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Quo Vadis: Where are the bishops and laity of old?

By calculated subtlety are both the Church and its laity being lured into a comfort-zone and misdirected “law of gradualism”? To what end?

St. John Chrysostom (WikiArt.org) and Sir Thomas More (Wikipedia.com)

Reading the signs of the times, one cannot help but see that our current history is not only syncretic and lost, but totally upside down. One also notices that the bishops of the fourth century, often coming as they did from monastic and island-like seclusion, were sufficiently grounded to serve not only as “servants of the servants of God,” but also as foundations stones for society as a whole.

And, as in our times, by the fourth century, wrote the historian Daniel-Rops in The Church of Apostles and Martyrs (1960):

Cold logic knew it was more than likely that the end was near; but instinct rejected such forebodings and clung to the most fleeting reasons for preserving hope [….] all human values had collapsed. Morality now existed only in a few places, which were like islands, surrounded by waves of sludge and scandal. The imperial courts where officials, courtiers, eunuchs and princesses wove their intrigues provided an example of immorality which the lower orders readily followed. The palace,’ said Ammian Marcellinus,is a seminary of vices, whose seeds are propagated everywhere. (Emphasis added)

As Daniel-Rops explains, raw and exhausted power yielded to genuine authority. Imperial power and the more real authority of the Church changed places (a more radical move than migrating offending priests from one parish to another). Municipal provinces and diocesan boundaries coincided. The collapsing secular power increasingly abdicated its role into the hands of the clergy, such that by the fifth century the bishops not only governed the Church, but became Defenders of the City as well.

The novel curse of the post-modern and post-Christian world is that the palace and the seminaries have apparently switched places. McCarrick-ism suggests that “the seminary is a palace of vices.” If not a palace, then at least a New Jersey beach house or Rome condo.

Many now would turn to the laity in hopes of salvaging the Church and maybe society; from the Second Vatican Council we know that leavening the world is the distinct and neglected vocation of the laity. In earlier times (496 A.D.) and in his often chaotic and disconcerting way, the Holy Spirit turned to Clovis, chieftain of the Franks, to shore up the Church in the West by accepting Orthodox Christianity rather than Arianism, so ingrained in the East. (Even Constantine, convener of the Council of Nicaea, 325 A.D., on his deathbed, was baptized by an Arian bishop.)

So, what of today?

The secular world (with the complicity of many Catholic laity) institutionalizes the oxymoron of gay “marriage”. And the Church, with homosexual ideology/accommodation embedded within even the ranks of bishops, slides into practical indifference toward the universal natural law. Moral theology is eclipsed by cap-and-gown social science and consequentialism. Attention is riveted exclusively on the consequences to victims of sexual abuse, and deflected away from the intrinsic evil of the act itself. After all, by now Veritatis Splendor is obsolete!

How are we to undo this double meltdown of both society and seminary? A hint comes in acknowledging the deeper deception as revealed in the writings of both a layman and a monastic.

First, St. Thomas More gives prudent advice to us in a world tone deaf to any appeals to either morality or reason. More counsels patience and particularly subtlety in dialogue:

Suppose wrong opinions cannot be plucked up by the root, and you cannot cure, as you would wish, vices of long standing, yet you must not on that account abandon ship of state [or the barque of Peter] and desert it in a storm, because you cannot control the winds.

But neither must you impress upon them new and strange language, which you know will carry no weight with those of opposite conviction, but by indirect approach and covert suggestion you must endeavor and strive to the best of your power to handle all well and what you cannot turn to good you must make as little bad as you can. (Utopia, 1516; emphasis added)

Subtlety, yes, but why not also the clarity of St. Paul: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).

Within the Church, what do we find all too often? By calculated subtlety are both the Church and its laity being lured into a comfort-zone and misdirected “law of gradualism”? To what end? Are the pruning hooks of gradualism hammered into a wedge for “anthropological cultural change” and a misappropriated “paradigm shift”? In the world and now mostly of the world?

