The Brewing Civil War within Roman Catholicism

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I follow conservative Roman Catholic blogs.

It is fair to say, that I follow very conservative Roman Catholic blogs. The sort written by conservative priests who look fondly back to Old Rome – to the days when the liturgy was in Latin and ecclesiastical discipline within the ranks was iron.

These are the people whose slogan is “save the liturgy, save the world”. Yes, to all the Protestant readers who just fell off their seats, you read that correctly.

This is Rome Catholicism of the Tridentine Rite. This is the Rome Catholicism of arcane medieval mysticism. This is a Rome Catholicism that has been almost forgotten, except in small – but admittedly growing – pockets, where people desperately wish to re-barnacle their religious life in esoteric rituals that were stripped away by Vatican II.

One of the things that has become really, really clear is that there are two utterly incompatible views that now co-exist in Roman Catholicism. The liberal wing are… well, essentially theistic soft secularists, if such a thing can be imagined. They pretty much follow the culture on issues like homosexuality, feminism, abortion, environmentalism, same-sex marriage, and the whole worldview. You can find Catholics within this wing who criticise their own church’s stance on these issues. You can find large numbers of Catholics who even actively and enthusiastically embrace these elements of the culture. For instance, there are entire branches of orders of nuns who are essentially leftover 1960’s radical feminists. They go about crusading for political purposes.

But, to the other extreme, there is the conservative wing. These Roman Catholics largely live in the past, venerating historical Popes and cardinals, and glorying in a very traditional worship that consists of little other than elaborate and ornamented ritual. They reject the minimalist contemporary design of modern churches – which are often built according to zany postmodern designs – and approvingly point to articles in magazines in which pastors describe how they have transformed their parishes by installing pews, altars, candles, and all the other furniture of a heavily-liturgical religion.

(The fact that there is such a palpable thirst among modern Western populations for a deep link to the past and a desire for continuity with history, could be the subject of an entire book. Unfortunately for the poor benighted souls turning to liturgical religions like Roman Catholicism, the tradition that they are told goes back to the New Testament is often only about 500 or so years old. Most of the “apostolic tradition”, along with its attendant rites and rituals developed in the medieval period. To be deeply rooted in God’s work in history, one must turn to the pages of scripture).

Each wing denounces the other. An excellent illustration of this – at least in miniature – is found in the running clash of purpose and perspective between a very popular blog operated by the Roman Catholic priest, John Zuhlsdorf, and the National Catholic Reporter. The National Catholic Reporter occasionally prints insinuations or commentary that would reflect unfavourably on Zuhlsdorf’s website and views, characterising them as unloving or harsh. For his own part, Zuhlsdorf declares the National Catholic Reporter to be “un-catholic”. In fact, Zuhlsdorf usually refers to this publication as “fishwrap” or “the National Schismatic Reporter” and holds in low esteem the liberal Roman Catholics who comment there.

Both parties have convictions utterly removed from the other. The NCR seems hopeful for some changes on the issue of woman’s ordination. They seem to take the view that there is a possibility of having women deacons. Zuhlsdorf, for his part, is implacably opposed to women’s ordination.

Whatever we might think on the issue – and, we, evangelicals and Reformed would typically side with Zuhlsdorf on this issue – the fact remains that these are opposing viewpoints, held with extreme conviction and passion. And both seem to have emerged within Roman Catholicism at the same time and in high volumes. It bespeaks a collapse of church discipline at some point in the line. For how else could two opposing camps emerge in the one communion?

But, this is only the tip of the iceberg! Most of the folks supporting women’s ordination would necessarily (eg. it is necessary to hold these beliefs in order to arrive at their position) have very non-traditional views of the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Catholic Church and their supposed “teaching magisterium”. They necessarily hold non-traditional views on apostolic tradition. They necessarily repudiate the past example of their own church as repressive, archaic or opposed to women. Indeed, one of the Youtube videos put out by one of these groups has a woman in mock papal attire singing, “Don’t listen to St. Paul… I can lead the way” and a woman dandying her baby wearing a shirt that reads “Mommy for pope”. In other words, Zuhlsdorf – to a certain extent – is right. These people have no theological relation to the theological universe of what once called itself Roman Catholicism.

Another example of this breakdown is seen in Ireland, where the decay of Roman Catholicism is now an unmistakable fact. Here is a country that has a long history of being a Roman Catholic stronghold. A country where 73% – nearly three quarters of the population – claim to be Roman Catholic. Yet in the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage, 62% of Irish voters approved a constitutional change to allow people to marry without the distinction of sex.

Assuming that the 25% of the population who are non-Roman Catholic all voted in favour of this change, it would mean that 37% of the Roman Catholic population also voted in favour of same-sex marriage. And this contrary to the advice, teaching and instruction of their own clergy and church! (Although, to be honest, any fair assessment of the political campaign conducted by those affiliated with Roman Catholic Church would surely indicate a fair degree of apathy. The impression I received, at least, was that their heart was just not in it. The secular perspective had already quite clearly won – at least, according to the vote statistics – even within the Roman Catholic community long before the referendum took place.)

