For those of us who believe in the claims of the Catholic Church but are disheartened by her sinking into chaos and corruption, what are we to do? Perhaps the beginning of an answer might be found in Flannery O’Connor’s evergreen observation that we do not so often suffer for the Church as from the Church. One who lived out this difficult truth was the late Fr. Paul Mankowski.
Being a Catholic these days is a hard row to hoe. After a process of conversion, both intellectual and spiritual, I was received into the Catholic Church 23 years ago. I have thus spent half of my life and nearly the entirety of my adult life as a Catholic. I have spent much of that time teaching, writing about, and speaking on why I believe that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ and why everyone should be Catholic. It is not that Catholics are somehow “better” Christians on average or that the traditions of the various Orthodox Churches or Protestant communions are worthless. While I think that there are countless Christians of all kinds who are holier and better than I am and that there is a great deal to be learned about Catholic faith itself from those Christians and the traditions of thought and practice to which they hold, I still hold to the teaching that they and the glorious and indeed Catholic aspects of their way of following Christ should be in visible communion with the Catholic Church. So to the question I am often asked, “Do you want to convert me?” I still answer in the affirmative.
But I think I am like a great many Catholics in that I no longer have the same kind or level of frustration when people who were considering the Catholic Church back away or when people who were Catholic leave for Orthodoxy or some other Christian communion. While early on in my conversion I was frustrated that people could not see what was to me the obvious nature of the Church’s identity, this was perhaps because my journey, though spiritual, was largely predicated on big questions about the relationships between Tradition, Scripture, and Church authority; faith and reason; faith and works; and other difficult sets of truths. The answers to the questions I had asked about how Christ teaches us and saves us seemed so luminously clear to me that other questions seemed less important. I set aside objections about the weak nature of the Catholic Church’s life in America and in other countries, in part because I knew how weak the nature of Christian life is everywhere. One of my father’s old friends wrote to me, at my father’s bidding, to warn me that in becoming a Catholic I was not going to find any paradisal situation, for humans were weighed down with sin. To convince me, he observed several scandals in his own Evangelical group. This could not have been a worse argument for someone hot to trot about the claims of truth. After all, if there are scandals in the Protestant world I have left, then what better than to go where the doctrine is purer?
But another reason I tended not to give much weight to such concerns was that I had a certain confidence about the recovery of the Catholic Church from its post-Vatican II moral slump that validated my belief that the Catholic Church had something miraculous about her. The renewal of certain aspects of the Church’s life under the papacy of John Paul II after the banalities of 70s and 80s Catholicism seemed to echo Newman’s description of her remarkable capacity to rise from seeming death in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:
It is true, there have been seasons when, from the operation of external or internal causes, the Church has been thrown into what was almost a state of deliquium; but her wonderful revivals, while the world was triumphing over her, is a further evidence of the absence of corruption in the system of doctrine and worship into which she has developed. If corruption be an incipient disorganisation, surely an abrupt and absolute recurrence to the former state of vigour, after an interval, is even less conceivable than a corruption that is permanent. Now this is the case with the revivals I speak of. After violent exertion men are exhausted and fall asleep; they awake the same as before, refreshed by the temporary cessation of their activity; and such has been the slumber and such the restoration of the Church. She pauses in her course, and almost suspends her functions; she rises again, and she is herself once more; all things are in their place and ready for action. Doctrine is where it was, and usage, and precedence, and principle, and policy; there may be changes, but they are consolidations or adaptations; all is unequivocal and determinate, with an identity which there is no disputing.
Despite much of the chaos in the Church and the low quality of most parishes’ liturgy, preaching, and parish life, a steady stream of Protestant converts, many of whom were of very high intellectual quality, had begun to flow into the Catholic Church starting in the 1980s. The tide was itself turning, I thought. One article I read by a zealous convert seemed to predict that this stream would turn into a mighty Mississippi, dumping Evangelicalism into the Gulf of Catholicism even as mainstream Protestantism wound its way into rather boring secular and progressive holes and evaporated. John Paul’s own language was that of a “new springtime of evangelization.” And that seemed to be happening with the beginning of many initiatives, religious, priestly, and lay.
Even when a few years later the revelations of the sexual abuse crisis were beginning to be uncovered, I don’t think I was particularly troubled since John Paul’s long reign had meant a plethora of “JP II bishops” who would gradually right the ship. Joseph Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI after John Paul’s death in 2005 was another divine sign for me that even if Western civilization was itself collapsing in so many ways, the Church was reviving again to her former vigor with a pope who had a real grasp on the way in which the Church must change, but as Newman had observed, only in order to stay the same. I even knew young Jesuits who were sane and orthodox.