• For the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae a study commission is formed, but perhaps to unwind the teaching itself? (And no 25th for Veritatis Splendor…)

• Priestly celibacy in the West is soundly reaffirmed, but perhaps with exceptions at the periphery.

• Holy Orders, by its nature, remains open only to males (like Christ and alter Christus apostolic-successor bishops and their extension in priests), but an exception for the diaconate (an integral element of the three ranks)?

• The Holy Eucharist is the center of the assembled Church, but a center that is interchangeably congregational, perhaps, for the Protestant spouses of Catholics.

• Access to the Eucharist is the summit of the sacramental life (the Real Presence), but perhaps with exceptions for those lacking marital declarations of nullity and now living in (“irregular”) civil marriages (Amoris Laetitia, fn. 351)?

• Youth accompaniment culminates in a Youth Synod, but more tactically as a pretense for launching a “polyhedral” Church by annexing language for undefined and unvetted “synodality”?

• The entire Church recoils from the “sexual abuse crisis,” but is unable to even call this malignancy by its real name—instead, “pedophilia” is the cover story for the spread of most homosexual activity into seminary settings, orgies on the Tiber, ecclesial king making and sidelining, and overall evasive silence (the truncated agenda, so far, for the February 2019 Rome Summit on Sexual Abuse).

Today, quo vadis—where are the bishops?

Where are we to find a fourth-century Basil, or Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa? Where Athanasius of Egypt (still a deacon at the Council of Nicaea)? Where Hilary of Poitiers and Martin of Tours, or John Chrysostom (the golden mouth)? Where Cyril of Jerusalem, or Augustine or Ambrose, who disciplined Emperor Theodosius whose crime was the slaughter of seven thousand innocents?

Bishops, one and all. Today, where do we find such bishops, perhaps in exile as was St. Athanasius, a total of no less than five times. And what of laymen like St. Thomas More?

It’s as if the poseurs of the “spirit of” Second Vatican Council have severed the aggiornamento half of the council—engagement with the world—from the essential grounding or ressourcement—deepening into sources. A tough duo to crack—outreach based on depth—still and always.

It is said that a person with one watch always knows what time it is, but that a person with two watches is never quite sure.

And here’s the rub. The Christian challenge, whether for laity or clergy (or both together!) is to be simple like a child, but not childish. Not infantile. We heard above from the layman Thomas More. Now from a monk, unexpected advice on wearing two watches:

When Jesus sent His disciples out into the world which was full of the ambushes of evil, He told them, ‘Be ye therefore, wise as serpents AND simple as doves” (Mt 10:16). By mentioning the two virtues, prudence and simplicity, together, He clearly shows that they must never be separated from one another, nor should one be used as a pretext for failing in the other. Prudence should never lack simplicity—and here is meant the exclusion of all those means based on untruthfulness—but at the same time, simplicity should never lack in prudence. (Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Mercy, n. 275, emphasis added)

Societal renewal and ecclesial housecleaning are challenges of historic proportions, and in a fallen world are going to take some time. Thomas More concluded with this: “….it is impossible that all should be well, unless all men are good, which I do not expect for a great many years to come.”

Those of us in suit and tie, or in sweats and jeans, are as vulnerable to our own bubble universes, selective indignation and selective fidelity—and stupidity and duplicity—as are those now rightly in the spotlight, in red hats.


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About Peter D. Beaulieu 7 Articles
Peter D. Beaulieu earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of Washington (1975), is a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of Beyond Secularism and Jihad? A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012) and A Generation Abandoned: Why 'Whatever' Is Not Enough (Hamilton Books, 2017).

9 Comments

  1. As Chancellor, More had to use “covert suggestion” and “indirect approach” with solid Faith. According to Chancellory records, as much as More followed the letter of the law, he worked tirelessly to get those charged with heresy – which was a religious and civil crime – reduced to a lesser charge or to get them to recant especially when they were ignorant of the charge.

