we know that Mary is the Mother of God? Vatican II--and no other way (at least that was presented). That Jesus was true God and true man? Vatican II. That God is Love? Vatican II. Vatican II, Vatican II, Vatican II. As though no other Councils were valid...or even existed. (This was before the Catechism was published.)

Now, I'm sure that was not the INTENT. But there is a wholeness, coherence, and unity to Catholicism. An deep understanding of humanity. A theology of the body including the mind.

As a result, if we DON'T BELIEVE that the Church was founded during the 1960's, then we SHOULDN'T TALK as though it was. If we DON'T BELIEVE that Vatican II was the One True Council, then we SHOULDN'T TALK as though it was: we should cite prior Councils as well on a very regular basis. Our words should match our beliefs.

Perhaps this has struck me especially, since I converted based upon my realization that Christ founded the Church. I would not have joined ANYTHING founded in the 60's.

I've read Vatican II, and it has some perfectly wonderful explanations of the faith...and a few confusing ones. And there is certainly nothing wrong with citing Vatican II: it was a valid Council like the other valid Councils.

But the problem is not that those in the Church have sometimes ignored the wisdom of Vatican II taken in isolation, but that they have ignored ALL the Councils, Scriptures, writings of the saints, etc.
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written by scott, February 28, 2012
My take is that the problem is with the upper level leadership of the Church.
After Vatican II, the documents were so vague and happy-clappy that the liberal forces in the Church were able to get into positions of power and have now totally compromised the Church. She no longer teaches that the Christian is to despise the world and in fact the clergy have attempted, by involking Vatican II, to make peace with the modern world is total contradiction of the teachings of all previous popes especially St. Pius X.
If a Catholic reads the clear teachings of the previous popes up to Pius XII he will certainly be scandalized by the VII popes and their shinangigans.
The church needs to send VII down the memory hold like it has with other councils in history that caused more problems than they solved. This will happen, but the questions is when. I prophesi not until the death of the last Council Father, because they are still trying to save face for this major HUGE and sad mistake.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 28, 2012
Thanks for replying Stephen - there are a lot of references in Vatican II to the other councils and to the Fathers of the Church. So read properly no one could imagine that the Church was founded in the 1960's. Similarly with the Catechism.

Scott - no actually the documents were very firm - Paul VI John Paul II etc. Again the problem is not the texts but what people do with them. As I have said before there has never been a concerted movement to make sure that every Catholic applies Catholic teaching to their lives. Quite often they are not well enough informed to do so.
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written by Matthew, February 28, 2012
To the author, I would recommend reading Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton's words in the January 1963 issue of "American Ecclesiastical Review". It is of historical significance and relates directly to "the devastated vineyard" under discussion.
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written by Alexander I., February 29, 2012
I strongly believe that Vatican II was a timely reaction to the current advances in technology, sociology, psychology and science. The advances in these fields were systematically dismantling myths and superstitions en masse within the Church, i.e. calling a primitive and infantile faith to mature. In front of so many advances and discoveries the Church, with a deep feeling of inferiority, fell into a spell or temptation of forgetting Christ and acknowledging/embracing these discoveries almost as ‘Word of God’ (particularly psychology and socialism enters the Church from within). This is no fault of the Church, it is human nature as change is always hard on anyone that has enough gray hair and humility to acknowledge it… it makes me think of the time of Galileo and how many superstitious beliefs fell when they found that the earth was not the center of the ‘known’ universe. I still remember when psychology, in the 60’s, was thought of as the fifth gospel. Many priests, after Vatican II, became psychologists, not because of the changes in the liturgy, but because they were convinced that the problems of men could all be diagnosed and solved through group-therapy, surveys and psychoanalysis and science/technology were giving practical solutions to men’s day-to-day problems. Enter Marx who said “Christianity is the Opium of the Masses” and that through social activism we can help mankind more effectively than through prayer… thus the door is open for the devil to deceive the weakest members of the Church, those whose faith’s was built on sand. i.e. a Faith based on memorizing precepts, dogmas, rubrics, etc. The Church HAD TO CHANGE and the Popes were PROPHETS in seeing, NOT THE DAMAGE done by the advances in technology (because they were good and true), but by the EVIDENT lack of a solid theological foundation in the lives of the faithful… including PRIESTS, NUNS, RELIGIOUS, etc…. enter Vatican II… it came to give to the faithful the weapons needed to fight the temptations of the time. This was a divine, heroic and providential answer to all of us that were blindly obeying the precepts of faith without need to understand them. Clearly that time is long gone, now we have the telephone, faxes, internet, etc. and it is the youth among us, the first to seek answers for their faith… not dogmas… not moralism or legalisms. Gone are the days when the church could ban the faithful to read the bible as it could be misinterpreted. The Bible is now available en masse.
It was clear that mankind was divesting himself of superstitions and the Church, as a mother, had to help mankind understand why Christianity was relevant in their lives. With all the advances in technology and psychology, it was Paul VI who most heroically did what no one DARE TO DO… to publish and proclaim valiantly the truth from the rooftops. He did so in “Humanae Vitae” and it is the SOLE REASON why the CHURCH IS BEING PERSECUTED TODAY, why we are having this conversation and the REASON why many Protestants and non-Catholics are returning to the Mother Church.
So please speak cavalierly about the Vatican II and its Popes because of a Nostalgia for the proverbial ‘good-ol-times’. It is enough to learn and read about history to help us see the root of our problems today. It is also very lazy and easy to point the finger of our troubles at the failures/weaknesses of the Church rather than acknowledge our own ignorance.
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written by Manfred, February 29, 2012
"As a supporter of the FSSP. I find it incredible you don't hear the Pharisaical tone of your response to Deacon Stagg."
Chris, my dictionary defines Pharisaical as "hypocritically self righteous". Deacon Stagg said "As Father Bramwell notes, we,inclusively as a Church, are responsible for what has happened". I am not guilty for what has happened to the Church. My wife and three of our children attend the FSSP parish for three reasons: It is the religion my wife were raised through college in, we became tired of leaving our brains in the car in order to attend Mass, and we got tired of responding to "catholics" questioning why we had seven children. Almost all the young families in our parish have five children or more. We have brilliant priests whose sole purpose is to assist us and themselves to become saints. It is a great place to be. We avoid all the post Vat II novelties including contracepting laity and homosexual priests.

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