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.

The Mulligan Christ Founded

The lead singer for Jason and the Callers has tried to come clean on Roman Catholicism’s problems. But Jason doesn’t quite grasp how profound the problem is. It is not simply the disparity between the ideal and the real. It is the dilemma that comes for converts who simply place Protestantism in the leads-to-rationalism-and-skepticism box. How could such a communion as Jason envisions in the Roman Catholic church be reformed? Even more, why would it ever need to be and how would you (whether laity, religious, or bishop) know?

. . . I left behind the whole holding-the-church-hostage-to-my-personal-preferences thing when I ceased being a Protestant. I have only one Mother and I don’t get to choose her, and Christ has only one Bride (albeit an often wart-covered one). So rather than searching high and low for a church that has just the right hymns, just the right leadership, and just the right amount of plausible deniability so as to take credit for the Nicene Creed while blaming others for the Inquisition, I’ll just keep on believing in one holy catholic and apostolic church, blemishes and all.

Really? Even when the church tells you that white is black? Is the church Christ founded merely one big mess that needs one big mulligan?

The problem for Jason is that he will still need to look the other way in Roman Catholic circles or he will be a closeted Martin Luther who lacks the chutzpah to take out a nail and hammer post his list of dislikes on the door of the Tacoma cathedral. In this case, Jason may want to consider the case of Rod Dreher:

The new Catholic just doesn’t know who to trust on moral and theological matters. From the outside, theological conservatives weary of confusion and fighting within Mainline Protestant churches see Rome as a bulwark of stability. It is, but it also isn’t. Once you come in, you’ll find the same fighting over the same issues, but it’s harder to identify who’s who, and what’s what. Just because Rome has a Magisterium does not mean that it is recognized at the local level. I heard or read an older Catholic once who said that the good thing about liberal and conservative Catholic arguments prior to the Second Vatican Council is that both sides recognized a common source of authority, a common set of teachings to which they appealed to support their contentions. After Vatican II, that faded away. It does orthodox Catholics no good to base arguments on teachings that liberal Catholics reserve the right to reject as they see fit, and still consider themselves Catholics in good standing.

I managed to stay pretty well informed by reading on my own, so I knew when a priest or Catholic academic was giving me a line. Most Catholics, I found, really didn’t, because they didn’t have the time or the inclination to study these things, and they believed they could trust all priests and academics who did.

Toward the end of my life as a Catholic, I thought about how often I had to drive home from Sunday mass and tell my older son, who was starting to pay attention to the homilies, that what Father said that day in his sermon was not actually what the Church teaches. It occurred to me that I was teaching my child to distrust the Church — the institutional Church, I mean, which in this case means the clergy — before he learned as a Catholic to trust the Church. That’s messed up. I’ve written before that I allowed myself to become an overly political Catholic (re: Church politics and factionalism), but that often happens to engaged orthodox Catholics because you really don’t know who’s a trustworthy guide within the Church to its authentic teaching and spirituality. That factionalism is a bitter fruit of the deep crisis of authority within the Catholic Church in the postwar era.

It was probably good for me, on the whole, to have all vestiges of clericalism stripped from me, though I hate how difficult I find it to fully trust clergy at all (conflict and betrayal within the Orthodox Church in recent years are part of that, I concede, though they have to do with trust on a non-theological level). Still, I think orthodox American Catholics have a particularly difficult struggle on this front, given how a certain kind of liberal priest and fellow traveler wish to use the authority given them by the Church to undermine the authority of the Church.

So does Jason file away his list, never to be examined again, or does he wind up questioning the father that expects holy submission? I’m not sure Descartes epistemological doubts rival that one.