The Roots and Fruit of Ecclesial Idolatry

In this present crisis in the Church, with more and more revelations of a “sodomitic filth that insinuates itself like a cancer in the ecclesiastical order” (St. Peter Damian), and the subsequent cover-ups and payoffs, the Body of Christ is pierced again with new thorns and nails, and the Mother of God is pierced again in seeing her Son’s sufferings. In bringing some good out of all the depravity, the thoughts of the hearts of many are being revealed (Lk. 2:35).

The apostle Paul certainly saw the redemptive side of scandal and division: “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (I Cor. 11:19). At least the laity, operating as Mary’s Heel, can say to a prelate like Cardinal Blase Cupich or a priest like James Martin, “We know who you are, and we know that you know that we know.”

In a recent essay in this magazine, I explored how the four primary idols (wealth, pleasure, power, and honor) that Aquinas identified were on full display in the American Catholic Church. And that’s just the problem: instead of being the Catholic Church in America, we have become the American Catholic Church. The Church and the culture in many precincts have become indistinguishable.

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St. Ambrose gave a special place to the Idol of Honor: “Ambition often makes criminals of those whom no vice would delight, whom no lust could move, whom no avarice could deceive.” He was undoubtedly echoing the words of the apostle James three centuries earlier: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16; emphasis added).

All of this can be traced back—long before Ambrose and James, and even before the creation of the world—to when Satan led his rebellion against the reign of God (see Is. 14:13: “I will ascend…”). This was then passed on to the human species when he seduced our original parents: “You shall be like gods…”

You can have honor without power and power without honor but the two usually work together, like brothers who have different DNA but all their genetic material in common. Pulling the right levers of ecclesial power preserves one’s honor and once honor has been secured and/or augmented, power is reinforced and expanded.

Francis: The Dictator Pope
Such practices are writ large in the Francis papacy and have become his stock-in-trade. The Holy See told Cardinal Gerhard Müller to stop investigating British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who was alleged to have sexually abused a girl when she was 13 or 14 years old. Murphy-O’Connor, a member of the infamous “St. Gallen Mafia,” played a major role in getting Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio elected pope in 2013.

Raymond Arroyo on World Over on EWTN recently cited Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti, who reported that Francis, through his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, quietly told American bishops not to invite Cardinal Raymond Burke to speak at their dioceses. Burke should be used to such maltreatment by now after the pontiff removed him from both the Vatican Supreme Court and the influential Congregation for Bishops.

It was also reported by Tosatti that Athanasius Schneider, the auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, has been ordered not to travel outside his native country without first talking to Francis. With such muzzling tactics, the Holy See defends its honor and power with a ferocity like Athanasius of Alexandria defending the doctrine of the divinity of Christ in the fourth century.

In recent months, many orthodox Catholics have found themselves saying these words out loud: “We have a bad Pope; he cannot be deposed; we must pray he resigns.” Instead of “Houston, we have a problem,” it’s “Rome, we have a problem.”

The Roots and Fruit of Ecclesial Idolatry
As someone who served in different leadership positions for several years in both evangelical and evangelical-charismatic circles, the revelations of homosexual predation in 2018 and subsequent cover-ups took me aback. However, in looking at the power plays and selfish ambition, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before.

Often, but not always, the clergy comes into their leadership roles with unmet emotional needs. Perhaps they were in a dysfunctional family and their need for love, acceptance, and belonging was not fulfilled.

They then look to their vocation, local church, or episcopate to meet these needs. An idolatry develops: they’re not there to serve the people; the people and all the ecclesial machinery are there to serve them.

Their ministry, rather than being a healthy resource that feeds their soul and spirit as they imitate Christ’s Passion of self-donation, becomes a Source often akin to a Deity. The Idols of Power and Honor are difficult to placate, and, such an endeavor results in many of the works of the flesh that Paul identifies: enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, and envy (Gal. 5:20).

In shepherding the sheep, there should be care and concern without control. Unfortunately, in one organization I was involved with for over eight years, control became the operative word.

In feeding the Idols of Power and Honor, the sheep must be controlled to keep the clergy happy. Such spiritual abuse, in my pre-Catholic days, was hidden behind words like “accountability,” “shepherding,” and “making disciples.” There was a particular young man I knew who was rebuked by his pastor for not telling the pastor that he had made plane reservations in order to fly out of state to visit his fiancée and her parents during the holiday season.

His plans had no negative impact on the life of the local church. That young man was me.

