On Sunday, Jan. 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII proclaimed that it was time to drag the church out of the Dark Ages and into the modern world. It was time, he said, to open the stained-glass windows and let in some fresh air. Shortly thereafter he convened the Council of Vatican II to implement his “Aggiornamento”. Unfortunately, this “bringing up to date” of the Church’s practices and structures quickly took on a life of its own when it lost its tether to ressourcement (i.e. a return to the sources of tradition) and became a vehicle for constant experimentation and change. Eleven years later, in his famous speech of June 30, 1972 Pope Paul VI shocked the Catholic world by stating that he sensed “the smoke of Satan”was within the Church.” It was believed”, the pope said, “that after the Council of Vatican II a sunny day in the Church’s history would dawn, but instead there came a day of clouds, storms and darkness.” That day of infamy continues to dawn inside the Church with increased intensity. Catholics today in large measure feel lost, confused, perplexed and disappointed. Ideas opposed to the truth are being scattered abroad in abundance. Heresies, in the full and proper sense of the word, have been spread in the area of dogmas and morals, creating doubts, confusions and rebellions. The root cause of this chaos is Modernism which has affected almost every area of church life. One area especially effected is the priesthood and religious life.
The crisis of the priesthood, which has seen mass defections, corruption, and a steady decline in priestly vocations since Vatican II, is principally spiritual in nature and can be traced to the church’s excessive desire to conform to the world’s way of thinking. On a purely religious level, there is an impoverished understanding of freedom which prevents one from joining his free will absolutely to something absolute. On a supernatural level there is a failure in faith, that is, doubt about the existence of the absolute to which a priest dedicates himself.
After the Great Council, the church began relaxing canonical discipline allowing post-conciliar priests a wider authority to invest their own private opinions. This enabled priests to publish books without prior approval from their bishops, issue statements, hold protest meetings, speak on radio, television and the internet, go onto the streets to demonstrate against papal decrees, mix with non-Catholics and take full part in their meetings. They can, as it were, now preach their own ephemeral and transient opinions as if they were the message of the Gospel and the doctrine of the Church. Even Pope Benedict XVI has stated in the forward to his book Jesus of Nazareth: “Everyone is free to contradict me” suggesting that everyone’s subjective opinion of Christ is worthy of being advanced today.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Then too there is the post Vatican II tendency to dissolve the sacramental priesthood into the priesthood of the faithful and thus reduce the priest to the same level as all Christians. Speaking to the Roman clergy in February 1978, Pope Paul VI lamented this “mania for laicization” which has “undone the traditional image of the priesthood [and] removed from some men’s hearts the sacred reverence due to their own persons”. Pope Benedict XVI also bewailed what he called the “secularization of clergy and the ‘clericalization’ of the laity.” The two Roman Pontiff’’s were not just speaking about a false sense of equality and a denial of the church’s hierarchical structure, but about a new kind of corruption which consists in a refusal to acknowledge the nature of things. This trivialization of the commitment involved in being a priest, robs the priesthood of the air of totality and permanence that appeals to the noblest part of human nature, by persevering through trial and hardship.
The new theology revives old heretical doctrines, which came together to produce the Lutheran abolition of the priesthood. Obvious practical consequences flow from this error. Manual work and utilitarian productivity is placed above contemplation and suffering. Being a man like all others, the priest will now demand the right to marry, dress as he wishes and take an active part in social and political struggles; so too he will join revolutionary struggles that look upon a brother as an enemy to struggle against, unjust though this be. But it was the regular clergy, those more separated from the world, the men in the cloisters, who exercised not only the most powerful religious but the most powerful civil effects in the world around. They shaped civilization for centuries, even gave birth to it, since they were the ones who produced the structures of culture, and of social life, from agriculture to poetry, from architecture to philosophy, from music to theology.
Today people want real priests. They do not want a sociological priest with a theory about the evils of society, they do not want a relativistic priest who sees no evil in anything, they do not want a politicized priest so busy organizing revolution that he has no time to see them. They want a priest to tell them about Jesus Christ. In place of the promises of Christ, we have been given belief in something called “community,” where we can make up our own religion, share our memorial meal, forgive one another, answer each other’s prayers, get our reward from the State and live for today not eternity.
