Thursday, July 02, 2020

On Wokeness and Reasons People Leave the Church

The other day I was stunned when an acquaintance of mine announced on social media that she and her husband were leaving the Catholic Church. People leaving the Church is not exactly big news, but I was surprised because this was a family that looked like they were "doing it right" according to the commonly accepted external indicators of what constitutes a "good Catholic family": lots of kids, devout, deeply involved in homeschooling, attended the Traditional Latin Mass,  family were regular participants in parish life and personal devotions, etc. Doing the Catholic family thing for 30 years.

Then, all of the sudden, an announcement via Facebook that the husband and wife were jointly leaving the Church⁠—and not for Protestantism or some other brand of Christianity; they stated that their objections to the Church were pretty much endemic throughout Christianity as a whole. As far as I can tell, they are essentially agnostics now.

At any rate, this post is ultimately not about these folks. People do what they are going to do, and I obviously pray for them and wish the best for them. I am very interested in the comments they made in their public posts about the reasons leading up to their decision, however. These I would like to examine, not in terms of judging or criticizing these peoples' decision, but rather in the abstract. Their reasons are reasons we have heard many times before from many other people who have lost faith; they could have been spoken by any one of the millions of ex-Catholics. Therefore consider them in that light. They are subjects I have grappled with as well. After we look at these issues, I will offer some reflections on "external indicators" of faith as predictive of certain outcomes.

The (public) posts contained a lengthy explanation of their rationale, which could be boiled down to three issues:

(1) The scandal of clerical sex abuse
(2) The scandal of unanswered prayer
(3) The scandal of Catholics not acting with charity

Sex abuse was listed as the top reason why they were choosing to leave the Church. But it was not simply the presence of clerical sex abuse, but rather the radical insufficiency and breakdown of the prevailing conservative narrative about sex abuse that pushed them over the edge. The husband described how for years he had toed the party line on clerical sex abuse, with talking points like "It's just a few bad apples", "There's pedophiles in every profession", "Even Christ had His Judas", "The percent of abusers in the Church isn't any higher than in the general populace", "It's the devil trying to attack the Church and make it look bad," etc.

These sorts of talking-points are what I would loosely refer to as the Neo-Cath answer to clerical sex abuse. I understand this paradigm very well. It is one I used to profess for years. It is comforting because it reassures us that nothing is wrong in our house that is not common to all houses; it casts the Church as the good guys fighting off a demonic attack manifest as biased reporting from a hostile secular press. The demonic attack is fundamentally from outside.

Unfortunately, this narrative is completely false. The husband explained (rightly) that the incidence of abusive priests is much higher within the Church than society at large. That its not confined to dioceses run by a few "bad apple" bishops but that it is ubiquitous throughout the Catholic world. The culture of secrecy around sex abuse is a plague in which the highest members of the hierarchy right up to the pope have been complicit in. The devil was trying to destroy the Church with attacks, but not by means of unfair media bias, but rather from the pedophilic rot within the clergy, which was way more common than previously assumed. The demonic attack was internal. The shock of realizing this was faith-shattering.

I remember back in 2002 when the Cardinal Law sex abuse scandals broke, I was repeating the same talking point. "Other denominations have just as many pedophiles...every profession has its bad apples, etc." Then I read Michael Rose's Goodbye, Good Men and the scales dropped from my eyes. I realized that the abuse culture was being actively cultivated and perpetuated by a homosexual clique within the hierarchy (in the Vatican, but also local dioceses) and that the bishops were complicit in not only covering it up but actually promoting it. Since then, nothing has surprised me. Now when I hear about things like Msgr. Luigi Capozzi's drug-fuled gay orgy at the Vatican, I shrug and think, "Yup. That's how it is." I don't like it by any means, but I guess I am saying is that uncovering a lot of this filth over the years has left me in a place where I am not surprised by anything any more.

This is why I think it's not helpful to get too invested in the "just a few bad apples" narrative. It's way worse than that. The darkness runs so much deeper. And if you've sheltered yourself from that reality, you're going to be pretty jarred when the truth emerges, as it inevitably will. I'm not saying a more realistic assessment of that would have helped these people, but it has definitely helped me. And that's ultimately what this post is about: not about these folks who lost faith, but about how I have found help in dealing with these same issues.

They also mentioned the scandal of unanswered prayer. And they gave a few examples, things like despite praying for their children and offering Masses for them (Latin masses!), a few of them grew up to become atheists. It seems that prayer didn't affect anything—that despite years of pious prayer, sacrifices, Masses, and devotion, all the words and lamentations poured out to our Lord were so many words just dumped into the void. I think every Christian has had this experience at some time or another; I've had my share of prayers gone unanswered, but I've also had my share of answered prayer as well. I've even experienced (what I consider) miraculous interventions in my life. One of the reasons why I embraced Christianity to begin with when I was 19 was that I witnessed a handful of what I can only describe as miracles. But I've also realized that sort of thing is not normative; miracles, or even prayers answered in exactly the way we hope they will be answered are little treats that happen occasionally, like spiritual candy, but can't be assumed. I have always personally taken the approach that God doesn't owe me anything, not even my own continued existence. He doesn't owe me the lives of children, he doesn't owe me happiness in this world or anything whatsoever. If I live another year without getting bone marrow cancer or go another day without getting hit in the crotch with a golf club, it's sheer grace. God can do whatever He wants to me or anyone else for whatever reasons He chooses and I have peace with that.

I guess I am saying that I have divested myself of the idea that my faith in God will guarantee any specific temporal outcome whatsoever.

The third reason was Catholics not behaving with charity. They elaborated several facets to this scandal. One was just a "Too many hypocritical Catholics makes for a toxic environment" sort of objection—but another was more along the lines of "If grace was efficacious and all of these people spend their lives praying and going to Mass, one would assume they would get better with time?" Yes, obviously as educated Catholics they knew that one has to be disposed to receive grace, but still...what they perceived to be the total lack of transformative power of grace in the lives of people they knew over a long period seemed to be a strong argument that what the faith says about grace is bunk.

I can't speak for anybody else's index of grace; I personally have never been bothered by the idea that we must be disposed to receive grace. It makes sense to me, and if it so happens that 90% of Catholics I know aren't disposed to receive grace, that's just the way that it is. But I don't think that's the reality. I definitely see grace working in the lives of people I know who take their faith seriously. And as I get older I am learning to see it more operative than ever, especially in the small things and little victories. Last winter I had a profound insight into God's grace in me after making a general confession. The victories of grace are often imperceptible, unless you have "eyes to see." It is seldom in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in the "still small voice" (1 Ki. 19:12). This is where I have learned to expect it.

The interesting thing, however, was when these folks went into the details of why they though so many of their fellow Catholics were uncharitable. We've all experienced unkind Catholics, especially if you blog or publish anything online (believe me, I know); occasionally, I have probably been one of them myself. That's sort of par for the course. But these people mentioned something interesting
—basically, that Catholics had by and large failed to adopt the appropriate responses to racism and LGBT issues, which demonstrated that they ultimately lacked love. For (they said) if Catholics were more "loving", they would have been more eager to embrace these causes. It follows that the reticence of Catholics to do so—indeed, their outright hostility to such causes—is a damning condemnation of Catholics' lack of love. Indeed, it is a mark against the Church's very concept of love, where "loving the sinner" is bound up with the idea of "correcting the sinner." As many others who have left the Church have said, this couple ultimately stated that "Love the sinner, hate the sin" was an unworkable proposition. Love needed to be reevaluated in a manner that was not so corrective—meaning, more woke. Basically, they were arguing that Christians aren't woke enough.

Here we come to what I see is grave danger to faith, and one that will only be more dangerous as time goes by: the redefinition of moral values to align them with secular mores. This merits some fleshing out.

It has been long known that liberalism takes sins and redefines them as rights or even as virtues; e.g., the sin of abortion is a "right", contraception is "responsibility", separation of Church and state is a strength, and so on. We are used to liberalism taking BAD things and calling them GOOD. And imperceptibly people adjust their values accordingly over time, if they are not vigilant. This is why so many Catholics think separation of Church and state is great, or that contraception is no big deal, or that homosexual so-called marriage is just fine, etc.

But, liberalism also takes GOOD things and redefines them as BAD, or at least as deficient. St. Teresa of Calcutta's work among the poor wasn't that great because she focused on individuals, not on addressing the systemic causes of poverty. The traditional family structure is not ideal because it reinforces patriarchy. Missionary work is actually deplorable because it can result in the eroding of native cultures. The Christian view of "love the sinner hate the sin" is dangerous because it facilitates judgmentalism. These concepts flow logically from the basic principles of liberalism and serve to undermine the Church's moral position by pulling the rug out from under it—suggesting that the historical Church's humanitarian, educational, or social victories were really not victories at all.