In like fashion, Francis must control the comings and goings of Burke and Schneider to prevent the “mutiny” that he sees brewing that is threatening his power base. He must oust, demote, and marginalize those prelates and priests who defend the sacred deposit of the faith while promoting prelates like Blase Cupich who support his “revolution.”

This is how Group Think develops in ecclesial structures. Often those who lie prostrate before the gods of honor and power discern in which direction the power elite is moving and align themselves with that elite while the true believers, who have been acolytes of Francis from the beginning, just do what comes naturally.

The Idols of Honor and Power transform shepherds who should be tenderly caring for their flock, whether in a local parish or an episcopate, into politicians who must calculate each move with Machiavellian expediency. In a religion as large as Catholicism, it creates fertile soil for the “Bishop Bureaucrat” who knows all the rules and how to work the levers of power and depends on a large contingent of “professional Catholics” to carry out his wishes. Benedict XVI described these professionals as people “who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops.”

Prevaricating Priests and Prelates
The fervent devotion to the Idols of Honor and Power is reflected in recent bald-faced lies and gaslighting. The more desperate you are to defend your power and prestige, the more patently false statements you will make.

The priests and prelates sometimes remind me of a title from a Judge Judy book: Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining. We’re told by Cupich (over and over), Francis, and Martin that the real problem is “clericalism” when a recent landmark study (and the John Jay Report) by Father Paul Sullins, a retired Catholic University of America sociology professor, refutes that thesis: “The data show that more homosexual men in the priesthood were correlated with more overall abuse and more boys abused compared to girls.”

Prevaricating prelates include Bishop Richard Malone of the diocese of Buffalo, who, in response to a whistleblower’s claim on 60 Minutes, said he had no knowledge of any priests serving in ministry who are facing allegations of sex abuse. The truth is that Fr. Dennis Riter, who is currently pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Dunkirk, New York, is facing multiple credible allegations of child sex abuse.

In response to the findings of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said that “I think that I did everything that I possibly could,” and added that the report “confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro asserted that Wuerl “is not telling the truth.”

Life Site News reports: “A review of the approximately 300 cases cited in grand jury report reveals several examples of Wuerl mishandling of priests who committed sexual abuse; sending them back to parish work after completing time in counseling centers; failure to report sexual abuse by priests to the authorities; and rendering only ‘minimal cooperation’ when he did work with the police.”

Where are the Sons of Athanasius?
In this ocean of mendacity, many in the laity are disappointed with the prelates: “Where is the hue and cry; where are the ‘good bishops’; and where are the sons of Athanasius? Where are the Howard Beales [Peter Finch] from the movie Network: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’?”

We must remember that Athanasius was a minority of a minority. First he was in a minority of bishops who did not get seduced by the Arian heresy, and then he was in the minority within that contingent who raised a hue and cry.

Good men are not hard to find but good men with courage are rare. Fortitude is not the defining mark of the human species.

Ancient Hebrew wisdom tells us that the fear of man is a snare (Prov. 29:25), and no doubt many bishops don’t relish the idea of becoming a pariah, especially with the pontiff’s history of ousting, demoting, and marginalizing those who don’t conform to his agenda. Consequences can be severe: remember that both Archbishop Viganò and Fr. Kalchik are in hiding.

Mary’s Heel is therefore likely to be made up of a minority of a minority of priests and prelates–good men who are also courageous–and the laity. This is the way it often goes: Athanasius was not in fashion, Elijah was part of a small minority, and while everyone bowed to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, only three—Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego—refused to worship it.

Along with possessing the cardinal virtue of fortitude, I also think that the sons of Athanasius will be deeply rooted in the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. The fear of man is a snare but “perfect love casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18).

Spouses who love each other are willing to lay down their lives for each other; parents charge into burning buildings to save their kids. Bishops who love Christ and his Church will be fearless in proclaiming the truth and becoming persona non grata will be a small price to pay for serving their King.

Lao Tzu was correct in saying, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

The sons of Athanasius will have supernatural faith. They will truly reverence God and believe that they must someday give an account before the judgment seat of Christ for their decisions in this life. The desire for honor and power will be trumped by the fear of hell fire and by the hope of hearing, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.”

They will live life in the light of eternity. Power and prestige will be regarded as dung in comparison to intimacy with Christ.

Their hope will be in a heavenly reward rather than the ephemeral rewards of a corrupt ecclesial order. They won’t sell their soul for the red hat, and if asked the question, “Could you be happy if all you had was food, raiment, a roof over your head, and the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?,” they would answer with a resounding “Yes!”


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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