Late last week, I made a trip to Krakow, and then to Czestochowa, to visit the Jasna Gora shrine, the spiritual heart of Polish Catholicism. Though I am no longer a Catholic, it was deeply moving to see so many Poles so openly devoted to Christ in the Catholic faith. Though Polish Catholicism faces tremendous challenges — multiple Poles have told me that they fear Poland will go the way of Ireland within a decade or two — for the moment, it is admirable and, for visitors like me from the post-Christian West, moving to see so much open devotion.
The comfort I took from being among Polish Catholics, and the admiration I have for how their faith brought them through so much suffering, only exacerbates the incomprehension I have over how Pope Francis and the bishops seem so dead-set on destroying the Catholic faith — or if not destroying it, per se, then on turning it into something it never has been.
The maniacal crusade Francis has against the traditional Latin mass is simply bizarre. Relatively few Catholics today attend the Latin mass, but those parishes where it is offered are almost always vibrant and full. It is certainly true that you can find some bitter, cranky people around Latin mass communities, but you can find pushy, obnoxious people everywhere in the Catholic Church, and indeed in all churches. During the thirteen years I was a Catholic, I visited the Latin mass a few times. I never became a regular attendee, but it was easy to see the appeal, and I was glad that Catholics who found depth and beauty there had it as an option. I was no longer a Catholic when Pope Benedict XVI gave universal permission for the Tridentine mass (“Latin mass”) to be said everywhere. Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI) once said:
Of course he was right, and is right. Yet his successor, Francis, has moved to suppress the old rite. What was once the Catholic Church’s holiest and highest possession is now forbidden in FrancisChurch, by order of the Pope himself. And, as Ratzinger foresaw, this calls the community’s being into question.
It’s not that God prefers to hear prayers in Latin. That’s not the point. The point has to do with the authority of the Pope, and of the Church’s governing class. How can Francis’s crushing of the Latin mass be defensible? That is to say, having done this, and ordered his bishops to do this, the Pope radically undermines his own authority, largely for the reason present in the Ratzinger quote.
Steve Skojec is a former Catholic traditionalist who broke with the Church, and now considers himself to be an agnostic. In a characteristically volcanic new Substack post, Skojec tears into the Pope and the bishops over this. What seems to have prompted him is a decision by the Bishop of Arlington, Va., to suppress the Latin mass in one of the most conservative dioceses in the US. Skojec writes:
As I’ve attempted to disentangle myself from the Catholic traditionalist movement I called my spiritual home for most of the past 20 years, I have made no secret of the big problems I have with the ideological, catty, ruthlessly judgmental and dour aspects of traditionalism, which, despite many protests from defensive trads, are not just online phenomena.
But I have been, in my anger and hurt, too neglectful of the very good people I know who were drawn to that movement for the same reason I was: the devotion and desire to be good and faithful Catholics, to love and worship God the best they can, and to teach their children the same. These salt-of-the-earth people do not deserve this. But they will not be spared. In fact, they will be brutally crushed under the Church’s hierarchical boot.
Skojec writes: “The closer my work took me to examining what was really going on in the inner workings of Catholicism, the more it eviscerated my ability to believe in the Church’s extraordinary claims.” That’s was certainly true for me, as regular readers know. For you Catholics who are quick to judge Steve Skojec, I urge you to consider that he probably had to come face to face with a lot more evil in the institutional Church than you have done. If you have looked upon that evil, and emerged with your faith intact, stop reading right now and thank God for having given you the strength. But if you haven’t, suspend judgment on Steve and stop to say a prayer for him. I don’t know Steve, but I know his pain all too well.
Skojec goes on — like I said, he’s volcanically angry:
The pope and the bishops and many of the priests hate the faithful they exist to serve, and they hate the faith they exist to protect. And according to Catholic theology, God has placed them in authority over both. This is mystifying to me. The same God who, according to long-held belief, allowed the already-vanquished Satan into the garden to tempt his innocent new creatures is also allowing Satan to run amok in his Church, possessing its leadership and weaponizing their God-given power over those compelled by divine command to submit to them. As a father, I cannot fathom this. It would be like allowing rabid dogs into the enclosure of my yard as my children are playing, and just standing back to see how things play out.
I’m honestly surprised how hard the news has hit me. I haven’t been to Mass in over a year, and even so, my blood boiled when I read what they are doing. I hate them right back, these contemptuous, retributive, evil sons of bitches. I spent my life being made to be afraid of “ever speaking ill of a priest.” But these are stone-cold villains who hide their malice behind roman collars and episcopal miters.
To be clear, by quoting him here, I’m not approving of everything Skojec says. I think, though, that he speaks for more than a few Catholics. The behavior of the Catholic bishops over the course of my lifetime calls to mind the historian Robert Conquest’s great line: “The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.”