Now, if the good is redefined as bad, then a new good must lifted up to take the place of that which was displaced. In today's incarnation of liberalism, this is where the politics of Woke fit in. One is perceived as "good" to the degree that one can get behind the Woke social agenda; to the degree one won't, one is racist, homophobic, sexist, or whatever the capital sins of liberalism are. This is a creeping problem among the curious demographic of "progressive" Catholics—you know who I mean; the ones whose social media walls consist of 80%+ SJW posts and whose religious posts even have a social justice bent to them. The ones who post preachy, moralizing Twitter screenshots with no commentary other than "THIS" and who clog your feed with graphics whining that "We need to stop doing THIS and start doing THIS instead", and "If you're not doing THIS, you're part of the problem."

But perhaps the biggest fallacy liberalism and Woke politics foist on us is to habitually conflate the end with the means. For example, everyone agrees that we want to address the problem of poverty (end). Liberals will insist on their own specific methodology for addressing poverty in the form of various government programs (means). Then they will insist that if you do not support their specific means, you are not "really" in favor of the end. If you don't support the BLM agenda in particular, you are not against racism in general. If you aren't in favor of vote by mail, you favor discrimination. If you do not agree with every specific premise of the #MeToo crusade, then you are not against sex abuse. If you don't want universal government sponsored health insurance, you don't "really" care for the sick. If you aren't for generous, easy immigration laws in particular then you are a racist in general. If you are skeptical of particular policy proscriptions based on a specific climate-science study, you are "anti-science." If you "really" cared about the poor, you would favor increased funding for various programs. If you were really as loving as your religion claims, you would support various LGBT causes. If you were really Pro-Life, you would support increased funding for public schools, teachers' unions, cancellation of student debt and all variety of things loosely relating to education because somehow education—like a ton of other stuff—is now "also a life issue" (this is going to be a future post—extending "Pro-Life" to mean just about anything).

See how all of this confuses the end with the means? Societal problems are identified, and then one and only one means to address them put forward as the anointed solution. The "national conversation" progressives are always yammering about never happens. Instead we simply get a national lecture, we are told authoritatively that there is only one path forward, and any dissent whatsoever means you don't "really" care about said issue. Weak minded people (desperate to prove they have not committed a racism and fearful of public-shaming) trip over themselves lining up behind whatever the social media Ministry of Truth has decided is the hot button topic in [CURRENT YEAR]. It's a means of relentlessly shoving through social change while bullying dissenting people into silence.

I predict that such "Woke" Christians will eventually lose their faith altogether. We could certainly already say that a liberal Catholic has already suffered an overthrow of faith to the degree that they are affirming principles contrary to Catholic truth. But what I mean is that, ultimately, we will see a lot more of what I described at the top of this post: Christians formally repudiating their Faith because Christianity is not Woke enough, because they have allowed their judgment of what is "good" and what is "moral" to be defined by the culture at large. And when Christianity is judged against these standards and inevitably found wanting (because Christianity historically does not share these novel value judgments), these people will choose Wokeness over Christ in order to feel accepted, to feel that they are "making a difference" or are on the "right side of history."

There's more I could say, of course, but all of this merely reemphasizes the need to take your moral bearings from Catholic Tradition, not one's Twitter feed. And to remember that there is always more than one way to address a problem. If you find yourself believing there is one and only one way to approach a societal problem, such that you have lost the ability to presume the goodwill of those who disagree with your particular pet program, you'd best stop and prayerfully reevaluate how and why you form the opinions that you hold.

Finally—and this is an important message for traditional Catholics—although God gives us a rough set of blueprints for what an ideal Catholic life looks like from the outside, we ought not to assume that any of these external indicators guarantee us any specific outcome. Your marriage won't necessarily be happier if your wife stays home instead of working. Your kids won't necessarily keep the faith because you went to the Latin Mass. You won't necessarily have less struggles with various sins because prayed the "right" prayers. There is no set of boxes you can check that guarantees any particular outcome. To be sure, certain external things can make certain outcomes more likely, but how we manage our lives and our faith is ultimately always a matter of internal transformation, not box checking. It's not about just following the script. You have to take responsibility. You have to cultivate the virtue of prudence. You are not going to be divested of the terrible responsibility for your own soul and your own failings by going through a list of external indicators of "what good Catholics do." Doing such things will always be good, but their goodness does not guarantee you any temporal outcome. They do guarantee you a more beautiful soul, if you do them rightly disposed. But it is best to give up the idea that your life is going to unfold according to a certain design just because you "followed the rules."

Monday, June 29, 2020

Thirteen Years of USC


The official anniversary of the establishment of this blog is June 29th, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. What a different place I was when I founded this blog back in the summer of 2007! I was working for the Church and had to be super careful what I said for fear of offending the powers that be. I was also brand new to traditional Catholicism and using the blogger platform to voice my increasing anger about things like sloppy liturgies, bad music, and the scarcity of Latin in the masses of my diocese. I had no idea at that time how far down this rabbit hole went, nor to what degree the Catholic tradition would form my thinking and alter my view on so many things.

Sorry I have been a bit vacant as of late. I have been working on a series of posts, however, that are all fairly dense and have required a lot of thought and research. Hopefully I will have some more available soon.

Anyhow, a special thanks to all of you who have patronized this little endeavor over the years, and who have put up with my crankiness and occasional bouts of stupidity. I truly value you all. Please pray for me, a sinner.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Our New Civic Religion

So, we have a new civic religion in the United States. It is Black Lives Matter, whose structure and methodology are essentially religious. Consider:

The confession of white privilege that whites were born with and is always present and must always be fought against is Original Sin.

The corresponding soul-searching with resolution to think and act differently is a  form of repentance and Metanoia.

"Taking a knee" is a sacramental symbol, a sign that signifies the believer's translation from the state of denial to a state of Wokeness. It is a rite of Baptism.

The movement has its own prophets, priests, apologists, hierarchy, and missionaries. The various state branches of the movement are its dioceses.

The BLM symbol of the raised fist is the new cross: a symbol of resurrection and victory.

Those who died at unjustly at the hands of police are the new Martyrs, whose cultus the movement venerates.

BLM marches are processions; the images of the martyrs carried in these processions are icons.

It has created it's own calendar with observances such as Juneteenth and Indigenous Peoples' Day that are meant to call to mind important themes from salvation history.

It has its own rigid orthodoxy that is to be accepted on Faith; the BLM narrative is the only acceptable narrative, and to question it is an act of heresy, for questioning BLM is not only an act of intellectual disagreement but a manifestation of bad faith. Heretics must be degraded for their bad faith and acts of heresy must be expiated by evidence of contrition, public acts of penance, and professions of orthodoxy.

The virtue of charity, which "in the bond of perfection" that holds all things together (Col. 3:14) is replaced with grievance, which is the one universal "virtue" that binds the entire movement.

The tenets of this BLM orthodoxy are defined by the policy objectives of the movement (e.g., "Defund the Police", "Vote by Mail" etc.), denying any of which is an act of heresy. "Racist" is synonymous with "heretic."

Contrarian statements are deemed "problematic." Problematic means blasphemous.

The progressive Twitterati who scroll through social media history of others looking for such "problematic" statements to expose are the Inquisition of the new religion.

Monuments of the old order must be torn down and expurgated from public consciousness like the temples of pagandom.

The future moment when America "comes to terms" with its racial past is a kind of Day of Reckoning, a Last Judgement where all historical-social injustices are rectified. Nobody knows when or how this will occur; it exists solely in the realm of the eschatological.

I am making no judgment on any of these things other than to note that the BLM movement, in its contemporary incarnation, has all the essential elements of a civic religion. It is the country's new faith here in CURRENT YEAR.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

New Normal: Subjectifying the Sunday Obligation


Anybody tired of the phrase "New Normal" yet?

As part of the New Normal within the Church, I predict we are going to see the total subjectivization of the Sunday obligation. Here's why:

At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, bishops worldwide dispensed Catholics from keeping the Sunday obligation. This was necessary as the public celebration of the Mass had been suspended in most places, making it impossible for Catholics to keep the obligation anyway.

Catholics who complained about shuttered churches and inability to access the sacraments were taunted and called selfish—in some cases, even by priestsand told to "just" make a spiritual communion and watch Mass on a live stream. In many dioceses, the tone of these bishops' announcements of these directives lacked any empathy for the immense sadness of the faithful at being deprived of the sacraments. Instead they read like bureaucratic memoranda. "Just" watch a live stream. There was a lot of disdain hidden in that "just."

Anyhow, the result of this that tacit inference that the physical attendance at Mass isn't what ultimately matters most; what matters is that "our hearts are in it" and that we at least desire to be at Mass. It also established the premise that the Sunday obligation can be done away with if there is a grave enough threat to health. Given the circumstances, these inferences were certainly not false, but even good things can be twisted.

The next step came when bishops started announcing the tentative re-opening of public Masses. I attended my first Mass in months today, deo gratias. But this is only an interim sort of stage. The bishops understand that the pandemic is not over and that certain populations are still very vulnerable. For this reason, though Masses are being restored, Sunday attendance is remaining optional in most places for the time being. In my diocese, it is still optional until July. Persons who are at risk or don't feel safe can still opt to stay home. Essentially, the bishops at first said, "We don't think this is safe, so we are telling you not to come." Now they are saying, "We think this is pretty much safe, but if you don't feel safe, you're still free not to come." The bishops are asking us to consult our own informed conscience about whether we feel it is safe to return. Sunday attendance is being tossed into the realm of conscience.

