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Wasted Suffering?

Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “There’s nothing worse than wasted suffering.” The Church is suffering---clergy, laity, religious, the whole Church together, especially parents and children and, most of all, victims and their families. Everyone is suffering. Let’s not waste suffering, because scandal can be a wake-up call for the reform of the Church in the United States. The Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Renewal have thought for fifteen years that the Catholic Church needs reform. This means that we all need personal reform from within. But this particular scandal gives us an excellent opportunity to examine the collective conscience of the Church and face its severe critics, many of whom are motivated by a hatred of religion and a hatred of the Catholic Church because it is the loudest voice of religion and morality in our country.

Holy Church/Worldly Church

Active American Catholics and most of the publications they produce and read would give the impression that Catholicism is thriving in the United States of America. The fact is that attendance at Mass has dramatically fallen off in the last generation. Some take consolation in the fact that this is true in other denominations as well; however, it is not true of Evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews.

Membership in religious communities has declined catastrophically, and enrollment in Catholic seminaries is alarmingly small in relation to the perceived needs of the future. Despite all this, you could read various Catholic publications and never know that we were having a problem. Even the annual meetings of the bishops or other national Catholic organizations reflect an attitude that suggests fiddling while Rome burns. I must confess to being part of that attitude myself at times. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in particular, but at all us in general.

Those who feel that they have the responsibility of identifying the problems often do so in such caustic terms that those they want to reach will not listen to them. As a rule, those who are very critical of the present situation in the Church have their own particular panacea, which may range from Latin liturgy to the ordination of women. None of these issues really touches the heart of the problem.

The heart of the problem is that we have become a worldly Church. We are filled with many worldly ideas that we have absorbed from the general culture. This is much more true now that we are no longer a minority group. Catholic colleges, universities, and other institutions, as well as the Catholic clergy themselves, remained rather separated from the declining culture by our own well expressed values up to the time of the Second Vatican Council, which came soon after the election of the first and only Catholic president of the United States.

Theoretically, we moved out of the Catholic ghetto, which was hampering us. Many thought, rather unrealistically, that the world around us was just waiting with open arms to receive the newly upholstered Catholic identity of the Second Vatican Council. Although everyone seemed to join in the chorus of jubilation, it cannot be said that the Catholic Church has affected society positively or outstandingly in the past thirty or forty years. Our imports from the secular culture vastly outnumber our exports to it, indicating, in a kind of financial symbolism, that our balance of trade is way off.

Despite a great deal of talk about spirituality, anyone really familiar with the spiritual literature of the Catholic Church can see that in recent decades we have not been living up to that literary tradition; rather, an alarming decline in spirituality has been evident in American Catholicism. Christian spirituality calls for the cultivation of virtue and the avoidance of sin in the spiritual journey to God. It calls for a complete reliance on the grace of Christ for salvation and sanctification. An incredible array of psychological and cultural gimmicks has come to replace serious spirituality. Psychological techniques, many of them lacking any scientific verification, have replaced the examination of conscience. All kinds of little enterprises borrowed from New Age spirituality, ranging from labyrinths to massage retreats, have taken the place of solid spiritual exercises. Sometimes you wonder: Are we running a Church or a circus?

A review of Catholic religious education books over the years shows an unbelievable superficiality, although all involved were trying hard to match the techniques of secular education. Religious educators may get a high grade for effort, but they certainly will not get a high grade for results.

Catholic higher education is in an appalling state. An honest list of those institutions of higher education that are both dynamic and orthodox would be very short. A slightly longer list of Catholic colleges really trying to hang on to their Catholic identity could also be drawn up. However, as we shall see later in this book, the picture of Catholic religious education in particular, and of Catholic education in general, is disgraceful.

Shall we speak of the decline of the priesthood and religious life? there are many good and excellent priests and many devout religious. There are also any number of them who take their responsibilities in a lackadaisical way and seem to be proud of it. They expect people to applaud them because they think they are “with it,” as part of the overall American culture. Then there are those whose real affiliation with the Catholic Church and its clerical or religious life is simply an act of hypocrisy. They don’t mean to be hypocrites, because that would take just a bit more religious conviction than they actually have. They sail along under the banner of the Church but have absolutely no intention of listening to it, following its prescriptions, living up to the expectations of its members, or fulfilling its obligations. For some religious, the only visible evidence that they belong to consecrated life is that they are tax-exempt once a year.

The present disaster and scandal reveal that there has been much relativistic moral theology and practice. A great many priests and religious have held out against moral relativism, with varying degrees of certitude; but it has crept in nonetheless. This relativism has been most influential perhaps because most people are unaware of it and think that it simply comes through the media and television itself. A priest living alone in a one-man parish---or a religious returning to his or her apartment or to a small religious community where everyone lives a very independent life---will find some relaxation in the evening watching television. However, the values pouring out of the media are worldly, materialistic, antihuman, and anti-Christian.

The whole idea that a Christian is called on to reject the spirit of the world is lost. Such biblical texts as “The ruler of this world is coming (but he) has no power over me” (John 14:30) and “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world” (1 John 2:16) are no longer part of the spiritual consciousness of Catholics. The many definitive and caustic sermons of Jesus Christ against worldliness and the spirit of the world are completely abandoned in favor [of] a mindless embrace of secular humanism. And secular humanism itself has reached a level of degradation that would embarrass even the early-twentieth-century secular humanist, who had at least a modicum of dignity, unlike his counterpart of today.

Now is a time for reform. It must begin on all sides, and people have to clamor for it. Bishops will have to clamor among bishops, priests among priests, religious brothers and sisters among the members of their communities, and devout Catholic laity in their own parishes. In fact, every person who wishes to see the United States return to being a moral nation should join in this clamor. Otherwise, we are in irreversible decline.

This is the question before every member of the clergy, every religious, and every layperson interested in being a real Christian: Are we going to follow Jesus Christ and the Gospel, or are we going to follow the spirit of the world and continue to decline into moral, religious, and cultural chaos?

When I look at this dismal scene and survey the confusion and betrayal of our contemporary Church, I can only say that now is a time when we must turn to God. But each one of us must turn to Him with all our heart and follow His commandments and the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ wholeheartedly and without compromise.