The Smoke of Satan
By Philip Lawler, Tan Books, 216pp, £13/$16.95
Philip Lawler sees the big picture. His new book, subtitled How Corrupt and Cowardly Bishops Betrayed Christ, His Church, and the Faithful … and What Can Be Done About It, is diagnostic. It is an essay that uncovers the roots of the crisis in which the global Church is embroiled. Its lengthy concluding chapter also contains several recommendations for Catholics who want to do something to help.
Lawler is a journalist with 40 years’ experience, the founder of the first internet portal dedicated to Catholic news from around the world, and the author of several books, including The Faithful Departed, on the collapse of Catholic culture in his native Boston. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who has spent longer or learned more out the crisis of abuse and cover-up in the United States.
Lawler’s analytical procedure in his new book is telescopic. He begins provocatively in Jerusalem, from the presumed site of Peter’s denial of Our Lord, and zooms in for a close look at where we are – in our present crisis – then zooms out again. It is an evocative image: that of a great Church built atop the place where Our Lord’s vicar thrice betrayed him. It sets the tone for the whole work: stark, unsparing hopefulness. Along the way, Lawler is in search of an answer to the question: how did our bishops lose the confidence of the faithful, and how can the profound damage to the Church be repaired?
The rehearsal of the “rough present” begins in January and runs through to the end of summer 2018, while the broader focus settles on the post-conciliar “silly season” from which, Lawler argues convincingly, we have not recovered and to which we have not begun to give adequate address.
The title is an evocation of a line from a 1972 homily delivered by Pope St Paul VI on the Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul. Lawler moves from St Peter in Gallicantu on Good Friday to St Paul in St Peter’s Basilica. His way takes him through a speech by the Venerable Fulton Sheen to the rough present.
Chapter 2, on the events of 2018, begins in January, and takes us through the events of those heady eight months. When Lawler pulls back to bring into view the context of that period, chiefly focused on l’Affaire McCarrick, it feels natural and appropriate. Lawler had told us that the present crisis was a long time coming. Here he shows us just how long.
Thus, Chapter 3 takes us back through the “long Lent” of 2002, a visit that strikes the reader as necessary to Lawler’s project, which at that point is one of saying how and why the summer’s revelations were so galling. When Lawler takes us into the post-conciliar “silly season”, the reader is prepared to view that stretch of historical water as continuous with our present, and dominated by what he calls a “habit of denial” that has become characteristic of Church leadership in action:
For decades, the hierarchy has strained to cope with the deep divisions among the Catholic faithful, without ever acknowledging them. Radical differences in faith have been treated as problems to be managed rather than challenges to be resolved. Thus, our hierarchy, by failing to grapple with serious problems, has allowed the development of two opposing camps among the Catholic faithful.
Much of the material viewed from Lawler’s wide-angle vantage will be familiar to readers: the so-called “Liturgy Wars”; Humanae Vitae’s reception and its aftermath; doctrinal ambiguity and catechetical ineptitude; the disintegration of religious life. They appear as missed opportunities – hence specific moments of failure become habitual and practised.
Lawler discerns signs of the current crisis in the “boom” years of the late 1940s through to the early 1960s. But he places the origins of the crisis even more remotely, finding them in the pontificate of Leo XIII and the “fortress mentality” that took hold in reaction to the threat of Modernism, which “exercised enormous influence on the Church in the United States, where Catholics were always a minority, anxious to gain acceptance in a predominantly Protestant society … With each succeeding generation, the Catholic Church became a more entrenched institution, with all the benefits – but also the dangers – of acceptance as part of the established American way of life.”
The current decay in American family life, he writes, proceeds apace with the disintegration of ecclesial life, with the disintegration of Catholic identity a driver of the phenomenon:
Some might argue that the overall erosion in our culture caused the decline in Catholicism; I contend that the reverse is more nearly true … We must address the internal problems of the Church before we can solve the troubles of society; we must revive the “cult” to repair the culture.
Lawler shares his deep understanding of several much-controverted episodes, including the Holy See’s provisional agreement reached with China. Here is Lawler’s judgment, in his own words: “In the quest to normalise relations with an avowedly atheistic regime, the Vatican had betrayed the trust of the very Chinese Catholics who had sacrificed the most for their loyalty to Rome.”
Lawler’s staking out the ground for an indictment of the Catholic hierarchical leadership over generations, on charges that they have systematically failed in their duties to teach, sanctify and govern the Church, is stark and trenchant.
But his overall view is not a desperate one. He notes that the Church has been through crises before, and will go through them again. As has happened in the past, the weakness of Church leadership presents opportunities for faithful Catholics of every stage of life in the Church to rediscover their discipleship.
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