Published on Settimo Cieli by Sandro Magister.
To the Root of Today’s Church Crises
by Serafino M. Lanzetta October 2018
Fr. Lanzetta is parish priest of St. Mary’s, Gosport.
Holy Mother Church is facing a crisis unprecedented in her entire history. Abuses of all kinds, especially in the sexual sphere, have always existed among the clergy. The current epidemic, however, is atypical for the intersection of a moral crisis and a doctrinal one, whose roots are deeper than the simple misbehaviour of some members of the hierarchy and clergy. We must scratch beyond the surface and delve deeper. Doctrinal confusion begets moral disorder, and vice versa; sexual abuses have prospered now for so many years under the cover of complacency, to such an extent that they have turned silently the doctrine of sexual morality into an anachronistic story.
Without doubt, as Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, UK, said, this crisis exists on three levels: “first, the alleged catalogue of sins and crimes against the young by members of the clergy; secondly, the homosexual circles centred around Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, but present in other areas across the Church, too; and then, thirdly, the mishandling and cover-up of all this by the hierarchy up to the highest circles.”
How far have we to go to identify the roots of this crisis? We can consider, among other things, essentially two moral causes as the main root. One is remotely linked with this today’s problem afflicting the Church, the other proximately.
The first cause can be pinpointed in the opposition within the Church to the encyclical “Humanae vitae.” By objecting to the indissoluble covenant between the unitive and procreative principles of marriage, the way was paved for tolerating any other form of union and to justify it in the name of love. Love had to be put before and above the fixity of nature. Contraception would be held as a legitimate moral means by which to safeguard the priority of man’s responsibility over God’s natural and divine law. Actually, the scenario that unfolded was quite different.
In fact, if procreation was no longer the first and highest blessing of marriage, it was not only to be split from love, but, conversely, love had to be split from procreation, up to justifying procreation without union as the logical conclusion of a love without procreation. A sterile love, isolated from its natural and sacramental context, was forcefully pushed onto society and the Church.
The identity of love is at stake. As recently pointed out by Bishop Kevin Doran, the chair of the Irish Bishops’ Committee for Bioethics, there is a “direct connection between the ‘contraceptive mentality’ and the surprisingly high number of people who seem ready to redefine marriage today as a relationship between two people without distinction as to sex.” He added also that if the act of love can be separated from its procreative purpose, “then it is also pretty difficult to explain why marriage needs to be between a man and a woman.”
Today’s crisis in the Church is on the one hand the manifestation of a sexual identity crisis, an ideological rebellion against a Magisterium anchored in a perennial moral tradition; and on the other, the incapacity to address the real problem, namely, homosexuality and homosexual circles among the clergy. More than 80% of known sexual abuses committed by clergy are not in fact cases of paedophilia, but of pederasty. The conviction that any form of love is to be accepted has become more commonplace as a consequence of lifting the ban on contraception, even without changing dogmatic formulas. The very essence of Modernism consists in changing the theory with the praxis, by letting people become used to customs accepted by the majority.
“Humanae vitae” became the object of an unprecedented protest arising from within the Church. A book entitled “The Schism of ’68” describes among others how Catholics were campaigning for a sexual aggiornamento. “Aggiornamento” was one of the keys to unlock Vatican II and its documents.
Cardinals, bishops and episcopates took an active role in this rebellion. The primate of Belgium, Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, after the publication of the encyclical, managed to make the whole Belgian Episcopate publish a declaration in opposition to “Humanae vitae,” supposedly in the name of freedom of conscience. This declaration, together with the one formulated by the German Episcopate, served as a template for the protests of other episcopates. Cardinal John C. Heenan of Westminster described the release of Pope Giovanni Battista Montini’s encyclical on the transmission of life as “the greatest shock since the Reformation.” Cardinal Bernard Alfrink, together with nine other Dutch bishops, even voted in favour of the Independence Declaration, which invited the people of God to reject the ban on contraception.
In England more than 50 priests had drawn up a letter of protest, published in “The Times of London.” Among these priests was also Michael Winter, who described his decision the leave the priesthood as “sparked by the crisis over ‘Humanae vitae’.” Winter later got married, and in 1985 authored “Whatever happened to Vatican II?”, in order to resurrect the Council’s teaching from what he perceived as its burial by the authorities in Rome. Perhaps he was convinced that the root of contraception, perceived as the supremacy of love, was to be found in Vatican II’s teaching. Winter is also the founder member of the Movement for a Married Clergy. What is truly astonishing – Winter is not the only case – from the point of view of the clergy, is the drama they lived when, in their words, the burden of the ban on contraception was laid on the shoulders of lay people. How could they really understand – if it was so – such a pain?
However, there is another point to make here: if an “official” protest against “Humanae vitae,” led by Cardinals and Bishops, was deemed legitimate by its harmony with the ideology of the moment – let’s not forget that in those years the ’68 movement was intent on subverting Christian morality in the name of free sex – then it is hard to see why an “official” mentality that justifies homosexuality within the clergy, as well as all kinds of sexual unions, could not also take over and one day become even the majority view. The cover-up culture, which today seems so pervasive among episcopacies and the clergy, spreads initially from here.
