Another day, another Catholic scandal – or that is how it seems lately. If you are like me, you are just sick of it, yesterday already. I felt myself reeling a bit with the news about German bishops, and needing a little balancing support, I decided to run a few questions by my friend Rod Bennett, a man whom I knew I could count on for historical context and a spiritual shot in the arm. Rod Bennett is the author of Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words from Ignatius Press and editor (with Gary Michuta) of Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger from Grotto Press.
Mary Kochan: The news that a company owned by the German bishops is selling pornography is almost numbing in the face of so much other scandalous news about members of the hierarchy. Has it ever been this bad before?
Rod Bennett: Yes it has, Mary, but in different ways. There have always been scandals in the Church but seldom the same scandal twice. It’s almost as if each generation of Christian elders has its own set of besetting sins…and perhaps its own characteristic strengths, too. What was new in the 4th century, for instance, was the alliance between Church and State which became possible in the wake of Constantine’s conversion. In some ways this was a wonderful thing; the persecutions ceased, new pro-life and pro-family laws were instituted and whole nations were opened to the Gospel of Christ for the first time. Alas, however, Caesar expected something in return for all these favors and what he wanted was a Christianity with the edges rubbed off…a Christianity, that is, reduced to little more than a mere ethical monotheism upon which everyone in the vast Empire could potentially agree.
In other words, Christian bishops were asked to “play ball” with Caesar and to produce for him a simplistic, watered-down version of the Faith that even totally unconverted pagans could accept and be allowed to re-interpret by their own lights. The carrot here for clergymen was, of course, all those great benefits I just mentioned; the stick was an implied threat on the part of the Caesars to abandon their Christian experiment and return the Empire to pagan government. And this is how we got Arianism—that great 4th century changeling in Christianity’s cradle. Arianism (started by a Egyptian priest named Arius, and not to be confused with Hitler’s white-supremacy theory called Aryanism) tried to eliminate the puzzle of the Trinity by turning Jesus into a mere angelic messenger from on high. The Arian Jesus was no longer “True God from True God” (as He is in reality) but merely a little copy of God, who was the Son of His Father only in the same way that Perseus had been the son of Zeus.
Mary: Yes, that certainly sounds like a bad theological disagreement but surely it’s not as shocking as pedophile priests and bishops making like Hugh Hefner!
Rod: Well, it’s not as easy to make a headline out of Arianism, I suppose, but it really was a fundamental attack at the very root of the Faith. If Arianism had succeeded, Christianity would probably have turned into something like a Greek-speaking version of Islam…and then have calcified slowly into mere predestinarian monism, before dying out altogether about the year 1000. Which means, of course, that you and I would have been born into a world in which Jesus Christ was nothing but an obscure footnote on a forgotten page of a dusty old encyclopedia. And Arianism was far more widespread in the Church than any other heresy before or since. It’s estimated that at its height (about 359 AD) eight out of ten episcopal sees were occupied by an Arian bishop. As St. Jerome famously put it, “the whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.” So it would have been very easy at that time for a layperson—the vast majority of whom clung to the original Catholic Faith—to believe not only that Christianity was going to hell in a bucket but that it had already gone.
Mary: But aren’t laypeople like us supposed to rely upon the bishops for the correct interpretation of the Faith? What becomes of the infallibility of the Church if eight out of ten Catholic bishops say Christianity is Arian?
Rod: This is where the Communion of the Saints comes in; there were bishops in heaven as well as on earth and their votes count, too! Yes, eight out of ten bishops presiding during that particular crisis were Arian…but these were a small minority of all the bishops that had ever ruled and that small minority just happened to be hopelessly out of step with all of their predecessors (as the laity remembered very well).
Most importantly, the popes of the Arian period remained loyal to the original Faith and were, in fact, the great enemies of Arianism…and of the Roman Emperors who promoted it. Several of them suffered dungeons, exile, and other persecution rather than cave in to the Arian juggernaut. And this fact acted as a great beacon of comfort to the perplexed laity, who saw it as a validation of the prayer that Christ Himself had prayed for Peter (and, by extension, his successors); i.e., that his “faith might never fail.” (Luke 22:32).
This historic fact, incidentally—that the Caesars of the 4th and 5th centuries hated and persecuted the popes—this fact gives the lie to the hoary old Protestant myth that it was the Roman Emperors who created Catholicism during this era. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s almost a mirror image of what actually happened. And this includes, by the way, Constantine himself, who actively sponsored Arianism during later years and died an Arian.
Mary: What about moral lapses then, such as this grotesque news out of Germany or the ongoing sex abuse scandals and their associated cover-up by some of the bishops. Surely this sort of thing is at an all time high, isn’t it?