Priests are tripping over themselves to assure Catholics it is okay not to return to Mass right now if they don't feel like it. For example:




And again, this isn't necessarily wrong. If the Sunday obligation is still suspended, and the pandemic is still going on, and one feels they might be vulnerable, there's nothing incorrect about this.

However, I do want to draw attention to the way the attendance of Mass is getting shoved into the realm of the subjective, the realm of conscience. The reason is because the bishops consider the current safety of public Masses to be up in the air. It's safe enough to let people return in some sense, but not safe enough that we can go back to normal. Hence we give certain folks leeway to decide to stay away.

Thus, since there is some question about the objective safety of large public Masses, this is where we remain today.

Now, let me predict where we will end up and how this will turn into a gargantuan debacle:

Eventually, the bishops will decide that it is safe enough to reinstate the Sunday obligation. Maybe this summer. Maybe later. But eventually the Sunday obligation will be restored. But after months of non-stop Covid-19 hysteria and media fear-mongering, many Catholics will still "not feel safe" returning to Mass. Indeed, a recent survey found that 1 in 6 Americans will never feel safe going out in public ever again.

This will inevitably result in a large swath of formerly practicing Catholics who "don't feel safe" returning to Mass despite the fact that the bishops declare it safe to return and reinstate the Sunday obligation. These people will be propped up by an army of useful idiots who inundate social media with virtue signaling memes and moralizing soliloquies about how whether to attend Mass is a matter of "conscience" and that we shouldn't be "Mass-shaming" Catholics who don't "feel safe" returning to Sunday Mass. There will be a lot of half-baked cringey attempts to offer theological justifications for this—sometimes centering on the primacy of conscience, sometimes appealing to a slip-shod sacramental theology they probably picked up from reading Patheos. There will be more accusations of Pharisaism towards Catholics who find this objectionable, and your progressive Catholic friends on Facebook will become even more belligerent and annoying. There will be strained, pathetic arguments trying to convince you that watching Mass on a screen is not substantially different than assisting in person.

The bishops will waffle on clarifying the matter and issue contradictory statements, essentially saying that while the Sunday obligation remains in place, one must always follow the dictates of ones conscience. The statements will leave enough ambiguity for persons on both sides of the dispute to argue from. Meanwhile goofy parish priests will take to Twitter to confuse the faithful by affirming the right of any Catholic to abstain from physical attendance at Sunday Mass if they don't "feel safe."

Essentially, the Sunday obligation will transform entirely into a subjective matter of conscience.

But as for us, here's the thing we ought to remember when these absurd arguments cross our screens: whether something is "safe" is not a matter of conscience or feeling. If I have a room that has a clearly lit exit sign, a working fire suppression system, and multiple easily accessible means of egress, then (from a fire safety standpoint), that room is safe. It doesn't matter whether you "feel" safe from fires in the room.  The room is safe. It doesn't mean it couldn't conceivably catch on fire or that something totally unexpected won't happen—after all, life involves risk. But it does mean that by all objectively measurable criteria, the room is safe. It's not a matter of one's opinions or feelings.

The same goes for the restoration of the liturgy. The reason the bishops are currently allowing us to defer to our conscience about Mass attendance is because there is some degree of uncertainty over how safe the situation is objectively. But whenever the bishops do decide to restore the Sunday obligation, it will be because they assess that the situation is now objectively safe. Whether or not someone "feels safe" is not relevant. Safety is an objective state of affairs, and if the bishops restore the Sunday obligation it will mean that state of affairs is such that there is no reason for Catholics to abstain from attendance any longer. Catholics will have no licit reason to refuse attendance at Sunday Masses, regardless of how they feel.

But by that time it will be too late. Catholic social media hacks will flood us with an avalanche of sewage from all quarters that essentially reframes the Sunday obligation as entirely a matter of conscience in the age of corona. And good luck ever getting that horse back in the stable once it's out.

Welcome to the New Normal.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

It's not "Crucifying Your Neighbor" to Attend Mass


All around the country bishops are beginning to restore the celebration of public Masses. In response to this, Simcha has published an article on the question of attending these Masses while the pandemic is still going on. Her essential point is that voluntarily abstaining from Mass and Eucharist right now is an act of love for one's neighbor. Conversely, choosing to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist right now is not an act of love but an act of selfishness akin to crucifying our neighbor. It's not too long; if you want to read it you can do so here.

While I understand her concern about the vulnerable, I have some serious reservations about her line of argumentation.

First, Simcha is right that attending Mass right now involves risk. However, it always did. I have five kids and they're all germ factories. They are constantly at risk of spreading their germs to the sick and the elderly at Mass despite our precautions. Every time we get in the car to drive to Mass or elsewhere we are endangering other people's lives. Is that antithetical to love? Well, it can be, depending on the level of recklessness involved in the act of driving, but the mere act of assuming risk isn't reckless. The question that we must discern is not "does this involve risk?" but "how necessary is this risk?" "how much risk is involved?" and "what am I doing to mitigate that risk?" If you run red lights or don't wash your hands (that is, if you don't take precautions) then you've been negligent in your duty to protect those around you. You've been reckless. We have a responsibility to our neighbors not to take unnecessary risks and to mitigate risks when they are present, but we can never act completely without risk, especially in activities that are so essential to our well-being as attending Mass.

Second, like many, I was disappointed when Masses were suspended. We've gone two months without Mass and certain parts of the country may go much longer still. At the time, we were supposed to trustingly accept that our bishops were taking the necessary precautions that the situation at the time demanded. If we were supposed to trust our pastors then, are we not supposed to trust them now that those same bishops are making the decision to gradually reopen access to the Mass with precautions? Everyone should make their own discernment, but that should also involve guidance from our spiritual leaders. Simcha suggests that going to Mass right now is akin to being "willing to kill" for Jesus. It seems absurd to me to frame going to Mass as being "willing to kill for [Jesus]" when our bishops are the ones encouraging the restoration of public Masses. Essentially, you can't wag your finger and say "Trust our bishops!" when they shut Masses down but now say we should not trust them when they decide to open up.

Elsewhere, Simcha states "Take care that, when you say 'I would die for Jesus,' you don’t really mean, 'I’m willing to kill for him.'" However, if going to Mass constitutes killing people, then so does going to the grocery store to buy the food necessary to keep your family alive. I have yet to hear anyone make the argument that by going to the grocery store that we are killing people or that killing people for physical nourishment is justified (hint, it's not). Is killing people to go to Mass permissible? That's an absurd hypothetical with no basis in reality. Better questions are "How essential is Mass?", "What threshold of risk is acceptable when determining to suspend/resume Mass?" and "What precautions should we take when resuming Mass?" Our pastors have been grappling with these questions for months and, again, I want to assume that they are making the best decisions they can with the information available to them when they choose to reopen the Mass. But the essential point is that Mass is not a special circumstance; if it's "killing people" to go to Mass then it is also "killing people" to go get groceries or any of the other things we are still allowed and required to do. 

Finally, Simcha seems to characterize Mass attendance as something that primarily benefits the individual but with social consequences: something that doesn't just affect only ourselves but everyone else as well. That last part is absolutely true. However, we have to be careful not to apply principles capriciously. Making the personal decision to attend Mass certainly affects those around me, but so does the decision not to attend. I have a responsibility not just to society generally but to my family specifically. The spiritual development of my children is probably the single greatest responsibility in my life. They don't really understand why we don't go to church anymore and, despite my best efforts to substitute the Mass, they don't really view it as important anymore. When discerning to attend Mass or not I have to take into account not only my own desires versus the risk to others but also the needs of my family. If I choose to wait longer than what my bishop says is necessary then I must be sure that this does not constitute a reckless neglect of my family's needs and my responsibility to them.

Two concluding thoughts: Simcha's use of sex as a corollary to attending Mass is kind of weird. I get that her point is to say "Love waits", but there is a world of difference between wanting to partake in a physical act we are biologically disposed to and the desire to attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

Also, it's interesting to reflect on all the times in history when the mere attendance at Mass put the entire congregation at risk. Ancient Rome during the persecutions. Elizabethan England. Revolutionary France. Mexico during the 1920s. Communist China. In any one of those historical circumstances, all it would have taken was one single Catholic to be captured and talk under duress to expose the entire congregation—as well as their priest—to imprisonment, torture, exile, or death. Any one parishioner assumed a very real risk, not that their fellow parishioners would get an illness from which 98% of people recover from, but that the entire congregation could be destroyed. And yet they all still came and were encouraged to do so by their pastors, who viewed the spiritual treasures of the Mass as justifying the profound risks.

