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When Catholics Behave Badly
By John Mallon
Some expressed surprise that Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, made public on January 25, should have been about love. Benedict was the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith before his election, and so was often tagged as a theological “enforcer,” harsh and cold, having to rain on the parades of silly theologians. It is unfortunate how people often get confused with their jobs. For 25 years, many were blind to the gentle priest Joseph Ratzinger was and is.
Many also missed the sublime theologian so clear and adept at diagnosing the Church’s ills and explaining them. There is clearly a need on a continuing basis to explain precisely what Catholicism is, and why it exists. The former Cardinal Ratzinger also wrote a book on this, Introduction to Christianity.
As every preacher knows, the basics of the Gospel and of the Faith must be continually taught and re-taught. But, as one of my favorite theology professors, the redoubtable Regis Martin, used to constantly remind his classes, “It is easier to write 100 volumes of philosophy than to live one Beatitude.” And that explains why Benedict decided to go “back to basics” in his first encyclical, and to teach Catholics that love is the sine qua non of Christianity; it is “all-in-all.”
This can be risky. Certainly a lot of nonsense has been propagated in the last 40 years in the name of “love” and in the name of being “pastoral,” and it is demonstrable that bad doctrine is bad pastoral practice.
That is why true love, compassion and pastoral practice must be based on right doctrine, or it is a lie and will harm everyone involved.
There is no conflict between right doctrine and loving pastoral practice, only between right doctrine and bad pastors.
The problem seems to be one of conversion. There cannot be orthopraxis without orthodoxy.
That being said, there is a problem in the Church in the West. The Church in the West has been exces- sively “feminized” in an unhealthy way.
Unfortunately, as another of my theology professors used to say, “In the Church, every reaction is an over-reaction.”
In an overly feminized Church there are some reactionaries who behave as if they have an extra “Y” chromosome.
Thus, within what would otherwise be the ortho- dox camp, the spirit of Christian love can somtimes be hard to find. This is a tragedy, because there is nothing more orthodox than love, properly under- stood, and nothing discredits the Christian witness more than the lack of charity.
What are we to say of a former business executive now heading a Catholic apostolate, after a conversion experience, who leaves his secretaries in tears due to his harshness? What if this Catholic leader casually fires staff who are having personal problems or sudden great needs, and says, “It’s just business,” in a cavalierly utilitarian way, all the while claiming to admire John Paul II’s philosophy of Personalism?
We say, “No, this is not an ordinary business; it is an apostolate, and the people who work for us or alongside us are no less Christ present to us than those we are ostensibly serving with the apostolate.”
People who act this way remind me of the description in the Book of Proverbs: “Such is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats, wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” (Proverbs 30:20)
Or, what do we make of a Church leader who avoids or delays payment to staff when the money is there, claiming the money is needed for the “cause” or the “mission”? As if sacrifice could be mandated? Especially when the top dog wants for nothing?
Those who confuse apostolic work with secular business and employ questionable ethics in the name of “mission” are clearly missing the boat. It took the Lord 4,000 years of building Western civilization and its system of laws to protect people from being treated like this, and to “waive” such protections through the claim of “the needs of the mission” is insulting—not least of all to the Lord. Christian mis- sion holds us to a higher standard; it does not give us the right to toss aside ethics, much less laws, that rightly bind in the secular world.
We all insult God, and I am no exception. There are more planks sticking out of my eye than you can shake a stick at. Sin is an insult to God and we all sin. Each one of us has a blind spot, or a scotosis, as the followers of Bernard Lonergan would say.
But if we all had to be sinless before we could discuss sin, the world of theology would be very quiet. Or maybe not Theological discussions can easily turn sinful when all-too-common Odium Theologicum sets in. For example, I received more “hate mail” for my column in January, “The Obedience Test,” than for anything I have written since I was in the diocesan press suggesting that Catholics should vote pro-life.
This ferocious hostility centered on what I thought was the rather innocuous observation that the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is in formal schism. I had never known the Society not to be in schism. Some who denounced me seemed to think I was gloating by making that observation, and accused me of defiantly contradicting Ecclesiae Dei Commission President Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who was quoted in an interview as saying the SSPX was not in formal schism. (The cardinal’s actual quote in the English edition was, “...the situation of separation came about, even if it was not a formal schism.” Emphasis added.) (30 Days, September 2005)
Others angrily accused me of deliberately lying and of committing the sin of calumny against the Society, without first ascertaining why I had written what I wrote. As I explained to one such correspondent, I simply had not seen the cardinal’s comment.
I take no joy in anyone being in schism. It is a tragedy. If I am wrong in characterizing the Society as in schism, I am glad. Schism hurts us all.
Following this barrage of accusations against me, I investigated. I was told by the Ecclesia Dei office that Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos did not wish to issue any further clarification regarding his interview. Another Vatican official told me to check the interview in the original Italian.
In any case, some ambiguity still exists as to the exact status of the Society. Canon 751 in the Code of Canon Law defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” (This is also quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2089.)
It is well known that Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos is working very hard to regularize the Society’s status to bring it into full communion with the Church, and I can understand him not wanting to jeopardize that work. But what continues to puzzle me is this: If there is no formal schism, what is there to be regularized? To my knowledge none of the excommunications of the bishops consecrated by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 have been lifted. If this is not schism, what is? (I’m quite sure if I am mistaken I will be corrected.)
I pray for the success of Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos’s efforts, and hope others will join me in this prayer.
As I was repeatedly reminded by those who denounced me, members of the SSPX don’t need to be “lectured” by the likes of me, but in my modest opinion, one of the greatest liabilities of the SSPX is the well-documented nastiness of some (not all) of the members toward anyone who dares to disagree with them. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”
Legend tells us that St. John the Beloved Disciple, at the end of his life, would tell the young people wanting to hear stories of the Master, “Just love one another.” 1 Corinthians 13 plays hardball. It is not a sentimental first reading at a wedding where Kahlil Gibran takes the place of the Gospel reading. Love is not something “soft.” St. Teresa of Avila said, “Love is as hard and unbending as Hell.” It has to be.
The early Romans marveled at the outlawed Christians, saying, “See how they love one another.”
The pagans of our day are most certainly observing us. What do they see when they watch us? ●
Mallon is Contributing Editor of Inside the Vatican.