Friday, September 7, 2018

Flashback Friday: The fatherless church

From time to time I’ve had occasion to talk with friends about what life was like in our families while growing up. I myself grew up without a father, my parents having gone their separate ways prior to my birth, but that is not quite the same thing as having a father who shirked his responsibility, which is the case with several of my friends.

The culprits were the usual ones, booze being at the top of the list. And so while the father was around, his presence was almost spectral; there but not there. Depending on the strength of the mother, the family was held together with varying degrees of success, but what remained the same in all cases was that a spectral father left a void every bit as gaping as having no father at all. The children managed, for the most part, adapting to their circumstances (as children often will), and with few exceptions they turned out to be stellar adults, though they also bore the wounds of childhood. But one thing that they almost all agreed on was that something was lacking, that even though they managed without an active dad, there were some gaps that could not be filled, some absences for which there was no compensation. And almost all of them were filled with regret, to one extent or another, at the things they missed, the memories that never were, the guidance that should have been but wasn’t. Life may have turned out exceedingly well for them, but it was still incomplete.  In the drama that was their lives, there was a role that had been cast, but had not been filled. There was something missing.

Which brings me to the state of the Catholic Church today.

We’ve just passed the first anniversary of the election of the current pope, and it’s a fair assessment that he’s thrilled some, angered others, and confused many. Depending on who one talks to, he’s either Machiavellian in his cleverness, Christ-like in his gentleness, or Ted Baxter-ish in his cluelessness. Even now I’m not sure which of the three he is, though I haven’t ruled out the possibility of them all being valid.

As I’ve written before, I would not consider myself to be a “fan” of this pope. I’ve ceased reading much about him, for the choices often seem to be either fawning obsequiousness or slanderous contempt; either one would be enough to make my blood pressure rise. In the event, I try to avoid much about him whenever possible, lest I expose some latent, simmering rage.  I still avert my eyes whenever his picture scrolls into view - again, an effort to avoid a proximate cause of sin. (Like many, I found something disturbing about his initial appearance on the balcony, a feeling which remains with me still.) As you may have noticed, it’s still an effort for me to even use his name – an effort I generally don’t try to mount. It would be very wrong to think that I hate him; that's too personal a feeling for me to have toward him.  Indifference, however, can be just as damning.

A commenter at another blog mentioned that after a year he still mourned the end of Benedict’s pontificate.  “Mourned” seems a strong word to me, not the kind of word I generally use, but also it doesn’t quite summarize my attitude.  It’s too gentle, too sentimental.  Were I to select a word of my own, it would perhaps be “bitter.”*

*Putting me in mind of one of my favorite poems, Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert”:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
"But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

The origin of bitterness, if such exists, is because in converting to the Catholic faith it sometimes seems as if, in Whittaker Chambers’ words, I’ve joined the losing side. What makes this more frustrating is that this side – the Church – has all the correct answers. What it lacks is someone to articulate them.

Someone has pointed out that prior to last year’s Conclave, it would have been inconceivable to suggest that it “didn’t matter” who the pope was. Yet for many Catholics, it seems that this is exactly what is called for today. And when the best way to avoid anger is to ignore the pope and what he says, that’s not a good thing. It’s true that the faith of the Church is constant and unchanging – the truth, after all, is the truth – and in that sense it’s also true that when the tracks run straight and true, it isn’t that important who the engineer is. But the pope also has a role with regard to the faithful – to care for their souls, to instruct them, to correct them when necessary, to lead them.  Just as the father is head of the family, the pope is head of the Church’s family. And what we have today is a fatherless Church.

It operates; Mass is said, confessions are heard, souls are saved, the Eucharist is received. The Catechism spells out exactly what the Church believes, and why.  It functions, as the fatherless households of my friends functioned.  But there is something missing.

Think of the paternal figure teaching a young boy how to be a man. There is the wise comforter wiping tears from a daughter's eyes. There is the husband who is the rock of the family, who helps out when help is requested - and, even as important, when it isn't. This is what the father provides a family, what my friends were unable to experience.

Think of the tireless advocate for the unborn who hears from her pontiff that she may be "obsessed" with single issues. Think of the defender of the Church's teachings who feels dismissed with not even a how-do-you-do to show for it, while his pontiff lavishes attention on those who don't even seek it. Think of the believer of tradition, the unbroken line of some two thousand years that unites the Church militant to the Church triumphant, only to see those beliefs under attack, while the pontiff scarcely raises his voice. Abortion. Euthanasia. Homosexual marriage. The authority of the Magisterium.  Precisely the kinds of things that a father stands up for within his own family.


I'm reminded of another poem*, this one by T.S. Eliot, an Anglican who likely would have converted to Catholicism had he lived to see the meaninglessness into which his church has descended, a meaninglessness of doctrine, a lack of teaching, a foundation that looks like nothing more sound than quicksand.

*I don't mean to turn this into Poetry Corner, by the way.

According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, "The Hollow Men" deals with post-World War I Europe under the Treaty of Versailles, the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and possibly his own failed marriage.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass<
In our dry cellar
The Bishop of Rome assures us that he is a loyal "son of the Church." A son, of course, suggests a father, and I've no doubt that the pope draws great strength and comfort from his Heavenly Father; but he must also know the importance of an earthly father. After all, Christ's earthly father, St. Joseph, is the protector of the Church.

It is time for the Holy Father to be an earthly father to that Church. Let's not forget how "The Hollow Man" closes, with one of the most famous stanzas in literature, lines that even those who don't read poetry are likely familiar with:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Today we are The Fatherless Church, and though we continue to function it is often without a hand on the tiller, and even if we keep on course we are acutely aware of what we are missing. We are The Fatherless Church, and we fear that we're being led by Hollow Men, headpieces filled with straw. We wonder when the father will start to act like a father, to fill the gap that only he is capable of filling - indeed, which he has been charged with filling.

Will it be too late? Or will it all end, not with the banging of the doors of nearly empty churches, but with whimpering from their nearly empty pews?

Originally published March 14, 2014

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