I’ve noticed a fear pervading many Catholic discussions about the problems in the Church today. Whether the topic is something Pope Francis said, or the role of Vatican II, or the latest bureaucratic blatherings of the USCCB, there’s a fear that something will happen that will falsify the Catholic religion—that the Catholic Church is a house of cards that at any minute might collapse.
If, for example, someone publicly notes that Pope Francis directly contradicts something Pope John Paul II (or Pope Pius X or any previous pope) taught, then that can lead to a damning domino effect: if one pope contradicts another, then papal infallibility might be false, and if papal infallibility is false, then Vatican I is undermined, and if Vatican I is undermined, then ecumenical councils might be wrong, and if ecumenical councils can be wrong, then the Church is not protected by the Holy Spirit, and if the Church is not protected by the Holy Spirit, then Christ’s promises to the Church are false, and if Christ’s promises are false, then the whole Catholic religion is falsified. It’s a dizzying descent into despair.
I sense this fear particularly among those Catholics who truly believe all the Catholic Church teaches and see Catholicism as the One True Faith. It manifests itself when some Catholic media outlet—such as Crisis Magazine—runs an article that is critical of the pope (the current one or a previous one), Vatican II, or the bishops. The concern is often expressed as something along the lines of, “Why do you say negative things about Church leaders? That will only turn people away from Catholicism. It won’t attract anyone.” But the concern is much deeper.
In this view, Catholicism is always teetering on the edge of collapse, and so Catholics must do all we can to protect it from even the slightest challenge. Yet Catholicism is far stronger than it is given credit for by these insecure if sincere defenders. A deep study of Catholic history will disabuse anyone of the idea that the Church cannot handle bad prelates, bad popes, or even bad councils.
Look at the 4th century: Most bishops were heretics. They embraced and promoted Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ. Then in the 5th century, violence between Christians was widespread as Church leaders debated the Church’s Christology—monks would literally assault bishops in the street whom they believed were heretics. An apparently ecumenical council proclaimed heretical doctrine and had to later be condemned. Almost 1,000 years later, the Great Western Schism wreaked havoc on the Church, as three different men claimed to be pope and average Catholics had no way to know who was right and who was an imposter.
Many Catholics know at least a little about this history, but too often we subconsciously minimize its impact. Today we know the Catholic Faith prevailed in the end in each case, but at the time each of these disputes had to appear as an existential crisis to most Catholics—would the Church even survive? We are not the first Catholics to live in a time of severe crisis.
Too many Catholics today are content to talk about historical crises while whitewashing our current crisis. To criticize today’s ecclesial leaders is off limits, even though we can condemn Arian bishops of centuries ago. Somehow criticizing today’s Church will lead Catholics astray, even if they know past hierarchs were sinful, heretical, and even just plain awful.
I can understand this impulse—at least the sentiment behind it. After all, who would want to join or even stay in an organization that’s deeply flawed? And it’s true: many people leave the Faith due to the various scandals and crises in today’s Church.
But this isn’t a sign that there are too many critics in the Church; it’s a sign that the Catholic “immune system” is weak. A robust immune system isn’t one that’s never challenged—it’s one that can withstand challenges and fight them off. A person who has been exposed to many viruses and diseases is often far stronger than the one who has been isolated from the outside world. Hiding our problems only leaves us with Catholics with weak faith immune systems—when they do find out about scandal X or crisis Y (and they will find out), their faith collapses. Far healthier is the faith that knows the history of the Church, as well as the current situation, and is able to keep its eyes on Christ.
We are told to hide our blemishes because bad news doesn’t evangelize. However, hiding blemishes isn’t evangelization, it’s marketing. Evangelization is the proclamation of the truth, and sometimes truth can be uncomfortable or even scandalous. Does this mean we should obsess over bad news? No, that would be as unbalanced—and contrary to the truth—as pretending it doesn’t exist. We should always put the bad news in perspective, and that perspective is the infinite graces showered on the Church—and on us through the Church.
The strongest organizations are ones that are anti-fragile. To be anti-fragile is to become stronger, not weaker, in the face of stressors. A cult is inherently fragile, because any slip-up by the cult leader can lead to its total collapse. The Catholic Church is inherently anti-fragile: she has seen crisis after crisis and has weathered them all. Her survival is not dependent on good prelates or good popes (although those do help her flourish). Her divine institution doesn’t mean that she avoids human crises, but that she overcomes them.
That overcoming can take years, even decades or centuries at times. So when we are in the midst of a significant time of crisis—as we are today—it can look as if we will never get out of it, that the Church will ultimately fail. That conjures up fears, and it makes us want to cover up the blemishes in an effort to protect the Church. But the Church needs no protecting. She is not a house of cards; she is a fortress built upon Jesus Christ, the Rock who never crumbles. Catholics have nothing to fear by the airing of dirty laundry; quite the contrary, we know that exposing scandals, heresies, and corruption can be an immunity-strengthening process that makes our faith not weaker, but stronger.
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