Still, I don’t think Skojec is right to be mad at God for this. For one thing, Christians know from Scripture that before Christ returns, there will be a Great Apostasy. That will surely involve the Catholic Church (and others). We might be in that time. For another, though I’m not a Catholic, I recall that Catholics believe God did not promise that bad men wouldn’t run the Church; He only promised that it wouldn’t teach error. That, I believe, is the more serious problem here. It seems to me hard to square that claim for the Catholic Church with what the Pope is doing to the old mass.
Maybe the Catholic Church is not what it claims to be, and that is being made apparent by the pope’s actions. It’s possible. Indeed, as an Orthodox Christian, I don’t believe the Catholic Church is what it claims to be, but I’m not willing to argue that point on this blog. I’m just positing to Steve’s suggestion that God has abandoned “His” church that God hasn’t done that if it wasn’t “His” church to begin with (“His” in the way that Catholics believe it is). One more from Skojec:
So Catholics have a real dilemma.
Either a thing is so sacred no man has the power to drastically alter or do away with it, or men are claiming a power over that thing that they do not possess.
Either the Mass is sacred and the papacy dare not attempt to treat it otherwise, or the papal power is supreme and unaccountable to anyone on earth, and the pope can do whatever he damn well pleases to the liturgy.
I don’t think that Pope Francis’s crackdown on the Latin mass will affect most Catholics, given that they don’t go to the Latin mass, and might not know anybody who does. But as an outsider who wants to see the Catholic Church thrive, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Pope is doing this. The people who are faithful to the Latin mass tend to be the most committed Catholics, and the Catholics that have the biggest families. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this Pope cannot stand those people, and think they are what’s wrong with the Church. Catholicism is in slow-motion collapse throughout the West, and cannot afford to alienate and discourage its most dedicated believers. But that’s exactly what Francis is doing.
Meanwhile, Francis’s strongest allies, like Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, will not tolerate the Latin mass, but they do celebrate this kind of thing:
So, Catholics who openly deny Catholic teaching on sexuality have special masses to celebrate their disordered condition, but people who affirm and obey the Church’s teaching, and who wish to celebrate the mass that has been valid in the Catholic Church since the Counter Reformation, are told to shut up and go away, but keep tithing. What’s the point of that?
Skojec goes on:
The liturgy is central to the life of the faithful, but it’s hardly the only battleground where everything that once was certainly true is now subject to being declared false. The Church will implode trying to maintain Papal Supremacy and liturgical/theological integrity simultaneously.
Again, coming at this not from a theological point of view, but from the point of view of trying to understand what the leadership class of the Church, including its Supreme Legislator, is trying to do. How can this possibly be for the long-term good of the Church? From the outside, it looks as if Pope Francis and his coterie would rather see the church decline than give an inch to the Latin massgoers.
I suspect we Orthodox will see more Catholic faces in our parishes, given that the Church of Rome teaches that our priestly orders are valid, as, therefore, are our sacraments. But it is very hard for me to imagine Catholics like the ones I met in Poland ever leaving the Catholic faith. As one of them told me, Catholicism is so tightly woven into her identity, and her idea of how the world is, that she literally cannot imagine not being Catholic. She is not a Latin mass Catholic, so she’s not feeling that particular pain. But when the Pope makes all these changes, it surely leaves the faithful confused at best, and undermines trust in the Church’s authority.
I have some friends who are faithful to the Latin mass, and they are among the most devoted and prayerful Christians I know. They are in agony right now. And for what? Why is the Pope doing this to them? It’s cruel and pointless, seems to me. As far as I know, none of them are planning to leave the Catholic Church; they’re planning to wait out this papacy, and hope for better times. I wish them luck, but I would also tell Catholic friends who want to see unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches that the kinds of things Francis is doing makes that all but impossible. If there’s one thing that Orthodox Christians cannot abide, it’s monkeying around with the liturgy.
Back in the early 1990s, when I got serious about becoming Catholic, one big thing that made me consider that the Catholic Church was what it claimed to be was its doctrinal stability. I looked at Rome compared to the Protestant churches (Orthodoxy never entered my mind), and believed that the papacy was a strong guarantee against the kind of instability that was ordinary within Protestantism. Once I became a Catholic, I soon realized that the stability I expected to find within Catholicism existed more on paper than in reality, in parish life (or rather, it varied from parish to parish), but certainly the Pope was as good as gold on that front. John Paul II was the pontiff then, and like many conservative converts, I became pretty much a papolator. It was unimaginable to me then that a Pope like Francis would be possible. I knew that there were bad popes in the Church’s past (think of the Renaissance popes), but I took comfort in the belief that for all their personal corruption, they never messed with doctrine or liturgy. The most important thing any pope can do is be the guardian of the tradition. By that measure, Francis has done tremendous damage to the papacy, certainly in the hearts and minds of the kinds of Catholics who are most faithful to the papacy and to the Church’s teaching authority.