Now, I certainly am in no position to tell anybody how much risk they need to be willing to take—for every Catholic who attended Mass during the Mexican persecution, there were probably five who stayed home for their safety, and that's their call. But, those who do choose to assume the risk should not be called selfish and accused of "crucifying their neighbor" because they are simply attending a religious service that their own bishops have told them it is now allowable to attend.

I also want to thank my friend Christian, whose thoughts formed the genesis of this post.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Kevin Symonds' Review of Infiltration




Last year I published a guest post by Kevin Tierney on the factual and methodological problems with Dr. Taylor Marshall's book, Infiltration

This week I came across another great review of the book by Mr. Kevin Symonds. The review is quite extensive and highlights some of the same issues as our original post. It is broken up into two segments, which you can view below on Kevin Symonds' website:


The real gem in these reviews, however, is the 12 page PDF linked at the end of the second review that catalogs a list of the factual and scholarly problems with the book. If you want to skip right to this, I have linked it here. I highly recommend it.

I want to stress that my posting of these reviews is not indicative of any personal animus against Dr. Marshall. He's done some excellent work on behalf of Traditionalism. But we Traditionalists ought to be critically-minded about our own arguments. Not everything that comes from our own "side" needs to be defended and propped up. "Iron sharpens iron", as the Scriptures say (Prov. 27:17), and we should not shy from critical examination of the works produced by other traditionalists. In the 13 years I have been blogging here, my readers have been very astute and persistent at critiquing my own blathering mind-dumps, for which I am immensely grateful.

Please check out the work of Mr. Symonds. It brings up some excellent points for consideration.

Friday, May 01, 2020

"Utilitarianism": The Latest Word Being Used Incorrectly

In the debate among Catholics about the damage of long-term economic shut down versus the risk posed by COVID-19, one will often hear the word "Utilitarianism" being thrown around. The subject inevitably arises whenever people begin questioning whether the deaths caused by coronavirus are "worth" the total destruction of the economy. As soon as someone starts making a calculus about whether human lives are "worth" some other sacrifice, the party in favor of keeping the economy closed will often retort that such calculations are "Utilitarian" and contrary to an authentic Catholic ethos.

It is not my intention here to discuss the pros or cons of opening the economy back up. However, I do want to address the way the term Utilitarianism is being bandied about in these circumstances and educate people on why it is being used incorrectly.

Many Catholics are under a mistaken notion that a moral act is "Utilitarian" if it tries to calculate the worth of human lives in relation to some other good. For example, saying, "It's not worth destroying 22 million jobs for the sake of a virus that 99% of people recover from." We can see in this statement that there is a kind of calculus happening—there is acknowledgment that 1% of the persons infected will regrettably die, but that this is not "worth" destroying the livelihoods of 22 million people. And therefore this argument is Utilitarian because such a calculus is being made and that such an argument is ipso facto wrong for a Catholic to make, or so it is said.

This, however, is an incorrect application of the term "Utilitarian." Utilitarianism does not simply mean that one calculates the weight between two different sorts of human loss. We do that sort of thing all the time, and it is not Utilitarianism. For example:

  • We know that around 38,000 people will die every year from car crashes in the United States. Tragic as this is, society has collectively decided that vehicular travel is a good that is "worth" the deaths that will regrettably result from it.
  • A general is planning an attack. He can attack with a cavalry charge from the flanks, or an infantry assault head on. He calculates the head on assault will likely result in 5,000 casualties among the infantry, but the cavalry attack will result in only 2,000, mainly from the cavalry. He therefore chooses the cavalry assault to minimize the loss of his forces, even though he knows it will probably result in the deaths of 2,000 cavalrymen. The 2,000 dead cavalrymen are "worth" preserving the 5,000 infantry and winning the battle with less loss of life.
  • A man operates a roofing company that employs 30 roofers. He knows statistically that in an average year at least one of his employees will sustain serious injury from falling off of a roof. Nevertheless, he has decided that the good of running his business and employing 30 people is "worth" the trade off of one employee potentially being injured or killed in any given year.

None of these situations are Utilitarian, despite the fact that there is a calculus of "worth" taking place. Rather, these are examples of risk management. Risk management is what happens when people understand that any course of action possesses certain inherent risks. Being unable to totally avoid those dangers, they proceed with a course of action while doing what they can within their power to mitigate the risks associated with it.

We know people will die in crashes and thus we try to mitigate traffic deaths with traffic laws, enforcement, and driving education. The general knows soldiers will die in a battle and so chooses the plan that tactically exposes his soldiers to the least amount of harm. The man with the roofing company knows at some point an employee will get injured and tries to mitigate this by mandating the proper protective gear and regular safety training. All of these are examples of risk management, not Utilitarianism, despite the fact that there is a sort of calculus or "trade off" that is weighed between the sufferings endured by a few versus the good for the greater number.

What would make an act Utilitarian, then? According to John Stuart Mill's theory, Utilitarianism is not so much that the few suffer on behalf of the many, but that their suffering is required to secure the benefit of the many, which can only come about on behalf of the suffering of the few. In true Utilitarianism, there is an intrinsic, causal connection between the suffering of Class A and the good of Class B. It is not merely accepting that a certain course of action will have unavoidable risks. Rather, it is intentionally willing those negative outcomes to Class A as a means of establishing the good of Class B. But in our examples, we can see that this is not what happens at all.

For example, though we know 38,000 will die in car crashes as a result of keeping the roads open, nobody says that these deaths are necessary to keep the roads open. If there is any doubt about this, we can do a simple test. Suppose through some miracle we were able to maintain our travel without a single traffic fatality in a given year. Would people respond with frustration and anger that we didn't get to kill off 38,000 people? Of course not. There would be rejoicing that we had managed to keep road travel open while avoiding any casualties. This demonstrates that the 38,000 annual traffic deaths are not part of a Utilitarian calculus; rather, they are a risk that society is willing to assume as an unintended side-effect of vehicular traffic. Society actually works to mitigate these fatalities because the relation between driving and fatal car crashes is neither necessary nor causal; our ability to drive is not made possible by traffic fatalities. There is no Utilitarian trade-off.

The general's attack is not made possible because 2,000 cavalrymen will probably die. If he could take the enemy position without losing a single man, he would. The presumed loss of life is an unintended consequent of the attack that is tolerated in order to secure the objective of winning the battle. If the owner of the roofing company goes a year without any accidents, he does not wring his hands and say "Ugh...we really needed at least one or two of you to fall off a roof this year to keep our margins up." Of course not. The statistically probable accidents are neither willed nor are they intrinsic to keeping the business open. The business owner would happily do away with roofing accidents altogether and does everything in his power to mitigate this risk.

Similarly, to argue in favor of opening the country back up, even knowing that people may die as a result, is not a Utilitarian trade off. Even if we mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we cannot stop it. It is inevitable that it will spread, and inevitable that people will die from it. It is also inevitable that the continued closure of the economy will have disastrous consequences that will certainly spiral into its own unique health and safety crisis the longer this goes on. It is not Utilitarianism to say that we are willing to accept the potential risk of COVID-19 in order to stave off long term socio-economic collapse. It is no different than a general choosing the course of action that will lead to the lowest amount of casualties. It is an example of risk management, not Utilitarianism.

And we know it is not Utilitarian simply by this fact: COVID-19 deaths are not necessary for the economy to recover. Even though they may accompany a general re-opening, they do not make the re-opening possible. There is no "good ends through evil means" sort of causal occurrence; rather, there is a choice between two options (each of which has its own inherent risks) and the decision to go with the option that seems less destructive in the long run while continually trying to mitigate the unintended consequences.

A further point to consider is this: in Mill's Utilitarianism, Class A not only suffers to establish the good of Class B, but they are morally obligated to do so. This follows as a consequent of the argument that the necessary harm inflicted on minority Class A is justified as a means of securing the good of the majority Class B. Class A not only suffers for the good of Class B, but they are morally obligated to suffer.

Clearly our examples do not fit this mold. Even if we can expect 38,000 traffic fatalities a year as the cost of keeping the roads open, nobody argues that those 38,000 are morally obligated to die for this end. The soldier attacking the hill is under no obligation to become a casualty. No roofer has an obligation to fall off the roof and injure himself, even if it is statistically certain that at some point someone at the roofing company will. And even though we know COVID-19 will continue to wreak havoc even after the economy is opened up, nobody is under any moral obligation to contract the coronavirus. There is no relationship of obligation between Class A and Class B, and without that theoretical morally obligatory duty of Class A to suffer for the good of Class B, we do not have an actual Utilitarian trade-off happening. Again, this entire argument comes down to risk assessment and risk management, which are always dictated by prudence and admit of various different courses of action which may all be morally justifiable.

But that's not acceptable to some. Many Catholics and others do not want to view this through the realm of prudence or risk management. They want to say "YOU ARE MORALLY OBLIGATED TO SUPPORT THE LOCK DOWNS AT ANY COST OR ELSE YOU ARE UTILITARIAN AND YOU WANT PEOPLE TO DIE."