During the Benedict years I still had the confidence to think that the Catholic Church matched Thomas Paine’s stricture that “a revelation, which is to be received as true, ought to be written on the sun.” It was only during the pontificate of Francis that I began to have doubts, not in the truth of the Catholic Church, but in how visible her truth was.
Whatever the interior life of Pope Francis or the nature of his motives, it is safe to say that his pontificate has acted out his own advice to Christians: “make a mess.” While there is and has been a steady business for what one writer has called “popesplainers,” those professional Catholics telling everybody what Pope Francis really means when he writes or says things that are hard to fit with Catholic teaching or practice, what has been even more difficult than his language has been his behavior and his decisions. Pope Francis has not tried to declare definitively any heretical doctrines. But the episcopal and administrative appointments he has made have strengthened those in the Catholic Church whose idea was to follow the mainstream Protestants into those holes of evaporation. While the popesplainers have twisted themselves in knots to explain the orthodoxy of each odd statement, those who want the Church’s teachings to change have been able to run with each papal utterance and gain strength from a great many of his actions. Many, though not all, of those movements of renewal have been hampered or even stopped.
The Lutheran James Nuechterlein, long editor of First Things under the editor-in-chief Richard John Neuhaus, once observed that while many Lutherans and other Protestants hated their denominations and loved their local congregations, Catholics were the opposite: St. Whoever’s and my bishop stink, but John Paul/Benedict has got things in control in the universal Church and eventually it will trickle down!
Today many a Catholic may not be happy about parish or diocese but prays that what happens in Rome will not trickle down.
The new springtime of the Church John Paul had announced now seems much more likely be preceded by a longer and greater shrinking of the Church into a purer but drastically smaller group, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had predicted before his papacy—but the purity seems in short supply as well, given the continuing revelations of malfeasance on the part of various bishops and priests. Add to this the continuing banality of parish life and mediocrity at best of the majority of Catholic educational institutions and springtime seems still in the future.
It is much more difficult in 2020 to argue with friends or family who wish to leave the Church because they can’t perceive the orthodoxy in the system. One Latin American friend told me a few years ago that she used to tell people to look to Rome when the local bishop says weird things; she does not know what to tell them under Pope Francis. She remains Catholic, but many do not. One American friend found his last straw when he called the priest-chaplain at the hospital in which his mother was dying to say that she was near her end. The priest replied that he was “off duty” and that the friend could contact the chaplain on duty. When my friend explained that it was a Methodist minister, and a woman at that, the priest said that did not matter. To those who believe in the Church’s teaching about sacramental ministry, this attitude is bizarre, even evil. That friend and his family are Orthodox today.
Similar stories abound. For those Catholics not particularly on fire for the faith, this indifference to the truth of doctrine or sacramental practice among clergy will breed a skepticism about faith at all. To those who are not, many will eventually conclude that the revelation of the Catholic Church might be written on the sun, but the sun ain’t shining on the bishop of Rome. All of the intellectual arguments about Tradition, Scripture, and authority will not help at all when Catholics and others do not see any of these things in action.
For those of us who believe in the claims of the Catholic Church but find that Robert Conquest’s third law of bureaucratic institutions—that the best way to understand them is to imagine that they are run by a cabal of their enemies—seems more fitting than does the divine promise that the gates of hell will not withstand her, what are we to do?
Perhaps the beginning of an answer might be found in Flannery O’Connor’s evergreen observation that we do not so often suffer for the Church as from the Church. One who lived out this difficult truth was the late Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J., who died recently of a brain aneurysm at the age of 66.
Fr. Mankowski was a blue-collar kid who worked in steel mills during the summers in order to pay tuition at the University of Chicago. He entered the Jesuits and did graduate work at both Oxford and Harvard, earning a doctorate in ancient Semitic philology at the latter. His career as a Jesuit stalled, however, when he not only criticized his own order but passed on evidence to the historian James Hitchcock of a great deal of misbehavior on the part of various Jesuit leaders in the affair of Robert Drinan. Fr. Drinan was a Jesuit who successfully ran for office as a congressman in Massachusetts in the 1970s and supported pro-abortion legislation. Because of his actions and his stances, and despite his incredible academic record and ability, Mankowski was largely kept from having any high-profile role in the Jesuit order (he was kept for many years from taking the famed “fourth vow” of the Jesuits that is the ticket to leadership) or the academy.
