The Worse, the Better

It’s an odd argument, but in the Pope Francis era it seems to be more prevalent. It runs something like this:

He’s a lousy husband, angry, selfish, a slob, and abusive, but that makes him the husband God gave me all the more.

He’s a terrible employee — late for meetings, lies to customers, refuses to adhere to company policies, but he’s the co-worker God gave me.

He’s an awful king — he suspended habeus corpus, requires citizens to hostile to hostile and uncivil soldiers, forces us to pay taxes without giving us a voice in tax policy — but he’s the king God gave us.

And so, when it comes to the church, the fact that an institution so bad has existed so long is proof that it is the institution Christ founded.

For instance:

In the satirical writings, dialogues, of the 14th c. Italian author Boccaccio there is story about a Jew who has to go to Rome for something. The local Bishop has been trying to get the Jew to convert the Christianity. Knowing the Jew was about to see the Church at its worst in Rome, the corruption and moral turpitude of many of the clerics and religious, even Popes like the Borgias, the Bishop despaired that the Jew would ever covert on his return. However, once returned from his trip, the Jew went to the Bishop and said, “I’m ready to convert now!” The Bishop, flabbergasted, replied, “You went to Rome and you saw how horrid things were there… and you still want to join this Church?” “Yes”, said the Jew. “I figure that with so many wicked and corrupt people hard at work trying to destroy the Church, it shouldn’t have lasted 14 years, much less 14 centuries. It has to be of divine origin!”

Or again:

It was exhilarating, that moment when it hit me: “I’m going to become Catholic.” But as I experienced more of the modern church, and began RCIA, Patrick Coffin’s greeting to converts, “Come on in! It’s a mess,” started to make sense.

So did the words of Hilaire Belloc, which no longer seemed merely witty:

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.

Even more:

Worrying about the daily confusion and sorrow Pope Francis introduces into our lives can impede us from working on our first priority—which is living our Catholic life in Christ as fully as we possibly can. With only exceedingly rare exceptions, we are in no position to offer correction to the Holy Father. Therefore, it will do us little good to engage in endless arguments over what is wrong, whose fault it is, and how the problems posed by the current papacy might be resolved. And not only will this do us no good, but it can be a significant source of scandal to others, most of whom will have little or no awareness of the issues at stake.

I’d like to suggest that it is time to turn the corner on Pope Francis. Most of us have no cards to play in the game of improving the papacy. But we do have our own callings, our own God-given talents, our own opportunities to engage in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, to teach the truth and to foster the good. When we can use something Pope Francis has said or done in our own Catholic service, then we should—all the better! But when we cannot take our inspiration from Pope Francis, we can still reference Our Lord and the Church He founded. We do not need to come up against Francis and grind to a halt. That’s what I mean about turning the corner.

I do not presume to know papal theory well, but am aware that reservations about papal authority were much more substantial in the Middle Ages than they are in the post-Vatican I church where infallibility is now dogma. In fact, important medieval philosophers like Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham (does that make me Darryl of Hart?) made arguments against the tyranny of the papacy that would seem to be relevant for Roman Catholics today.

But the apologetic that the deficiencies of the church only prove its necessity and durability defy Thomistic logic no matter how tight the syllogisms are under Bryan and the Jasons Kangol cap.

Here’s why: if the church is deficient, how do you then know that its truth claims are not also deficient?

Because the reality remains: She is the bride of Christ, and the Truth is found nowhere but in Her. Conversion to the one true faith remains the greatest, most life-altering decision a person can make—even if things are a bit of a mess.

In point of fact, the truth about conditions in the church come almost entirely from sources external to the magisterium, which sort of pokes a hole in those audacious (warning, Bryan Cross has removed the article about Papal Audacity) claims about the magisterium’s infallible protection of the truth.

5 thoughts on “The Worse, the Better

  1. I’d like someone to explain why this argument applies only to the RCC. The English monarchy has been around for centuries despite ineptitude. Why doesn’t that make it a divine institution. The lamas of Tibet have carried in for centuries. Does that make them prophets? And I could go on.

