In his epic philosophical history of the world, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton claims that there have been at least five times in the history of the Church when the Faith, to human eyes, should have died, and in the estimation of the world, in fact did die. Yet in every case, Chesterton claims, it was the critics who vanished into history as the Church was revitalized and grew again. “At least five times,” he writes, “with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”
To her modernist enemies, the Church seems now to be going through yet another death. With the recent focus on scandal filling the headlines, critics everywhere are predicting the coming fall of Rome. Writing in the New York Times on March 27th, Maureen Dowd warns the Church of the approaching demise, and provides some helpful advice to avoid it:
If the church could throw open its stained glass windows and let in some air, invite women to be priests, nuns to be more emancipated and priests to marry, if it could banish criminal priests and end the sordid culture of men protecting men who attack children, it might survive.
The critical message is clear: under the leadership of the reactionary Ratzinger, the Church’s corruption has been revealed and the bankruptcy of its “conservative” wing has been confirmed. The days of the Old Church are numbered; and only the open New Church can salvage what’s left of Catholicism.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the Church’s latest death are greatly exaggerated. We must of course guard against the temptation to lapse into the political passive, to admit sadly that “mistakes were made.” Our pastors have sinned, and grievously. Only repentance, and never denial, is the pathway to redemption. Yet acknowledging the failures of our leaders we are presented with a curious image: a Church whose pastors have fallen, stuck up to their knees in the mire. Right alongside them we find, wallowing far more enthusiastically, the secular advocates of libertinism.
On the one hand we have leaders whose failure to uphold their own standards of sexual morality has left them justly open to charges of hypocrisy and corruption; on the other we have critics whose own standards have been for years far looser than the Church’s. One would be hard-pressed to find a previous article of Ms. Dowd’s that castigated the Church for failing to uphold a stricter sexual standard. With the modern mantra of “do what feels good” echoing in their ears, the fallen ministers are faced with confusing indignation, however justifiable, from the same crowd who egged them on to an exploration of forbidden fruits. The incredible thing is that when faced with crimes of sexual exploitation and moral failure, the cure proposed by the Church’s critics is to be more accepting of moral laxity.
Writing in the National Post, Fr. Raymond de Souza comments on this thrust of critical commentary:
The Church can become more Catholic, or less Catholic. Much commentary favours the latter approach. If the Catholic Church were to become less distinctively Catholic — begin to teach as false what she now teaches as true, modify her traditional practices, adopt democratic modes of governance — she would fix the problem….
The alternative is for the Church to become more fully who she already is — a preacher, a teacher, a mother, a mediator, a ruler. The sexual abuse scandals are a result of the Church’s infidelity to her own identity and mission. That demands the response of being more Catholic, not less.
In every previous crisis listed by Chesterton, the key to the Church’s survival has never been surrender to the prevailing critics; in fact it has been exactly the contrary. The revival from death has always been accompanied by a return to purity and orthodoxy, never by the adoption of the ways of the world. Even in this instance, where blatant sin on the part of her ministers is the source of the criticism of the Church, it is in returning to fidelity that the Church is most condemned, just as in the past it was orthodoxy that was critiqued. In all those cases, though, it was the novelty that was forgotten as an historical fad, and the orthodoxy that endured.
Chesterton, comparing the “death” of the Faith of his own day to that of the millenia past, notes in The Everlasting Man, “In so far as it is true that recent centuries have seen an attenuation of Christian doctrine, recent centuries have only seen what the most remote centuries have seen. And even the modern example has ended as the medieval and pre-medieval examples ended. It is already clear, and grows clearer every day, that it is not going to end in the disappearance of the diminished creed; but rather in the return of those parts of it that had really disappeared.”
What the secular critics of the Church don’t quite realize as they seek the fall of the Faith is that the Church’s death will always be like the death of Her Savior: a death followed by an unexpected rebirth. Where they look for a “diminished creed” they will find instead recommitment to serious orthodoxy. The essence of Christianity is not the denial of sin, but rather repentance, forgiveness, and new life. Under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, the Church has already begun the process of repentance and enacted a serious commitment to eradicating the sin in her midst. (We’ve yet to see such a response from the secular institutions that exhibit even higher rates of sexual crime; and yet which are blithely ignored by the press.) In his novel The Ball and the Cross Chesterton observes that, “The Cross can never be defeated, for it is Defeat.” In this Easter season when the Church’s enemies see her defeat at hand, we of a repentant Church can know that such a defeat is followed surely by a glorious Resurrection.