Like I said, I can’t figure this out. Twenty years ago, I asked a Catholic priest friend how on earth so many bishops could have turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse by priests. My friend said, “Because they don’t believe in God.”
Wait, I said, really?
Yes, he replied, really. No bishop who really believes in God would have done what they did. It is incomprehensible. They believe in the Church, maybe, and in themselves and their privileges … but not God.
About Francis, maybe he believes in God, but he sure doesn’t seem to believe in the Catholic Church, except as a vehicle for progressive social change. It’s like the Holy Father is killing his offspring. Am I overreacting? If you can’t comment here, email me your remarks at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com. Put COMMENT in the subject line. I’ll post the most insightful ones.
UPDATE: Just saw this from Skojec. Arlington chancery dudes cannot read the room:
UPDATE.2: Comments, we got comments:
It’s interesting that the most vigorous religions are the least bureaucratic – evangelical Christianity, and fundamentalist Islam. Political institutions that are bureaucratic, too, are inevitably sclerotic and doomed to decline and eventual failure. History has no exceptions to this whatsoever. God truly seems to hate bureaucracy. And humans never quit it! That habit is a major piece of the cyclical nature of history. The Tower of Babel, to me, is something of an allegory of bureaucracy, and human pretensions and institutions generally.
I looked up stats from Bergoglio’s old dominions in Argentina. Evangelicalism was barely a blip 20 years ago. Now, given stats on Catholicism and Evangelicalism, and attendance rates, there are barely more practicing Catholics than practicing Evangelicals, and in Brazil next door it has already flipped. The rest of the region is in the same boat.
Of course bureaucrats are atheists. They don’t need God. They are god. They’ve got their own labyrinth of rules and justifications, everything “thought out” and systematized, their word is law. God is mysterious – they are pervasive, all powerful, cruel, life and death, before them only chaos, after them does not exist – they are the self-declared gods of this world.
“I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
-Genghis Khan, man who destroyed many bureaucracy
I am also at a loss over this.
I left the church years ago due to the pedophilia. I miss her but I cannot abide it.
Years ago I heard a conspiracy theory about a Luciferian ceremony that supposedly took place in the Vatican in 1962. I thought that was as likely as UFO abduction or Bigfoot.
The Priests and Bishops are not Catholic anymore. Almost every priest I meet nowadays is gay. They do not believe in God. The Church is done.
The Sedevacanist crowd (which I always thought was crazy) does not look so crazy now.
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A Catholic priest writes:
To my knowledge the Catholic Church teaches nothing particular about the stable witness of the visible structure of the Church, her clergy and laity, or the preaching of her pastors other than to reiterate the Lord’s promise that the Gates of Hell shall not prevail. That belief is expressed in her teaching that there will continue to be faithful Catholics (or I suppose at least one) until Christ returns who continue(s) holding the apostolic Gospel handed down in the Church and infallibly affirmed by Ecumenical Councils and by Popes speaking ex cathedra. (Those two forms of infallible affirmation are rare events and take place under rather strict conditions.)
There have been times when false councils gathered and when two or three men claimed to be Pope at the same time. In those days there was no mass communication and it was hard to get reliable information about events. Even today it would be difficult or impossible for people to sort out in real time what was happening. Such confusion often arose even under good popes and bishops when heresy spread and before Councils met to resolve the crisis.
There simply are times in history, especially in periods of moral confusion, that Catholics–like all Christians–must remain faithful to the Gospel in the face of opposition within the life of the Church just as they would when facing opposition from the world.
Catholics, of course, can have recourse to the life and faith witnessed down the ages. That is admittedly cold comfort in the midst of spreading infidelity. Yet it saves Catholics from any obligation to set aside the faith because a priest, bishop, or Pope says otherwise.
Naturally, if a Pope or the bishops were to claim to infallibly affirm the Gospel while contradicting it, a Catholic would have no alternative but to question whether those prelates were impostors acting invalidly, whether he himself had misunderstood the Gospel or the new “affirmation,” or whether the Catholic Church was what it claimed to be.
Jesus never promised we’d avoid these sorts of trouble. In fact he warned about division, false teachers, and apostasy. Many Catholics have yet to recognize that fact and its implication for their unfortunately overly rosy view of the nature of the Church, her witness, and the infallibility of her teaching office.
Catholics, like most Christians, would wish not to live in such times. Yet these are our times, times in which God continues providentially arranging all things for our good. For our part, we must trust in him, keep watch, suffer, witness, and pray.