I can sometimes understand why atheists like Richard Dawkins would have things in such a way as Christians would be no more acceptable in society than Holocaust deniers and flat-earth fanatics. Perhaps he would like to be a new Robespierre and have the guillotine permanently set up on a public square ready for use at any time! Perhaps his good lady wife is good at knitting… Unfortunately, he is not the only one. In the same way as some of the most virulent French revolutionaries were former rigorist Catholics, so it is in our own day.
The serpent eats its own tail as we find more souls who would correct Christ’s errors in the words of John Gielgud as the Grand Inquisitor.
I have to admit about being vague about “free Catholicism” as there is no institution upholding that notion, and all the free Catholic attempts I have known of came unstuck or did not survive their founders. In the mind of the “totalitarian” Catholic, religious freedom is cognitively dissonant and/or deeply dishonest. Catholicism is therefore all about submission to authority and being under the control of a single institution.
If the fundamentalists of that Church spoke Arabic, the word would be none other than Islam (س ل م). The association of ideas is chilling. In history, the Church has hardly distinguished itself for respecting human freedom in any way – the Inquisition, the Crusades and everything that discredits it with us and our contemporaries. Islam (or at least the strict tendencies thereof) is no different from Christianity in the fourteenth century.
Is rejection of such a vision the equivalent of Satan’s non serviam in the Genesis narrative, the root of all sin and the Fall? That is question conservative Catholics ask. The cognitive dissonance is, however, not in the minds of those seeking the freedom Christ gave his disciples, but rather in the minds of those upholding an ecclesial system that has had its Vatican II, preached ecumenism and religious freedom, and uphold the pre-conciliar ideology.
These questions are constantly raised in the blogs, and nothing we can say will change the minds of the conservative Catholics, since the empathy they have for other people is probably less than a dim flicker. One might just as well try converting the Ayatollah of Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan. One of my objectives in this blog is to uphold an alternative vision, different from and above the warring factions of the conservatives and liberals – two forms of the same intolerance. That alternative vision is freedom, however much it lacks viability in human terms.
The same questions are asked, whether sacramental Christianity or “generic” Catholicism is based on a notion of voluntary love and service of God or fear of punishment for falling back into one’s “natural” evil state. Here, one can easily see the root of Hitler’s ideology according to which people are nothing more than cattle to be disposed of by the “master race”.
The conservatives then emphasise the futility of anything “pretending” to be Catholicism without being under the proper authority. Anything not part of the system is held to be a false imitation of Catholicism with the purpose of deceiving the credulous. The extreme Eastern Orthodox do the same thing, and some will even re-baptise people moving from one Orthodox Church to another Orthodox Church. This conception of the Church is the greatest obstacle to evangelism.
They continue by saying that any reason for describing oneself as “Catholic” other than being parts of God’s “Waffen SS” is shallow and unsustainable. They mention the example of fragmentation between national Orthodox Churches and between traditionalist groups. We bewail the same kind of fragmentation between independent Anglican and independent Catholic groupings.
In Catholicism, there may be wildly different opinions, but the Pope is the central authority that keeps us together. We can either be obedient and be in communion, or be disobedient and be excommunicated.
The simplism might seem to be appealing for the war-weary continuing Anglican or someone who has been involved in a “vagante” Church. Give up freedom for totalitarianism, and one finds the pill for happiness. Do we not read all about it in Huxley’s Brave New World?
Those conservatives have relinquished their freedom, and I wonder how happy they are in a system that theoretically upholds (but doesn’t practice) religious freedom and ecumenism (but reduces it to diplomatic chit-chat). They repeat the same mantras and cannot learn from any other point of view. I leave them to stew in their juice, but rather appeal to those who are not convinced they hold the final truth.
Attempts at free Catholicism have never been long-lasting. Conciliarism, which was the solution agreed upon by the Council of Constance (14 14-1418) to resolve the situation of up to three rival popes was finally snuffed out by Vatican I. Pius IX cut off the final branch of Rome’s credibility. Henceforth, any pile of bunkum coming out of Rome under the cover of (implied) papal infallibility was made acceptable. Hitler and Mussolini invented nothing! The old archdiocese of Utrecht was seduced by Kulturkampf liberalism in the 1880’s, and Old Catholicism became what it became – aligned with the sterile and de-sanitised mush of much of contemporary Christianity, the nemesis and mirror image of the infallible Pontiff.
I have come to the stage where I cease to believe in any “true church”, at least that notion being tied to any visible established institution. The setup I belong to was reduced to a pile of rubble by the ordinariate movement, and the survival is not as transparent as I would have hoped. They surely have their reasons “above my pay grade” or “clearance level”. Its looks like we have to accept a certain degree of obscurantism, at least until it turns out to be something manifestly unacceptable.
Saint Augustine maintained that a sacramental life was possible outside the official Church – valid but illicit – whilst Saint Cyprian upheld the total invalidity of any sacramental life from the instant of separation from the institutional Church. Rome now tends to hover between the two. Bishops and priests in independent contexts cannot refer to Rome for the ontological reality of the ministrations or legitimacy. They must appeal to a principle other than authority. They can’t have their cake and eat it!
The fact that Rome recognised Eastern Orthodox orders and those of the Old Catholics before they started ordaining women is an indicator of the fact that Rome is not actually Cyprianic in its theology. Conservative Roman Catholic lay people are often both Cyprianic and Donatist.
What is the characteristic of Catholicism? Is it the sacramental and liturgical character of its worship. If they exist in the Orthodox Churches, then can they not be an aspect of other forms of independent sacramental Christianity (based on a priesthood that would be valid in Augustinian terms)? Perhaps the Orthodox are more acceptable to westerners because they are practically unknown to us and “exotic”.
Putting it another way, what makes a Christian, a carrot or a big stick? Did not the British Navy just after the time of Captain Blighe admit that flogging with the cat o’ nine tails breaks a good man’s heart and makes a bad man even worse? Would we not be better Christians through love than through fear of punishment? Aesthetics often draw souls to the truth through sacred symbols and a sacramental experience. One of my loyal readers says that aesthetics is the wordless language of the soul. That is the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, not Vatican totalitarianism and the canonical equivalent of Fascism.
Belonging to the Church, any Church, is a question of connection. The beauty of the liturgy, a thing of the past in most RC churches, is one thing that connects us to the essential Christ-Mystery. Aesthetics is a means by which we fall in love with the Mystery, and Christ draws us to himself.
I am not repelled by the fragile church such as the one I belong to as a priest, because the entire Gospel of Christ is all about fragility and weakness. The Grand Inquisitor’s religion is about power and strength. The strong send the weak to be burned at the stake, shot or gassed. The weak and fragile have compassion and empathy for the little ones of this earth, those to whom the Beatitudes apply.
Catholicism in its universality is a pilgrimage of the human spirit in the way of freedom and holiness, a journey towards the light…
Shut it all up in a box, and I, with nearly the totality of our contemporaries, would not be interested.
The message I try to convey here is one of hope, for those who are not locked up in one prison or the other. Freedom is lived in our weakness and precariousness, but such is our condition that we can transcend.