Some men might have become embittered or perhaps drowned their disappointments, spiritual and professional, in the fully stocked bars of which most Jesuit residences boast. (I once angered a Jesuit at a drinks party by repeating a joke I had heard others make: “If this is poverty, bring on chastity!”) But Fr. Mankowski was not such a man. Tributes written by journalist Phil Lawler, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (with whom Mankowski boxed at Oxford), Cardinal George Pell, George Weigel, and others all include accounts of Fr. Mankowski’s refusal to sulk in the face of the death of Western civilization, the disorder of the Jesuits, or even the crisis in the broader Church—much less his own low-level persecution.
What he did instead was to throw himself into what God had given him, starting with his intellectual work, not just limiting himself to scholarly work on Akkadian verbs but making arguments about theological uses of language since he understood that human language about God and the world is either going to be true or it is going to be deforming and a tool of oppression. He helped guide Church officials in many matters of translation of the liturgy as well as making arguments about how the Tradition has spoken of God in various articles and book chapters. Of late years he wrote a number of particularly penetrating review essays, notably of his Jesuit confrere James Martin’s book Building a Bridge. In all of these he was direct, stylish, and intellectually sound as he made penetrating observations about the confusions of our day.
He also wrote, quite often pseudonymously, satires on the foolishness of the day. Those who remember the old print Catholic World Report will recall the “Diogenes” column on the back page, in which “Uncle Di” poured ice cold water on the follies of Church and society, quite often focusing on his fellow priests. I will never forget one column in which he treated of “pastoral solutions,” defining them as those solutions which involve the path of least resistance for pastors. In another he described the priests of a certain generation as those who were ordained when they weren’t paying attention.
I only met the man once, when we attended a conference together and I got to spend some time with him in a group talking one afternoon on a porch. Though frightened at his intellect (don’t say anything stupid, I told myself), he was courteous and gentle. His ferocious satire was something that he did not import into all pastoral and personal relations. One friend who got to know him a number of years ago told me he was completely unaware of Fr. Mankowski’s satirical work. Those who knew him well all testify to the perception that he would never have told a man whose mother was dying that he was “off duty.” When not teaching he would spend time working with the Missionaries of Charity or help out with ordinary parishes, bringing sacraments, listening, and giving gentle counsel to ordinary people. His asceticism was thorough but not severe or gaudy. His clothes were clean but threadbare. He was not gaunt, but Phil Lawler recalled visiting him when he taught in Rome and finding that he could not recommend a local restaurant.
Despite not being able to exercise leadership in the Jesuits, he was allowed to remain in the order and occasionally even asked to speak. Years ago when I had newly discovered Fr. Mankowski’s writings, a Jesuit scholastic I knew at Fordham University told me about attending the ordinations of Jesuits from another province. Fr. Mankowski had preached at the Mass, he said, and given a rather shocking homily. St. Ignatius of Loyola, said Fr. Mankowski, had initially desired not to start a religious order but join an existing one. The criterion the saint had used for choosing an order was this: He wanted the most corrupt and dissolute order possible so that he might suffer as much as possible for Christ. Today, Fr. Mankowski, had observed, St. Ignatius would certainly be a Jesuit.
The sticking-it-to-the-man aspect of this story appealed to me when I first heard it and still does. But what has come home to me much more since then is the deep truth present. This attitude of wishing to suffer for Christ is one that neither comes naturally nor, for most Christians, even supernaturally—at least all at once. In any case, the kind of suffering that one would encounter in a corrupt religious order is certainly not the kind anybody wants. I identify much more with another sentiment voiced by Flannery O’Connor: I couldn’t be a saint, but I might be able to be a martyr if they killed me real quick.
Fr. Mankowski might not have known how difficult it would be to be a Jesuit when he entered the order originally. He probably did not know when he began about the deep corruption in the Catholic hierarchy either. But he learned and gradually came to understand that the crisis in the Church concerning clerical behavior and culture had been brewing long before the 1960s; it was not something that could be solved as easily as many believed. With his deep knowledge of history, he also realized that true golden ages did not always appear so at the time. Even in those golden ages resurrection is always and only on the far side of crucifixion. If that is the case for the Master, it will be so for the servants.
Catholics can resent their tough row to hoe or can embrace it as the way of the cross—a way that will indeed often involve more suffering from the Church than for her. If they do, they may find that “real quick martyrdom” is not the only option. Real saintliness, in the tradition of St. Ignatius and Fr. Paul, may well be in the cards. In this way the Catholic claims that seem so often pale and weak may appear yet again as if written on the sun.
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