Credo Ecclesiam: an act of faith
The day after Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation on the Amazon Synod, I received an email from an old priest friend in Europe: “Big relief: the Pope is still Catholic.” We have to give thanks for small favors, meaning: he didn’t explicitly abolish priestly celibacy and establish a female diaconate. How on earth do we keep faith in the Church in times like these? The Nicene Creed states “credo … in unum Deum … et in unum Dominum Jesus Christum … et in Spiritum Sanctum… et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. In other words, we do not believe in the Church; we believe “in” God alone, but we do believe that God founded a Church, and that this Church is indefectible.
The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, in article IX, explains why the preposition “in” was not included in the Nicene Creed in reference to the Church: “We are, therefore, bound to believe that there is one Holy Catholic Church. With regard to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we not only believe them, but also believe in them. But here we make use of a different form of expression, professing to believe the holy, not in the holy Catholic Church. By this difference of expression we distinguish God, the author of all things, from His works….”
In other words, we believe the Church because we believe in God. By his infinite condescension, the Lord, mysteriously, sustains the essential holiness of His Church, despite our continual perfidy. The fact that the Catholic Church still exists, and even, in the words of Eph 5:27, “a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish,” is hardly believable. How are we to imagine that the Church is “without spot or wrinkle, holy and without stain?” Simply as the Council of Trent stated: we believe in God alone, and that He founded a Church that is one, catholic, holy, and apostolic. We must distinguish between Head and members: the Church’s members will never be wholly “without stain,” but her Divine Head (and, I would add, in the Mother of her Divine Head) she cannot be stained.
A young priest friend remarked, after completing Cardinal Sarah’s recent book The Day is Now Far Spent, that one good thing about bad times are the good books written in bad times. Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s book Christus Vincit is another such book, as well as many recent books on the priesthood and priestly celibacy. Good books have a good ending, and the books worth reading today maintain the hope that “this sickness will not end in death but is for God’s glory.” The Lord God leads his people through deserts for a reason, to strengthen them.
In Deuteronomy 8 Moses addresses the children of Israel in the fortieth year of their exile. On the first day of the eleventh month, Moses (who himself will not enter the land of promise) explains the ways of God to men. “Yahweh your God led you for forty years in the wilderness to humble you, to test you, …. He made you feel hunger, he fed you with manna … to make you understand that man does not live on bead alone… learn from this this that Yahweh your God was training you as a man trains his child…” God is permitting apostasy in the Church, even among bishops and cardinals, to humble us, to refine our faith, and to strengthen our hope. “In the history of the Church,” writes Cardinal Sarah, “the ‘little remnant’ is what has saved the faith … the stump that will always revive so that the tree will not die. However destitute it may be, a little flock will always exist, a model for the Church and the world.” The same cardinal recently wrote a small book with Pope Benedict, the English edition of which began shipping on yesterday. I was able to get an electronic version from Ignatius Press, so I quote from the co-authored Introduction: “The Lord is asleep while the storm is unleashed. He seems to abandon us to the waves of doubt and error. … On every side, the waves of relativism are submerging the barque of the Church. The apostles were afraid. Their faith had grown lukewarm. The Church, too, sometimes seems to be unsteady. … We are experiencing this same mystery. Nevertheless, we are at peace, for we know that Jesus is the one steering the ship. We know that it will never sink. We know that it alone can bring us to the port of eternal salvation.”
The Scandal of Faith
The Christian faith is a scandal to this world in two ways: First, the fidelity of her saints scandalizes a world seeks to abolish God, and second, the infidelity of her sinners scandalizes a world that yearns, after all, for holy purity. Former Cardinal McCarrick’s sins scandalize the New York Times, but Mother Teresa’s speeches on contraception and abortion also scandalizes the Times.
- The scandal of fidelity
The Catholic priesthood, most of all, scandalizes the world. Satan and that part of this world claimed by him especially hates the pitiful and weak human beings whom God chooses to approach His sacred altar. His angelic powers are disgusted that, at God’s command, they offer the divine sacrifice with their dirty fingers. We can understand, then, why non-believers ridicule the priesthood, why they call all priests hypocrites and money-grubbers, and almost always since 2002, “perverts and pedophiles.”
