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The Cross or the Totem Pole:

Does the Catholic Church Still Believe in the Catholic Faith?

Jon Merrill POSTED: 4/16/12

For Religious Freedom?
Does this sound familiar? Worrisomely familiar? Hilaire Belloc, describing the Counter-Reformation strategy of the Jesuits:

…the great effect of the Jesuits had been to recover Europe for the Faith by making every sort of allowance – trying to understand and by sympathy to attract the worldly and the sensual and all the indifferent, and insisting the whole time on the absolute necessity of loyalty to the Church.  Defend the unity of the Church, and talk of other things afterwards; preserve the Church which was in peril of destruction; only then, when you have leisure, after the battle, debate other things.

Belloc was describing, not necessarily proscribing.  He nevertheless observed, looking back over a four-century stretch, that the “every-sort-of-allowance” strategy, the strategy of a tribal, content-free “loyalty to the Church” before all else, had quite obviously failed to stay the decline of “Catholic culture” in Europe.  Yes, many parts of the continent were indeed recovered, but, as the serious debate over those other, very important things had been postponed, seemingly sine die, once “unity” had been achieved, that recovery in many places was not so much “for the Faith,” as for the institutional, tribal Church.

In the HHS-mandate battle, the American bishops and many of their Catholic supporters – the orthodox and pious right along with the “the worldly, the sensual, and the indifferent” – have embraced a similar strategy, one which, while it might succeed in (temporarily) preserving the “power” of the tribal Church, will no more stop the real decline of the Faith in America than the loyalty-first strategy of the Jesuits succeeded, in Europe, in preserving either Catholic culture or the Catholic Faith.

Still apparently unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, still worshiping the idol of a factitious unity, still fearing above all else a de-jure schism which would supposedly impoverish the Church and make of its faithful members an insignificant, politically powerless remnant, still confusing the human element of the visible Church with the Catholic Faith itself, the bishops are determined to propagandize in this current battle solely in defense of the “religious liberty” of the Church.  (Given conflicting intra-Faith understandings of that term – which must, then, necessarily, appear between quotation marks – it can be hard for an historically-informed Catholic to know precisely what kind of “religious liberty” the bishops are out to defend.)  

This 21st-century strategy promises to be even less effective than its Counter-Reformation precursor.  While those original Jesuits at least understood that they should make a point “of talking of other things afterwards,” “of debating other things, after the battle,” the American bishops don’t seem to understand, or to want to admit, that there is really anything else to talk about.  “Religious freedom” – whatever that means exactly – is all there is to it.  What Catholics will do with that liberty, and, more importantly what they will or will not be at liberty to believe, as Catholics, is not so important, as long as they continue to understand “the absolute necessity of loyalty to the Church.”  And it really is preferable; the bishops seem to suggest, to think of it in terms of loyalty to the Church – or, even better, to the USCCB – rather than to the Faith.  For though the Faith can change or evolve, the USCCB we will always have with us.

But the tribal, rally-around-the-Church/(USCCB) approach won’t work now.  Or, rather, it will “work” only to the extent of prolonging the existence of the bishops’ denatured, de-Catholicized, government-“partnered” institutions of social assistance and education.  The Church-y approach made some sense, and it may have succeeded in stemming the secularist tide, at the tail end of the Age of Faith, when tribe members and their hierarchical servants still shared a fairly unequivocal understanding of the tenets and requirements of their religion – but now, at the high tide (one hopes) of the cynical hierarchy-endorsed Age of Ambiguity, of the Age of Faith-lessness, we need desperately to talk about, well, the Faith, rather than the Church.  (And the less said about the USCCB the better.)

There are two major topics of discussion between people and servants which must be tackled immediately after this HHS battle is won, if, that is, we really can’t just talk right now.  And note:  A win should not be in doubt.  Only an acquiescence to one more murky, ambiguous “accommodation” with government could constitute an actual loss.  The bishops will win – and, in fact, will win a far more meaningful and Catholic victory – even if a tyrannical government succeeds in driving the Church out of the worldly business – for that is all that it has become – of providing secular-humanitarian services with, at the good pleasure of, and for that same despotic government.  (As Archbishop Chaput recently noted, in glaring and still-not-comprehending understatement, the government “gets more” from that unholy arrangement than the Church does.)

Faith-Topic Number One is obvious, given the substantive issue around which the bishops’ current fight for “religious liberty” ostensibly revolves.  How many countless iterations of the following statement of indignation have we heard coming from the conservative-Catholic commentariat over the past few weeks?

 “I am a 54-year-old weekly-Mass-attending Catholic and I have never in my entire life heard a homily about contraception!”

But it’s not just contraception.  And the silence is not limited to the related counter-cultural, “sex-obsessed” teachings of the Church.  It even goes beyond the many other “hard sayings” of the Faith – from the Real Presence to the One-True-Churchness of the Church – which even the believing Western bishops and priests have for fifty years sedulously avoided discussing in order, if not “to attract the worldly, sensual, and indifferent” – too late for that now – at least to prevent current dues-paying Club members in those categories from flying the coop. 

No; the question that has been avoided is much more fundamental:  Is the Church even about “belief” anymore?  Is it a creed-based society of believers…who believe the same things, it should go without saying?  Or is it a philanthropic, feel-good social club, with Catholic memorabilia scattered around, like that intriguing “anti-contraception” totem on the wall – a “fascinating model,” as one Cardinal Ratzinger once called it – but not something that it would make any sense to seriously “believe in.”  That’s not what totems are for.  And, besides, we’re not even sure what it means anymore.  And, re-besides, if we ever figured it out, and asked club members to “believe in it” – whatever that means – that could be divisive, and clubs are about uniting their members, not dividing them!

