Doubt

5 06 2021

Steve Skojec of the Catholic traditionalist website, OnePeterFive, wrote a post on his personal blog entitled Against Crippled Religion about his struggles and difficulties with the current state of the Church. Skojec like most Catholic traditionalists has had a difficult time in the last eight years or so. That is because Pope Francis, who I have argued elsewhere is the embodiment of the actual zeitgeist of the Catholic Church, has done much to bring consternation to those of more conservative ecclesiastical opinions. For example, he has raised the possibility of bringing divorced Catholics back to the Holy Communion table without the requisite annulment paperwork, he has thawed Catholic attitudes toward LGBT people, and he has presented a much more “Low Church” veneer to the world. People like Skojec consider such a neo-aggiornamento an abandonment of spiritual duty by Church authority akin to parental neglect. What is a more personal catalyst for Skojec’s piece is the betrayal he has felt from the supposed “good guys” like the Fraternity of St. Peter priest who is refusing to give his children the sacraments due to their stricter observance of COVID-19 social distancing protocols. While I won’t take sides in that personal conflict, it is compelling in the context of Skojec’s other story of feeling betrayed as a youth by the Legionaries of Christ, another conservative religious order.

There are a number disjointed points that I would like to make about Skojec’s essay and situation. It is most appropriate to start with the personal and say that I can’t imagine having to fight with a priest to get my children the sacraments they are entitled to, and that sting is something I can acutely feel. I too have felt trampled on by clergy and spiritual fathers who should have had my back but didn’t. I’d be lying if I said that I am completely over it, or that I ever will be in this lifetime. Regarding more theoretical matters, I found this to be an interesting intervention:

But during that time, I have gradually come to realize that if the post-conciliar Church I grew up in isn’t really Catholicism, traditionalism isn’t either. Instead, it is an ideological mask more identifiably in the shape of true Catholicism. It is, in some respects, a long-running Live Action Roleplay — a LARP — in which participants act out what they think Catholicism looked like in “the good old days” while perpetually running down any kind of Catholicism (or Catholic who practices it) that isn’t traditionalism. But it is essentially an affectation; an attempt to reconstruct and live within a historical context that no longer exists. Traditional Catholicism does exist, in the sense that all history exists. The Traditional Catholic liturgy exists not just historically, but even now. But traditionalism, as a “movement,” as an ideological oxbow lake, is a novelty. It’s not a historical reality, because it is merely a reaction to a modern innovation.

This point has been made before by others, such as Geoffrey Hull in his book, Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church. It was this realization that first led me to the Christian East before leaving the Catholic Church altogether a decade ago in all but name. Not specifically about traditionalism, it might be of interest to retrace my steps in finding myself “outside the Church”.

I begin with a quote from Henri de Lubac’s book, Catholicism:

To see in Catholicism one religion among others, one system among others, even if it be added that it is the only true religion, the only system that works, is to mistake its very nature, or at least to stop at the threshold. Catholicism is religion itself. It is the form that humanity must put on in order finally to be itself. It is the only reality which involves by its existence no opposition. It is therefore the very opposite of a “closed society”. Like its Founder it is eternal and sure of itself, and the very intransigence in matters of principle which prevents its ever being ensnared by transitory things secures for it a flexibility of infinite comprehensiveness, the very opposite of harsh exclusiveness which characterizes the sectarian spirit… The Church is at home everywhere, and everyone should feel himself at home in the Church. Thus the risen Christ, when he shows himself to his friends, takes on the countenance of all races and each hears him in his own tongue.

Since I read that quote almost two decades ago now, the pressing question for me is: Does Catholicism live up to this ideal? The word “Catholic” derives from the word, “universal”. It isn’t just supposed to be one religion among others for humanity, but the religion of humanity simply put. In this quote one can see the foundation for many of the disasters of inculturation that flourished in the latter half of the 20th century. At that time, many experimenters were so enchanted with the idea of cultural specificity that any organic unity was broken within the spirit of Catholicism. In other words, modern Catholicism has nothing to teach the world precisely because it views its mission as becoming the world but just add a little Jesus on top. On the other hand, one can approach the issue more metaphysically and ask if Catholicism can or does encompass the full reality of human experience. Does it explain our current reality, or can it?

The traditionalist thinks that the question itself is absurd and seeks to cram the current reality into the categories defined by 19th century Catholic ultramontanism, and condemn all else that doesn’t fit into the outer darkness of demonic influence. Things that don’t fit into these select dozen Papal Encyclicals written from 1789 to 1957 or the rubrics of the 1962 Missal are literally inventions of the devil. The only proper reaction to the world is to raise a bastion against it.

My issue was always that I could never live in the confines of those bastions. I share de Lubac’s vision of universality, I have just come to the conclusion that it can’t be realized within the limits of Abrahmic theology and metaphysics. That’s why modern Christian theologians are constantly playing fast and loose with previously defined theological categories, including de Lubac himself. I can’t accept that, of two people with diametrically opposed theologies but who exhibit an effulgence of true devotion , one is a saint and the other is an instrument of Satan. There has to be more going on there that isn’t a “cops and robbers,” “good guys vs. bad guys” theology. You simply can’t deal with it in the traditional Christian framework. Jesus can’t reconcile these things, but Krishna can.