Holy celibacy goes a long way to purifying the sons of Levi. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Sir Alec Guinness, once a happy Anglican, on the set of a BBC production of GK Chesterton’s Fr. Brown series. They were filming in France, and one evening he was returning to his apartment still dressed in a cassock. Suddenly a little French boy darted out of an alley, put his hand the British actor’s, and began telling “mon Pere” all about his day at school. Mr. Guinness realized, at that moment, that the Catholic priesthood was real. The Church’s fidelity to the priesthood as a consecrated sacrifice, so different from the Anglican priesthood, led Alec Guinness to Catholicism.
“Celibacy,” writes Cardinal Sarah, “reveals the very essence of the Christian priesthood… it is the seal of the cross on our lives as priests, a cry of the priestly soul that proclaims its love for the Father and gift of self to the Church.” “Satan,” he continues, “has a fierce hatred of priests. He wants to defile them … because they will always be a subject of scandal for the world.” As the demonic manifestly present in the Church today belittles marital fidelity by encouraging divorced and remarried persons to receive Holy Communion, so it shames men into forsaking priestly celibacy, which is the source of their supernatural paternity. Satan can generate no offspring, and so when a priest, by his angelic purity, engenders spiritual children, they infuriate his envy.
2. The scandal of infidelity
We’ve considered the scandal of sanctity; now let’s turn our attention to the scandal of sin. All of us scandalize the “little ones” from time to time by our weak faith and routine infidelities. But some Catholic clergy have surrendered to the idols of this world. Still, the deeper scandal is the pervasive loss of Catholic faith over the last fifty years: prelates who govern their churches more like businessmen rather than men of God—when is the last time we saw our bishops wearing cassocks rather than business suits at their annual meeting, and why do they not end their meetings with an hour before the Blessed Sacrament rather than sipping liquor around little tables? The deeper scandal is priests spending five hours in meetings to every half hour in prayer, who live like bachelors rather than apostles. It is the scandal of Catholics divorcing and contracepting and aborting and porning at the same rates as atheists, the scandal of Catholic school children who do not know or believe in the Eucharist, the scandal of Catholic politicians selling their souls for a few votes. The scandal even greater than high ranking Churchmen leading double lives is the scandal of only 3% of French Catholics at Sunday Mass, the scandal of Cardinals who are not made ill by the collapse of the Christian family, who joke and smile and glad-hand people to and from the altar but refuse to correct their wayward children from the pulpit—this is by far the greater scandal. We seek to be like God without God, playing to the applause of unbelievers.
This despair or even hatred for the faith has a name, which the ancients called “acedia,” a refusal to accept joy from God, a pouting disdain for any happiness that one does not manufacture oneself. It leads to a deep and persistent disgust with life. Acedia is always a syndrome of the rich man, which makes us all like embittered old men who “no longer shiver with joy before the manger scene nor weep with gratitude before the Cross.” It deems reality to be unintelligible, with no first principles or final ends, leading to a hatred of being: it would be better not to exist. And so “death by despair” (alcohol, drugs, and suicide) especially among young people, has doubled over the last 20 years. Death from drug overdose, for example, has increased fourfold since 1999, such that, even with amazing advances in health care, workplace safety, and nutrition, the life expectancy in America has been in decline since 2016.
Priests are especially susceptible to acedia. As the faith becomes increasingly irrelevant and ridiculed, priests ask what they have to offer a post-modern society. They begin to replace prayer with Netflix and labor for souls with travel and hobbies. A taedium operandi or disgust with activity takes hold of the priest. The fathers Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian wrote that the best remedy for this spiritual torpor is honest manual labor, imitating the Incarnate Son of God, who worked for 30 years with his hands. Priests, and all Catholics, need to get back to work, beginning with consistent prayer, and fidelity to the simple tasks proper to one’s state in life.
Next Week: Part II of the Conference Talk: "The Church is Not in Crisis"