Without dirt, blood, fear, cold, or romance, the “princes of the Church” will be ignorant of real life, men, and tradition.
Experience is everything, the saying goes. Well, almost everything. The difficult thing is how many spiritual directors and pastors have to give directions on things of which they often know very little, most of all marriage and family life. As Hubert van Zeller notes (in We Sing While There’s Voice Left), “neither books nor sermons, nor even the force of other people’s lives, can do service for personal experience.”
Even if it isn’t a particular “sting of the flesh to distress us,” then “it is simply the unfolding of life which does the work of wearing down our self-sufficiency” and gives a man the experience he needs to live wisely and advise others how to do so also. It is not so much his knowledge of theology (indispensable though that is) as the sense that a priest has “endured the same temptations” which gives a penitent confidence in his help, van Zeller recognizes.
I’ve recently wondered: How “worn down” by experience was Paul VI? In his whole career, he was never a simple parish priest. He was born into a comfortable family, surrounded by affluence and fine literature. He mused upon and hung out with the intellectuals of his day, but for “poor health” he was excused from the requirement of attending the diocesan seminary and was ordained without having done a normal preparation. What sort of father and husband would he have made? If you balk at the idea (as I do) of having him for a father or husband, then how might we feel about him being the pastor of the universal Church? Apply this principle to any pastor of souls.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I have to wonder how different the course of the past seventy years in the Church would have been if key prelates and priests of the 1950s onward had been married men. To be clear, I’m not advocating a married clergy. I’m simply wondering at how incredibly cut off from reality they were to have “drunk the Kool-aid” of the hippie era, and I’m wondering what might have been able to bring them back into contact with “the real.”
The ever-curmudgeonly Hilaire Belloc, in The Cruise of the “Nona,” has some choice words for modern Scripture scholars which come to mind here. I apply the Englishman’s words to historic figures like Paul VI, Schillebeeckx, or Küng, and to our contemporaries like Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper, or James Martin:
Make them come out with their proofs: accuse them roundly of humbug. Laugh at their provincial rejection of the marvelous. Unmercifully ridicule their lack of proportion; their ignorance of the human mind; their failure to taste tradition. Rattle them. Believe me, in battle you must be fierce. The louder the victim’s cries the nearer you are to victory.
“Their ignorance of the human mind” and “their failure to taste tradition” particularly strike me. One of the secrets of Catholicism is its preference for the “real,” its love for and elevation of the natural, which it seeks to purify but never to erase. To the extent that grace builds on nature, then, our understanding of grace will depend on our understanding of nature. Dirt, blood, fear, cold, romance: these are the building blocks of a realistic and intelligent account of the world. Without them, few things make sense, from maniples to monogamy.
For well over a hundred years, materialism and subjectivism have alienated men from the reality of creation. This was one of John Senior’s primary insights. Digital technology is a unique catalyst in this process, as the Internet, movies, and video games give the mind an environment entirely free from the constraints of “the real” in which to “create,” by simple fiat, a “reality”—albeit virtual, which literally means “not physically existing but made to appear such.” When things “exist” in the pixels of a phone, or arguments untethered by coherent first principles, then unrealities become plausible. When sexuality is “released” from procreation by the pill, the unreality of “free love” becomes plausible. In this sense, clerics have been succumbing to alienation from the real since at least the ’50s and ’60s, as much as anyone else has.
As “princes of the Church” bustle about, busily undermining the faithful’s confidence in matters as basic as the existence of objective truth and evil, the indissolubility of marriage, or the normativity of two God-given sexes, one wonders if this “indescribable silliness” (to use a phrase from John Senior) would be possible for most men possessed of the following simple experiences:
1. An honest day’s work with his hands
Bruise your thumb laying rocks, get some concrete in your eye as you mix it, almost cut off your finger cutting a plank—and maybe you’ll learn the principle of noncontradiction and respond succinctly and correctly to a few dubia.
2. Camping under the stars
There are no woke slogans to answer the problems of our existence when the world is wrapped in darkness and you in your sleeping bag. The immense sky presses upon you, releasing praise from your soul, impossibly great. Answers are simplest, as old as the hills, and the mystery of the world cannot be forgotten when you are cold with dew and pink dawn creeps across the hills.
3. Hunting, and subsequent gutting of game
Perhaps the only way it will be brought home to you that life is significant, finite, and messy rather than synodal, prepackaged, and tidy is if you try to stalk, kill, and cleanly gut an animal, getting blood, slime, and poop all over you.
4. An accident
Few things ground one like accidents—being thrown from a horse, say, or getting in a car crash. Thankfully, I’ve only experienced the former. The afterlife—rather than polls or popularity—will regain importance if you dabble in possibly life-threatening accidents.
5. Experience of a woman’s deep love
Once you experience a woman’s trust and love, how could you ever supinely accept the defacement of their dignity by shack-up selfishness or the family-crushing sin of divorce? Or cover up the systematic abuse of them by perverts like Rupnik? Have you forgotten that they are real people? That they don’t need to be “empowered” or ordained but given the space to be their feminine, mothering selves?
6. Deep and faithful love for that same woman
Maybe when you’ve discovered that you have mysterious desires to protect and provide for her, you might realize that there are things in the human heart that must be expressed in traditional ritual: that the deepest places of the heart are filled with the need for symbolism. And if you’re ever pure enough to be in awe of her, perhaps you’ll begin to reverence the Eucharist too, recognizing that holy bodies are not lightly touched.
7. Changing diapers and other parenting experiences
You might realize that the future of these precious and dependent little human beings, with all their awkward, basic, and urgent needs, cannot just be left up to committees. You might realize that life is fragile and that letting people experimentally stomp around with the hobnailed boots of “free love” has consequences: like bloody fetuses on bathroom floors, fear in innocent eyes, and irreparably damaged trust.
Alas, too many of the intelligentsia walking the halls of the Vatican have never even had a single one of these experiences, let alone a bunch of them. Again, I’m not advocating for a married clergy leading the life of peasants. There are very good reasons for celibacy, education, and higher culture (as long as it really is higher culture). But, my word, it would solve most of our headaches if experiences like these could be more widespread—and if some of them, at least, could be seen as requisite for anyone who is to be a candidate for priesthood or religious life. People who taste reality up close, besides finally getting why the natural law makes any sense and how revelation builds on it, will have too many headaches of their own to go around causing them in others. People who taste reality up close, besides finally getting why the natural law makes any sense and how revelation builds on it, will have too many headaches of their own to go around causing them in others.Tweet This
Belloc writes, “There is a time to see why someone thought a certain course of action was justified or advisable, how they could not have seen the reasons for its failure except in hindsight. And there is a time to simply call people idiots.”
Yes, there is a time to see the admixture of truth in error. And there is a time to return to the sources of truth—not the only sources of truth, but indispensable ones—a time, as I say, to pause in the dawn, fry your fish, straighten your stiff back, kiss your woman’s cheek, and stop your toddler from running into the road. And there is a time to accuse roundly of humbug anyone who tries to teach about or rule over men, women, the world, the Church, or anything else without taking such things into account.