  2. Thank you for this fine essay, which gets at important issues concerning the Church’s esse (of the essence of the Church’s very existence) rather than its bene esse (that which is for the benefit of the Church). At the risk of being pedantic about a bene esse point, Fr. Gabriel was, as a Carmelite, a friar rather than a monk. The relevance of Fr. Gabriel’s comment is not affected one whit by the fact that he was a friar (mendicant) rather than a monk (monastic). But since your essay ends by comparing the laity with the episcopacy, it might be helpful to mention distinctions between different charisms among vowed religious as well. The “bubble universes” of monastics can be — and should be — different from those of mendicants.

  3. If nominations from the laity are in order, let St. Ambrose be the patron of the coming synod on abuse. And if lay recommendations are in order, let the synod propose a new ordo for the selection of bishops that codifies specific lay participation in the process.
    Lost some place in the Vatican bureaucracy is a letter from Dick Sipe (former Benedictine monk, friend of the court in national and international legal actions involving clerical abuse, and lay author of several books on the subject) to Pope John XXIII, prior to McGarick’s appointment as archbishop and cardinal. Sipe warned of McGarick’s confirmed, but unpublished, abuse record which made him an unsuitable candidate for the episcopal position from which he has now been removed in disgrace.

  4. “… you must endeavor and strive to the best of your power to handle all well and what you cannot turn to good you must make as little bad as you can” This statement of More may be good advice for statesmen trying to manage a corrupt culture but it has failed utterly as a method of a New Evangelization. It does not work, and over time (and in the wrong hands) is turned deliberately to its contrary – gradualism – which wants to make what is bad into as much good as one can. We should just dispense with the bad altogether and follow the path of Gandalf (or rather Tolkien): “But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task… if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.” Now I am not wholly for the Benedict Option, but we do need to give more attention to preservation of the good rather than making the bad better or the not-so-good good.

    • Yes, I concur.

      The subsequent quote from St. Paul begins to make this point, I hope, but would benefit from a few sentences as you suggest, about the different demands of prudent statesmanship in an imperfect world versus the Church’s commission toward faithful proclamation and an uncompromised kind of self-governance.

  5. I could argue that in every age there were the few, those who have come down to us as saints and other heroic Christians, and the rest, some doing their best, some wavering, or opportunistic, or predatory. How many English bishops and priests took Thomas More’s arduous path? We remember heroic Christians and forget the rest. In our day, bad behavior is more likely to be found out, but is it any more common?

  6. I may argue that the issue at hand is not a matter of being friars or monks but that of an underlying issue of homosexual or sexual abuse been spate at the Church in some manner that we tend to give an excuse or turn a blind eye to such issues when raised and questioned about the Catholic Church. We strive to live in the footsteps of Jesus Christ but let’s note that Christ warned is disciples that “things which will cause them to sin are bound to happen” as such caution and urged them to be careful of their life and character.
    As More points out that it will be difficult to find good people in this current world we live in I will like to say that all goodness is in us as our Maker and notably that we are not God are bound to sin.

    I therefore will agree to the suggestion that, the processes for the seminaries as to be looked at and not only that but the way of life of our seminarians, priests, Bishops and others alike. Also, we have to take a stand against such acts strongly than to try and shelve it. It.s high time we call a spade a spade and ensure such things don’t happen again. I must admit that we are all humans and one way or the other faults in our way but as forgiveness is given it’s expected of us to change our way of life but to have vowed and gone contrary it’s a grievous sin and must not be allowed in such position again but guided and accepted to live a family life and not shamed abusively since it may happen to anyone of us; so in judging and criticising must act with all due diligence.

  7. Having read this I believed it was very informative.
    I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this short article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
    But so what, it was still worth it!

  8. In order to get back to the bishops and laity of old, we need to get back to the spirituality of old that is found in the New Testament.
    There are developed doctrines that have done more harm than good.

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