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The Sixth Death of the Church

“We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down that went on forever,” wrote Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, “But Thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

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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.

About Lauren Enk Mann 13 Articles
A freelance editor residing in Northern Virginia, Lauren Enk Mann obtained her B.A. in English Language and Literature from Christendom College. An avid fan of G.K. Chesterton, she writes about film, pop culture, literature, and the New Evangelization.

26 Comments

  1. I don’t think this time the church will recover, there are so many and more immediate gratifying alternatives to it than ever before, the persecution is worse this time, it has no state support, there is no repository of faith, it’s being replaced by islam, and the crimes of the church are more specific and physical than mere theological or ideological disagreements.

    • Do you really doubt that God has the power to revitalize the Church? Serious. You put limits on what God can do???

      If you were a Catholic, you would have NO DOUBT that the church will recover. Jesus promised it before His ascension.

    • So you don’t believe in Christ?

      For if you think His bride can’t recover, then you are basically saying that the Spouse is inutile, incapable of resurrecting His bride.

  2. You are right Laura Mann.

    Amen. Prayer, fasting and fighting for the real Church of Jesus, and against the post-Catholic zombie Church of the McCarrick establishment.

    The Lord did not permit Himself to be crucified for nothing…He was raised from the dead to conquer.

  3. Too early to be that cheery. Abuse of young is over but the prescence of active gays sinning with each other in the clergy will not be fought by this Pope…wait for it. I think this could go on in that mode for a very long time. John Paul II was asleep to this whole problem because it was outside his narrative of the Church. He was in office since 1979 and took no severe measures despite the media wide Fr. Gauthe case in 1985…even on behalf of children because he didn’t believe any of this was happening…whereupon he spoke of the perv leader of the Legion of Christ as a sure guide to youth. Oi veh…over twenty years of denial existed at the top and thus the poison ivy flourished and grew.

    • John Paul, unfortunately, cheerfully appointed many of the bishops who are among the chief villains in the current scandal: McCarrick, Pilarczyk, Law, Bernardin, Mahoney, Kasper, Daneels. To the end, he seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that he had appointed so many pure scoundrels to such pivotal positions in the hierarchy, and instead maintained an almost delusional optimism about the post VII stater of the Church. A towering intellect, but an utter naif as judge of character.

        • Patricia,
          Christ (as being in the Trinity) by His permissive willing didn’t let Judas live two days past the betrayal. Talk about removing bad apples. As Aquinas pointed out…the simple overarching will of God always takes place…per Proverbs 16:4
          “The LORD has made everything for a purpose,
          even the wicked for the evil day.”

        • Christ was God, popes are human, and retain human shortcomings even in that exalted office. Believe me, it’snot in the least pleasant to note the shortcomings of JPII, but neither is it possible to deny them. He was possibly the greatest philosopher/theologian ever to occupy the chair of St. Peter, but he was unfortunately detached and neglectful of the administrative side of the office, with some very unfortunate consequences.

    • We still see bishops and priests who are stuck in the 1960s. Back when they were growing up abortion, euthanasia, same sex “marriage” were not issues. Today, (like the Pope) they proclaim the evils of turning away illegal immigrants and pollution of natural resources. All good and proper, but they should give priority to the evils of abortion, euthanasia, same sex “marriage” etc that are eating out the souls of the faithful– especially children. These are shepherds are concerned the sheep are clean and well groomed at the same time that a pack of wolves is attacking.

  4. The Church’s wrongs are rivaled only be the audacious, brazen, coordinated efforts of her enemies to press their perceived advantage.

  5. I wouldn’t pin my hopes on those have engraved invitations to the Wedding Feast, ie the “John Paul II generation.”

    Nonetheless, a very interesting perspective.

  6. I like the way the author began and finished this essay as well as everything in between. Yes indeed! God’s providence is mysterious and we were born to face this crisis. I have often thought of those words of Chesterton, about the Church having a God, who knew His way out of the grave. He was a source of hope and encouragement to people of his own time, and continues to be so today. I was glad to see my own country among others mentioned in this essay; even though it’s in connection with the crisis. It’s not right if one country cops more than its fair share of attention. People sometimes need to be reminded, that this is a global disaster. In other words good people: we are all in it together. How so many innocent people have suffered.
    Stephen in Australia.

  7. We know the Church will survive this crisis as our Lord promised the gates of Hades shall never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). But we are not sure at what cost this will be, to the Church as a whole and to us individually.

