Early in his biography of Edmund Campion, Evelyn Waugh wonders why his subject spurned the smooth path that lay before him – accommodation with the nascent Anglican establishment, with all the comfort it afforded – and sought, instead, the way of the Cross. We like to imagine our saints facing starkly clear choices. But that wasn’t the case with the Oxford tutor who would go on to become the great Jesuit martyr; Campion had to find Calvary through a glass darkly.
It wasn’t Campion’s fault, after all, that the Tudors had cut off England from “historic Christianity”. Plenty of “decent” people had made their peace with the changes. The rupture was “regrettable”, but the Anglicans’ newfangled rites weren’t that bad. “The ancient cathedrals were still standing,” doctrinal similarities between Anglicanism and Catholicism outnumbered the differences, and there were plenty of honours that a scholar of Campion’s caliber could attain.
So “why throw up so much that was excellent, in straining for a remote and perhaps unattainable perfection?” Waugh immediately answers his own question: “There was that in Campion that made him more than a decent person; an embryo in the womb of his being, maturing in darkness, invisible, barely stirring; the love of holiness, the need for sacrifice. He could not accept.”
It seems to me that every Catholic should strive to live life determined that his biography will include a sentence or two to the same effect.
Easier said than done, but we aren’t without contemporary exemplars. The Waugh passage came to my mind as I read news that Robert Morlino, the Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin, had died on Saturday from a “cardiac event”, per his diocese. The bishop’s memory will long endure as a defender of orthodoxy, at a time, not unlike Campion’s, when many otherwise decent men chose accommodation with corruption inside the Church and moral disorder in the world outside.
Most recently, the Jesuit-trained bishop received national attention for his bold response to the Church’s summer of shame. When many other prelates resorted to PR strategies – remember Donald Cardinal Wuerl’s short-lived self-promotional website? – Bishop Morlino went to the root of the matter. The Church, he said, had forgotten how to think and talk about sin, how to hate sin, and that was why the crisis had festered.
In his diocesan letter of August 18, he wrote: “For too long we have diminished the reality of sin – we have refused to call a sin a sin – and we have excused sin in the name of a mistaken notion of mercy. In our efforts to be open to the world we have become all too willing to abandon the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In order to avoid causing offence we offer to ourselves and to others niceties and human consolation.”
The symptoms are everywhere: pastors who celebrate entire Masses without once uttering the word “sin”, even going so far as to rewrite the rubric on the fly to avoid it (“Let us acknowledge our shortcomings”); media-savvy priests who cashier apostolic tradition for media adulation; the compromises of an upper-crust American Catholicism slouching toward Canterbury.
These phenomena, Morlino suggested, weakened Catholicism’s defence mechanisms, including against far bigger outrages like those of a McCarrick. “The crisis we face is not limited to the McCarrick affair, or the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, or anything else that may come,” he wrote. “The deeper crisis that must be addressed is … a certain comfort level with sin that has come to pervade our teaching, our preaching, our decision making, and our very way of living.”
When, a week or so later, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s testimony exploded like a nuclear device inside the Church, Morlino issued another sober, instructive statement. He called for a thorough investigation, and gently chided Pope Francis for his refusal to address the substance of the ex-nuncio’s allegations. And again he framed the crisis in spiritual rather than procedural or sociological terms, and correctly identified its source: “our ancient foe”, that is, the father of lies.
Among his own flock, Morlino did all he could to stamp out the little compromises. Most notably, he fired in 2009 a pastoral associate who had written scholarly work in support of women’s ordination, and who refused to recant this and other heterodox views. Truth, Morlino said at the time, must be taught “without compromise.” Such actions won him the permanent enmity of the liberal Catholic establishment and its media allies, but the bishop was adamantine. “He could not accept.”
May he rest in peace.
Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the forthcoming memoir, From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)