The Catholic Thing
Does Catholicism “Have Issues”? Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 18 February 2013

For an institution many believe is declining and irrelevant, the Catholic Church sure gets a lot of attention. And advice. It’s remarkable how many people who have little use for Catholicism are quick to offer warnings when a new pope is about to be chosen. They may not much believe in absolutes, but they’re quite certain what the Church ought to do next – if it wants to survive.

Of course, most of them suggest becoming like themselves, as if – Christ’s hard sayings having been liberalized away – people will rush out of the house on a Sunday morning to hear the same things from the pulpit that they could get over coffee reading the Sunday paper. It’s the old modern litany: equality, inclusiveness, tolerance, not judging, compassion, social justice, respecting different points of view.

These are all good things, understood in the right way and context. But they are at most half of the story. Besides, the world already thinks it practices them far better than the old men in Rome, who persist in saying some things are not good for human life – like killing it in the womb. And who believe that restricting ourselves to the human horizon alone will inevitably lead to an inhumane humanism. We had multiple examples of that phenomenon in the last century, but don’t seem to be done with it yet.

You don’t have to look very far, for instance, to see that inclusiveness and respect for different views don’t much count when it comes to Catholicism. Even basic civility goes out the window. Some of the things that have been said about Benedict XVI since he announced his resignation last week  – from his “Nazi past” to his “crimes against humanity” in the priestly abuse cases – would be thought “offensive” directed at any other religious leader.

But in its way, it’s a tribute. The pope still matters and this pope in particular has made a special mark through his thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, and humility – all of which entered into his decision to resign. The world does not let such good deeds go unpunished. Still, one thinks of Mark Twain’s character who, tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, remarked:  “If it werent for the honor, Id just as soon have walked.”

Despite all the talk of tolerance and openness in our society, Catholic teachings people find neuralgic get simply excluded in one of two ways.  Some are stigmatized as sheer irrationality – e.g., “homophobia” is just mental illness or ingrained prejudice. We don’t yet have the “psychiatric” wards and re-education camps of the older totalitarians. But give it time. Blessed are you if the human resources department has not already scheduled you for sensitivity training to deal with your “issues.”

           Wills, left, and Dionne

The other way these “issues” get treated is to classify them as mere “policies” as if the next pope or one down the line can simply change Catholic teaching to suit whatever happens to be the dominant mood. Then everyone can go home happy – and undisturbed.   

Modern democratic societies naturally gravitate towards this attitude because who wants to be disturbed? And anyway, we now see everything through a political lens. Not that long ago, even public questions were governed by stable constitutional principles that restricted the state from involving itself in many questions. All that has been swept aside. If civil laws can change radically, why not Church law? Even Catholics rarely have a clue what’s at stake.

Indeed, Catholics have taken up the cudgel. Garry Wills – a brilliant man who was once a Jesuit seminarian and benefitted from the tutelage of William F. Buckley, Jr. – has just published a book, Why Priests?, in which he argues that there are no priests created by Jesus or operative in the New Testament. So the entire Catholic structure, from the millennia-old Apostolic Succession to the daily consecration of bread and wine at Mass, is a usurpation of spiritual power by clerics.

This view seems modern and honest, but is really fundamentalist and insincere. Wills and many like him adopt the utmost Biblical literalism when it comes to priests, but how about the Scriptural strictures on divorce or same-sex acts or the fires of Hell? Catholic and Orthodox churches examined his arguments and long ago decided that they do not correspond to their understanding of the Gospel. It’s quite easy to find churches – they’re called Protestant – where they are practiced. Anyone like Garry Wills who disputes the Catholic “thing” has a ready alternative at hand any Sunday.

Wills at least makes arguments, of a sort. But perhaps the most abject public Catholicism is the kind a figure like the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne has been spouting in recent years. Yesterday, he called for the cardinals to elect a nun as the best example of Catholicism. Dionne, of course, is not so crazy as to think this will happen. His real aim is to attack, not to persuade.

Because he clearly does not mean the kind of nuns many of us remember fondly –those old dames who gave us our early educations. Those nuns were both strict and nurturing, a lot like your own mother – and Jesus himself. Dionne’s nuns all seem to be the indulgent kind who produce spoiled children, or who in the words of Nuns on the Bus Sister Simone Campbell come to regard liberal social activism as their very faith.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Benedict XVI is quietly serving out his last weeks as Holy Father. He no doubt anticipated the firestorm. We can expect to hear more – much more – in coming days about his “failures” and his being virtually driven from office. But he still decided that leaving was the best thing a man of his age could do for the Church and the world. Few in either location have recognized what he’s really done because most people are, unlike him, self-absorbed – with their own “issues.”

