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The Wreckage Of The Church

The body of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, in repose (EWTN screengrab)

In a humdinger of a cover story in National Review, Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty waylays Pope Francis. Excerpts:

What is a pope for Catholics? The Council of Florence said that he is “the true Vicar of Christ, and the Head of the whole Church, and the Father and Teacher of all Christians; and that to him in blessed Peter was delivered by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of pasturing, ruling, and governing the whole Church.” The first Vatican Council rejected those who claimed the pope can deliver new doctrines, saying that his responsibility was to protect and safeguard the existing truths of the Catholic faith. “To satisfy this pastoral duty, our predecessors ever made unwearied efforts that the salutary doctrine of Christ might be propagated among all the nations of the earth, and, with equal care, they watched that it might be preserved, genuine and pure, where it had been received.”

Francis’s defenders have rejected that modest duty. One of his chief apologists and attack dogs, Father Thomas Rosica, has grandly claimed that “Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments.’” He explains that the Church has entered a “new phase,” and that “with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.” By this definition, the papacy would be transferred from a guardian of truth to its living oracle. It would be easy to dismiss Rosica as a mere enthusiast but for the fact that Francis openly challenges Church teaching. Most recently, Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say that the death penalty had become inadmissible, effectively declaring that the Church had been in error until his arrival.

Can you believe Rosica’s statement? It’s like something straight out of Jack Chick comics — but Rosica really did say that. And he’s one of Francis’s top media people. More MBD:

Ultimately the vision Francis has promoted presents a God who is not merciful but indulgent, even lazy, and indifferent. It is God as a Baby Boomer parent. He expects less of you, and you can expect less of Him. In this new religion, where our faults become semi-virtues, salvation itself is changed. Instead of a free gift from God, it becomes a debt owed to us. Christ is not moved by an act of love to sacrifice himself as a propitiation for sinners. Instead, he dies on the cross because our human dignity, revealed in our semi-virtues, obliges him to do so.

What Francis is slowly instituting is a religion of presumption. A religion of “good enough,” where our misguided efforts put God in our debt. Communion becomes a participation trophy. And by freeing the Church from its preoccupation with outdated sins such as adultery, Francis can refocus the Church on the things he likes to denounce, such as the building of border walls, or air conditioning.

And no wonder, then, that the Vatican itself is filled with moral mediocrities, with men who are sexually and financially compromised. No wonder the Vatican investigates and inveighs against whistleblowers immediately but waits decades to investigate predator bishops. Believing in sin is now worse than sin itself. No wonder this church has a pope who refuses to wear red shoes. They symbolize martyrdom. That’s for heroic Christians, not for men like Pope Francis.

Read the whole thing. It is a succinct and punchy an indictment of this papacy as you’ll have seen anywhere. If you are of the opinion that Francis is a gentle lamb unfairly maligned by rich right-wing Americans (the current Vatican line), you should read the piece to get a better idea of what Francis has actually done, and failed to do.

It pairs well with this stunning interview the Vatican journalist Aldo Maria Valli did with Alessandro Gnocchi. The link takes you to an English translation by Robert Moynihan. Excerpts:

Alessandro Gnocchi, who in the pages of the magazine Riscossa Cristiana follows and comments on the events of the Church with passion and intellectual honesty, is one of the few voices able to judge the current crisis in an historical perspective. In doing so, he explains that what Monsignor Viganò has revealed to the world about the current situation has a precedent: the denunciation of Emanuele Brunatto [1892-1965], the first spiritual son of Padre Pio [1887-1968].

To return to those facts means to immerse oneself in a reality that many Catholic faithful would prefer not to see and not to know. Yet it is necessary. At the time of Benedict XV [1914-1922] and Pius XI [1922-1939] moral corruption within the Church was not only widespread, says Alessandro Gnocchi, but greater than today. This is why the argument that the ruin began with the Second Vatican Council [1962-1965] does not persuade. In reality, the ruin (of the Church) is born each time holiness is not put in the first place. And this applies to all times. Nor can it be maintained that it is sufficient to safeguard the right doctrine in order to have a good Church.

Gnocchi read the testimony of Brunatto, who defended Padre Pio — the stigmatist and wonderworker who was attacked as a fraud by some in the institutional Church, but who was canonized in 2002 as St. Pio of Pietrelcina. Through Brunatto’s heretofore unpublished work, Gnocchi found that the corruption at the summit of the Catholic Church earlier in the 20th century was as bad as today, or worse. Gnocchi tells Valli:

Besides, I must confess that I can no longer stand all those “traditionalists” who hold that the world was perfect until midnight on October 10, 1962 [the day before the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962] and then Vatican II came to destroy everything. Just as it does not seem honest to me to argue that, perhaps, evil-doers and supporters of evil-doers were active even before Vatican II, but only outside the Leonine walls [the walls that surround the Vatican].

According to some commentators, even later in the analysis, the disaster stemmed from a renunciation of the exercise of authority. But why? And since when? I believe that, as regards the Catholic Church, the problem is not in the renunciation of the exercise of authority, but in the renunciation of sanctity by authority. That’s why I wanted to tell even just a very small part of what I discovered.

Look at this incredible passage:

Aldo Valli: What were the distinctive features of the moral degradation reported by Brunatto?

Alessandro Gnocchi: It can be summarized in one concept: corruption. Moral corruption, with the spread of homosexual practice and the domination of the homosexual lobby, reaching even to the papal throne. I can assure you that the pontificate of Benedict XV is simply appalling from this point of view. But under Pius XI the situation did not change.

Evidently the infection came from very far away and, as you could also perceive as you studied the revelations of Viganò, it spread very far. And it will spread very far. It is a matter of the corruption of ecclesial life, with the struggle for offices, careers, favors, compromises and, naturally, money.

