In the last few years, many Catholics have become uneasy about statements coming out of Rome, and about the general direction of the Church. But which Catholics? According to a recent article in the Vatican newspaper, the “main obstacle” is “a good part of the clergy”. Then again, an article in Crux last year identified those “going against the Pope” as “almost always lay”.
Some believe that the issue is geographical: Massimo Faggioli describes an unease about the Church changing its style “from a Western one to a global religion”. Conversely, Cardinal Walter Kasper has said that the recalcitrant tend to be African or from “Asian or Muslim countries”.
These views may seem contradictory, but the simple explanation is that they are all true. Because of my job, I hear a lot of unsolicited opinions about the state of the Church, and I can tell you that there is anxiety among priests and laypeople, Westerners and Resterners, Vatican officials and stay-at-home-mums, distinguished professors and simple folk, pious old ladies and opinionated young men, High Tories and Corbynistas, dour traditionalists and smiley cheerleaders for Vatican II. The most shocking stories I have heard are of people losing their faith or priests leaving the priesthood. Some of the saddest are of gay or divorced Catholics who have made great sacrifices to follow the Commandments, and feel that their efforts are being treated as meaningless.
It’s a widespread issue, so trying to pick a section of the Church and wondering why they are uneasy is a bit like asking, “Why do children with blond hair like fizzy drinks?” You will have missed the fact that most children like fizzy drinks, and you will probably end up with a strange theory about blond hair.
This brings me to Austen Ivereigh’s latest piece suggesting that the epicentre of current anxiety is neither priests nor the laity, neither Westerners nor Africans, but converts. Ivereigh diagnoses “convert neurosis” in a range of writers, from “elegant commentators such as Ross Douthat” all the way down to “ex-Anglicans in my own patch such as Daniel Hitchens of the Catholic Herald.” Our neurosis reveals itself in disproportionate anxiety at the state of the Church; a horror of doctrinal development beyond our favourite period of Catholic history; and a failure to trust that “the Holy Spirit guides” Pope Francis. In sum, “their baggage has distorted their hermeneutic”.
I’m wary of this kind of psychologising: it is hard, even with those we know best, to say how their psychological issues affect their opinions. And in this instance the psychoanalysis seems needless, since there are at least as many cradle Catholics who have the same worries as us converts. An obvious example is Cardinal Raymond Burke, who learnt the faith from his mother and father as a farm boy in 1950s Wisconsin. Again, there are many cradle Catholics among the theologians who have expressed concerns: for instance, Dr Joseph Shaw, the spokesman for the 45 priests and theologians. And so on.
Converts and cradle Catholics have the same worries. I’m sorry to go over this again, but it seems worthwhile, since there is a determined effort in some quarters to change the subject. The concerns are about the sacraments and about doctrine. Nothing on this earth is more beautiful and precious than the sacraments, and it is natural for Catholics to be alarmed about the abuse of them. Scarcely anything is as necessary for our happiness as sound doctrine, and it is normal for Catholics to worry that doctrine is being contradicted or confused. There have been as many saints who were relaxed about heresy as there have been saints who despised the poor.
So of course converts and cradle Catholics will be dismayed by sacramental abuses and doctrinal confusion. And it is hard not to use such terms when we read Malta’s bishops claiming that avoiding adultery may be impossible; when we hear of priests, bishops and even cardinals abandoning the Church’s practice on Communion; when papal teachings are used – without contradiction from Rome – to justify novel approaches to divorce, euthanasia and extramarital relationships. (I have chosen a few examples here out of many, which together form a pattern.)
Catholics are living through a serious – not wholly unprecedented, but serious – doctrinal crisis. We all have psychological issues; as Samuel Johnson observed, “Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state.” But as Johnson elsewhere remarked, there is one indispensable remedy: “The mind can only repose on the stability of truth.”
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