You can find these sorts of inroads into Roman Catholicism at every point. And most troubling for the conservatives, the secular viewpoint seems to be held by a growing number of bishops, cardinals, and priests. Many of these come in for regular excoriation from the conservative wing . On the other hand, the conservatives lionise other of their hierarchy as if they were celebrities. These cardinals and bishops receive rock star treatment because they celebrate the mass in Latin or they are fighting back against the ambitions of the liberal half of the church.

Now enter the Pope.

For all the unbiblical Roman pretensions that the Pope functions as an authoritative unifying figure, the reality is the inverse. Nobody could say with a straight face that Pope Francis believes what his medieval (or even early 20th century) predecessors believed given his remarks on a range of issues. He continues along the lines set by previous Popes who proclaim a social gospel to outsiders and a religious practice to insiders so lacking in discipline as to render it almost indifferent to the manner in which they choose to live. Among Francis’ encyclicals is the entirely forgettable Laudata si’, or the “Green Encyclical”, which was about the environment and sustainability. In Francis’ speech to the Congress, he mentions Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln but does not once make reference to the Lord Jesus Christ.

In so doing, he merely follows the example of other post-Vatican II popes, like Pope John Paul II, who was certainly no great evangelist either. When addressing the European Study Congress, Pope John Paul II spoke much about “Christianity” and even mentioned “Christ” once, but his focus was not where the conservative Roman Catholics would have placed it.

It is categorically impossible to imagine the Apostle Peter – whose authority Roman Catholics claim for their pope – if presented with the chance to address the representatives of the most powerful nation in the world, or a congress planning a trans-continental constitution that would govern 500 million people – would fail to present the fullness of the message of the good news of Christ our Lord.

But the Popes reflect the Roman Catholic Church’s culture. True there is a bit of a lag before certain cultural trends and elements get represented in a pontificate, but it shows up sooner than later. Popes are increasingly political-correct beings and mealy-mouthed, never being entirely direct. Each subsequent pope differs substantially from the one before and thus the entire Roman church is in a perpetual condition of division. Half of them will cleave now unto this pope, and the other half will cleave unto that one. Francis is beloved by the liberal Catholics, just as Benedict XVI is beloved by the conservatives – some of which freely admit to shedding tears over his resignation.

Of course, nearly every Roman Catholic holds to Pope John Paul II whose genius for more than thirty years involved the careful placation of all wings of the church by granting to each a measure of what they sought. One month he would pound the arms of his throne and thunder down the old dogmas, gladdening the heart of the conservatives. A few months later he would make a ringing declaration about women or some other group, and bring pleasure to the liberals. But in retrospect, I think it will be seen that Pope John Paul II’s seemingly stable pontificate, solved nothing. In fact, he oversaw the unravelling of the discipline and authority of his church, the continuation of the 1960’s experiment. His pontificate will be seen to mark the further degradation of the belief and allure of the (non-existent) continuity the religion claims for itself.

One could go on. The fact that there is such a staggering variety of religious orders – some liberal and some conservative – each existing side-by-side within the tent. We could examine the rot within Roman Catholic educational institutions, producing generations of Roman Catholics who are probably mostly theologically liberal. We could consider the resurgence of conservatism within many seminaries, coupled with the fact that the overall number of priests is low and shrinking. But time constrains me.

Bottom line: this state of affairs cannot continue forever. One wing will dominate eventually, or there will be a permanent schism. Many conservatives have already thrown in the towel, declared most of the post-Vatican II popes to be heretics, and have run off to sedevacantist movements and the SSPX, who generally believe that the Seat of Peter is empty and there is no legitimate pope.

It is fantasy to imagine the staunch, Tridentine, “Latin Mass” conservatives winning this battle. In fact, their efforts are more likely to accelerate a schism since so many of them actively believe that their Tridentine mass is more legitimate than the Novus Ordo mass which is the common global Roman Catholic practice.

Certainly, the wing that shall be most badly affected will be the conservatives for whom the Pope and bishops and priestcraft is pivotal. Their entire faith is built on it. They have been taught that their church, when manifested in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is infallible and miraculously safeguarded from error. The ructions to their faith when they realise with the passage of time, that the old Roman Catholicism is beyond revival, will be painful to bear. The conservatives are desperately placing their hope in the next pontificate. Pity them, should the next pope be another Francis. Their demoralisation will be complete.

We must keep our eyes open for these troubled souls, the recipients of a dreadful medieval corruption that enslaves and mesmerises with the false claims of historicity. We must aim to always be ready to offer to these people the gospel – for there can only be one. This gospel is the one that they have never heard. The pure gospel that elevates the Great High Priest, Christ Jesus. A gospel that speaks to the heart and redeems it by the sovereign power and grace of a compassionate and holy God. A God who does not come seeking for the utterances of empty phrases and repetitious prayers. Who does not look for hail Marys and penances. Who does not justify us based on our merits or our works. But a God who revealed himself fully through his Son; who regenerates men through his words – alone infallible and inerrant – and who sends his genuine Spirit as the down payment on future glory.

A God who once spoke words that are much applicable to these burnt out, tempest-tossed, misused, and exhausted Roman Catholics:

Come unto me, all you who labour and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn about me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you shall find rest for your souls. 

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