End Notes: Later Than You Think

Not just the day or the hour but the how of it is hidden from us, but this does not dim our curiosity about the end of it all. Au contraire. The literature on the end of the world is rich and complex.

The least interesting subset of this genre is of two kinds, terrestrial and cosmic. Although they are far from gone, it seems safe to say that films and novels about the coming nuclear holocaust have had their day. From On the Beach through Fail Safe to Doctor Strangelove, whether with plodding seriousness or manic humor, the suggestion was that human madness will incinerate the world. The moral was that the end need not come, and would not, if only people were more rational. Rationality in turn was defined as not taking too seriously the political difference between freedom and despotism. Unreason, then, consisted in opposition to the evil empire.

The cosmic version has the note of inevitability. Our paltry concerns have nothing to do with the world’s end. The universe is set up in such a way that willy-nilly it will burn itself out, galaxies will collide, the whole centrifugal rush is hurling toward nothingness. The local version of this is: The meteor is on its way.

The titillation provided by such stories is temporary, chiefly because their assumption is that the point of life on earth is more life on earth, such that when it ends that is the end indeed. The religious seldom intrudes, save in the form of the fluttering Salvation Army banner in the empty streets of Melbourne reading “Brother, it is later than you think.”

It is never later than Professor James Hitchcock thinks. He has recently made a contribution to what might be called the age-old mainstream effort to think imaginatively ahead to the end. Ignoring zoning laws and other restrictive covenants, he has elbowed his way into the neighborhood of authors whose thought on the end times takes its cue from the Apocalypse. More modest than Soloviev’s Anti-Christ or Benson’s Lord of the World, Hitchcock, writing in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, asks himself how the Church could be riven by schism. His focus is on his native land. What he has to say is at once alarming and perfectly plausible.

His scenario briefly, is this. As the number of priestless parishes increases and bishops appoint lay ministers to conduct prayer services, these ministers will vest in ways indistinguishable from a priest, distribute the Eucharist consecrated earlier by a priest, perform an increasing number of functions once performed by the pastor. One Sunday, the faithful will gather and there will be no consecrated hosts. The lay minister decides to say a prayer over the bread and distribute it. The essential priestly function has been usurped, the nature of a parish is radically altered, a people uncatechized for generations and illiterate in their faith will resist the suggestion that this new system is anomalous. One thing will lead to another, and eventually Rome will recognize that schism has long since occurred.

It would be too much to say that there are Catholics who long for this day to arrive, but it is certain that the movement agitating for women’s ordination and the dropping of celibacy often suggests the Hitchcock scenario is its or else. (Indeed, at least one bishop has tried to postpone all ordinations in his diocese until Rome considers establishing such novelties.) Hitchcock puts disgruntled nuns at the center of his scenario, not least because of reports that certain communities of religious already refuse to have a priest preside at their liturgies, preferring someone less harassing to their gender. Are nuns even now “consecrating” bread and wine in a facsimile of the Mass?

Hitchcock, whose somehow exuberant delectatio morosa endears him to readers and students and all the ships at sea, finds in the trendy gender sensitivity that has invaded the Church the source of the activity of those who could orchestrate the schism. They know what they are doing. Their quarrel is with Nature and with Nature’s God, and the Church is almost a target of opportunity. The blurring of the difference that is both biologically and grammatically fundamental, that between genders, leads to perversity and babble.

But Hitchcock’s attention is on the simple faithful, made simpler still by their unawareness of the basics of Catholicism. H.F.M. Prescott’s novel, Man on a Donkey, gives us the Reformation from the viewpoint of the pew, so to speak. The slow attrition, the gradual alteration, the miasmic mutations, provided no clear and decisive point of change. One day it was realized that the present was very different from the past.

What would enable the Hitchcock scenario to come about is the ignorance of the laity as to what their faith truly is. That is why the Universal Catechism is so crucial. The opposition to it, the effort to recast it in the Esperanto of inclusive language, can be better understood on Hitchcockian terms. And the suggestion that, when it comes, the Catechism must not be put into the hands of the faithful, is, accordingly, ominous. Only a laity adequately instructed in what the Church truly teaches will be armed against the subtle schism Professor James Hitchcock in a doubtless dyspeptic moment envisaged.

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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