Rod: Sadly, no. In fact, the current divided state of Christendom—with its hundreds of competing denominations rather than the one, universal, undivided Church that Jesus intended—is the great ongoing monument to Christianity’s high water mark of moral degradation. That mark was reached in the 15th century—the so-called Renaissance period—when the very title “Catholic bishop” had sunk so low in the public mind as to be practically synonymous with idler, libertine, freeloader, and pervert.
Protestant apologists are simply wrong about the supposed “false teachings” of that era; there was very little false teaching from the episcopate during the pre-Reformation era and certainly nothing to compare with the Arian crisis or other earlier waves of heresy (though it must be admitted that muddled, superstitious practices did tend to flourish among the ordinary people, whose catechesis their shepherds had horribly neglected). But when the Protestants say that the 15th century hierarchy was rotten with luxury, avarice, sloth, and unchastity they’re simply telling God’s honest truth.
Now, there is often exaggeration concerning the numbers involved; those clergy mired in the grosser sins were never, even then, an actual majority and there were, of course, many saintly men in the hierarchy of that time—including actual canonized Saints. But the bottom line is that bishops had simply become powerful Renaissance princes in those days and most of them had adopted a lifestyle which reflected that fact…and even the best of them were affected by it. And yes, this princely lifestyle often included everything you and I think of as so modern—addiction, fornication, pederasty, concubinage, shameful cover-ups and all the rest of it.
The so-called Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Zwingli rode the wave of public indignation over this state of affairs and used it to give the people whole new churches when all the people really wanted was one single Church that seemed genuinely interested in cleaning up its act…something which the Catholic Church had spent the last 150 years or so NOT persuading them of. But anyway, things are actually much improved today, morals wise—hard as that may seem to believe. Almost all of today’s bishops (including the bishop of Rome) live very modest lifestyles now, whereas practically all of them lived like kings at the time of Reformation and only a few were celibate.
Mary: I find this interesting, Rod, but also a bit confusing. You say the Catholic Church remained orthodox in its teaching during the Renaissance but corrupt in its practice. Is that really possible? Don’t the two go together? To so many of us today, it seems almost inconceivable that these errant bishops and priests who are making the news now really believe the Catholic faith. In fact I recently wrote an article positing that very thing: that they just couldn’t be believers and act this way!
Rod: I know there’s a temptation to link the two, but really, within the Catholic Church, moral corruption and theological heterodoxy seem to be almost completely independent of each other. In fact, Arius himself (to whom history has given the title “the Arch-heretic”) was a man of great piety and impeccable moral character—a fact to which even his bitterest theological enemies bore testimony. And it’s still true today.
Mary: That’s funny, now that you mention it – because as you know, I was a third generation Jehovah’s Witness. And as you also know very well, they are theologically Arians – and proud of it, too. But by and large they are very moral people.
Rod: A very wise and conservative old priest I’ve heard about warns people constantly not to confuse a great show of traditionalism or orthodoxy with moral purity. For every Archbishop Weakland, he points out, there’s a Father Maciel. And this, of course, is perfectly in line with what Our Lord would have us to expect. “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” He said to His Jewish hearers, “therefore you must observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but they do not practice.” (Matt 23:3-4). These leaders of Israel, whom Christ elsewhere called “vipers” and “sons of their father, the devil” were the orthodox party within Judaism! They taught God’s own truth as it had been revealed up to that time (in stark contrast to the party of the Sadducees who were the theological liberals of their day).
And even when the orthodoxy is perfectly sincere, it doesn’t magically confer impeccability as well. Doctrinal orthodoxy alone has no saving power; the lack of it is a great liability when it comes to resisting temptation, but the mere presence of it does not make us virtuous. Salvation by theology alone is a Protestant idea, not a Catholic!
Now, it is true that a defective formation can sometimes leave a young seminarian ill equipped to resist the temptations to which all of us are submitted in life; false ideas about how the Church’s moral teachings came to be, have, I believe, left many sincere young priests hanging out to dry in this era—expecting changes any day which will vindicate the “new morality” they have already adopted in practice, changes which, of course, never come. And I don’t think there’s anything loose or liberal in seeing an element of tragedy in this scenario. Heresy is odious to us (or should be) precisely because it does have the power to lead sincere people onto dead-end paths. Similarly, I think we need to resist the urge, when we do see some highly placed clergyman fall from grace, to interpret his fall as evidence that there had been a wolf in the fold all along. That may be the case from time to time but just as often the story is a genuine tragedy, about a good man who tried to do well and lost his way. And don’t forget!—that kind of story very often has a happy ending, like the stories of David or Samson.
Mary: What can we, as lay Catholics, do—besides pray—when we find that our sacred pastors have become derelict?