Yes, "the greatest good for the greatest number" was the slogan of classical Utilitarianism, but the nuts and bolts of Utilitarianism are vastly more complex than that slogan alone. We all attempt to maximize the use of our resources to the greatest extent for the greatest good. But that doesn't make something Utilitarian anymore than saying there is secret knowledge available only to the initiates makes something Gnostic. You may agree or disagree with re-opening the economy, but those of you from the militant "Stay Home Stay Safe" crowd should stop accusing your fellow Catholics who disagree with you of Utilitarianism or Consequentialism who merely disagree on a prudential matter.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Private Communion


The whole thing was a surreal experience. It had been quite useless calling the parish office. All of the employees had been sent home weeks ago and calls simply went to an already full voicemail box. Seeing phone contact to be useless, I got out a piece of paper and scribbled a little note:

"Father X, would it be possible to make an appointment for my family to come receive Holy Communion and receive a blessing? We have not been able to receive the Eucharist for a month. Please call me and let me know if you'd be willing."

I scrawled my phone number on the note and stuffed it in an envelope with the priest's name on it. I drove to the parish and walked about the abandoned campus. The rectory was a sprawling complex with a couple of different buildings and multiple entry ways; I was not certain which door the priest was most likely to come or go from. I found took a guess as to which door looked the most used and affixed the letter to the door, then went my way.

Two days later, after dinner one evening, I heard a text come through. "It's Father X, please call me." I called him back and he said he would grant my request. Distribution of communion has not specifically been forbidden in my diocese, so as I understand it, this was basically a discretionary judgment left to each priest. I told him how many persons I had: "There will be myself and four of my children receiving." We made an appointment for the following day around 11:30 AM.

I called my children in and explained to them that we would be receiving Holy Communion the following day and to prepare themselves as best they could. There was palpable excitement. Receiving any sacrament in the age of Covid-19 is a challenge. They were joyful at being able to receive Christ.

The following morning we arrived at the church a few minutes early to pray in silence and dispose ourselves. We each took a squirt from the massive canister of hand sanitizer by the door and then knelt in silence. A few moments later the priest walked in, vested in a stole. He removed the ciborium from the tabernacle, approached us in the pews, and began proceeding through the text of a communion service.

"Behold the Lamb of God," he said, holding the Body of Christ aloft immediately in front of us. I'd never been so close to a priest at a moment like that. He administered the sacrament to each of us, on the tongue. There was no contact between the priest's fingers and my tongue; indeed, in my 18 years of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue, no priest's finger had ever touched me.

After communion, the priest gave us his priestly blessing and departed. We stayed behind a few moments to pray in thanksgiving. It reminded me very much of stories I had read in saints' lives; I remember in the biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, it talked about how before she entered religious life, when she wanted to receive communion she had to approach the parish priest, ask for permission, explain what preparations she'd made to dispose herself, and then receive at a particular Mass scheduled for that purpose.

It was certainly more of a challenge to orchestrate, but this communion meant a lot more. I was more prepared. My children were more prepared. The extra work made it more meaningful. And I started thinking there really is something to the argument that less communions can be more beneficial. Of course I've always known that it was superior to receive fewer communions better prepared than more communions less prepared, but until this present darkness I had no experiential knowledge of the fact.

When this is all over, I think I may voluntarily receive Holy Communion less and spend more time in preparation. Maybe once a month or something.

Also, I am very grateful for this priest for accommodating myself and my children. I suggested a friend in another diocese try the same thing I did for herself and her family; her priest categorically told her no and simply forwarded her a link to an Act of Spiritual Communion. She was understandably disappointed.

May the Lord bless and keep you all.


Sunday, March 29, 2020

Some Coronavirus Catch-Up


Greetings, friends. I've had a lot of thoughts over the past several weeks and every time I sat down to share them, something else drew my attention away or some other rumination caused me to pause and reevaluate my thoughts. I finally have some time today, so I intend to just throw some things out there for consideration; please forgive the scattered nature of this post.


I. I understand and support the need for cancellation of public Masses, but these bishops who are forbidding the faithful access to confessions, baptisms, and Catholic burials are simply awful. Reading their statements, it's like they don't really believe the sacraments do anything. Their approach is "Just make a spiritual communion", or "Just make an act of perfect contrition." A lot of innuendo is packed into that little word just. Of course, spiritual communions and acts of perfect contrition are legitimate things we find in the Catholic Tradition. It is not the recommendations themselves, so much as the shoulder-shrugging "Hey...you can still get what you need elsewhere" attitude that has accompanied them. Their statements do not seem to adequately reflect the sense of deep grief that should accompany the suspension of public worship. "God is not bound by the sacraments"; yes of course, but this saying in context refers to the fact that God—being all-powerful—can act to communicate grace through any means He chooses, even outside of the sacraments. But that presumes also that the sacraments are the normative means for receiving the grace of God. They are the only way we know of that God has established to communicate these special graces. Using an act of perfect contrition in lieu of confession is meant for emergencies where a priest is physically unavailable, such as a plane crash. It is not meant for situations where literally all the priests in the diocese are alive and well and available but being told to not offer confessions because of fear of a virus that 99% of people recover from. And it is not guaranteed that a penitent will have sufficient contrition to perform it; and even if it is performed successfully, the requirement to still go to sacramental confession as soon as possible remains.

It has just been astonishing how little it took to completely eliminate the sacraments. It would be nice if we had more bishops like Bishop Strickland, who is encouraging his priests to find anyway they can to heroically make themselves available for confessions. Instead more are following the lead of Nighty-Night Tobin, telling his priests to forego confessions and encouraging Catholics to do less penance. What a disgrace.

II. Speaking of penance, why aren't there more clergy leading prayers and acts of penance for God to remove the scourge of the coronavirus from us? Most of us know of the procession led by Pope St. Gregory the Great on April 25, 590 pleading for divine mercy on the plague that was then ravaging the city. This was the occasion of the famous apparition of St. Michael sheathing his sword atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian, after which the plague stopped. It should be noted that many infected with the plague partook in this event; eighty infected persons collapsed in the midst of the procession itself. Though I cannot remember the context, I believe Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I led the Frankish nobles in penance on their knees for the ending of a plague that was decimating Frankish troops in Lombardy. Processions for the cessation of the plague were also held in Rome under Adrian VI in 1522, after which the plague rapidly ended. 

Church history affords many other such occasions. It is interesting that we are not seeing such petitions being made by Church authorities today. You may object that Pope Francis led a "Prayer for Protection from the Coronavirus" recently, but if you read the text of the prayer, at no point did he ask God to take away the virus from us. He asked Mary to protect us, asked that we might have the grace to carry our crosses, and conform ourselves to God's will. But he did not ask God to take away the virus. In his Urbi et Orbi speech of March 27th, Pope Francis laudably encouraged Christians to return to Christ and rediscover our faith, but he did not ask God to take away the pandemic. Why aren't we praying for God to end this virus? "You have not, because you ask not" (James 4:2). I think the answer is that to ask God to take away the pandemic implies that He is responsible for it, and few things are more verboten these days than suggesting natural disasters are a result of God's judgment. In what sense do we even believe God is "in control" if we can't affirm His will is behind the pandemic?

III. Stop saying the Church's response to previous plagues is not valid today because they didn't understand how disease was transmitted. It is true that prior peoples did not know about germs and bacteria, but they certainly knew that people who got close to the infected also tended to get the plague. People have always known this. We read that way back in 431 BC during the plague of Athens, the Spartans withdrew their soldiers from the lands around Athens to avoid contagion. During the Black Death quarantines were practiced regularly. Contagion was a concern among the authorities during the Roman procession of 1522. Pre-modern people definitely understood that disease is spread from contact with infected people, even if they did not know the mechanism. And yet, the sacramental life of the Church still continued on, as it should have. The difference in the Church's actions in bygone days is not because they did not know what we know, but because they held different priorities than we do. The Church's responses to past plagues are perfectly valid and praiseworthy templates for today.

IV. There are unintended positive things coming out of this situation though. Two weeks ago I went to the only confession I could find, at a generic Novus Ordo parish in the city. They were offering confessions around the clock all weekend. I came in at 11:30 at night and the place was packed. A CD of Gregorian Chant was playing through the PA system. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the altar. I had been to confession here before in the past and it wasn't like this. In a crisis, people shed the things that are not helpful to them and hold fast to those which provide real sustenance to their lives. Confession. Eucharistic Adoration. The Church's traditional music. These things were what these people wanted. It was very touching. It's also been pointed out that there are now less sacrilegious communions. And before the total suppression of public masses, we had reception from the chalice restricted to the clergy alone and the sign of peace removed. It was so surreal seeing American bishops reminding their flocks that the sign of peace is only optional. Perhaps it will also teach people that it's better to receive Holy Communion less but be better prepared than to receive it all the time with little preparedness. Maybe it will lead to a renewed appreciation for how important the sacraments are.

