Perhaps the most disturbing chapter of the post-Vatican II story of distress was not the Humanae Vitae crisis or the breakdown of the Mass or the nearly complete failure of ecclesiastical discipline. All of these, of course, were significant contributing elements. The most wrenching account – in my view – was a letter to the editor in Catholic World Report more than twenty years ago.
In the letter, a woman reported she was one of eight children. Four of the siblings were raised before the Council and four raised after. The first four were mature and well adjusted in adulthood; the latter four were painfully immature beyond adolescence. The explanation? The father of the family not only lost confidence in his Church after the Council, he lost confidence in his ability to be a good father.
Confidence in the faith translates into confidence in our personal codes of belief and conduct. Inculcating confidence in the Catholic faith for the salvation of souls should be the primary concern of every priest, bishop, and pope. If not, regardless of office, the cleric is a failure before God and men.
For example, when priests live their celibacy with confidence, they provide an example to young men who are required to be chaste in their own celibate state before they marry. Clerical violations of celibacy not only encourage secular commentators like Rush Limbaugh to question its value for priests, they undermine the resolve of men struggling to overcome addictions to pornography.
If priests cannot be chaste in celibacy, how can we expect our young men to grow in chastity as they prepare for marriage?
We are going through a crisis today every bit as dramatic as the post-Conciliar years. The completely unnecessary ambiguities of doctrine on marriage and the family, and trading the faith for political activism seem to be the norm. Just as Pope Francis refuses to respond to the Amoris Laetitia dubia, he refuses to respond to the recent Viganò charges of papal and episcopal complicity in concealing McCarrick’s sexual perversions.
Cardinal Cupich of Chicago refuses to go down the “rabbit hole” of challenging papal silence on the Viganò charges and has doubled down on the politically chic advocacy issues of immigration and climate change. Meanwhile, the Holy Father himself, obviously playing to a receptive media, condemns plastics in the oceans as he maintains silence on McCarrick.
A dozen or so bishops and archbishops are calling for a thorough and conclusive investigation of the Viganò charges. But my impression is that most orthodox bishops are just holding their breaths hoping for the best until the next conclave.
In my parish, I have been methodical in my strategy in dealing with the doctrinal ambiguities of the Vatican. The pope’s picture hangs in the church vestibule to remind the faithful to pray for him. But it is safer as a matter of clarity never to quote the Holy Father. And I’ve written several public columns to reinforce with precision the orthodox faith of Catholics.
I’ve distinguished between Mary as the model of the Church and Peter as the model of the hierarchy. Hold the clergy accountable, but never criticize Holy Mother Church. I’ve emphasized the humble role of the priest at Mass as he delivers Jesus to the faithful in Holy Communion. I’ve pointed out a “personal relationship with Jesus” means above all to do His will. I’ve argued that priests, bishops, and popes are custodians, not masters, of the Deposit of Faith.
My purpose in all of these columns was to provide clarity, confidence in the Faith, and hope during these confusing and tumultuous times. By and large, I’ve been impressed by the laity’s demand for honesty from the clergy.
One of my homebound parishioners at age 90 was driven to tears because of Amoris Laetitia. She lived through the Humanae Vitae crisis and she fears a repetition of the chaos. In response, I simply admitted the ambiguity and insisted Church teaching on marriage and human sexuality cannot change. She was greatly consoled.
In the aftermath of the compelling and disturbing Viganò revelations, I received this email from a well-educated Catholic woman who was a director of religious education in another parish: “Any advice for us laymen at this point? Write the bishop? What kind of practical steps can be taken toward reform? Why is the Bishop of Rome so quiet except about plastics?”
The sense of abandonment by the Holy Father is palpable. The most strident but provocatively honest comment I received was from a pastor serving in a diocese apart from mine: “The Holy Father has left us orphans. He prefers to protect . . . buddies rather than His bride the Church (in direct opposition to Christ laying down his life for the Church). Francis is the ultimate symbol of the crisis of masculinity in the West. He is neither father nor husband.”
Some have suggested that the reactions to the ambiguities and silence from the Holy Father will result in schism. In an age of Internet information, I’m skeptical of that. What is the logic in committing a mortal sin to protest papal missteps? To whom shall they turn in any case? But I am deeply concerned that many of the faithful will simply lose confidence in many of the precepts of the Faith and place their souls at risk.
It’s possible – and likely – that many priests and bishops were themselves confused after Vatican II. But since then we have a reliable body of authentic and clear papal teaching including Familiaris Consortio, Veritatis Splendor, and Fides et Ratio. We have the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church providing a rich tapestry of the Faith.
This time, the clergy cannot plead ignorance. And priests and bishops at every level will have literally the fires of hell to pay if by timidity and inaction they allow their flocks to disperse in confusion again.
*Image: The Blind Leading the Blind by Sebastian Vranx, c. 1620 [Private collection]