I was born and raised Catholic.
Baptized, Confessed, Communicated, and Confirmed, I owe an unpayable debt to a loving mother and father who were always involved at their Catholic parish. I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. I discerned Catholic religious life before embracing the Catholic married state with a wonderful Catholic bride, with whom I am now raising Catholic children. I earned multiple degrees in Catholic theology from some of the more reputable Catholic institutions in the country. I have worked in Catholic parish, diocesan, education and healthcare settings throughout my career.
I have long maintained that one may be Catholic or not, but that “Cafeteria Catholicism” is no Catholicism at all. We don’t determine the Truth – we profess it. There may be degrees of personal passion in so professing it (i.e. spiritual growth), but this sacred Deposit of Faith has been entrusted infallibly to the Church by Jesus Christ, and is unchanging in itself: inerrant, indestructible, the very Truth of God.
Thus I never much cared for the idiom “more Catholic than the Pope.” Taken in the strict sense, the phrase seemed incoherent.
Until 2013. Enter Pope Francis.
It was not long after this that I began to hear (and have) questions to the effect of: “The Pope said x… is that really what Catholics believe?” I began a more earnest search into theological queries that I had left unanswered for years; old inklings that began clamoring for attention during Francis’ pontificate.
These and a number of other questions are best summarized in the remark of one elderly Catholic, reflecting on his own parish experience since the Second Vatican Council:
“Boy, this sure feels different from the Catholicism I grew up with, way back when. Sometimes it feels like a different religion.”
Now, I know all the standard responses to mollify such sentiments – I’ve rehearsed them myself for over a decade. It’s only recently that I have fully recognized such responses as inadequate, and I hope to point a way into that same recognition for others by attempting a “simple sketch” of the issue here, and offering further resources for investigation (skip to the end for the reading list).
Above all, it’s that general feeling of difference intuited by so many Catholics that remains inescapable: not only for those who can recall the “way back when” of the 1950’s and early 60’s, but for any good Catholic willing to read Church documents, history, or hagiography. I long searched for a good adjective to connote this feeling of difference – one that would best describe the contemporary Catholic experience as measured against what came before, say, 1960. I have concluded that the most apt descriptor is: Squishy.
+ Have you recently heard a statement from a Catholic clergyman in any setting – homily, interview, etc. – about some “Church teaching” that sounded a little… off? Perhaps it might be true (after a long list of qualifiers)? Squishy.
+ Is a nearby parish hosting yet another ecumenical, interreligious, interdenominational, interwhatever-type function to emphasize the things that we all have in common as “people of faith,” while ensuring that nothing offensive (like a call to conversion) is included? Squishy.
+ Has something been introduced or taken out of the Mass at your parish (the fourth time this month) in order to be more contemporary, accessible, welcoming, relatable, current, etc.? Squishy.
+ Have you recently (or ever) heard your local pastor clearly articulate in a mixed forum (even at your own parish) the Church’s moral teaching on any “sensitive issue,” particularly one touching upon human sexuality? No? Squishy.
+ Has the local Bishop reigned in that Catholic college still openly dissenting or hosting pro-abort politicians; or that Catholic parish still celebrating LGBT events; or that Catholic hospital still offering contraceptives; or that Catholic religious order still pinching incense to who-knows-who? No? Squishy.
I have come to see that such experiences and others like it are interconnected, forming a single phenomenon. Knowing that many other and better minds have applied themselves similarly, I will attempt my own short outline of this phenomenon, here terming it: SquishyChurch.
THE NATURE OF SQUISHYCHURCH
Evidencing my indebtedness to various “traditional Catholic” authors (as though Sacred Tradition were optional for a Catholic), I will define SquishyChurch as: that nebulous state or sensibility which, while claiming to be the Catholic Faith as lived in a contemporary mode, is in fact an obscuring facade constructed from theological error; one which conceals the true nature of the Church and impedes the faithful both from living righteously (giving God the glory He is due in his Church), and from receiving the full means of grace (as He intended in founding the Church).
SquishyChurch can seriously trammel the efforts of those seeking to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice (Mt 6:33), and although frequently propagated by faultless ignorance, SquishyChurch can effect a lived state of heresy among Catholics, posing (at minimum) an obstacle to the fruitful reception of divine grace.
However, as confusion among Catholics continues to grow in our time, many (our little family included) are applying themselves to a more diligent study of the Faith; and in so doing, some are discovering that they were never taught “the whole Truth” from the get-go. In many cases, they find that they were in fact taught false doctrines (or more commonly, squishy ones) rather than that divine Deposit revealed by God and entrusted to His Church for all ages.