V. I do have a concern about some of the folks who have been deprived of Mass though
, especially those folks are are on the older end of the spectrum. I'm thinking of those people who have faithfully come to Mass for many years but perhaps have not cultivated a very deep spiritual life. Now they are being told to stay home and just watch the Mass on the computer. Perhaps they will settle in and think, "This is much easier than going to Mass, and it's pretty much the same," and even after the prohibition on public Masses have been lifted, they will continue to simply stay home and watch the Mass on TV, until eventually they stop even doing that. Thus the cancellation of public Masses becomes the occasion for the total overthrow of faith. Now, you will say, "A person who does that doesn't have faith to begin with"; true, but they are less likely to nurture faith at home than if they had continued their rote Mass attendance unabated. So I do think this period will lead to a further permanent decrease in the amount of people who regularly come to Mass.

VI. I have been saddened and annoyed by the small but vocal army of individuals who have come out of the woodwork to badger us all endlessly about social distancing. Some of these folks are so embittered and angry about it that they not only are supporting the mass shut down of the entire economy—which I can understand, even if I disagree with—but they are angry at you if you don't want to rejoice at the prospect of your entire savings vanishing, your job getting scuttled, and your livelihood wrecked. We are supposed to laud this and we are heartless killers if we don't. A lot of these folks are in the immunocompromised crowd. I was talking to a priest about this last week and he noted that a lot of these people seem to take pride in their illnesses; it makes them special. It's like a badge of righteousness they can hold over others. Unfortunately for them, much of the world doesn't see immune deficiency or other illnesses in this way, nor as an excuse to completely and utterly destroy our economy and society. Their pride makes them very angry people. I agreed with this priest's observation and have myself noticed that (white people in particular) are fond of claiming illnesses as a special status. It’s like, if you’re straight white you can’t get the sympathy of being a minority or LGBT, but the victim culture mentality has still seeped in through other ways, making them “proud” of being immunodeficient, depressed, eating disordered, autistic, mental health problems, whatever. Medical problems are the victim hood culture of white people. And the pandemic itself isn't as bad as the incessant, moralizing nagging of America's mommy-bloggers. 

VII. One observation I made that particularly irked some folks is that people will not tolerate this sort of lock down for too long. A few weeks? But after that they are going to get antsier and antsier about going back to their old routines. The crashing economy will crush more heavily on people, and eventually political momentum will build for a restoration to normalcy. This will be the case regardless of whether the pandemic has abated or not. What will happen is that society will collectively decide to sacrifice the well-being of the immunocompromised in exchange for getting life back to normal—"sacrificed" meaning society will settle for containment measures that are less effective in order to return to something closer to normal economic activity. Society can't simply be put on hold for months and months on end, regardless of what our government or the CDC or the immunocompromised or anybody else might want to believe. The populace at large will simply not stand for it. Not saying that is good or bad, but it's simply how people will respond to prolonged lock down.

VIII. This situation has further confirmed that the so-called "Seamless Garment" Pro-life ethic is not only misguided, but positively dangerous and heretical. The bishops who are prohibiting confession and baptism are doing so on the premise that it is necessary in order to preserve human life. The unspoken assumption is that the preservation of physical life is the highest good that precedes all other goods. I believe this errant thinking is the result of the infection of the Seamless Garment Pro-Life ethic into the Catholic populace. The Seamless Garment Pro-Life ethic holds that all killing is morally wrong; ergo, these people will argue against capital punishment from a Pro-Life perspective, and frequently suggest that if we are "really" Pro-Life we would support things like socialized medicine, entitlement programs, etc. Arguments that begin with "If you were really Pro-Life" give me a headache. At any rate, this is in contradistinction to what I would call the Traditional Pro-Life ethic, which holds that the murder of innocents is wrong. "Killing is wrong" vs. "the murder of innocents is wrong" are two vastly different positions. The traditional Pro-Lifer opposes abortion not primarily because it is killing, as much as that it is the killing of an innocent life; i.e., murder. 

This is why there is no contradiction in a traditional Pro-Lifer supporting the execution of criminals while opposing abortion; it was never about "killing" as such, but about the deliberate murder of the innocent. If we were to adopt the premise that killing is always wrong (which is not what the Church teaches, see here and here) then we are implicitly affirming that the preservation of physical human life is always paramount, which is simply not true and has never been. The Church has always taught that our salvation is more important than the preservation of physical life; even other natural virtues such as justice may take precedence over physical life (i.e., a person willingly sacrifices his life in pursuit of a just cause). But the actions of our hierarchy are sending the message that all that spiritual stuff about salvation takes a back seat to the preservation of physical life, which is not only wrong but very much a heresy. And before one of you ass hats pops in the comments saying "Oh so what, you want people to die? You think physical life doesn't matter? Because what you are saying is you want people to die"—of course physical life is important. Everybody has the right and expectation of seeking to maintain their physical existence. I am not saying it is not important, only that it is not of ultimate importance. There is a hierarchy of goods, and maintaining physical existence is not at the top. But when the faithful are cut off from confession and baptism, this is the message our leaders are sending. Seek ye first the prolongation of your temporal existence.

IX. One final thing, my father is 69 years old and suffers from Stage 4 COPD and is also recovering from lung cancer, so please don't give me any nonsense about "You wouldn't think this way if you had a vulnerable person in your family." I know what it's like to have a vulnerable person close.

Alright, that is enough of my complaining for now. Until next time. God bless you all. Stay safe. May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

"It Was Common in the Early Church"


Education and the passage of time have given in me a healthy does of skepticism when people make extravagant claims about the antiquity of a certain custom. This is especially the case when the antiquity of such customs are cited as justifications for progressive liturgical novelties.

"This practice was common in the Early Church" is a phrase that should inspire misgivings in the hearer. Why? Because so many of the novelties we see today are fraudulently claimed to come from the patristic era. As we will see in this brief compendium, the commonalities between such customs and patristic practice is usually superficial. "It was common in the Early Church" is usually a tool used to shoe-horn some novelty into the Church under the faux guise of historical antiquity.


RCIA


The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) was instituted in 1972 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The creation of the RCIA program was said to be a "restoration" of the catechumenate of the early Church. Prior to 1972, adult converts joining the Church did so through a process of individualized instruction in which the convert met privately for instruction with a priest and was admitted to the Church at the priest's discretion based on his or her progress. The RCIA program was meant to "restore" a more structured approach to conversion that took place in the context of the whole Christian community with entrance to the Church being celebrated at Easter. This was supposed to be based on patristic practice. However, the similarities between RCIA and the ancient catechumenate are only skin deep.

In the ancient Church, persons who sought admittance to the catechumenate needed a sponsor to vouch for their good life. The sponsor was not simply a person who "accompanied" them through the catechetical process, as today, but was rather more like a professional reference whose good word was necessary for the catechumen to obtain admittance. The catechumen was interviewed about their lifestyle in a way moderns would find offensive and invasive: Was the person prone to drunkenness? Did he have a good reputation? Did he frequent the gladiatorial games? Did he keep slaves? Was he chaste? Did he visit the sick or perform works of mercy? The inquiry was meant to establish that the prospective catechumen was of excellent moral character. Acquaintances might be interviewed to obtain third party verification. One can imagine the indignation of Susan from the Parish Council types if modern RCIA included an interview where a catechumen was questioned about his or her sexual activity or if one's neighbors were queried about what a catechumen did on the weekends.

The catechumenate lasted three years, unlike the one year RCIA program. Catechumens were dismissed after the first part of Mass (Mass of the Catechumens), something moderns would find exclusionary and offensive. During pre-baptismal instruction, catechumens were only given very vague and symbolic explanations about the sacraments; it was only after baptism, during the period traditionally known as mystagogy, that the literal effects of the sacraments were explained. Many of the greatest catechetical sermons that have come down to us are sermons of a bishop explaining for the first time what had already happened to a new convert at Easter. During the final stages of preparation, a catechumen was expected to keep silence, abstain from sexual relations if married, fast and pray. They underwent an exorcism, based on the belief that anyone who had not been baptized was under the direct power of the devil and needed to be freed from Satan's power (not very affirming to modern sensibilities). Furthermore, other Christians were encouraged to keep an eye on catechumens (i.e., spy on them) to make sure they were not doing immoral things in their personal time. Any indication that such was happening could result in the catechumen's baptism being delayed or being expelled from the catechumenate as being unworthy.

All of this is so foreign to the spirit and vision of contemporary RCIA that it is laughable to try to portray RCIA as a "restoration" of the ancient catechumenate.

"Deaconesses"


In the debates about a female diaconate, it is often asserted that "deaconesses" were common in the early Church and were only suppressed at a later date. Thus, opening the diaconate to women would be a "restoration" of an ancient custom. This is an argument made by promoters of this idea; for example, in a 2019 interview on the matter, Cardinal Walter Kasper called the admittance of women to the diaconate an "ancient tradition" (source).

It is true that there were women called deaconesses in the early Church. St. Paul calls a woman named Phoebe a "deaconness" in Rom. 16:1. Pliny's famous Letter to Trajan (c. 112 AD) makes reference to torturing two female Christians "who were called deaconesses" (Letter 10:96).

