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Don’t lose heart when the Church fails us

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French Bishop Jacques Gaillot, centre, seen in this 2013 photo. Bishop Gaillot was removed as Bishop of the French Diocese of Evreux in 1995 by Pope John Paul II for several reasons, including his identification of the Catholic faith with particular political causes as well as his persistent heterodox public statements and actions, some of which contradicted or undermined Catholic faith and teaching. When official Catholic agencies act in such a way, the baptised can feel betrayed and disempowered from the faith to which they are entitled, and as if nothing in the Church stands firm. Photo: CNS, Benoit Tessier, Reuters

While the Church has never been free of conflict and argument, a major problem of the modern era originates in what might loosely be termed a division which, in theological shorthand, is referred to as the fault line which runs between the hermeneutic of continuity, on the one hand, and a hermeneutic or mentality of discontinuity, on the other.


The hermeneutic of continuity is an outlook which sees the history of the Church from Christ up until now as an organic and constantly developing unity which takes into account the person and teachings of Christ, Scripture, two millennia of Catholic faith and practice and the defined body of teaching called the magisterium. It is capable of factoring the sinfulness of humanity into the big picture of salvation history.

It accepts as a matter of faith that some things can’t change, no matter what the polls say – for example, belief in Christ’s divinity. Such things are, in effect, the constellations in the night sky by which the ordinary Catholic man or woman can safely navigate because they do not change position.

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The hermeneutic of discontinuity, conversely, is more a mentality that tends to regard much of the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council or the 20th Century as somehow deficient and which seeks to obscure, change or reverse some or much Church teaching, not excluding the dogmatically defined magisterium, usually in matters to do with sexual morality, the sanctity of human life and gender – but also extending to issues such as ecclesiology and liturgy.

It usually seeks to do so in accord with moral relativism and the values predominantly to be found in popular culture. It often confuses the individual sinfulness or failings of members of the Church throughout history with the actual faith of the Church. It certainly confuses divine truth with cultural relativism.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is seen during a Midnight Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 25 December 2014. Governor Cuomo, who identifies as a Catholic, was urged by numerous bishops, clergy and laity to stop a bill in the state Legislature to expand state law on abortion. On 22 January 2019, the anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe decision legalising abortion nationwide, the Legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act and Cuomo, a Catholic, signed it into law. The law is among the most extreme ever passed, basically allowing infanticide. Photo: CNS, Carlo Allegri, Reuters

The difference between the two

One mentality is informed by two millennia of constant belief and practice, often heroically witnessed to by martyrdom, the other by the mass media and the fashionable currents of our time. This is why occasionally some Church events in our time can effectively be taken over by a loose coalition of those with agendas and those who just don’t know any better as platforms to trumpet their own versions of history, ecclesiology and morality.

A speaker, for example, can get up at a conference organised by a Catholic agency, and effectively claim or imply in the name of progress that two millennia of Church practice and teaching were all just an historical mistake (say, in the matter of spousal love) and if only we look to popular culture we’ll know how to correct Jesus and the Gospels because they were too culturally conditioned and bound by their times.

Rogue Catholics and Catholic forces

The trouble is that when official Catholic agencies cave in to, or are dominated by, the hermeneutic of discontinuity, by the mentality (or sheer ignorance) determined to do away with the past on the ground that it is intrinsically deficient, the harm is far worse than the pontifications of the rogue Catholic politician or actor. The faithful can be tempted to wonder if nothing in the Church will hold firm at all.

What to do?

When such moments come, however, we cannot lose heart. We may be frustrated or angry – or both. But to do nothing is certainly not an option. So what is to be done? The first and most important thing is to pray. Nothing good will or can happen if we rely on our own will rather than the baptismal power of prayer. Prayer, after all, gives us the ability to draw on nothing less than the divine power of heaven itself. We pray because prayer is effective. It has actual effects. As we pray we draw closer to God.

The baptismal responsibility

But we can resist as well. All Catholics are entitled as a matter of justice and their baptism to prudently resist actions, policies and statements contrary to our received faith. Our resistance can be a way of gently guiding those more enamoured of their own pet theories and imagined insights back towards what we know to be real and true. In order to do this it is more prudent to act collectively. Many speaking in a unified voice are taken more seriously than lone protestors.

Finally, we can remember that what might be called rogue Catholic forces believe in merely weak gods such as the power of budgets, and crave appointment to official status and high office which they understand as power. But their pet theories have already failed the test of time because they take no account of the luminous eternal nature and power of Christ and His word. Understanding their transcience is also to trust in God.


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