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ENCOUNTERING CRISIS IN THE CHURCH

 

In one of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s books, he describes a curious feature in the small town of Troia in Italy. At the base of the pulpit in the 12th century Cathedral of Troia, a relief shows a huge lion holding in its clutches a helpless lamb, which is still alive, but barely, already torn open by the lion, and seemingly doomed. Ratzinger interprets that the lamb represents the faith of the Catholic Church in the 1100’s, and the lion a powerful predator. But the relief also shows a small dog, which has thrown itself onto the lion’s back and is attacking with its teeth and claws.  If the lion decides to turn on the dog, in doing so it will have to release the lamb. Ratzinger interprets the lion to be heresy, and the small dog is fidelity, which against all odds courageously undertakes to rescue faith.   

 

In the Catholic Church today, we hear little of any crisis in the Church, much less heresy. As Cardinal Robert Sarah writes, “while the bark of the Church furrows the stormy sea of this decadent world and the waves crash down on the ship . . . a growing number of Church leaders and faithful shout, ‘Tout va tres bien, Madame la Marquise!  Everything is just fine, Milady!”

 

But everything is not fine. We know that Venerable Pope Paul VI spoke of crisis in 1973 to his friend Jean Guitton: "There is great unrest at this time in the Church and what they are questioning is the faith.” And Saint John Paul II wrote in the early 1990s in his great encyclical Veritatis Splendor that “certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine . . . risk being distorted or denied . . . [including a] systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine,” which we see once again today.  Dechristianization,” he wrote, “which weighs heavily upon entire peoples and communities once rich in faith and Christian life [involves] a loss of awareness in faith and Christian life or in any event its becoming irrelevant for everyday life, and of necessity, a decline or obscuring of the moral sense” [emphasis in the original].           

 

Are some right, that the laity can rely on Christ’s promise of the indefectibility of His Church and therefore can remove themselves from an engagement with unrest?  A decade before the Second Vatican Council, Venerable Pope Pius XII wrote differently in his encyclical Humani Generis. When principles of Christian culture are being attacked by disagreement and error about moral and religious matters, Pius XII, a great pope, wrote it is the duty of the faithful to “flee errors that approach heresy and resist such evil opinions.”  

 

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger brought to the fore the subject of an “authentic crisis” in the Church in an interview published in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report. However, Ratzinger distinguished the predicament of the Church in 1985 as opposed to open heresies in past eras of the Church, that “matters are not as clear” as before— “obstinate denial” and “obstinate doubt,” as set out in canon law. Perpetrators in our days do not want to appear as dissidents nor to be outside the Church, but to spread their error from within.  Nevertheless, Cardinal Ratzinger concluded that “we must speak . . . of a crisis of faith and of the Church. We can overcome it only if we face up to it forthrightly.” 

The question is whether that forthright encounter is happening in our days, or whether truth is being dismissed as “divisive” or “rigid.”  A short caution is at hand to consider, from the pen of one of the original 19th century architects of a true liturgical reform. Dom Prosper Gueranger writes in his commentary for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: “[N]ever forget that the same causes which brought about the destruction of the Jews would also lead to your ruin.  They fell, because of their unbelief. . . . .  Be not “high-minded with self-complacency . . . .  God . . . will not spare you, if you cease to be faithful; and whilst you do well to admire his mercy, you do not wisely if you forget His inexorable justice.”   

 

Robert Cardinal Sarah writes in his recent book, God or Nothing, with poignant clarity and exemplary courage. In language that can apply to all the Catholic faithful, he quotes Saint Pope Gregory the Great in saying that many priests do not fulfill the demands of their office, “attentive to other things,” while remaining silent as those entrusted to them abandon God. “We are wrapped up in worldly concerns, and the more we devote ourselves to external things, the more insensitive we become in spirit.” The most important thing, the Cardinal concludes, “is the interior transformation of the men who have chosen to follow Christ.” No less is true for the laity. “We must not be conformed to this world, but allow ourselves to be transformed . . . to adhere to the faith of the Church, even if that contradicts the scheme of the modern world.” 

 

As Cardinal Sarah explains, “the greatest difficulty of men . . . for the postmodern world is to believe in God and in His holy Son.” He writes of those who “devote only a little time to [God] during the day because they are swamped in . . . the heresy of activism.” Western societies are organized and live “as though God did not exist.”  Christians themselves, on many occasions, have settled down to a silent apostasy” as modern men center themselves almost entirely on secular affairs and material pursuits.  Likewise, Bishop Athanasius Schneider has said, “the present situation of the world and part of the life of many Catholics and ministers of the Church could be characterized as a great apostasy.”

 

But the Cardinal (pray for him) offers hope. As the best example, he turns our attention to the disappearance in the last century and the recent recovery of the Russian Orthodox Church. It has reversed the “insidious atheism” that has infected almost all of Western Europe. Orthodoxy has allowed the Russian nation “to make significant room for God and faith.” The small dog of fidelity has run off the powerful lion of disbelief. 

 

Paul King 

 

Paul King is founder and president of The Paulus Institute for the Propagation of Sacred Liturgy (2006) http://thepaulusinstitute.org/. B.S. University of Dayton, M.S., Tufts University, J.D. The Catholic University of America.  And not to be forgotten, certificate, Shibusawa Kokusai Gakuin for Japanese language proficiency (advanced intermediate level-- at least in 1989).  Private and corporate legal practice in international business, intellectual property, and food and drug matters.

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Review of The Walls Are Talking,A Young but Powerful Prayer Warrior
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