This does not mean these women were ever sacramentally ordained, however. The confusion is on the word deacon, diakonos, which in Greek simply means "servant." In the days before the hierarchical vocabulary of the Church was strictly formalized, diakonos could refer to the ordained diaconate, or it could also refer to persons who served or assisted in the charitable works of the Church in someway. For example, that retired woman in your parish who volunteers in the parish office three days a week, sells tickets at the annual Rummage Sale, takes communion to the home-bound, and manages the food pantry? People like that could be referred to as diakonoi in the early Church by virtue of their service. This is similar to how originally the word presbuteros ("elder") could refer to the institutional priesthood (priest comes from the word prebuteros), or it could refer to any older Christian of good repute. It took some time for these titles to become standardized.

These "deaconesses" were not women who had been ordained, but women who aided in the work of the Church in various ways—distributing alms, standing as godparents for the newly converted, preparing candidates for baptism, caring for the physical infrastructure of the Church, visiting the sick, and so on. Over time, these offices constituted a sort of "order" within the early Church, perhaps with its own distinctive garb.

But as time went on and the vocabulary of the Church became formalized, it was increasingly inappropriate to refer to these women as "deaconesses." The ordained diaconate had always been male—the original seven deacons in Acts 6 were all male, and there is not a single record of a ordained female deacon.  By 325, the Church thought it was necessary to make some strict distinctions. The Council of Nicaea decreed that women working in such ministries of service were not to be considered ordained, and after this the practice of calling them "deaconesses" faded. The council's decree is in the context of persons who may think they have received sacraments but have in fact not:

"Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity" (Council of Nicaea, Canon 19)

"Since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity." There never was a history of an ordained female diaconate, and Cardinal Kasper and his type are being blatantly disingenuous to assert that the cries for ordaining female deacons today represent any sort of "ancient tradition."

Eucharistic Prayer 2


The reforms of the Novus Ordo introduced the novelty of having multiple Eucharistic Prayers. One of these is Eucharistic Prayer #2, which is the shortest Eucharistic Prayer and often used in daily Masses offered in the NO. It is the prayer which begins, "It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation..." This prayer is often touted as being extremely ancient, pre-dating the traditional Roman canon, and written by St, Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235).

In fact, the prayer is modern invention loosely based on a patristic ordination prayer that may have been composed by St. Hippolytus. And everything about this ancient prayer is uncertain; as Fr. Finigan at The Hermeneutic of Continuity wrote, "
The origin, authorship and dating of the document is not established with the certainty that would enable us to draw safe conclusions as a solid basis for practical liturgical proposals." It was drawn up by the liturgical committee on the inspiration of the historical text. The specific text of Eucharistic Prayer #2 is no more ancient than the other prayers of the Novus Ordo.


Communion in the Hand


Communion in the hand is another practice that is said to originate in the Early Church. The argument in support of this is usually a letter from St. Cyril (313-386). The famous passage begins with the phrase "Approaching therefore, do not come forward with the palms of the hands outstretched nor with the fingers apart, but making the left [hand] a throne for the right since this hand is about to receive the King." The passage is taken from Cyril's Mystagogical Catecheses, a series of lectures delivered to neophytes after baptism.

What is not often understood is that how persons may have received communion in the hand in the old days was not akin to how it happens today. For one thing, recipients did not receive directly into their hand, but used a special liturgical cloth known as a dominica that was brought for this purpose. But more interesting is the practice of touching the consecrated host to ones eyes. The same was done with the Precious Blood; Cyril says that the Precious Blood was smeared on the eyes, forehead, and other sensory organs. Look at the passage in full:

“In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?

Then after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth your hands, but bending, and saying with an air of worship and reverence, “Amen” and, hallow yourself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touch it with your hands, and hallow your eyes and brow and the other organs of sense. Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who has accounted you worthy of so great mysteries.

Hold fast these traditions undefiled and, keep yourselves free from offense. Sever not yourselves from the Communion; deprive not yourselves, despite the pollution of sins, of these Holy and Spiritual Mysteries.

If we are going to cite patristic practice for Communion in the hand, are we going to also insist that the faithful smear the Precious Blood on their foreheads and other sensory organs? Surely no one would argue for such a thing. This is an example of the danger of affirming a practice merely because it is ancient (see our essay on Archaeologism). Catholics should certainly never support traditions being thrown out for no reason, but neither should we mindlessly tout whatever was patristic as being superior; to do such denies the legitimate development of doctrine and praxis under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, St. Cyril's assertion that one should receive communion "despite the pollution of sins" is extremely suspect. For this reason some have questioned the authenticity of this passage. What St. Cyril describes certainly should not be considered definitive. But, even if we grant such things did happen as described by St. Cyril, they came to be viewed as an abuse by the late patristic age. This is why by the following century we see communion on the tongue is the norm, as evidenced in the writings of Pope St. Leo the Great (see Sermon 91).

Many things from the patristic age died out with time, and rightfully so. Let us give one more example from a letter of St. Basil of Caesarea. St. Basil says:

"All the solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, take the communion themselves, keeping communion at home. And at Alexandria and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion, at his own house, and participates in it when he likes" (Letter 93).

Would anybody today support giving the Eucharist to lay people to keep in their house to self-communicate whenever they saw fit? Clearly not. So we see that the way Communion was handled vis-a-vis the laity in the Early Church was a world apart from the practices being promoted today as "ancient."

Now, you may argue that perhaps I am backhandedly making the case for Communion in the hand by demonstrating that the modern discipline is much more restrained than patristic custom. It undoubtedly is, at least in the sense that communicants today today rub the sacred species on their faces. But whether the modern means of receiving communion in the hand is good and whether it is patristic are two different arguments. Others more competent than I have made the case against communion on the hand eloquently; my purpose here is to merely argue that communion in the hand as practiced today is not patristic.

Mass Facing the People


The liturgical reformers of the mid-20th century asserted confidently that celebration of Mass ad orientam was a medieval development that was representative the "exclusion" of the laity from the mysteries of the altar. The more ancient custom, we were told, was the inclusion of the laity through the practice of Mass versus populum ("facing the people"), which subsequently became the norm after the Second Vatican Council for the purpose of emphasizing the Church as the family of God and the Eucharistic celebration as a "meal."

Appeals to the antiquity of Mass versus populum are riddled with difficult, however. Martin Luther famously thought that at the Last Supper, Jesus faced the disciples. Appeals to the Last Supper seating arrangement are foolish one way or another, however, because the actual seating arrangement at the Last Supper was determined by Greco-Jewish dining custom and not liturgical considerations ("Last Supper and Liturgy", USC, Jan. 2011).

The liturgical reformers cited an ancient "Roman custom" of celebrating Mass towards the people in patristic times as a basis for encouraging the practice after Vatican II. However, as Msgr. Klaus Gamber demonstrated in his excellent book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, the masses "facing the people" in ancient Rome were quite different from anything we experience today.

In ancient Church, the orientation of the liturgy was determined by the direction of East, towards which all Masses were celebrated. But the architecture of a Church was determined by the location of a martyr's tomb, over which churches were generally constructed whenever possible (see "Fenestellae", USC). Usually the architectural and liturgical demands were in harmony, but sometimes they were not. For example, in the case of the ancient basilica of St. Peter, the placement of the altar was based on the location of the tomb of St. Peter. But constructing the church upon this plan did not allow for the altar to be facing east, for topographical reasons. To face East during the liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest necessarily had to face the congregation, because East was behind the congregation.

However—and this is what the liturgical reformers never quite grasped—when the priest turned to face the East in such situations, the entire congregation did as well. Thus you would have a situation where the priest and people were all uniformly looking East, towards the narthex. The priest would actually be looking at the backs of the congregants. Thus the priest and people were united in facing welcoming the Lord during the liturgy.

So, to sum up (1) in the early Church, liturgies were always carried out facing east (2) which always necessitated the priest and people facing the same direction (3) in cases where the priest "faced the people", he faced their backs, and (4) not from reasons of "including the community" in the celebration, but in order to orient himself towards the east liturgically, and (5) this only happened in churches where topographical/architectural factors made such celebrations necessary.

Bonus: The Peace Prayer of St. Francis


Okay, this one certainly isn't something people argue is patristic, but it is a prayer that is ubiquitously thought to be composed by St. Francis but which was really dates only to 1912.

The earliest known record of the prayer ("Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace", etc) is its appearance in the December 1912 issue of the small devotional French Catholic publication La Clochette, the bulletin of the League of the Holy Mass. At the time it was simply called "A Prayer for Peace." Although the prayer was published anonymously, the texts in La Clochette were generally written by its founding editor, Father Esther Bouquerel (1855–1923), who was most likely the author. Around 1918, Franciscan Father Étienne Benoît reprinted the "Prayer for Peace" in French, without attribution, on the back of a mass-produced holy card depicting St. Francis on the front. The prayer began circulating in the United States in English in 1927—not through the Catholic Church, but through the Quakers, of all people. It does not appear tp have been adopted by Catholics until Cardinal Spellman distributed millions of copies of the prayer to soldiers during World War II under the title "Prayer of St. Francis." Since then, it has been almost universally (but incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

Conclusion


In all of these cases (sans the Sr. Francis Prayer), we can see that what was pushed as being "common in the Early Church" was in reality only loosely based on mere external similarities that were completely different in substance. Whenever you hear any novelty being put forward on the grounds that it was "common in the Early Church", you can almost always assume there is some slight-of-hand going on.

