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On Not Trusting The Church

Sorry to go all Catholic on you today, but I was really struck by First Things editor Rusty Reno’s reflection on the Jesuit father Bert Thelen, who recently left the Society of Jesus after decades. Thelen — I wrote about him earlier this month here — left in protest of the Church’s conservatism, and cited some blather about the “Cosmic Christ.” Whatevs.

Fr. Thelen was the priest who confirmed Reno as a Catholic, back in 2004, and Reno retains respect and affection for him, though he finds Thelen’s recent move a tragedy. In an astute judgment, Reno says of Father Thelen and his kind:

As I came to see during my twenty years teaching at Creighton, this feeling of betrayal by the Church defines the “68er” generation of Jesuits and their allies.

Reno goes on to say that a Jesuit and a former academic colleague of his diagnosed his conservatism as a sign that he (Reno) really doesn’t trust the Church. In this diagnosis, Reno says, there is “an element of truth worth pondering”:

To a certain degree I don’t trust the Church. 

When I think back to my students at Creighton, I can see that their experience of the Church—and to a great extent mine—also involves worries about betrayal, though of a different kind. A profoundly hostile secular culture wars against our efforts to achieve even a modest loyalty to the apostolic tradition, and, sadly, in the war we see the Church as a sometimes-unreliable ally.

For example, although Creighton touted its Catholic mission, my pious students could not trust their theology professors—many thought attacking “Catholic fundamentalism” their calling. They couldn’t trust daily Mass on campus, because some Jesuits took great liberties. Campus ministry was only too likely to attack their beliefs as retrograde, intolerant, and ignorant. Ten years ago students had to fight for one evening a week devoted to Eucharistic adoration. The powers-that-be thought it encouraged the “wrong” sort of piety.

Yes. This.

It was one of the most difficult adjustments I made when I came into the Catholic Church in 1993, this learning not to trust the institutional Church, in the sense Reno means. It resulted at times in arguments inside the confessional with priests who flatly denied church teaching. I once had a priest in the confessional at St. Patrick’s Cathedral tell me that my wife and I should be using contraception. The new Catholic just doesn’t know who to trust on moral and theological matters. From the outside, theological conservatives weary of confusion and fighting within Mainline Protestant churches see Rome as a bulwark of stability. It is, but it also isn’t. Once you come in, you’ll find the same fighting over the same issues, but it’s harder to identify who’s who, and what’s what. Just because Rome has a Magisterium does not mean that it is recognized at the local level. I heard or read an older Catholic once who said that the good thing about liberal and conservative Catholic arguments prior to the Second Vatican Council is that both sides recognized a common source of authority, a common set of teachings to which they appealed to support their contentions. After Vatican II, that faded away. It does orthodox Catholics no good to base arguments on teachings that liberal Catholics reserve the right to reject as they see fit, and still consider themselves Catholics in good standing.

I managed to stay pretty well informed by reading on my own, so I knew when a priest or Catholic academic was giving me a line. Most Catholics, I found, really didn’t, because they didn’t have the time or the inclination to study these things, and they believed they could trust all priests and academics who did.

Toward the end of my life as a Catholic, I thought about how often I had to drive home from Sunday mass and tell my older son, who was starting to pay attention to the homilies, that what Father said that day in his sermon was not actually what the Church teaches. It occurred to me that I was teaching my child to distrust the Church — the institutional Church, I mean, which in this case means the clergy — before he learned as a Catholic to trust the Church. That’s messed up. I’ve written before that I allowed myself to become an overly political Catholic (re: Church politics and factionalism), but that often happens to engaged orthodox Catholics because you really don’t know who’s a trustworthy guide within the Church to its authentic teaching and spirituality. That factionalism is a bitter fruit of the deep crisis of authority within the Catholic Church in the postwar era.

It was probably good for me, on the whole, to have all vestiges of clericalism stripped from me, though I hate how difficult I find it to fully trust clergy at all (conflict and betrayal within the Orthodox Church in recent years are part of that, I concede, though they have to do with trust on a non-theological level). Still, I think orthodox American Catholics have a particularly difficult struggle on this front, given how a certain kind of liberal priest and fellow traveler wish to use the authority given them by the Church to undermine the authority of the Church. I’m glad the faithfully Catholic editor of First Things highlighted it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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