Friday, February 10, 2006

The Strange Loyalty of Catholics

In a previous post I promised to probe the incomprehensible loyalty of Catholics to a Church pastured by (let us say) less than exemplary shepherds, whose sins include not only the infamies highlighted by the media1, but also abandonment of their flocks to wolves.

Thus was it ever so. Over four hundred years ago from his rough stone prison in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More wrote an extended mediation on The Sadness of Christ in the garden of Gethsemani. He reflects that Judas, plotting evil, is wide awake, while the other apostles, who should be doing good, sleep.

Does not this contrast between the traitor and the apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image (as it were), a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times even to our own? Why do not bishops contemplate in this scene their own somnolence? Since they have succeeded in the place of the apostles, would that they would reproduce their virtues just as eagerly as they embrace their authority and as faithfully as they display their sloth and sleepiness! For very many are sleepy and apathetic in sowing virtues among the people and maintaining truth, while the enemies of Christ, in order to sow vices and uproot faith (that is, insofar as they can, to seize Christ and cruelly crucify Him once again), are wide awake—so much wiser (as Christ says) are the sons of darkness in their generation that the sons of light.

But although this comparison of the sleeping apostles applies very well to those bishops who sleep while virtue and the faith are placed in jeopardy, still it does not apply to all such prelates on all points. For some of them—alas, far more than I could wish—do not drift into sleep through sadness and grief as the apostles did. Rather they are numbered and buried in destructive desires; that is, drunk with the new wine of the devil, the flesh, and the world, they sleep like pigs sprawling in the mire.

These words are all the more poignant when one recalls that More was imprisoned and eventually gave his life for his loyalty to the Church, a loyalty that the hierarchy of England failed to live up to. Why then would More die for an institution led by such corrupt people?

To a non-Catholic correspondent Flannery O'Connor incisively explains the Catholic perspective at the base of this bewildering behavior:

All your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit very rarely shows himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible, radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach errors in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those grace that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.

It is not loyalty to the man, but to the office he holds (cf. Mt 23:2–3). Even a great anti-Catholic like J.A. Froude2 can only admit the historical reality of the uncanny permanence of the office:

A Catholic bishop holds his office by a tenure untouched by the accidents of time. Dynasties may change—nations may lose their liberties—the firm fabric of society may be swept away in the torrent of revolution—the Catholic prelate remains at his post; when he dies another takes his place; and when the waters sink again into their beds, the quiet figure is seen standing where it stood before—the person perhaps changed, the thing itself rooted like a rock on the adamantine basements of the world.

God's grace works despite our failings. In the Catholic view, not the man, but the office is guaranteed by a Power beyond mortal arms: “The gates of hell will not prevail against” the Church, Jesus said (Mt 16:18). Likewise he promised: “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Mt 28:20)

The bishop's relationship to the faithful is a reflection of Christ's spousal relationship to the Church. Just as a wife can have no other husband, Catholics can have no leaders outside the line of bishops descended from the Apostles, the line established by Jesus. Abuses and omissions may grow to rival the Aegean stables, but like the prophet Hosea, the faithful reject any disloyalty to the wayward spouse, which is loyalty to God's will.


1. The media paper over the fact that the victims of sexual abuse were almost uniformly teenage males. The abuse scandal would have been impossible without the hierarchy's drift (in their personal behavior) into relativism and moral laxity in the latter part of the 20th century. Were the media to confront the underlying causes of the scandal, they would also have to confront their own complicity in propagating the worldview that licensed it. Nevertheless we should be thankful the media, in spite of itself, is acting as God's instrument of purification.

2. Fr. Jaki notes, “This monumental work, which established Froude as one of the foremost English prosewriters, greatly strengthened intellectual biases against the Catholic Church. Hence the special value of Froude’s admission."

Thomas More, The Sadness of Christ, trans. Clarence Miller (Princeton, NJ: Scepter, 1993), 46.

Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Cecil Dawkins, 9 December 1958 in The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 307.

J.A. Froude, The History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1856–1870), vol. VII, p. 174, as quoted in S.L. Jaki, Galileo Lessons (Pinckney, Michigan: Real View Books, 2001), 19.

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