But not to worry:  We will definitely keep it up on the wall, because it’s Catholic – whatever that means – and so are we.  (Many of us, after all, have names like O’Shaughnessy and Santini and Rodriguez.)  Not only that, but if anybody – an oppressive Obama administration, for example – should ever try to force us to take the fascinating tribal totem down, we will fight to the death (well, maybe not quite to the death) to keep it up there!  Because now you’re talking “religious liberty”!  We might not really understand that “religion” thing, but we’re American, by gum, and we know a thing or two about liberty! … But, “believe in” the totem – let alone act on it?  Sorry; we don’t do belief.  Too divisive.  Look at the Amish.  They don’t even have a USCCB!  And not a single Amish guy or gal member of Congress.  So what’s the point of the belief thing?

Here is Cardinal Dolan, in his recent letter to American bishops on the HHS mandate, suggesting which ball it is that the Club must now keep its eye on.  It’s not the belief ball:

As pastors and shepherds, each of us would prefer to spend our energy engaged in and promoting the works of mercy to which the Church is dedicated; healing the sick, teaching our youth and helping the poor.

That is what the bishops think the Church, the Club, is really about: providing non-belief-based “social services.”  No mention of the bishops using even some left-over energy to preach the (divisive) Gospel, to sanctify Catholics, or to rule the Church.  (Yes, he does refer to “teaching our youth”…but teaching them what?  In the really-existing American Church we know that they will be taught that the Catholic Church is essentially about…providing works of nondenominational mercy in the context of “social justice.”)

Faith-Topic Number Two:  The Church’s fatal collaboration with secularist, anti-Catholic governments.  That “partnership” has facilitated, if not actually caused, the transmogrification of Church into Club, and if it continues, as the bishops obviously intend it to – if only the battle over the contraception totem can be won in a way which will not totally alienate the government, and its money – then Catholic social-clubbishness will persist, while the Faith will continue to decline.

Topic Number Two has been avoided by the prelates, of course, but even by many “conservative Catholics,” some of whom agree with the overwhelming majority of Western bishops that, as long as those Catholic totems are treated with respect, a “partnership” with secularist government is perfectly appropriate and, indeed, is even necessary, not only to “human flourishing,” but to the flourishing of the Church.  (Or is it:  “…of the Club?)  Are they right?  Can we at least discuss it?

Or is it Cardinal Manning who is right?  He who, up against an un-Catholic government far more friendly to the moral beliefs of the Catholic Church than is the thoroughgoing secularist but occasionally totem-respecting  government of contemporary America, nevertheless said that the only faithful course open to the Catholic Church, even when confronted with a relatively friendly un-Catholic government, was separation, not partnership.

Manning saw a century and a half ago that the era of the fully-fledged secularist and anti-Catholic government was right around the corner.  He naturally assumed, if the Church were to maintain its “internal unity” and integrity, that it would be necessary, charitably necessary, for the Church to effect a “separation” from those worldly governments, and from their money.  Far from being distressed at this providential turn of events which, after all, he wrote, was just a “return” to the original, us-against-the-world-and-the-pagan-state condition of the Church, Manning emphasized that the Church would “derive many graces” from that necessary separation.  Among those graces:

Its pastors will be poor. They will receive nothing from princes, or courts, or governments.  They will re-enter their apostolic liberty and detachment from all things:  They will live of the altar by the oblations of the faithful.  This will also rekindle the zeal, charity, and generosity of the Catholic people of the world.  Pastors and people are held together by an intimate bond of charity and generous reciprocal service which consolidates the Church with the closest unity…

Our bishops, to put it mildly, do not seem to detect the “charm” in those particular graces, among which is a real, religious unity, “the closest unity” – not a mere clubby “togetherness.”  Maybe they don’t see it because, as Manning implies, though it will be a grace-filled unity, it could be a materially poorer one.  And if Cardinal Dolan and his fellow bishops have really come to understand the primary task of the Church as “promoting works of mercy” so as to “help the [non-Catholic] poor,” then a materially poorer Church must mean, for them, a lesser Church.  “Less money to dole out – and let’s just continue to pretend that we haven’t been doling out someone else’s money – means less ‘human flourishing’.  Where’s the ‘charm’ in that?”

Discussions of both topics will lead back to a single, practical question for the Faithful, Church-going Catholic:  Should he support the Faith, or the Church?

Yes, we know:  Theoretically, there should be no dichotomy; no choice to be made.  We understand that “the Church is the pillar and ground of the Truth,” i.e., of the Faith.  So to support one is to support the other…theoretically.  But what to do when our hierarchical servants have, in the real, not the theoretical world, come to understand the Church, for all intents and purposes, as the pillar and ground, not of the Faith, but of the West-European-style Social-Welfare State?  Or, to put it more generously and accurately, but no less problematically, what to do when they promote the Church almost exclusively as the pillar and ground of social works of mercy or of a tendentious “social justice”?  When the Church temporarily – but for how long? – detaches Herself from a meaningful, in-practice connection with Her beliefs, or when those “beliefs” are revealed, as in the affair of the HHS mandate, as being for many of Her hierarchical servants and most of Her “members” not much more than tribal totems, what is the average trying-to-be-faithful Catholic Joe to do?

That is what we need to talk to you about.

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