One of my Twitter followers referred me to this series of posts (Part I, Part II and Part III, and now he’s added a piece about the Trads) by one Larry Chapp, one time seminarian and academic. (He uses the dung beetle analogy in the first post.) A thorough response would be as long as his original series. (I’ve addressed the issue of the Trads elsewhere.) The podcast video brought out many points that were hard to find in the long narrative, but it too takes a while to digest.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Roman Catholicism on this site, for two reasons, The first is that its place in Christianity is important whether you think that place is deserved or not. The second is that my years as a Roman Catholic were the central drama in my walk with God on this earth; here is where it all was transformed.
Chapp’s opening narrative about the bishops brings back to mind something that happened to me while an undergraduate at Texas A&M. After my second year, I left dorm life behind for good and moved into a trailer with a friend of mine from “Newman/Answer” circles. Early on we got into a discussion about the Church and its leadership. Growing up Episcopalian acclimated me to less than stellar clergy leadership. But he would have none of it, and basically forced me to read this from Ezekiel:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them. Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the LORD; As I live, saith the Lord GOD, surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock; Therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of the LORD; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10 KJV)
That was in 1975.
Chapp clears up a major reason for this problem: the episcopal appointments under Paul VI left a lot to be desired of. Those appointments, and the whole leftward drift of the American church after Vatican II, left the church vulnerable to sub-Christian influences, a situation that I’ve discussed elsewhere.
My friend’s and my subsequent course as Roman Catholics was an exercise in navigating this swamp while at the same time maintaining a high level of Christian life that we knew God expected of us. In the short run it wasn’t a problem, but after we left College Station things got interesting–too interesting.
We tried very hard to stay in the Church, I think he more than me. But it wasn’t easy. In his case he ended up in a Catholic Charismatic covenant community, one ultimately split by a Marian devotion controversy. He even married a Roman Catholic in a Catholic ceremony (the last time I was a lector.) But in the end he gave up and left.
Neither my first parish nor my years at A&M really prepared me for the miserable state of American Catholic parish life. I tried and rejected the covenant community. I moved to Tennessee and got involved in a Catholic Charismatic prayer group, which also split over the Marian devotion issue. The church didn’t like Charismatics and ultimately wore down the group, not only for doctrinal issues but because it wasn’t really respectable in this community, and the Catholic Church around here craved respectability. So I ended up leaving as well. That wasn’t my original plan–and it wasn’t my friend’s either–but I really feel that the Church didn’t leave us with much choice, its ostensible representations notwithstanding.
The fact that we were both involved in the Charismatic Renewal was part of the problem. With the accession of Pope John Paul II in 1978 a house cleaning was initiated. Unfortunately that included much of the Charismatic Renewal, which was ecumenical in nature. Covenant prayer groups and communities ended up either getting offers they couldn’t refuse, going “underground” or going away. (I still am not sure how the People of Praise managed to dodge the bullet, but they did.)
This illustrates something else that Chapp brings up: the tone deafness of the current Occupant of the See of St. Peter about the needs of the American church. To some extent all of the Occupants have this problem. I’m sure that the ecumenical, free-form Charismatics here got under John Paul II’s skin (I have reason to believe they did in Poland, too.) But during the Anglican Revolt days of the late 1990’s and 2000’s, the Charismatics furnished some of the heft the “reasserters” needed in that effort (although the Reformed and Anglo-Catholic types are loathe to admit it.) Their Catholic counterparts would have been very helpful in the current struggle.
But now we are back to the future: the American Catholic church, with the help of the Vatican, is drifting back into a classic “go along to get along” stance with our culture. As Chapp notes, they don’t really believe much of what they supposedly teach. And that’s a sad commentary. But there’s more to it than that.
Chapp brings up something that you don’t hear much about: ultramontanism. Ever since the Restoration in France, the Church has been an ultramontane institution, i.e., one governed by the fiat of Rome. In one sense that should improve the accountability of the lower ranks, but their lack of accountability to their flocks (a ditching of a hallmark of Vatican II) only makes them “little Caesars” in their parishes and (especially) dioceses, with cover from above. They can build their own empires and cushion their own positions with impunity, if they can survive storms such as the molestation scandals.
Sooner or later, however, the leadership of the Church will experience this prophetic passage of Bossuet, given about a century before the French Revolution:
Let us listen to our law in the person of Jesus Christ, as long as we are priests of the Lord. If it was said to Levi, on account of his sacred ministry: You are my holy man, to whom I have given perfection and doctrine; and for that, he must say to his father and to his mother: I do not know you; and to his brethren: I do not know who you are, and he has no children but those of God. If it is thus, I say, about the law of Levi and the Mosaic priesthood, how pure, how detached from flesh and blood must be the Christian priesthood, with Jesus Christ as author and Melchizedek as model? No, we must know of no other task, no other function, nor have any other interest than that of God, teaching his law and his judgments, and continually offering him perfumes to appease him. If we keep this law of our holy ministry, one would not see the invasion of the rights and authority of the priesthood, which are those of Jesus Christ. God would become our avenger, and the prayer of Moses would have its effect: Lord, help your ministers, uphold their strength, protect the work of their hands; hit the fleeing backs of their enemies, and those who hate them may never rise again. But because, more carnal than the children of the age, we only think of making ourselves fat, of living at our ease, of making successors for ourselves, of establishing a name and a house, then everyone sets upon us, and the honor of the priesthood is trampled underfoot. (Elevations on the Mysteries, XIII, 6)