I was talking to my neighbor Frank a few evenings back when the subject of religion came up. Though I suspected Frank was Catholic, we’d never talked about religion. I think we were both a bit reluctant. You take a risk these days that any conversation might turn political and go sideways—even among Catholics talking about religion.
Frank is elderly, well into his eighties, and suffers from a debilitating back condition. He is a widower. His family, apart from his widower brother-in-law, live outside the state. Frank was scheduled for back surgery in California before COVID. When the pandemic hit, the surgery kept getting pushed back. Potent painkillers were prescribed, and Frank ended up spending a lot of time indoors and alone. He still does.
While I am early to bed and rise before sunrise, Frank goes to bed in the wee hours and gets up later in the day. We don’t see each other often. He knows I’m a writer, and I know he’s a retired silversmith/jewelry maker. He’s Hispanic. I’m of Scots Irish descent. I sometimes haul five-gallon bottles of water from Frank’s car into his kitchen. I’ve heard EWTN playing on his television. Yet I never asked him about religion. General pleasantries aside, we remain strangers.
I can’t recall how religion came up. After the subject was broached, I told Frank I had returned to the Faith after spending a good many years wandering through a spiritual haze and courting the abyss.
“Why’d you go back?” asked Frank.
“At the end of the day, it was the only thing that made sense,” I answered.
I’ve never seen Frank at Mass. We live in a small town with just one option for Catholics, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Frank wasn’t familiar with Father Mike, our parish priest for the past few years. So I asked Frank if he’d like to accompany me to Mass.
“You bet I would,” said Frank. “If I don’t do something pretty quick, I’m going leak into the cement.”
We agreed to attend an evening Mass the next week. Frank requires several hours to get out of bed because he is in a lot of pain when he awakens because his back muscles are taut as bowstrings. I was happy to oblige.
Frank told me later that he stopped attending Mass because a priest he knew years earlier was mixed up in a child molestation scandal. He didn’t say if the priest was guilty or not, or whether the issue had been fully resolved, only that it was the catalyst that turned him away. The slew of sexual allegations against priests across the country—some true, some fabrications—had a big impact on Frank, as it has on so many others. It got so bad, Frank was embarrassed to be seen as Catholic.
Don’t get me wrong. Frank was not ashamed of being Catholic. He was embarrassed at being seen as one. “Catholic”, for far too many, is a dirty word. Frank kept his faith secret because he feared professing it in public. To keep his cover, he had to quit going to church. So have a lot of others.
Shame, guilt, and redemption
A 2019 Pew Research poll found that “roughly one-in-four Catholics (27%) say they have gone to Mass less often in response to the reports [about clerical sex abuse], and a similar share (26%) say they have reduced the amount of money they donate to their parish or diocese.” The research also indicated that, “nearly seven-in-ten U.S. adults who say they attend religious services a few times a year or more (68%) say they have not heard their clergy or other religious leaders speak out about sexual abuse, assault or harassment.”
Combine this with the impact of COVID and it gets even worse. According to a new survey by The Pillar on Religious Attitudes and Practices, the number of Catholics who go to Mass each week has dropped by 14% since the pandemic.
As far as religious affiliation in general goes, a 2019 pre-pandemic Gallup poll found that “U.S. church membership was 70% or higher from 1937 through 1976, falling modestly to an average of 68% in the 1970s through the 1990s. The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade.”
Sordid sex scandals make it easy for people to turn away from religion. Mask mandates, fear about COVID, and lockdowns barring services in some states have made it easy for people to stop attending services. Tension from the current culture wars, taut as the muscles in Frank’s back, encourage either the suffocating isolation found in the Aaron Lewis’ hit country song “Am I the Only One?” or venomous tribalism, neither of which lead to peace of mind. In other words, things don’t look good for Christianity in America.
If it’s any solace, it’s nothing new.
In the tradition of martyrs
The first 35 popes of the Catholic Church were eventually canonized as saints. All but two of them were also martyrs. The Church has a bloody history from the Cross to the present. According to Open Doors, eleven Christians are martyred every day.
The Church has also seen heresies come and go. Fordham News lists the top ten historical heresies, with Arianism (the claim that Jesus is neither eternal nor as fully divine as God the Father) coming in first. Among the more familiar heresies and heretics were the gnostic Marcionites, who claimed that the vengeful God in the Hebrew Bible was a tyrant separate from and inferior to the God of the New Testament. Then there were the Donatists taken on by St. Augustine. They held that baptism and other sacraments administered by those who had repudiated their faith to avoid persecution by the Romans were invalid. And the list goes on.
We live, to state the obvious, in polemical times. Accusations of “heresy” among Catholics seem to be growing, but especially on social media. St. Thomas defines heresy (II-II:11:1) as “a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas.” The heretic restricts his belief to certain points of Catholic doctrine selected and the fashioned to their pleasure. Unfortunately, heresies are always with us and crises have always been a part of the Catholic tradition. Such challenges are a given. We live in a fallen world—in the City of Man, not the City of God.
Nietzsche, despite all his egregious faults, had some keen (if incomplete) insights. In the “Reading and Writing” section of Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example, he wrote:
You tell me, ‘Life is hard to bear.’ But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?
Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate! We are all of us fine sumpter asses and she-asses.
What have we in common with the rose-bud, which trembles because a drop of dew has formed upon it?
It is true we love life; not because we are wont to live, but because we are wont to love.
There is always some madness in love. But there is always, also, some method in madness.
As usual, Nietzsche gets the big stuff backwards. As Catholics, “we are wont to love” not because we love life but because we love God. What many see as madness is actually God’s method in action. Catholic martyrs are heroic because the love of God meant more to them than earthly life.
When heresy and conflict are really understood as part of history and ecclesiastical reality, our current situation doesn’t appear quite so daunting or unusual. Benedict XVI once compared the post-conciliar era to a naval battle. Naval battles are combative by definition. “This is the tragic era in which we live: an era we must face with a sense of faith and a militant spirit,” observes the historian Roberto de Mattei. It is time for courage, not despair or embarrassment. Soldiers of Christ take heart!
The next I see Frank, I’ll expand on my answer to his question about my returning to the Faith. The door is open. I’d be a fool not to walk through. It’s not so much that I came back to the Faith because it was the only thing that made sense, though that was part of it. More to the point is that I finally realized, after what was for me an exhaustive search spanning more than two decades, that I couldn’t make sense out of the world—out of my own life—on my own. I needed help, the supernatural help that comes only by way of God’s grace. Grace is a gift. It cannot be taken, only accepted. In many ways, my return to the Faith is a mystery that I have learned to accept.
De Mattei writes:
What I want to show is that the true Catholic does not get upset if the Faith is obscured for a few decades, even because of the defection of the highest ecclesiastical hierarchs. This does not mean that the Holy Ghost ceases to assist His Church. The Holy Ghost is for the Church what the soul is for the body. It is its vivifying principle, St. Augustine says and Leo XIII and Pius XII repeat with him.
I accept this.
Frank has been alone, for the most part, and in great pain since he has been my neighbor. Yet I’ve never heard him complain. I’m pleased we’ll be attending church together. Remember, Frank was never ashamed of being Catholic. He just needed to know he wasn’t alone. He’s not alone. Neither am I, and neither are you. Catholics stick together despite all the turbulence that is part and parcel of our fallen world. It’s part of the Tradition. We should celebrate it.
The next time someone asks, “When are you going to leave the Church? How much scandal is too much?” tell them, “Never.” Abandoning the Faith now would be like abandoning Christ when he was on the Cross. It makes no sense.
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