For many Catholics following the synod too closely is a path to sorrow

The 'engine room' at the Vatican (Photo: AP)

I am reading, with great enjoyment, Edward Short’s Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews, published by Gracewing (UK, elsewhere). It merits a blog of its own, which I intend to do when I have finished it. I mention it now because of a quotation from Ronald Knox, which Short includes in his review of a biography of Jacques and Raissa Maritain by Jean-Luc Barré.

It seems that after the last war, the Thomist philosopher Maritain served as de Gaulle’s ambassador to the Vatican. Short writes: “Mgr Ronald Knox, the Catholic convert, once advised that ‘he who travels in the barque of St Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room’. Maritain saw altogether too much of the engine room and concluded that ‘Catholics are not Catholicism. The mistakes, the clumsiness, the inefficiencies, the lack of concern of Catholics do not involve Catholicism itself. It is not the responsibility of Catholicism to furnish an alibi for the shortcomings of Catholics.’”

It struck me that Knox’s mordant remark, as well as Maritain’s disillusionment with the goings-on that he observed at the Vatican, are as relevant today as when they occurred. The “barque of Peter” is a telling image: when St Peter jumped out of the fishing boat to walk over the water to Christ, he began to sink only when, rather than keeping his eyes fixed on the face of Christ, he started to look down. It is the same for all of us. When we survey the synod, the words of this or that cardinal, the scandal of this or that priest and the exaggerated newspaper headlines, it is tempting to become downcast. Indeed, Deacon Nick Donnelly, a well-known commentator on Church affairs, has remarked that he knows people who have become clinically depressed at the current state of the Church.

I had a glimpse of this cast of mind yesterday myself. Talking to a friend who was joining in our monthly pro-life prayer vigil outside our local hospital, I happened to remark that our placards, with their messages “Life is a Gift” and “Have Mercy on the Unborn”, are designed to soften rather than harden the hearts of those passing by, adding: “We need to emphasise mercy, as Pope Francis does.”

My friend, a devoted, lifelong Catholic, replied: “Don’t talk to me about the person you just mentioned. I have a lot of issues with him.” I wasn’t able to stay to hear what these “issues” were, but I can guess them; they are constantly raised – often in highly intemperate language – in the blogs of those who describe themselves as traditional Catholics.

I can only draw attention to what Ronald Knox knew very well; if we fix our eyes on the “engine room”, the Vatican, we might well begin to drown in our sorrows. There is only one sure remedy. Blogger Fr Dwight Longenecker stated it in his own vigorous fashion on Tuesday, in his blog for Patheos, where he advises: “To be sure, the Church seems to be under threat – undermined by corruption and heresy within and attacked by persecution and infidels without. Read your history. When was it otherwise? … Love the Body of Christ but go beyond the Church to Jesus Christ himself for he is your true goal, your destiny and your desire.”