What is the Catholic Response to a Church in Crisis?

Several weeks ago, I was struck by a weekday homily given by our deacon. The deacon reflected on the Gospel passage where Christ tells his disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees say because they sit upon Moses’ seat. 

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do (Matthew 23:1-3). 

To observe and do all things whatsoever they shall say to you is a heavy command from our Lord, who goes on in the next several verses to call these men fools, blind men, hypocrites and white-washed tombs. Our deacon remarked how shocking this must have been to the disciples, for they have seen Jesus condemn and challenge the scribes and Pharisees several times previously. He then reminded us that the seat of Moses has been replaced by the chair of Peter. The obedience once owed to the scribes and Pharisees is now due to the Pope and Bishops of our Church, even when those same figures may act in ways not worthy of imitation. The deacon urged us to reflect on this command of Christ, especially whenever we feel disgusted or repulsed by those men in authority over us. The obedience we owe is a result of the position they hold and not because of personal merit. We are not obliged to do as they do, but we are bound to do what they say because of the authority given to them by Christ. 

A couple of weekends ago, this same deacon spoke in another homily about excommunication, what it is and who has the authority to excommunicate. He then acknowledged that there are several lay people who act and speak as if they themselves have the power to excommunicate others. He challenged us to reflect deeply on whether we have, in our own minds and hearts, excommunicated others within the Church in order to hold onto our own idea of the Church. I’m reminded of Augustine’s idea “Of the True and Mixed Body of the Lord” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine). We can acknowledge that the visible institution of the Church contains both true members of the Mystical Body of the Lord as well as dead members who oppose Him. However, we do not get to decide who belongs and who does not; we do not have God’s omniscience, nor do we possess the keys to the kingdom of heaven within ourselves. 

While reflecting on these homilies from our deacon, I decided to turn to Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. I wanted to see what he was saying about the current state of our Church. I was greatly pleased to find a recent article dealing with the very questions I had been struggling with. His conclusions aligned with what our deacon had been saying. Here are some of Dr. Kwasniewski’s own words:

It is true that at a tense moment like this, we can become impatient and frustrated at the inaction of our superiors, who ought at very least to be condemning rampant errors and evil actions (e.g., the Buenos Aires guidelines, the death penalty error, the Pachamama veneration, the Abu Dhabi statement, etc.). It is at just such times that we are proved like gold in the furnace, our patience is put to the test, and we grow in our trust in Divine Providence and our fervor in crying out to Him for intervention. . . . The worst thing we could do is to abandon ship for one or another branch of the Eastern Orthodox, or for the imaginary green pastures of sedevacantism, on the pretext that somehow these groups are “better off” than we are. What good would this move accomplish? It would only remove good people from where they are most needed — within the visible hierarchical Body of Christ — and would only contribute to the growing anarchy. What is needed is steadfast attachment to the Bride of Christ in spite of her marred countenance on earth, unswerving loyalty to her eternal Head, total acceptance of the doctrine He entrusted to her in its integrity (Peter Kwasniewski, “If the Pope is a Heretic, Hold Fast to What is Certain,” OnePeterFive).

Truly, the visible Church on earth is a true and mixed body. And many of our leaders have not been admirable or worthy of imitation. It is right to be disturbed when our Holy Father venerates fertility goddess statuettes from the Amazon. And it is quite alarming when public Masses are shut down all across the country just in time for Easter, the greatest liturgical season of the year. It is natural to be upset when a holy day of obligation is abrogated by the USCCB because it falls on a day too close to Sunday. It is discouraging and frustrating when your bishop sends a message to the parishes in his diocese recommending that all parishioners receive Communion in the hand in order to help stop the spread of coronavirus. It is right to be depressed when you habitually reach to dip your hand in the holy water font only to find a bottle of sanitizer in its place. And yet, sometimes, I think we take too much delight in pointing out the failures of our superiors. Sometimes, I think we eagerly anticipate our Pope’s next controversial, ambiguous statement so that we can rip it to shreds. We look forward to reading the latest announcement from our diocesan bishop, hoping that it will be some sort of pandering to the current political trend, so that we can boast to all of our Catholic friends how bad our Bishop is. I think many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, would rather take matters into our own hands and declare for ourselves what is right and wrong rather than listen to our Pope and Bishops. And this is where the temptation comes in to break away from the Church. 

What is the proper Catholic response to the current Church crisis? We know it has never been the solution to try to find a new Church. Nor is it helpful to simply tear down the reputation of Church leaders. The answer does not lie in some secret knowledge spread only through select Catholic communities. And we’re not going to suddenly find peace by reading the latest book detailing how our Church has been infiltrated by anti-Catholic cults. If we want to help the Church in crisis, we must keep doing what the Church has always done—be “the sacrament of salvation, the sign and instrument of the communion of God and men” (CCC 780). That is, participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Receive Holy Communion. Go to Confession. Pray the Divine Office. Sit in silence before the Blessed Sacrament. Pray the Rosary. Fast and abstain in reparation for sin. Visit the sick and the lonely as much as you are able, even if only through a letter or a phone call. Do the mundane, ordinary, day to day tasks with charity and without losing the peace of Christ. As Dr. Kwasniewski concludes:

This, surely, is a mess only an omniscient and omnipotent God could sort out, a mess from which only He could deliver us, in answer to the prayers He would call forth from our weary but unconquered souls. That is why I repeat: our sanctifying work, planned for us by God in His eternal Providence, is to remain faithful to tradition and to prayer, come what may; to bide our time, keep our sanity, hold steady, and wait for the Lord. He is still and always among us, not faraway in utopian pastures (Peter Kwasniewski, “If the Pope is a Heretic, Hold Fast to What is Certain,” OnePeterFive).

In other words, God alone satisfies, and our hearts and minds must stay fixed on Him. Our hope lies in Christ, not in some ideal, perfect institution of spotless saints. There’s nothing new under the sun. There’s no new tactic that Satan could discover to suddenly take down Christ’s Body, the Church. There’s no new knowledge that we can gain to suddenly become immune to all errors. We must do what God has always asked us to do:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Liturgy of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter).

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