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Our anger, fragility – and the remedy

A highly intelligent woman, who doesn’t particularly follow ecclesial politics, surprised me the other day. Hearing about Cardinal Dolan’s acceptance of gays marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, she said casually, “there’s going to be a schism in the Church.” An overreaction, to be sure, but she’s far from the only one to be shocked.

A priest – steady of judgment – writes to me that since the announcement last week, “I’m meeting a lot of angry people.” The constant challenges to the Church’s teaching authority and countercultural truth-telling produces anger. Real anger. And internal Church weakness – especially in America’s most prominent archdiocese – only adds fuel to the fire.

The Catholic Church in America won’t split over the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Still, the reactions – like the reactions to some of Pope Francis’ vague statements – tell us something. Feelings are often just feelings – but sometimes feelings call our attention to overlooked truths. The fear, anger, and confusion that many Catholics have been feeling recently are indicators of another, larger feeling: a sense of the fragility of the Church as a public institution in our day.

Paradoxically, the persecution of the Church in China or Nigeria or the Middle East is in several ways bracing. It’s violent and barbaric, of course, and must be stopped. But the enemy and his tactics are clear and out in the open. And besides, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church – so long as it’s not sown too thick.

By contrast, the covert ways that our legal systems undermine while claiming to protect pluralism and religious liberty in Europe, America, and the other “advanced” countries offers much more subtle challenges.

Those challenges are only compounded when we worry that members of the hierarchy and ordinary Catholics seem to be complicit in the slow chipping away at the substance of the Faith.

But the St. Patrick’s Day Parade cave-in on gays also raises the question of how we talk about such things – “we” meaning Catholics – within the Body. For some time now we’ve been told a falsehood: that anger as such is not Christian. If we look at the behavior of the first and best of Christians in the Gospel, He’s angry quite a bit – especially at the false and grasping shepherds of Israel. But He was the perfect Man. And God.

           Cardinal Dolan and Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the parade in 2014

And we are not. It’s not possible to spell out in advance how to express righteous anger, over anything. I myself think the parade decision a grave error that will lead to much more mischief. But as we speak truth, we should not simply talk the way people do in partisan politics or the anonymity of an Internet combox. That’s hardly Christian – in fact, directly contradicts Jesus’ own recommendations (see yesterday’s Gospel).

Msgr. Charles Pope of the Washington Archdiocese took down a column from the other day recommending that Catholics put an end to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Al Smith Dinner, which were once useful cultural events, but today compromise the Faith. He says now his language was too harsh. If so, we still need a way to speak that’s not harsh, but still strong enough to meet the case.

There’s been much public speculation: that Cardinal Dolan simply got snookered into supporting gays marching in the parade; that he must have some sympathy for the gay movement; that the cardinal hopes to blunt criticism from the secular media when he announces the closure of seventy parishes in a few weeks – a bad tactic because the enemies of the Church will never be appeased (they’re still talking about the Crusades and the Inquisition), and gloat over any sign of Catholic weakness or withdrawal.

But anyone who believes in the divine origin of the Church as the Mystical Body – and particularly the grace of office that our bishops receive – must take a different approach. Grace, even grace of office, may be refused, abused, ignored. But that shouldn’t change the need for lay people and others to hold themselves to a different standard of criticism than the world’s.

The standard here is St. Catherine of Siena. When the popes gave in to pressure by the French king and moved the papal court to Avignon (the “Babylonian Captivity” of 1309-78), she wrote in strong but Christian terms to the wavering Pope Gregory XI:

This is what I wish to see in you. And if up to this time, we have not stood very firm, I wish and pray in truth that the moment of time which remains be dealt with manfully, following Christ, whose vicar you are, like a strong man. And fear not, father, for anything that may result from those tempestuous winds that are now beating against you, those decaying members that have rebelled against you. Fear not; for divine aid is near. Have a care for spiritual things alone, for good shepherds. . .since on account of bad shepherds and rulers you have encountered rebellion. . . .Press on, and fulfill with true zeal and holy what you have begun with a holy resolve, concerning your return, and the holy and sweet crusade. And delay no longer, for many difficulties have occurred through delay, and the devil has risen up to prevent these things being done, because he perceives his own loss. . . . Pardon me, father, that I have said so many words to you. You know that through the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.

Robert Royal

Dr. 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 A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.