The biblical account of miracles is too often relegated from pulpits to a first century propensity for myth-making. Yet people go to church looking for miracles. Their job is on the line. Creditors may foreclose. A daughter is shacked up with a punk. They want miracles. The churches are filled today at the noon hour Masses with young men and women, heads bowed low over the back of the pew in front, transfixed, praying hard for a reprieve from sickness or death. These are humble people not at all unlike the disciples who followed Jesus around Galilee. This is the laity many of our priests and bishops have abandoned. Too many priests today have listened to theologians and are somewhat ashamed of the promises of Christ.
Today the church has been invaded by people who have very little interest in religion, but who regard it simply as a means to get ahead. If you are the mainstay of the Parish Council, or the head of the Liturgy Committee, or Director of the Building Committee, you can have your way though you may not know your way around the Bible, or the Sacramentary, or the Anointing of the Sick.
This is where I miss the days when the priest was the power behind the parish and when you knew what to expect and you got it, or you simply went away.
While we continuously hear about the present day priest shortage, few seem aware that all religious communities, great and small, male and female, contemplative, active or mixed, if not strictly decimated, have been reduced to a fraction of their former selves in the course of the past fifty years. The cause of the decay has been a false reform and the distorting of the evangelical councils by taking them as a psychological and sociological outlook rather than as a special state of life structured in accordance with the counsel Christ gives in the Gospels. True renewal means an adaptation of external activities with a view to a more effective pursuit of holiness. It is begotten by a disgust with weakening of discipline and by a desire for a life that is more spiritual, more prayerful and more austere. Post conciliar reform tends to move from the difficult to the easy or less difficult rather than from the easy to the difficult or more difficult. Today, a religious order questions itself, confronts experiences, demand creativity, searches for a new identity (which implies that it is becoming something other than itself), moves toward building “true communities” (as if for centuries past religious orders had consisted entirely of false communities).
Ultimately the crisis among religious is the result of an excessive conforming to the world, and a taking up of the world’s positions because one has despaired of winning the world over to one’s own. A by no means small or unimportant sign of this alienation is the change in the dress of members of religious orders, inspired by a wish that it should no longer differ from that of secular persons.
This drift in reform of religious life today is parallel to the one governing the reform of the priesthood. On the one hand there is the obfuscation of the difference between the sacramental priesthood and the priesthood of all believers; and on the other, of the difference between a state of perfection and the common state. What is specific to religious life is washed out or watered down in thought and behaviour. Take for example, the three evangelical councels (chastity, poverty, obedience) that are essential to religious life. Today, there is a certain distaste for chastity. A certain decline in delicacy and care are obvious not only in the widespread slackness in clerical dress, but in the more frequent mixing of the sexes, even on journeys, and in the abandonment of the precautions adopted even by great and holy men. In regards to poverty there is a habitual and at times uncontrollable use of such technology as the television and internet. Of all the councels, obedience is the one where the drift towards relaxation in religious orders shows itself most clearly. The concept of obedience has been lowered by lowering the principle of authority and mixing it up with a kind of fraternal relationship by means of a fruitful dialogue. True Catholic obedience, however, implies submission to the will of the superior – so long as the command is not manifestly illicit – and not a re-examination of the superior’s command by the one obeying. Catholic obedience does not seek a coinciding of the wills of subject and superiors.
In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI issued a resounding call for reform in the Catholic church. He lamented “How much filth there is in the church, and even among those … in the priesthood.” In May, 2010 he reiterated this plea stating: “Today we see in a really terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from the sin in the church,” These exhortations were widely interpreted as references to the sex- abuse scandal affecting the church’s standing in North America and other parts of the world. However, the Pope’’s comments were also directed more widely to the phenomenon of modernism that is poisoning the church at its core – the result of decades of liberal exegetical, theological, and “pastoral” creativity in the name of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council. One of the key areas where modernism has been allowed to take root, fester and spread has been the priesthood. Unless the priesthood is revisited with a profound desire to restore true Catholic identity, the Church will fail to recover that honored credibility and vibrancy it experienced before Vatican II.
Thankfully, there remain good priests and Religious who – though forced underground by the event since Vatican II – have never given up the vision of the Eternal Church and have passed this on to younger priests and Religious, who in scattered places preserve the Apostolic faith, much as the monks did on their lonely islands during the Dark Ages. It is with this hope that the church will again be revitalized and become once more a vehicle for re-Christianizing a world so desperately in need.