This article is therefore chiefly aimed to assist those who are only just beginning to wonder whether something may be amiss in the visible Church; but whether you are only lately questioning a Papal remark from an in-flight interview, or if you’ve already begun a serious inquiry after the fullness of the Faith, read on – and perhaps share with a friend. If nothing else, the additional resources may help.
As our own family exits SquishyChurch to uncover the solid bedrock of authentic Catholicism, I have noticed a pattern, both in our own journey and in that of more and more friends and relatives. For many, this discovery seems to follow three distinct phases, which I will briefly treat below in the hopes of shedding some further light on SquishyChurch. The rest is in the reading list!
1. SURPRISED BY SQUISHY CODE
Recent events have made this phase almost predominantly the “opening question” for many pew-sitting Catholics today. Priests, Bishops, and Cardinals across the globe are increasingly heard speaking of “adjusting the Church’s pastoral praxis” with regard to the “real, lived situations” of men and women today. One increasingly hears a great deal about “mercy” and “non-judgment,” with very little reference to unchanging moral truths or the ability (and requirement) through grace, to keep the commands of God.
For many Catholics, the most confusing and distressing aspect of the current crisis is the fact that many in the hierarchy are seen openly contradicting one another on these points. Furthermore, the unwillingness of Pope Francis to clarify ambiguities or address scandalous interpretations and applications of his own moral teaching (most notably, his continued refusal to answer the “dubia” of the four Cardinals, or the theological censures of the 45 theologians regarding Amoris Laetitia) have led to still greater confusion… Could the Church really change her perennial discipline regarding Holy Communion for adulterers? Or celibacy for priests? Or contraceptives in limited cases? Or women’s ordination?
What are the faithful to do, when the truth seems suddenly hard to find, or even malleable in the hands of those whose task it is to “guard the Deposit” (1 Tim 6:20)?
Thus surprised by the appearance of potential changes in pastoral praxis regarding certain moral situations, many begin looking for a place to hang their hat, somewhere one might know with certainty what the Lord would have us do…
2. TIRED OF SQUISHY CULT
That there was a real and seismic shift in liturgical form after Vatican II needs no demonstration, but in case one is interested in a quick visual:
Now, one may immediately object: “Hold on, those ‘after’ pictures are predominantly images of overt liturgical abuses. I’ve never been to a liturgy that bad. Mass at our parish is much more reverent.” Indeed. And that is precisely the problem.
In fact, the liturgical problem is the deepest root of the crisis in the Church today, for the Liturgy is the beating heart of the Mystical Body of Christ, and the chief organ whereby the faithful imbibe the mind and spirit of Christ. Yet if it were possible for this organ to be more or less reverent or perfect in itself – or worse, if this organ had in fact been excised and replaced with a prosthesis (i.e., the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI, fabricated by disjointed committees, cobbled together and imposed on the Roman Church in 1969), then there is little to guarantee the correct formation of the Catholic faithful, much less their living in accord with the Truth of Christ. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi: as the Church worships, so she believes, so she lives.
Thus wearied by guitar Masses, homily jokes, and endlessly superficial efforts to make liturgy “relevant and welcoming,” many begin looking for some fixed point of reference in worship, the “this” which Christ commanded his Apostles to “do,” such that their being would be transformed through that worship in spirit and truth which the Father desires…
3. CONFUSED BY SQUISHY CREED
Doctrinal ambiguity is perhaps the chief “mark” of SquishyChurch. When so much appears “up for grabs” in the contemporary arena of pastoral praxis, naturally the doctrinal foundations upon which sound pastoral praxis must be built become lost in the shuffle. When such doctrinal foundations are no longer clearly taught – or worse, are held up as ever-elusive “ideals,” unattainable by the vast majority of people – what roots remain for the simple layperson in the pew?
This has been the real triumph of SquishyChurch since Vatican II: rather than overtly proclaiming a firm doctrinal content that contradicts the Deposit of Faith (although this is beginning to occur in some sectors), the approach has been to simply keep quiet on some of the more unfashionable Catholic doctrines, or to so bury them in theological qualification and psychobabble that they lose their Gospel clarity and vivifying power. And if the main organ whereby the Catholic Faith is exercised and inculcated (i.e., the Liturgy) has already been undermined, then little remains to resist the slide into doctrinal error.