“If the matter is before the bar of conscience,” as Tom Burns commented in “The Tablet” on 3 August 1968 (the same editorial has just been republished on 28 July 2018), there can always be a conscience that rejects the bar as such. A conscience with no prior enlightenment by the truth is like a ship buffeted by the sea. It capsizes. ‘Conscience alone’ – that is, ‘conscience’ without the truth – is no conscience at all. It has to be educated to pursue good and reject evil.
It is no mystery that those working to finally bury “Humanae vitae” now rejoice at the promulgation of “Amoris laetitia,” as if some gap of love in the Church’s teaching has finally been filled. Today’s theological attempt is to overcome “Humanae vitae” with “Amoris laetitia” in such a way that this most recent teaching of Pope Francis on love in the family is tied directly with “Gaudium et spes,” with no reference at all to “Humanae vitae” and “Casti Connubii.” The temptation to isolate Vatican II from the whole Tradition of the Church is still strong. As with ‘conscience alone’, so it is with a single document of the Magisterium (either “Gaudium et spes” or “Amoris laetitia”); no document can be read in the light of itself, but only in light of the whole Tradition of the Church.
After a very vocal rebellion, the silence on the doctrine began. And so we come to the proximate root of this scandal: the cover-up of the doctrine of sin. The word “sin” began almost to disappear from preaching in the aftermath of Vatican II. Sin – as a separation from God and an offense against Him, as a turning away from God and a fixation on creatures – was ignored. The extraordinary gap left by the doctrine of sin was now filled with psychological assessments of a multifaceted condition of weakness in man. Spiritual theology was replaced with the reading of Freud and Jung, the true masters in many seminaries. Sin became irrelevant, while self-esteem and the overcoming of all taboo, especially in the sexual sphere, were the new ecclesial passwords.
On the other hand, a new theology of mercy, especially the one promoted by Cardinal Kasper, has helped to reframe God’s mercy as an intrinsic attribute of his divine essence (if this is so, is there a divine forgiveness of God with Himself, since mercy requires repentance and forgiveness?) so as to overcome the punishment of justice by turning it into an always-forgiving love. In this new definition, does the eternal punishment in hell play any role? Mercy has become a theological surrogate to cover (up) sin, to ignore it, and to take it under the mantle of forgiveness. Luther’s idea about justification is not far from this.
It would be interesting to ask those among the clergy who commit such horrible crimes what they think of sin. The Scriptural teaching from St Paul: “…they that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences” (Gal 5:24), might easily appear old-fashion morality, not because the Scripture is wrong or not inspired by the Holy Spirit, but simply because to propose such a teaching to our modern society would merely be anachronistic, outmoded. The spirit of the world – often mixed with a supposed “spirit of the Council” – has been allowed to suffocate the true doctrine of faith and morals.
Is clericalism also the root of the present sexual abuse crisis? Pope Francis repeatedly said so. Certainly, clerical power is wielded in the sexual enslavement of seminarians and men in formation. But it is very difficult to understand how clericalism can explain the predation of generations of seminarians if homosexuality plays no role at all. It would be like saying that a drinker is always drunk not because he has an addiction to drink, but because he has money and can buy all alcohol he likes.
Clericalism cannot be the only answer, also because there is another form of it – more subtle, but often ignored – that is far worse: to make use of one’s clerical power to pervert good doctrine. The clergy easily feels itself to be the owners of the Gospel, taking licenses to dispense from the precepts of God and the Church according to the fashion-theology of the moment. When one ceases to hold to the right doctrine of the Church, one can easily fall into the pit of self-amusement and sin. Conversely, a life of sin without God’s sanctifying grace is the best ally to manipulate the doctrine. Doctrine of faith and the moral life go always together.
To sum up: the very root of this grievous scandal laid open is Modernism, which today has already become a post-Modernism. From favouring the change of dogmatic formulas with the flow of time, we have graduated to completely ignoring them. Doctrine is safe as an important book on a very dusty bookshelf, but has no word to say to the pulse of our daily life.
There must be no doubt about the vastness of this crisis and the necessity of taking action to root out the present evil. But this drastic action, that we hope might soon be at work, will be far from effective if we do not turn back first to the truth of love, wisely understanding that a contraceptive mentality has brought about only a very rigid demographic winter with a culture of death. Contraception is sterile love that opens up the possibility of a love outside its context, beyond itself, immature. A dead love now threatens the Church with its visible repercussions in sexual abuses and clerical scandals. The mentality of the world has violently impacted the life of the Church.
Finally, we should go back to calling things by their name. Sin is still sin. If we do not have the strength to do that, it is already a sign that sin has prevailed. If we do call sin by its name, then the way is paved instead for rooting it out.