  8. The JPII generation has been trying. I’ve seen good, orthodox young priests being discouraged and pushed out of the priesthood. They are being silenced and oppressed. When they speak the truth, insulted laity run to condemn them. One parishioner stood outside of the church asking in anger, “Is this what they are teaching now in seminary?” because the new, young priest scandalized her with the truth. He suddenly “left” the parish. He had no support from his ‘older’ brother priests. I was heartbroken. We must pray for them – the good ones – who are now on the battlefront. In a sense, they will be the martyrs in this war. Perhaps behind them will come the priests who will restore the Church.

  9. Ms. Mann’s is easily the most compelling view I’ve encountered about all this. As for commenter Yo’s bleak prediction, that the Church won’t recover this time: I would respond, quoting Acts, that it is not for us to know times or seasons, but in any case we shouldn’t WANT the Church to recover. Instead we should, not just pray for, but strive for its rebirth, which presupposes some form of death, as Ms. Mann and G.K. both suggest. Earlier in this horrific summer there was a lot of typical yak about “healing Masses” and the like. The faithful aren’t buying those soporifics this time. “Healing” now would be like closing an incision before the cancer has been removed. One or two of you might recall my CWR essay in April, 2013; I’m Jewish, and it was about my sudden and devastating conversion to the faith at the exact moment Cardinal Ratzinger first appeared as Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, an event I witnessed on an airport TV monitor. Pope Benedict’s resignation eight years later—reportedly in the face of the 300-page dossier that exposed the rampant evil, corruption, and homosexual cabal permeating Church heirarchy—was to my mind a call to arms, which call is far more urgent today because of everything that has been revealed in recent months, and especially in light of Archbishop Vigano’s astonishing testimony and self-sacrifice. I believe that the Holy Spirit has drafted us into His service, to follow His lead into battle. The last line of my essay five years ago was the challenge put to me after Pope Benedict’s resignation, which now has been put to us all: “What are you prepared to DO?”

  10. “We know the Church will survive this crisis as our Lord promised the gates of Hades shall never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). But we are not sure at what cost this will be, to the Church as a whole and to us individually.” Jesus told us the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church…..but what does that really mean? The Church will never become extinct. Never. But, it can be gravely weakened, seriously degraded, made smaller and much less influential… a shadow of its self as we know it today. In fact thats happening now. Fewer and fewer people take the voice of the Church seriously. Its effectively lost its moral authority. In fact world nations could recall their ambassadors and not recoginse the Holy See as necessary to their “intel collecting” and Vatican City State could lose its “statehood” status and become the new Monaco and function selling stamps and commemorative coins.

  11. Funny enough, after reading many articles on this same subject, you tend to get the feeling that there is one great reason, amongst all the reasons, for the failing church. That is belief or should I say lack of it in the Blessed Sacrement… If we go back in time to the first century and look forward, we see time and time again, Bishops, priests and the faithful turning away because they don’t really believe that a little bit of bread can be God Himself…..

  12. GOD KNEW THE WAY OUT OF THE GRAVE . . . .

    “If we are faithful to the truth, we may end up with Twelve,” Pope St. John Paul II used to say. Pope Benedict XVII himself wrote that he was convinced that the Church would slowly dwindle down and become smaller but that it would survive, as per the firm assurances of her Founder. Some savants have even come up with the intriguing theory of “the Benedict Option.”

    We’ve been through our Babylonian Captivity many times before. Thus it was back thousands of years ago when, in the Desert, our spiritual forefathers and mothers became God’s “Chosen People,” nay His beloved Bride and then . . . she turned into a harlot, an adulteress for a while.

    What a genius that Chesterton was. Only a brilliant and saintly writer like him (on his way, they say, to beatification and canonization) could have written these immortal words: “Christianity has died many times and risen again, for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave” — a God, I dare say, who, ultimately—to save his people—was forced to do the unthinkable: to become one of his creatures and have a mother like the rest of us.

  13. After forty years of attending (mainly) secularized masses, hearing homilies that could have been preached by a Methodist, and listening to blather and empty promises, I’m moving on. Next? Some place where I am not treated as an infant and/or lied to.

    • There is no where else to go. There is only one Church. Jesus and His Church are one. You can’t have one without th other. You can go to an eastern rite of the Catholic Church. The massive, massive crisis is in the Latin rite.