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, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Manfred, February 18, 2013
Thank you for a fine article, Dr. Royal. I trust you will allow me to attempt to demonstrate how the Church (us!) arrived at this point."The reasons why Pope Roncalli decided to postpone the publication of the Third Secret are obvious: There was a shrill contrast between 'the prophecy of doom' of the message of Fatima and the optimistic outlook on the future of the new pontiff, who inaugurated the Second Vatican Council. The existence of this contrast between two 'prophetic visions' helps us to understand the events of the following years." The Second Vatican Council (an unwritten story) Roberto de Mattei p. 106
written by Frank, February 18, 2013
In considering alternative possibilities, is it also possible that fear and envy are also embedded in the criticism and verbal venom proffered by Wills, Dionne and the rest of the multitude of usual suspects? Early in my adulthood and the ascendence of Pope John Paul II, I began to see something that as a Protestant, I could not deny. It is this point in my life that I think began my very long path to becoming a Catholic. When leaders of other churches made public statements, at best, the local news would report it or the story would make it below the fold of a newspaper. But when a Pope talks, the world listens. Such words originate from Rome with a ripple and spread out like a tsunami to all of the world. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Dictators and Monarch listen even if they harbor a hatred of the Holy Father. Christ's Church stands hard and fast which was another point I discovered. "This is who we are and this is what we believe," says the church. "Everyone is welcome here but we hold firm and fast on our beliefs, we will not change." I'd be willing to bet that deep down in their hearts, Wills, Dionne, et al, grudgingly respect the church for its unwavering positions and teaching. These are people in distress and confusion simply because of the faulty filters and clouded lenses they've embraced to see the world through. The church need not and of course cannot change and ultimately in the end, will be the last standing at the end of time. Such "intellectual" minds cannot comprehend, but then they do not want to as God uses what is foolish to them in order to confound them.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, February 18, 2013
I can just hear Wills and Dionne now: "Move it on out, Holy Spirit, I am here to save the day."
written by Ernest Miller, February 18, 2013

Could you or any other contributor please expound on Third Secret? Do we know its truthful message?

Many Thanks
written by Theo, February 18, 2013
Dr. Royal states: The other way these “issues” get treated is to classify them as mere “policies” as if the next pope or one down the line can simply change Catholic teaching to suit whatever happens to be the dominant mood. Then everyone can go home happy – and undisturbed.
Tell that to St. Athanasius and to any of the saints who fought against the age old enemies of the Church. What makes anyone think the enemies of the Church are different now than hundreds or a thousand years ago?? The leopard hasn't changed it's spots. The concerted and unceasing attacks continue to come from monolithic enemies of Christ. The Catholic Church had been the ONLY institution keeping track of what they did (and continue to do) to destroy the Faith, the Petrine Primacy, and the Church. READ; The Plot Against the Church (Maurice Pinay) written just before the 2nd Vatican Council. DON'T REMAIN ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL.
written by Manfred, February 18, 2013
@Ernest Miller. The Third Secret(?) was finally issued by Cdl Bertone in the year 2000. He insisted that the "bishop dressed in white" (the Pope) was John Paul II and the vision had only historical significance as the event depicted was the assassination attempt on JP II in 1981.
This was challenged by two lay authors: Christopher A. Ferrara, Esq. an American, and Antonio Socci, an Italian journalist, who wrote Il Quartro Segreto di Fatima. Both insist we still have not received the entire secret.
On May 11, 2010, Pope Benedict on the plane to Fatima, answered a reporter: "As for the new things which we can find in this (Fatima) message... today we are seeing it in a really terrifying way, that the greatest persecution of the Church comes not from the enemies without, but arises from the sin within the Church,..."
In 1973, in a convent in Akita,Japan, a Sister Agnes was granted an apparition by the Blessed Mother in which she described fire coming from the sky with such a horrible result that those who survived would wish they had died. It would effect the entire world. Her bishop took this information to Rome and met with Bp(?) Joseph Ratzinger who stated that the message of Akita was identical to the message of Fatima. This part of the message was never released to the laity. Let's be frank. It is unimaginable to me that a sincere Catholic could ever disobey an instruction from an angel, the Blessed Mother or Christ, yet this is done. It appears that this was done in order to push forward the Council which Pope John XXIII had strongly supported. The significance of why the Blessed Mother had asked that the message be released "no later than 1960" has become quite obvious. The First Secret, the vision of Hell which was released, is quite enough for me. My wife and I pray the Rosary daily.
written by Matthew, February 18, 2013
Well stated Manfred.

It seems unimaginable indeed but we have witnessed the diabolical disorientation. For example, the words of Archbishop Bertone, the current Vatican Secretary of State.

