As Ireland awaits the final outcome of its general election, President Trump continues to celebrate his acquittal and the United Kingdom braces itself against the ravages of storm. Each event is, in its own way, indicative of "climate change".
In matters of the faith, Ireland is but a faint shadow of its former self. Once the anchor of both civilisation and the preserve of the faith, its monasteries and seminaries have all but vanished. Recent reports highlight the trend of securing priests from overseas to remediate the absence of domestic, home-grown vocations. Many of those in ministry are jaded; fatigued by what is perceived to be apathy or neglect within their fellow priests and, in some cases, the episcopate. These observations apply with equal force to the perceptions of clergy within the United Kingdom.
The appearance of decline has fuelled certain members of the episcopate to advocate "change". Sometimes referred to as renewal, other times as reform, the 'change' in question invariably involves the abandonment of some long-held principle of Catholic teaching in order to lessen the demand it places on contemporary society. In each instance, the change is predicated upon the basis that it will remove attitudes considered contrary to modern culture; its purpose: to render 'the Church' accessible and inclusive. By dint of the same reasoning, the abandonment of those principles of faith which challenge modern living will, it is said, remediate the decline in church attendance and render the church more relevant to society as experienced today.
Such a view may be thought to be fundamentally flawed. Before addressing the flaw, one should note that the principle upon which it is predicated (i.e. change, change and more change) is not unique to our present times. Nor is the error upon which it is founded. Any doubt on this issue was removed when- some weeks ago- I was handed a slim volume: "Reflections in a Mirror" by Charles Morgan. Published in 1946, its subject matter extends to a range of matters, including preaching. On this subject, the author comments as follows:
"A hesitant layman will never be held by a preacher who plays down to him. It is right that the Church's voice should be heard on subjects that are greatly in the public mind ...but if a preacher's argument on these things is in effect a lay argument of the kind that may be heard in any club or read in any newspaper then, whether this discourse is wise or unwise, he is teaching what men do not go to Church to learn..."
Upon reading the text, I was prompted to reflect upon how, over the period since those words were written, the Church has been assailed by difficulties from within and without. Those who have reflected in a similar manner may have detected the pitch and yaw of a wide range of ideologies; some of which remain influential today. One need only consider the socialist ideology which sought to erect upon the Church's teaching an edifice which was almost exclusively temporal and sociological in character; inadvertently relegating the importance of the sacraments and the sacred character of the priesthood. Similarly, there have been those movements which have sought to intellectualise the faith in a manner which, whilst promoting an academic elitism, is no less an ideology. Through these movements certain influential figures within the Church have from time to time been deflected from fundamental truths and, in all sincerity, have sought to enlist others to their point of view. Pressures such as these have not infrequently been challenged by clerics and laity who have not been able to share such perspectives. For their pains, they have been exposed to criticism of a personal kind and labelled as 'fanatics'.
Such antagonism is no respecter of rank. One need only consider the plight of Cardinal Sarah and Cardinal Burke. But nor is it limited to high profile figures. There are many priests who have, in conscience, marshalled and maintained the Church's teachings and tradition only to be shunned or marginalised in consequence of their fidelity. Individuals such as these may well have drawn comfort from the oft quoted Truth: Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever. However, with the passage of time, individuals such as these are becoming fewer in number. Within the Church, there is, without doubt, an institutional pressure to comply; to be politically correct. In short: to be silent. This is no ordinary silence. It bears not only upon the conscience, but upon the soul.
In one of his many reflections to priests, St Paul VI spoke of the 'supreme duty of the minister of God'. He observed:
"With your priestly life you have accepted a program of complete dedication. You have accepted all the consequences of this choice...Have courage."
Within the Church's history one can identify those who carried this courage to an heroic level. Two such examples are SS. John Fisher and Thomas More. Neither require introduction. What they shared was a fervour for the faith and its authentic transmission. This fervour eclipsed all other interests and concerns. In the words of St John Fisher:
"A good man is not a perfect man; a good man is an honest man, faithful and unhesitatingly responds to the voice of God in his life."
In a recently published work ("Love for the Papacy & Filial Resistance to the Pope in The History of the Catholic Church," Angelico Press, 2019) Roberto de Mattei examines the dynamic of dutiful contradiction. In his postscript, he spoke of the pressures to which Pope Francis is subjected from those who were instrumental in his election and demand radical reform. Having alluded to the Amazonian Synod and the potential for schism, he observes that such a development might yield some good:
"The good that could arise is the awakening of so many people who are asleep, together with an understanding that the crisis did not begin with the pontificate of Pope Francis but has developed for a long time and has deep doctrinal roots. We must have the courage to examine what has happened in the last fifty years in the light of the Gospel that a tree is judged by its fruits (Mt &:16-20). The unity of the Church is a good that should be preserved, but it is not an absolute good. It is not possible to unite what is contradictory, to love truth and falsehood. good and evil at the same time." [p203]
As noted by Guardini in his "Last Things", with death the opportunity for choice comes to an end. Fear is not an option. As we pray for leaders with the fervour of St John Fisher, we do well to ask for the courage and wisdom to demonstrate loyal resistance when and where the faith demands us to do so. Contrary to the secular perspective, this is not dissent but dutiful compliance. The currency of this duty is not merely courage, but humility. The discharge of the duty depends not upon being right, but in the recognition of Truth. That is the Word of God. It is a path pursued in humility, but illuminated by faith. In the words of the psalm:
"Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes
And I will keep it to the end."
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom- Pray for us.