But as Catholics search for the roots of the Church’s traditional pastoral teaching on certain matters currently under question, or avail themselves of the traditional liturgical rites, they are often surprised to find en route that before the mid-twentieth century, the Church universal spoke with clear and consistent voice on doctrines that one rarely hears (if one hears any doctrine) from the pulpit today. Things like:
- The existence of God is demonstrable from reason unaided by grace, as are the precepts of the natural law
- Outside the Church and without the grace of Baptism there is no salvation
- Grace enables anyone to carry out the objective demands of the divine law
- The only proper use of the sexual faculty is exercised within marriage between a man and a woman, as an act inherently ordered to procreation as its primary end
- Catholicism alone is true, such that all other religions are false and in some state of privation; thus they can never be understood as means of grace but rather hindrances to it, in spite of which God may yet miraculously save a person
- Catholic worship alone is pleasing to God, such that all other religious worship is a corruption of or ordered toward it; thus Catholics were forbidden to participate in interreligious prayer gatherings until as recently as 1983
- There is an insurmountable enmity between Christianity and Islam, a sect denounced by Popes and Saints for centuries as “false,” “abominable,” “diabolical,” “sacrilegious,” “unyielding blindness,” “profane,” “damned,” and a “precursor of the Antichrist”
- The separation of Church and State is “an insanity,” and one of the chief social errors of modernity with its accompanying liberalized principles of free speech and the free exercise of any religion whatever
- There can be no more or less “full” participations in the one Mystical Body of Christ, as though this Body were more or less present based on an amassment of disparate elements and separable quantities
Blessedly, SquishyChurch is not the Catholic Church. It is important to make this distinction, particularly to avoid becoming scandalized by the contemporary infidelities among members of the Catholic hierarchy. Although the Church in her nature is a perfect society, a human and divine institution set up by the Eternal Son of God that will endure indefectible according to Christ’s promise, yet her earthly membership is ever found grappling with sin and error – and today this increasingly obscures the true face of the Church.
Such does not dispense us from the duty of knowing and living our Faith as Christ would have us do, and working toward the correction of errors and abuses according to our ability and station. In an age of confusion like our own (and there have been others), it is all the more incumbent upon us to learn our Faith, particularly as it was known and held by our forebears, and to hand it on; for this Deposit does not change, and Sacred Tradition has ever been the sure norm for retaining that Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.
However, I am convinced that a merely intellectual programme will prove insufficient for navigating the current crisis. One needs the transformative graces of enlightenment and supernatural strength available only in the infallible worship of the Church, according to traditional Catholic forms. The traditional Latin Mass is a miracle in slow motion: the continuous work of the Holy Ghost over centuries, the fruitful womb producing Saints and mystics throughout history, the faultless guarantor of Apostolic Tradition in action.
A return to the traditional Latin Mass and Sacraments will prove to be the life raft of our age, particularly as Catholics find them practiced in vibrant and orthodox traditional parishes, religious communities and priestly societies committed to being and doing what the Church has ever been and done. Little wonder that amid the current “vocations crisis” and “rise of the nones,” these traditional Catholic sectors are instead seeing increased growth.
Bravo the restoration!
“THE TOP FORTY” – So much has been written on various aspects of the current crisis that it would be next to impossible to offer a list doing full justice to the subject. However, here is an attempt: Traditional Catholic Top 40 Book List, including some brief descriptions and a few rating criteria such that readers might make more informed choices on where to start digging.
“THE GRAB ‘N GO” – Our “short list” can be taken as a set of accessible reads to recommend “on the street” for the Catholic just beginning to ask questions. The aim here is to gain a solid initial perspective and begin to “see the form.” Three titles:
- Heresy of Formlessness by Mosebach. A literary narrative-type treatment from a deeply Catholic perspective. Recommended as an excellent place to begin. Compelling prose that borders on poetry at times, all in the service of communicating that personal feeling of the crisis in the broader Church.
- Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness by Kwasniewski. Can’t recommend this one enough. Very readable, but with enough scholarly apparatus to dig much further if desired. Written with an evident appreciation for and desire to share the great riches of our Catholic Faith and liturgical patrimony in the midst of (and as an antidote to) the present crisis. We like this book so much that we’ll soon be giving away free copies – tell your friends, and stay tuned.
- Phoenix from the Ashes by Sire. To recognize and admit of a contemporary crisis in the Church, one of the chief helps is to gain a broader historical perspective on crises that have come before. This book does just that, and it is hoped that one comes away with 1) a sense that crisis in the Church is nothing new, and that 2) neither is the obligation of the lay faithful to better know, live, and hand on their Faith in an integral manner, according to their gifts and state.