Like what you read? Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Some Hard Talk about the Knights of Columbus


I want to preface this post by saying that I am sure I will ruffle some feathers here. The Knights of Columbus are an institution that most Catholics hold dear, and that many of us men belong to. Ergo, a discussion of some of the changes coming down the pike is bound to provoke disagreements. I also understand that my own experience with the Knights is my own alone, and that other men have probably have very different stories. And I understand that things on the ground will vary tremendously from council to council. So, with that all said, take what I say with a grain of salt. If your experiences have been different than mine, please share, but don't try to invalidate my experience just because yours may have been different.

While many of us were focused on events going on at Rome in January, it was quietly announced that the Knights of Columbus were engaging in a massive overhaul of their ceremonial. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson made the announcement that the exemplifications of the first, second, and third degrees were being combined into one single ceremony. Furthermore, these ceremonies—which had always been private—are being opened up to the public, being aimed at including the candidates' wives and children to the ceremony as well.

This is the second major change for the Knights in less than a year. Back in summer of 2019, the Knights retired the traditional cape and plumed hat that were emblematic of the Fourth Degree and replaced them with a kind of faux U.S. military dress uniform and a headpiece more akin with military style beret. This change was announced back in 2017 and implemented last summer.

I don't personally have much of a stake in this; I am not a Knight, although I used to be one a decade ago. And I know that Knight councils can vary tremendously from parish to parish in terms of their energy, viability, and ability to attract and retain members. I personally preferred the old regalia, though a lot of Knights I talked to about it said they found the old Fourth Degree regalia a bit silly looking—like play-acting fake nobility or something. I personally don't see how "play acting fake nobility" would be any sillier than play acting fake U.S. military, which is definitely what the new regalia brings to mind. But whatever.

What I find most interesting is the rationale Supreme Knight Carl Anderson offered for the changes. When addressing the change to the new regalia in 2017, the Knights' official press release said that the choice to abandon the old regalia was based on the following factors:

  • the aging of our Fourth Degree membership
  • the slow growth of the Fourth Degree (fewer than 20 percent of Knights are Fourth Degree members, and only a fraction of that number even serve as honor guards)
  • consistent reports that the old regalia presented a barrier to Fourth Degree membership, especially among younger men

I do not understand the reference to the age of the Fourth Degree; are they saying, "The Fourth Degree members are getting old so we'd better give them something simpler to put on instead of this cape and sash and feathered hat?" Or are they saying, "Our Fourth Degree is aging rapidly; we'd better do something to attract more youths." Judging from the subsequent two points, in seems the latter is the tenor of their thinking—unless we change things up, the Fourth Degree is going to go extinct.

Let's put this consideration on the back burner for a moment to look at the explanation Carl Anderson gave for the more recent changes—the elimination of secrecy and combining of the first three exemplifications into a single ceremony.  Again, Anderson says that the changes are necessary because of concerns about declining membership. He stated that the traditional degree system was a "stumbling block to membership" and that secrecy of the ceremonial was "an impediment to joining."

Anderson cited a lack of manpower in local councils to perform degree ceremonies. Some candidates give up, and some never seek second and third degrees.“Last year," he said, "little more than half of the men who took their First Degree also took their Third Degree,” he said, adding that the number of third degree teams is expected to decline in the near future.

Anderson's statements and the press releases on why these sorts of changes are happening has made me think the Knights are essentially in the same crisis mode as the Church at large—and equally clueless about the real problems they need to be addressing.

First, it's okay for men to have men-only meetings that do not include their wives and children. Family life is great and wonderful, but it's definitely acceptable and praiseworthy for men to have male-only gatherings. If we really believe there is a crisis of masculinity in the world and Church (which the Knights most recent promotional video seems to affirm), then encourage occasional male only gatherings. It''s perfectly fine and laudable to have male-only degree ceremonies, etc. that family cannot attend.

Second, the notion that most Knights do not go on to their advanced degrees because their families can't attend with them is vacuous. Fact of the matter is, people make time for things they care about. If something is important to somebody, they find a way to make it work. And most councils bend over backwards to schedule events on days and times most amenable to their members. What Carl Anderson doesn't seem to get is that when a prospective or current Knights says "I would like to attend, but the meetings just aren't at convenient times" what he is usually saying is "This event is not important enough to me to justify taking time away from family, work, hobbies, etc." What he is really saying is "This organization's work and events do not provide enough value to incentivize me to sacrifice on its behalf."

Now, one could hold this thinking up as an example of the "selfishness" of the current generation I suppose—how people are unwilling to "make sacrifices" and put themselves out there for works of charity or fraternal bonds. But I think that would be too simplistic. It's not so much an issue of people being too self-oriented to want to participate; the elephant in the room that is not being addressed is that Knights of Columbus meetings often offer very little to engage their members. Much of this depends on how they are managed, of course, but they can often feel very much like a meeting of your local Planning Commission rather than a band of Catholic men heroically coming together to serve Christ. They can be marked by excessive a profusely dreary tedium. There is often a serious case of buyer's remorse: one signs up for the Knights out of noble motives and the sort of ideals encapsulated in the "Into the Breach" video, and then the reality of KofC meetings is sitting around a table with a bunch of spreadsheets listening to some Boomers quibble for 45 minutes on how to allocate the $27.68 the council netted from its last pancake breakfast. And as you sit there listening to the back and forth, you start to think if attaching yourself to this organization is really the highest and best use of your time.

I should mention, the latest KofC promotional ad is another example of of what I have called "man pandering"
—a sort of Tim Allen-esque form of marketing that is meant to appeal to men based on American masculine stereotypes. Working with power tools and sparks shooting everywhere? HELLS YEAH. First responders? HELLS YEAH. Military motifs?  FIST BUMP, BRUH! It's an approach that, while certainly better than the contemporary tendency to feminize everything, still evidences a basic ignorance of the best way to approach Catholic men. "You men like tools and stuff, right? Well here's some power tools. You like guns, don't you? Here's some soldiery stuff." It's like the masculine equivalent of just handing girls princess paraphernalia and pink clothes just because they are girls.

But I digress.

I was one of those First Degree knights who never went on to take the additional degrees. It was not because I couldn't make it to meetings; I could if I really had wanted to. It was not because I didn't want to wear the traditional Fourth Degree regalia—that is probably one of the coolest things about the Knights. It was not because I "couldn't get time" away from my family. It was merely this: I found my experience at the First Degree so unfulfilling that I didn't want to ascend to degrees that would only create more obligations to an organization whose involvement I found unsatisfying at even the lowest levels. I understand my experience is my experience alone, but I have talked to enough current and former Knights who reported similar sentiment that I am sure this is not an uncommon thing.

Essentially, the Knights are like that awkward, mildly annoying acquaintance who says, "Heyyyy want to come hang out Saturday?" And you really don't want to be around this person, but you also don't want to hurt their feelings, so you tell them, "I'm sorry I can't; I am cleaning my garage that day." Maybe you are cleaning your garage, maybe you aren't; but the point is its an excuse to get out of an engagement you really don't want to make. But your awkward and importuning friend can't pick up on your social cues, so when you say you have to clean your garage, he takes it at face value and says, "Oh! How about I come help you clean your garage, and then you will have time to hang out with me?" which of course puts you in a very awkward and uncomfortable spot.

Of course, you are still not going to want to go hang out with this person even if you didn't spend the day cleaning your garage, and more people are not going to join the Knights because the degree ceremonies become public or the regalia changes or the degrees are combined. The fundamental reason membership in the Knights is declining is because men don't see value in belonging to the organization. If they did, they would join. The Knights need a fundamental overhaul, not in how they dress or their ceremonial, but in what they are and what they offer to Catholic men. And Uncle Carl's mentality of "We need to abandon our traditional look because this new things is what the kids are in to" is only indicative of how out of touch the KofC leadership is. Anytime some Boomer is justifying some novelty because "this is what the youths want", run the other way. But, Boomers gonna boom I guess.

But really the problems in the KofC are just a microcosm of the situation in the Novus Ordo world; the new paradigm doesn't work, so we introduce more novelty, the new revolution leads to further disappointment, and then we stand on the ashes of our failure and proclaim victory with promises of an ethereal renewal that's always just around the corner. We've faced challenges in the past and been through hard times and had our hopes frustrated before, but THIS time our programs will work; THIS time we'll finally come into the long awaited spring; THIS time our charge over the top will be successful. The solution to the problems of novelty is always more novelty.