  14. Let us pray that the dog will die a sixth time. The dog, however, will thrive as long as Francis remains Pope. It is clear that Francis wants a complete accommodation with 21st century secularism, despite its self-evident decadence. Several “mainline” Protestant denominations have already made the accommodation and without exception it has put them all onto the path of oblivion. Watch what Francis is doing. His papacy has been marked by a steady stream of blunders and a solid dose of corruption. But if he stays silent, there is nothing anyone can do – nothing. And he will stay silent on everything of importance and keep his secular fans amused with idiot remarks concerning plastic in the ocean. So he’s the worst Pope since the Renaissance and for much the same reason. Pope Leo X, a Medici, was so concerned about his family’s fortunes in Florence that he slept through the Reformation. Clement VII was likewise involved in Italian power politics and antagonized Charles V to the extent that he sacked Rome in 1527. And to top things off, Clement, now under Charles’ thumb, thwarted the, for the time, perfectly justified request of Henry VIII to annul his marriage. So, thanks to a large degree to papal incompetence, kiss good bye to the Catholic Church in Northern Europe and England.
    Francis wants to raise the secular standing of Mother Church by boosting environmentalism and urging a kind of warmed-over Peronist economic system for the world. To do this pointless task, he is willing to junk 2,000 years of Church tradition and ignore Scripture. (Watch how the Youth Synod works out: I can see why Tobin didn’t want to attend. He wouldn’t want to be around when open LGBT groups cooperate with the Vatican’s purple Mafia. Watch – there will be “special circumstances” when cohabitation will be found superior to marriage, and homosexual unions perfectly okay. The Youth will demand it and the Pope will oblige. Did I add that you can’t trust Francis?)
    So here’s the situation. Every day Francis stays in the Vatican it gives him a chance to appoint second rate cardinals and bishops like Cupich and McElroy. As it stands, half of the cardinals that will chose the next pope are Francis appointees. If Francis can build this majority, the Church will be looking at a very grim future. It is vital that the laity oppose Francis on every point that they disagree with – don’t even think about obedience. As it stands Francis has abandoned a priceless opportunity to establish the Church as a bastion against secularism gone crazy. Ultimately the truth will prevail, but how many people will lose the comfort and wisdom offered by the Church?

  15. I don’t think the examples the author cited from Chesterton’s observations are valid here. All these crises listed were intellectual challenges to the doctrines of the church. The current crisis is:
    Cultural – HOMOSEXUAL abuse by clerics
    Structural – systemic homosexual predations not isolated incidents
    Rooted in clericalism – we the bishops know what is best, do not question us, shut up, sit down and get out your wallets. Also a willingness by lay administrators to facilitate payments to victims which exposes them to potential racketeering charges if clerics broke the law in their homosexual depravity. Lay people and church office functionaries are co-conspirators. This is never mentioned in the Catholic media covering this crisis.

    Better examples for the author to highlight would have been other times in church life when clerics engaged in illicit and perhaps criminal sexual activity. Father Rutler of EWTN wrote a piece recently mentioning homosexual sex rampant in the Church in the 11th century. Arguably just as big a crisis in its own way as the Arian Heresy. And much more relevant to the theme of the article.

    And why wasn’t the Donatist uproar which Augustine had to weigh in on mentioned in the author’s list? Which was also intellectual but similar to the other examples.

  16. Even if justice is done for victims, and guilty clerics faculties are removed, and some rightfully end up in jail, the priesthood, at least diocesan clergy, in my experience, lack a healthy fraternity and relationship with their bishops. Parish work is hard, lonely, and unbounded. You have those who are and feel isolated, those who dislike their bishop and their chanceries (often with good reason), and bishops who do not pastor their clergy, often asserting that they’d rather be left alone than be visited. Since vice and human weakness mar every organization, from the family to the Vatican, it seems to me to endeavor a much more emotionally and spiritually healthy presbyterate – including some processes of accountability would be in order. Here, the other Vocation in Service to Communion – Marriage, could have something to offer. Intimate friendships, affection, mutual accountability and support – I believe these human necessities are sorely lacking in the priesthood, who’s vocation in service to Communion is essential to the church in a similar, albeit complementary way. Many good priests have served marriage and family well. Every time I go to confession, I thank the priest for his vocation. Though I disagree with Cardinal Farrell, there is some degree of truth in his assertion that priests cannot prepare engaged couples for marriage. They need better formation in healthy friendships and need these within their presbyterate and with laity. Many priests have been enriched in this regard by being involved in Marriage Encounter. Regardless, I wish there was some way that married couples could serve their priests so as to strengthen their interpersonal competence, pastoral care, and confidence in the Lord who sustains us and His Church. In sum, this is an opportunity to strengthen the Church in crisis, especially the culture of the clergy. May a courageous reform, in some surprising way, be a means of evangelization of ourselves as church, and of those who are watching. And may the victims of this scandal be healed of their wounds.

    • Charlie B, I think you raise very valid points. Married couples, families should embrace as family their priests especially those without close kin nearby.

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