Thursday, April 30, 2015

There Has Never Been a Golden Age of Catholicism

Michael Lofton blogging at Church Militant laments the discrepancy by what the Church teaches and what happens in practice.

Many Protestants, for one reason or another, take up the task of reading the Early Church Fathers. They often discover that their Protestant community lacks historical pedigree in the writings of the Fathers, while Catholicism is thoroughly evident there. As a result, they seek to convert to Catholicism. They eventually visit a local Catholic parish bright-eyed and eager, but soon discover that instead of finding the authentic Catholicism of the Fathers, more times than not the local Catholic parish offers a fast-food version of the Faith instead.

The reality is that it's always been that way.


Name any century, any age. There were always Catholics who rejected Church doctrine, who decided they knew better than the Magisterium. How else could the Reformation have happened? How else could modernism have happened? Or "The Spirit of Vatican II"?

It's true that dissent today is probably more pervasive and more corrosive than ages past. But there was always a disconnect between teachings, beliefs and practice.

The reality is that if you care about fidelity to teaching and Tradition you are part of a small minority in the Church's overall history. 

That's not to say that most Catholics have been deliberately unfaithful. But there has been a lot of ignorance. We live in a very educated age where faith is based on a lot book learning. That book learning was not always part of the experience of the average Catholics. Medieval peasants probably didn't even know about papal encyclicals. They understood that an organization like the Church could have a visible head like the pope, but they didn't know Matthew 16 defended the papacy. That doesn't mean that they didn't have faith. But their faith was often uninformed. That's how the Reformation could spread so quickly. To an uninformed Catholic, it would be easy to convince that Sola Scriptura is superior Christianity (That's how Protestants make gains today-- they always go after the ignorant.)

Throughout the centuries there have been Catholic reformers precisely because of that lack of conformity between Church and teaching. Consider St. Teresa of Avila and her reform of the Carmelite order. Why did that happen? Because the nobility were using convents as a dumping ground for their unmarried daughters, and discipline became slack. She's just one of many.

What this means is that while we must certainly strive to make practice conform to teaching, we shouldn't harbour unrealistic expectations about the reality of human nature and its ability to apply Catholic doctrine. There has been no Catholic utopia and there never will be. This is how one avoids selling a false bill of goods to converts. The Church is perfect, but it's full of very imperfect people, and among these imperfect people are those who don't give a hoot about obedience. But you don't join the Church because others are better or worse, you join it because it's God's will that you be there.  One reads the Church Fathers and gets the impression that inside the Catholic Church it's all perfect and devout. These Church Fathers were, for the most part, the best of the best, and they surrounded themselves with the best (because they were bishops or monks) and their writings reflect that perfectionist environment. Reading them, one gets the impression that that's what one encounters in the Catholic Church, and of course that's not true. The ideals of the Father are what one strives for, but it's not necessarily what one gets. But you don't abandon the Church just because you can't get what you want. (That's the mistake of the SSPX and other-like-minded trads). You stay in the Church for what you can bring to it. Your cross isn't necessarily the one you choose  for yourself. You'd love to have a perfect liturgy, a perfect priest, a perfect parish ministry, completely orthodox with no moral flaws. But that's usually unavailable, and your cross is that the priests available to you are more or less orthodox, the liturgy sucks and the parish helpers are liberals. You want the Church to give to you, and that's fair,  but the fact that she doesn't give you that perfect Catholic experience doesn't mean you leave. It means you try to contribute. That's obedience. That's how one grows through holiness. And no matter how awful the liturgy, the sacraments retain their power. If you want the Church to improve, you have to stay to improve it. Your implicit "threat" to the Church can't be: you give me a perfect liturgy, or I'm outta here! If being a Catholic is about what you can "take" from the Church, and not about what you can give, you will never be a satisfied Catholic.