    Why not just say, “our church is as messed up as yours, we just think it’s older and older is better”? It would be less triumphalistic and a whole lot more honest.


  2. Is this why Bryan Cross took down the papal audacity post at CTC?

    Meanwhile one of those four dubia authors, the combative traditionalist, Cardinal Raymond Burke, gave an interview suggesting that papal silence might require a “formal act of correction” from the cardinals — something without obvious precedent in Catholic history. (Popes have been condemned for flirting with heresy, but only after their deaths.) That was strong language; even stronger was the response from the head of Greece’s Catholic bishops, who accused the dubia authors of “heresy” and possibly “apostasy” for questioning the pope.

    Who was, himself, still silent. Or rather, who continued his practice of offering interviews and sermons lamenting rigidity and pharisaism and possible psychological issues among his critics — but who refused to take the straightforward-seeming step of answering their questions.

    It is not that there is any real doubt about where the pontiff stands. Across a period of vigorous debate in 2014 and 2015 he pushed persistently to open communion to at least some remarried Catholics without the grant of annulment. But conservative resistance ran strong enough that the pope seemed to feel constrained. So he produced a document, the as-yet-unclarified Amoris, that essentially talked around the controversy, implying in various ways that communion might be given case by case, but never coming out and saying so directly.

    This indirectness matters because within Catholicism the pope’s formal words, his encyclicals and exhortations, have a weight that winks and implications and personal letters lack. They’re what’s supposed to require obedience, what’s supposed to be supernaturally preserved from error.

    So avoiding clarity seemed intended as a compromise, a hedge. Liberals got a permission slip to experiment, conservatives got to keep the letter of the law, and the world’s bishops were left to essentially choose their own teaching on marriage, adultery and the sacraments – which indeed many have done in the last year, tilting conservative in Philadelphia and Poland, liberal in Chicago or Germany or Argentina, with inevitable dust-ups between prelates who follow different interpretations of Amoris.

    But the strange spectacle around the dubia is a reminder that this cannot be a permanent settlement. The logic of “Rome has spoken, the case is closed” is too deeply embedded in the structures of Catholicism to allow for anything but a temporary doctrinal decentralization. So long as the pope remains the pope, any major controversy will inevitably rise back up to the Vatican.

    When you live by the papacy, avoiding embarrassment depends on the papacy.


  3. What Protestantism fixed:

    If Catholics receive the Blessed Sacrament while in a state of grave sin, they further endanger their own souls. And if priests, who are the guardians of the Eucharist, encourage that sort of sacrilege, they are guilty of a greater offense. But those arguments have been raised frequently, and apparently many clerics find them unpersuasive. So let me try a different approach.

    Over the centuries the Catholic Church has built up a profound theology of sacramental marriage: of a union that reflects, and participates in, the life-giving love of the Trinity. This beautiful ideal of marriage sets a goal toward which a couple can aspire: a goal far removed from the debased popular understanding of marriage as a partnership formed by two individuals to advance their mutual interests. More important, the graces that flow through a sacramental marriage help couples to move toward that lofty ideal. Papal documents like Casti Connubi and Familiaris Consortio provide a treasury of inspiration and guidance for married and engaged couples, and even for couples living in troubled unions. Sadly, the faithful of San Diego are not being informed about that priceless heritage.


  4. The Trump Effect?

    Perhaps an American Catholic resistance to Trump could do what the institutional church has not been able to do: bring about a greater unity. I do not think that American Catholics will completely redefine their identities or realign in order to build a united front against Trump. But I would be surprised if Trump’s presidency were to leave American Catholicism unchanged. A significant part of the Church has been wounded by this election. Necessary and urgent as it is, appointing more bishops of Latino descent or standing up for Latino Catholics will not be all that American Catholics have to do. It is not only a matter of saving American democracy, but also of saving American Catholicism from the illusion of the possibility of a Catholic reconciliation to Trump on the basis of a pragmatic, policy-driven approach.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.