The Church’s “summer of shame” has devastated the faithful. The McCarrick revelations, the Pennsylvania grand jury, and the Viganò testimony have sent reverberations of scandal right through the highest clerical ranks. Catholics in the pews feel betrayed and abandoned, in solidarity with the victims who have suffered so much. Each new day has brought to light fresh wounds, and it seems as if the Church is hemorrhaging, bleeding to death from the inside out.
Thinking on this critical state, I recalled a passage from G. K. Chesterton’s 1925 classic book The Everlasting Man that seems to hold the key to hope. I flipped through my copy and found what I was looking for in his penultimate chapter, titled “The Five Deaths of the Faith”.
“Christianity has died many times and risen again,” he writes, “for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
Chesterton outlines five times the Church, by any natural standard, should have dissolved: with the Arian heresy, with the Albigensian heresy, with the rise of humanist skepticism, after Voltaire, and after Darwin. His point, broadly, is that whenever the Church appears to be on its deathbed, instead of dying off—as any human institution naturally would—it suddenly bolts upright, full of life and vigor from some surprising source.
“At least five times,” says Chesterton, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”
The current crisis, I think, is the sixth death of the Faith. And it has spanned several generations: what we are seeing now is the fallout, the ugly fruit of the progressivism and sexual libertinism that took root in the Church in the 1960s and 1970s. The abuse, the coverups, the institutional dissipation, and the infidelity to the Gospel—not only in the U.S. but in Chile, Germany, Australia, Holland—is all part of the same global threat which has locked its jaws in a death grip on the neck of the Church.
Logically, this crisis spells the end of the Church, or at least of the Church as we know it. But the end of the Church has come before. With an eerie prescience, Chesterton writes:
They are always telling us that priests and ceremonies are not religion and that religious organization can be a hollow sham; but they hardly realise how true it is. It is so true that three or four times at least in the history of Christendom the whole soul seemed to have gone out of Christianity; and almost every man in his heart expected its end…. When Christianity rose again suddenly and threw them, it was almost as unexpected as Christ rising from the dead.…
…This is the final fact, and it is the most extraordinary of all. The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age….it has survived not only war but peace. It has not only died often but degenerated often and decayed often; it has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender… It ended and it began again.
These words call to mind the decrepit figure of Theodore McCarrick, in the now-ubiquitous photo of him embracing Pope Francis: his wrinkled eyes, his shriveled hands, sloped shoulders and shrunken elderly frame, the mottled crepe-like skin creasing about his face as he indulges a gaping smile. In the end, this prince of the Church was just a dirty old man.
But that very decrepitude is somehow a sign. McCarrick’s fading self is a symbol of the dissolution and pollution of the Faith that has poisoned the Church for the last half a century. And he is fading. His supporters and enablers are, likewise, fading. They are only men; they cannot outlast the eternal life Christ gives His Church. They have, in fact, deliberately tapped out of that source of life.
“Again and again, before our time,” writes Chesterton, “men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed in that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine…. Day by day and year by year we have lowered our hopes and lessened our convictions…. We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down that went on forever. But Thou hast kept the good wine until now.”
And where will the good wine come from, now? Chesterton affirms that throughout history it is often the sons who correct the sins of their fathers. So, here is one suggestion.
Seeing this evil exposed in the Church can feel enormously defeating to those who hoped, with John Paul II, to see a new “springtime of the Church in the New Millennium.” What happened to the “John Paul II generation”? Was there not supposed to be a rising tide of orthodox, vigorous young Catholics, to sweep away whatever stagnant pools remained of the aging liberal heterodoxy of the ‘60s and ‘70s and bring the Church back to vibrant life? We are nearly two decades into the new millennium; the John Paul II generation has come fully of age; and yet we find ourselves living in a Church not renewed and purified, but deviant and self-destructive.
Perhaps, however, that is looking at it upside-down. Perhaps the John Paul II generation—laity and clergy engendered with a love for the Church and courage to proclaim the truth—was intended for just this situation. We were not formed for the cushy life of cultural victory, to bask in a holy Church culture, but to do battle for that very culture. Perhaps this is why there is a “John Paul II generation” at all; not to stroll through adulthood enjoying the blossoms of the Church’s springtime, but to do the heavy work of preparing the fields to be fruitful when that spring comes. To speak out about infidelity in the clergy, lack of accountability among bishops, politicking and agendas in the curia, predatory homosexual networks in the seminaries; to do the hidden work of forming our families and communities daily with example and prayer; to stand unflinchingly alongside the victims and refuse let it all fade out of memory until justice is restored.
We may take, from the same chapter, what is possibly Chesterton’s most famous line as inspiration: “A dead thing goes with the stream. Only a living thing can go against it.”
Doubtless, much more purgative suffering is coming, as the gangrene of the Church’s institutional infections emerges and the mess in the Roman curia boils over. And yet already we see the good that has come by evacuating these wounds; new ills have been exposed; new healings are being proposed. Laity and faithful clergy are emboldened to use all media and influence at their disposal to call for justice, accountability, and fidelity. Those with platforms are speaking out. Those with means to put pressure for reform are applying it. Organic movements of prayer and fasting for reform and justice have begun among the faithful. Calls to personal holiness have suddenly become less platitudinous and instead urgent and essential, like the commands of emergency crews in a fire.
We were born to face this crisis. Providence knows the suffering ahead. It will take years; we will face opposition and temptations to divert our energies into other political or social causes. The Catholic Church will suffer much; she will die; she will be crucified again with her Spouse. So be it. Our God knows the way out of the grave.