“They healed the breach of the daughter of my people disgracefully,
saying: Peace, peace, and there was no peace.” (Jer 6:14)
Wandering a bookstore or public library today, one may be struck by the phenomenon of steadily growing sections devoted to paganism and the occult (assuming one dodges the drag queen story hour long enough to peruse the shelves). As a reader shared some months ago, favorite “charms” or “spirit-channels” have even become a topic for polite conversation:
“I got talking with this total stranger in the aisle, and before long she was asking if I had ever tried standing in my urine out-of-doors, the better to align my spiritual energies. Seriously?? I’m wearing a miraculous medal!”
Yes, the process of cultural decay is rapidly accelerating.
No, you aren’t crazy for noticing.
For serious Catholics, the question is what to do after noticing – for it is our turn to decide how to live amid a decaying civilization. We are not the first to do so.
Perspective First: It’s Here, Too
Amid the crumbling of universal moral norms rooted in natural law (who would have predicted Obergefell even a decade ago?) and with neo-paganism now ascendent in the culture, the Catholic faithful face yet another, far more difficult dimension in their struggle against evil today: crisis in the hierarchy.
Bypassing the known conspiracies of Freemasons and Communists to undermine the Church for generations, there is the increasingly obvious shortage of priests. After the initial mass exodus from the ministry following Vatican II and with steadily dropping vocation numbers since, the U.S. now has almost 70% fewer priests per Catholic than it did in 1950 – with the majority of priests in active ministry slated to hit retirement in 2025. If anyone was surprised by Pittsburgh’s dramatic reduction in parishes this year, they won’t be for long. Closures on this scale are already common in Europe, and will become so stateside in short order.
The more grievous problem is the doctrinal and moral error now discernible among the shepherds at every rank of the hierarchy – a disaster now openly decried by bishops and cardinals around the globe – due in no small part to the generally dismal seminary formation of the past fifty years. After the dissemination of a deformed ecclesiology and sacramental theology, clerics were widely unmoored from traditional doctrine as a whole, especially after the new rites took hold. Many priests for the past half-century have trained as presiders and emcees rather than as alter Christi wielding the unspeakable power of divine sacrifice and sanctifying command.
With this shift came a certain push toward rapprochement with the heterodox, immoral, and even explicitly demonic elements in their surround, under the headings of “dialogue,” “ecumenism,” “accompaniment,” “discernment journeys,” and so on.
But perhaps now as the last vestiges of reason and moral order collapse in the wider culture, we can ask: What happens when the clergy’s dialogue partners embrace unprecedented depravity? What becomes of shepherds trained to engage a toxic culture by immersion, being in the world and of it, strategically courting human respect, ostensibly in the interest of “attracting” others? And what of the others?
The results are all around us, and it is neither untrue nor uncharitable to look on the rotten fruit of such a programme, in order to gain perspective.
Apart from the ongoing reel of major abuse scandals even in Vatican apartments, the continued cover-ups, and the many discontinuities of Pope Francis’ “zero tolerance” policy (among other concerns with his pontificate), the faithful are now subjected to officially-endorsed sacrilege on a regular basis. Bishops endorse pagan rites at Mass and liturgical blessings for same-sex couples; Cardinals approve of blasphemous fashion shows, clamor for intercommunion with heretics, and distribute the Blessed Sacrament to public adulterers at the direction of the Pope; the Vatican issues pornographic sex-education programs and hosts New Age meditation seminars above the very tombs of the Roman martyrs.
Catholics now require an internet filter for the Vatican website.
Think about that.
Upon first discovery, the only rational response to such a situation is alarm. Sadly, this now makes one an “alarmist,” and as many in the Church continue whistling past the graveyard of the current crisis as though all were well and the situation normal (or still more ridiculously, “the culture’s fault”), declamations of the current crisis may continue to be ignored for a time. All the more so, if one were to seek a Catholic community equally serious about their salvation and sacramental duties: “Ha! Persecuted minority complex. Chicken Little, out looking for friends.”
Although Christ’s promise that the saved would be few and the faithful persecuted will remain lost on many, study of two strands of thought seems to be emerging as helpful reality-checks for some of late: Catholic prophecy and Church history.
To treat Catholic prophecy would be well beyond the scope of this article, and the perennial difficulty of interpretation and proper application still remains. In our own view, far more compelling is the second area of study, namely Church history, with focus on certain preceding crisis periods (Sire’s Phoenix from the Ashes being perhaps the best contemporary treatment). As it turns out, the past has much to teach us about the kind of alarm and tactical choices that ensured the preservation of the Faith even amid social collapse and a vastly compromised clergy.
Indeed, if “encountering Christ in the culture” was ever a worthwhile approach to preserving and propagating the Faith, one begins to see why such a notion is almost entirely absent in Catholic thought ere the 20th century, and entirely absent during epochs of crisis and societal decay. The Apostolic testimony (and the three centuries following) is perhaps the most marked on this score:
“What part hath the faithful with the unbeliever? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God; as God saith: I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore, Go out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing: And I will receive you; and I will be a Father to you; and you shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:15-18)
That a range of “parallel social structures” became commonplace in the early Christian centuries is well-known, and has been the subject of a number of recent books in the “Benedict Option” vein. Fair enough.
What about Joe and Jane Catholic, today?
Theory Second: A Proper Hierarchy of Values
Theory must inform practice, and if one does not hold a true hierarchy of values regarding one’s objective duties and calling, then his practical exercise of the Christian life will always hold some disorder or dysfunction. The lower must serve the higher, the earthly must serve the heavenly, and the proper means must be chosen with the final end in mind.
We will examine such ordering in the next installment.