Take the crisis in the Church that is causing Skojec such sorrow. If we were these bodies, with one life to live and decisions to make using flawed senses and a confused intellect, the current “crisis in the Church” is manifestly unfair and an absurd tragedy on par with the fiction of mid-20th century French existentialists. Why would God allow this? Why can’t God give me a Church in which I can raise my family in without fear that my children will just lose the Faith anyway because some modernist priest is giving them mixed messages? Modern ultramontanist Catholicism can’t explain why the history of the Church in the last 2000 years has actually been one of continuous decline: its triumphalism won’t allow that. So traditionalists lose heart with every perceived setback, not realizing that their religion was birthed in an age of quarrel and hypocrisy. Not all Christians have seen things that way, but that is the majority position for the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

This sort of optimism is arguably behind philosopher Edward Feser’s rejoinder to Skojec, Do not abandon your mother. Feser takes a rather unique argumentative turn in stating that the one’s union with the Church as Mater et Magistra spans not just space but also time. One is in communion not just with the current Church, but with the Church as it has existed throughout all ages. I would go further and conjure up the image of the Church from the early Christian scripture, The Shepherd of Hermas, as an old woman slumped on a stump, since she is the oldest of all creatures. In Vedantic parlance, the Church is the manifestation of the Lord’s material shakti, a feminine creative power of God. I would comment, however, that to have recourse to eternity or trans-historic time in a religion that is entirely based on history seems a bit disjunctive. But mainly we see here that the Christian God is again a God of ultimatums. One must suffer; one must be a victim soul for the integrity of the Church. One must bear its indignities, its lack of logic, and its capricious changes of policy, and hold on for dear life… or else. I am not sure what consolation this could give to sincere people like Skojec who are at their wits end due to a Church that can’t even seem to keep its story straight for five minutes.

That’s the real benefit of Krishna consciousness for me, for the time being. At least it keeps its story straight. At least it delivers a “consistent product” no matter where you go. Its message is loud and clear: We are not this body, and Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Temple services proceed in a certain manner, this is the order in which we present offerings to Krishna, and so on. Catholicism is too worried about how not to offend this or that group, how to avoid this or that theological issue, and so on. No mother would confuse her child by caressing her one minute, then slapping the daylights out of her the next for no apparent reason. Like Skojec, yes, I got tired of it all, but I left. It took me years to find something else, a more realistic message about God and reality, but I did. And honestly, I feel more “Catholic” now than I have ever felt, precisely because I can appreciate the patrimony of the Roman Catholic Church without having to carry its decaying metaphysical baggage that even it doesn’t like.

Is there a reason to be a follower of Jesus? I was reading another piece about doubt this morning, the Amish Catholic’s Difficulties, and what came to mind is a thought that echoes mundane relationship advice. The meme goes that, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best.” Let’s look at the Jesus of Christian tradition (not the one of Biblical scholars who, honestly, need to go outside more). Jesus is the gentle Prince of Peace, but He is also the King of Kings and Lord of Lords riding into battle in the Book of the Apocalypse. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world but also the Just Judge who judges the sins of the world. And so on. He is good, but He can also be (and may He forgive me for saying this, I am saying this only for rhetorical force), a bit of a jerk. Whether or not this is the real Jesus from my Vaishnava perspective is something I will leave aside for now. But if you surrender to Jesus, if you take shelter of His Cross and Resurrection, then you trust Jesus and any difficulty is overcome before it even presents itself.

Just as one might still love a spouse who has a bad habit (e.g. they snore too loudly when they sleep, they have too much of a sweet tooth, etc.) then one must accept that Jesus sometimes throws cosmological tantrums. Sometimes He commands entire cities to be leveled to the ground and the fields salted. Sometimes He lets little children die. Sometimes He threatens to condemn people to Hell for all eternity. Whether or not He actually does that or not… that’s above my pay grade. The point is that you see in Jesus something I simply don’t see, and I can make my peace with that. The doubts I have about your spouse’s character are just that: my doubts. You don’t have those doubts, and I respect that. However, it is another issue to say, “my spouse doesn’t actually snore that loudly” or “he doesn’t talk out of turn too often” because we can all hear him. Don’t try to doctor reality just because it makes your preferred deity look good.

On the other hand, I will go where I am not supposed to and say that, if you really think Jesus sends nine year old heathen kids to Hell for all eternity because, I don’t know, reasons, you may have failed God’s shit test. In other words, if you honestly think that God does that, maybe it says more about you than it does about God. Maybe the Jesus of the Bible constantly exaggerates, and you should love that exaggeration and not explain it away. But if for some reason you buy into it hook, line, and sinker, you need to leave that relationship. Food for thought.

I have rambled long enough. I will agree with Feser to a certain extent and state that any position based on surprise towards depravity of other human beings is rather naive. The more pressing concern should always be to try to find a way to help. I hate to bring up Mr. Fred Rogers, but he was quoted as saying that, in any crisis where things appear hopeless, always look for the helpers. Always look for the people who are selflessly serving, who are continuing on with God-consciousness to deliver those who are suffering. You may be elbow to elbow with people you don’t agree with, but that’s okay, they’re putting up with your annoying opinions as well. And lastly, one’s sanity is first and foremost. Don’t put yourself in a position where your sanity might get compromised. If you are in that position, leave. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you have to put up with it. You really don’t. That’s not a god worth serving.


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