I may surprise you here. I think we should stamp our feet a lot more! Don’t get me wrong. I’m totally submitted in all humility to the teaching authority of our bishops and if one of them were here in the room with me right now, I’d call him “Your Grace” and embrace him like he were my own Grandfather. But groups like Voice of the Faithful really do have the right idea—though that particular group is so poorly catechized as to believe they are going to change’s God’s revealed truth (on matters like homosexuality and women priests) by means of a majority vote. Perhaps I should have recommended a group more like the Catherine of Sienna Institute, which is about catechizing the laity so well that they become intentional disciples who will take ownership of their own Church in the proper and biblical way. And there is such a way, believe me.
The Arian crisis, for instance, was overcome not only by heroic popes and brilliant theological bishops like St. Athanasius, but also by an incensed laity who got to the point where they simply wouldn’t accept a heretical or immoral bishop anymore. When the Emperor sent them one they often sent him right back—sometimes on a rail, with a coat of tar and feathers! Now fortunately, we have a godly pope these days to send him back to instead of a quasi-Christian Emperor—but sending him back is, in my opinion, precisely what we ought to do at times.
The aforementioned Archbishop Weakland, for example, should not have been allowed to quietly retire; he should have been punished, harshly and publicly…something akin to what they do in old war films where they stand a man up, rip the stripes off his shoulders, and slap his face. I can’t help but believe seeing something like that on CNN might have done an awful lot to convince John Q. Public that the Catholic hierarchy is not just the “good old boys” network it appears to be at times, but truly the successors of the Twelve Apostles. I’m not saying this just to show how hardcore I am (because I’m actually a bit of a softie by nature!); I’m saying it for the sake of the lost and the spiritually confused out there. That, after all, is what the word scandal really means in the Christian sense—it means “something which makes it harder for people to believe the Gospel, harder for them to save their souls.” So we have a very grave responsibility, I think, not only to avoid the sin of scandal in the Church but to see that it’s properly slapped down when it is indulged in by our Church officers.
Mary: Why didn’t our leaders see it this way?
Rod: I can’t help but believe they’re getting too much of their advice from lawyers and publicists these days. They’re running a multi-billion dollar organization and they seem to feel they have to act as a modern CEO would act. It’s much like the Joe Paterno thing that’s all over the news right now. It appears that Penn State saw the issue back in 2002; they saw its enormous potential to cost them millions of dollars in lost revenue via lawsuits and pulled sponsorships. Their choice was to either go ahead and make it public in 2002 and lose the revenue right away…or take a chance and punt the ball downfield a few years in hopes that something less horrible could be done more privately. And that’s the kind of chance a lawyer will often advise you to take. But the Church of Jesus Christ simply cannot be run on this kind of worldly wisdom. We, the laity, need to insist that it not be run that way—but we also need to insure our leaders that if they will do it right we’ll have their backs when the chips fall where they may (which, in practice, will probably mean we dig a lot deeper into our pockets when the collection plate passes!). And then if the bishops still don’t see it our way, we take steps to make them see it. Modern popes, for instance, are very slow to interfere with the local episcopacy—and rightfully so, most of the time. But unusual times call for unusual steps and a faithful, well-catechized local laity might insist on unusual steps—even from the Holy Father.
Mary: What would you say to someone who might call this a rebellious attitude—rebellion towards God’s chosen ministers?
Rod: I’d show them—from Scripture, from Church History, and from the examples of many Saints—that it isn’t. God never intended the laity to be anything like as timid and shamefully supine as we are today; all of the popes since John XXIII have cried out against this unbiblical clericalism over and over. The point, you see, is not that the bishops are refusing to do what we ask. They’re just doing what they think is best (or least disruptive anyhow) because we aren’t asking for anything! Not on any important scale anyway. The clergy just runs the show entirely because, basically, no one else ever shows up. But it just can’t remain that way. Believe me it can’t—because it will go a whole lot easier on all of us at the Judgment, clergy and laity alike, if we change it.
So the answer, Mary, is a wide-awake, orthodox, well catechized laity, serving Christ personally as responsible disciples, who—since they know the Apostolic Faith backward and forwards and thus realize what can and cannot be changed about God’s Church—will simply call their clergy on the carpet from time to time. Not for fun, not to make some trendy politicized statement about “top down leadership” (which was set up by Jesus Himself, by the way, who is the real top!)—but for the sake of the little lambs whom we are all here to help. Our examples aren’t the rebels or “activists” one sees on TV, but people like St. Francis, St. Joan, and St. Catherine—who were used by God to send the clergy some powerful wake-up calls but who—as far as the hierarchy was concerned, were just a bunch of ecclesiastical nobodies.
Mary: Do you think there’s any realistic hope for the Church to be purified from all this during our lifetimes?
Rod: Well, our God is the God of miracles.
Actually, I think G.K. Chesterton said it best: “Christendom has had a whole series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.”
Mary: Thank you Rod. This has been so encouraging! I’m sure Catholic Lane readers will find it so as well.