In the end we perceive the corruption of the men, who practiced this abomination using the name of Christ as a shield.

Aldo Valli: But, one could point out to you that the preaching of orthodox doctrine never failed in those years …

Alessandro Gnocchi: Formally, one can also try to support this thesis, which in any case is a an historical falsehood.

This, for me, is the most painful point, because I too had fallen into the trap of the equation “good doctrine equals good Church.”

The facts show us that this is not the case.

Among the vices of the Catholic Church is that of formalism linked to an excessively juridical mentality.

The idea that one may simply state the letter (of the law) correctly to save any practice. In this way we have arrived, and not just over one century, to a Church founded on canon law instead of the Gospel.

When we do not have holiness as our first goal, we end up corrupting everything that comes after, and I mean everything.

Good doctrine is proclaimed only as a weapon to wage war on one’s adversaries.

But when the doctrine is used as a weapon, it always ends up being adapted to the war and, therefore, is altered.

We start by considering the doctrine under a new, instrumental aspect, and we end up finding a new doctrine, perhaps more effective, but a new one in our hands.

Not to mention that if you use it to wage war and the war is lost, the doctrine will succumb together with the defeated.

I assure you that this is what has happened in the years we are talking about, involving names that I considered crystalline only because I applied the deceptive equation “good doctrine equals good Church.”

This is how we arrived at the famous midnight of October 10, 1962.

If there is no faith, if there is no holiness, these are the results: good doctrine handled by a corrupt person is worth the same as bad doctrine handled by a person of integrity.

What an important and necessary point! He’s saying that the moral and theological collapse that followed the Council occurred because the foundations had been rotted by moral and spiritual corruption of previous decades.

One more passage:

Aldo Valli:In this regard, you say, rightly, that the only answer to Evil is that of Padre Pio: holiness. In your opinion, how can we harmonize today this search for holiness with the need not to further split a Church that is already very divided?

Alessandro Gnocchi: Look, in this Church, now, there is nothing left to split, there is only to rebuild. We need to build it brick by brick, and the bricks are our individual souls.

If I belong to the Church — and here we should have the courage to ask ourselves where the Church really is — my personal sanctity is the only relief I can bring to His wounded body.

Assuming there ever was such a time, the time is over to seek or create small reserves, even with the good intention of preserving the faith.

These environments always end up being places where the need to “do” prevails, because they must demonstrate to the world their existence: but the world, to grant its consideration, asks that only things that it is able to understand be done.

Moreover, inexorably, these places become small places of a small power that always end up “doing” things that are understandable to the great power in a relationship of limited conflict. You can obtain some success and visibility, but nothing more.

Only holiness is subversive with respect to this infernal order in which we are immersed.

I do not know if I have come to these conclusions because I am sick, or tired, or getting old, and, while I am answering you, I am suffering.

But I assure you that this weakness purifies, allows you to see clearly and makes you very free.

At the end of all, if I have a teaching that I think I can pass on to those I love, starting with my children, this is what I learned from Padre Pio: be good Christians.

Read it all. 

It could be that Gnocchi is making a veiled swipe at the Benedict Option (“the time is over to seek or create small reserves, even with the good intention of preserving the faith”). If so, I want to make clear what is already in the book: that there is no fully safe place within which to be a Christian, and that Christians who try to create sanctuary communities for themselves face particular risks. In the book, I quote a young ex-Catholic woman whose Catholic parents were so afraid of the world that they raised all the kids in a state of constant siege, and ended up driving them away from the faith.

I would point out, though, that Gnocchi’s “be good Christians” is only practically feasible if we know what a good Christian is. We learn that from the Bible and the lives of holy men and women, but we also learn it from each other. We need virtuous community to achieve the personal holiness that Gnocchi rightly says is the only effective answer to the corruption all around.

To put it another way, there are no human institutions or structures that can substitute for personal conversion and personal holiness. It will never be possible to construct a society at any level that is so perfect that man does not have to strive to be good. But we can realistically work towards building habits and structures within which it is easier — though never easy! — to achieve holiness. That is the best we can hope for with the Benedict Option. This passage from The Benedict Option speaks to this aspiration:

A faithful Catholic, [anti-communist dissident Vaclav] Benda believed that Communism maintained its iron grip on the people by isolating them, fragmenting their natural social bonds. The Czech regime severely punished the Catholic Church, driving many believers to privatize their faith, retreating behind the walls of their homes so as not to attract attention from the authorities.

Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis” — a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order. Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”

At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.

Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.

I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime—partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature—has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.

From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders”— formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that I cannot be a “good Christian” alone. I need others. We must not imagine that there was ever a perfect time in the society of the church, or society at large, and that if we could only reclaim that Golden Age, all our problems would disappear. But we also must not go too far in the opposite direction, and assume that it is hopeless to try to create small communities — families, churches, schools, fellowships, et cetera — that can serve as, to use St. Benedict’s description of the monastery, “schools for the Lord’s service.”

The key question is: what are these communities and their practices for? That is, what is their telos, their ultimate end? From a Christian viewpoint, if they exist to serve themselves, or to serve any other ultimate end but the conversion of life and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, then they are disordered.

Anyway, read MBD’s story, and reflect on Gnocchi’s observation:

Look, in this Church, now, there is nothing left to split, there is only to rebuild. We need to build it brick by brick, and the bricks are our individual souls.

He’s talking about his church, the Roman Catholic Church. To my fellow non-Catholic Christians: are we really so sure that doesn’t apply to us too?

UPDATE: A reader posts part of an essay by Alexander Stille that puts Brunatto in a highly unfavorable light. You should read it for balance.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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