"The decision of His Holiness John Paul II to make public the third part of the “secret” of Fatima - brings to an end a period of history marked by tragic human lust for power and evil, - yet pervaded by the merciful love of God and the watchful care of the Mother of Jesus and of the Church."
written by John, February 18, 2013
Manfred, Matthew,
Seems to me you paint a needlessly bleak picture of state of the world and the Church. Yes, we have problems in the Church and the world, some of them quite serious. Yet there's nothing new in this situation.
I've heard of the message of Akita before and it's apparent similarity to that of Fatima. So far as I'm aware though, neither revelation has demanded any conduct that hasn't been fulfilled. I know, some will disagree regarding the consecration of Russia. Always there have been--and always there will be--contradictory views.

I do not, however, think we're in any greater danger now of hideous consequences from routine, willful human neglect of faith than we ever were before.
I've generally understood the Church has suffered many travails through time.
We do not know when the Master will come and time itself will end.
Thanks be to God!
written by Manfred, February 19, 2013
@John: Thank you for sharing your opinion. I cannot think of anything more "needlessly bleak", from a purely human perspective, than having my grandchildren taught in school that a man "marrying" another man ( I will spare everyone the graphic details) is as normal as a man marrying a woman.
The very idea is unthinkable. I don't need Fatima or Akita to warn me-I know we are at the very end of the road. What separates us is how we respond to this. (Let's review the subject in fifty years!)
written by John Mercer, February 19, 2013
@Manfred: Is praying the Rosary daily a sufficient response to these warnings?
written by Graham Combs, February 19, 2013
Dr Royal is one of the few to acknowledge how toxic corporate America has come, i.e. the so-called human resources department. Today it's a matter of getting past THEIR prejudices to actually be hired. It's going on. As for the zeitgeist, I wouldn't say "even Catholics" I would say "most Catholics" at least here in the Archdiocese of Detroit. It's wearying. Everybody wants to be sophisticated. Or as in New York in the 80s during the AIDS epidemic, fear overrules common sense, logic, reason, even science. When the Church reaches out why does it always seem to end with the Church giving up what it was supposed to be offering?

A columnist in yesterday's Detroit News (ostensibly "conservative" although it opposed a recent abortion restriction bill in the Michigan legislature) referred to the Holy Father as "Benny." "Benny." When I listen to NPR they refer each time and every time to the Dalai Lama as "his holiness this" and "his holiness that."

As for Wills, he sees himself apparently as a doctor of the Future Church. How much wackier are his ideas going to become?

But when I made an extensive comment on the Telegraph site on a Damien Thompson blog on the end of Benedict's papacy I found my inbox receiving a steady stream of approvals for my praise of the retiring pontiff. So maybe there's hope --at least in England.
written by Michael Ard, February 19, 2013
Bob, thanks for writing this. It deserves wide circulation. Wills and Dionne should have dropped their Catholic identities long ago. But this would require intellectual integrity. Someone should write something about what happened to Garry Wills over the years...Maybe publish it in NYRB.
written by John, February 19, 2013
Perfectly said, Frank! It's all about fear and envy. As you say, the church will never change! I think deep in the hearts of so many critics of the church, they know that the awful relativist society for which they've fought so long and hard is going down fast and that the Catholic church will still be there when the dust settles. That's tough for them to live with - very tough!
written by Diane, February 20, 2013
Every generation thinks they are the one to uncover some "plot" in the Church; to be the first to point out to the world the error of Her ways; to be the first person, reporter or blogger who is FINALLY going to shake the world up into seeing the Church for what She REALLY is - outdated, outmoded, persecuting and prejudiced. This is nothing new. And in every era, the thought that the end of the world was imminent was prevalent whether from signs and omens, war, sickness or corruption. Regardless, the Church has and will CONTINUE to prevail against the "gates of hell" and all those who persecute Her including those within the Church and those who are not - against those who would liberalize and modernize the Word of God - against those who would worship relativism in place of God. One cannot change the word of God no matter how many people join the band wagon. So proud of our Pope who has stood firm in every firestorm ... and so proud to be Catholic!!!!
written by JRF, February 22, 2013
I write this as we prepare for the 2nd Sunday of Lent and reflection of the transfiguration and the testing of the apostle's faith. "Listen to him" was God's command. No mention of Wills or Dionne or sisters who drive jeeps in the poor countries of the world (God bless the sisters that still see themselves as servants and not lobbyists) The church may be smaller in the future, maybe a lot smaller, but it will be vibrant, holy, Catholic and apostolic. A great place to be if you believe in truth.
written by Martha, February 22, 2013
You are right...if the Catholic Church did not matter, we would never hear a thing about it.

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