Is free Catholicism cognitively dissonant and/or deeply dishonest?

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.

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14 Responses to Is free Catholicism cognitively dissonant and/or deeply dishonest?

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Fr. Anthony, When you write, “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”, I don’t think any of us would disagree much with the small “c” church, a local specific church. We all see the imperfections and sinfulness in our fellow Christians each Sunday, clergy included. So we know we aren’t perfect and have much to repent of. And I think many of us wouldn’t have too much trouble with the small “t” in truth, esp. at our local churches. Few of us are so theologically trained and sound that we could explicate complex Christian dogma. We take things like the Trinity and the real presence in the Eucharist on faith, knowing that if we had to explain it we’d likely fall into error.

    The issue is always when we speak of the “True Church”. And from an ecumenical standpoint I think at least two things are clear. First, each Christian faith group and denomination has specks in its own eye. Each needs to work internally to better show Christ to the world. Where is the real unity and concord within American Lutheranism? Continuing Anglicanism? Orthodoxy? RCs (the war between liberals and conservatives, the pews filled with cafeteria-style RCs)? Second, each needs to admit that in an important way we do need each other. We are not fully realized or complete when we stand and worship apart. East needs West. West needs East. East is divided. West is divided.

    One could only imagine a working universal Church that combined the order of Rome, the stubborn strength of Constantinople, and the evangelistic fervor of Wittenberg? Come Holy Ghost! Until that day, maybe all we can do is be the “best” (fill in the blank group) we can be as we believe the Holy Ghost has led us?

    • Perhaps I could resume this very simply. Anything that is human, institutional and victim of human evil is a church. The Church is not visible because it is an institution but because it is a Sacrament manifested in the Eucharist.

      I believe in the Eternal and Sacramental Church. Institutionalism is a cancerous accretion from which it suffers. That sacramental sign is to some or a great extent eclipsed when churches divide from each other by claiming to be alone the “true church”. I see no prospect of that harrowing reality being reversed in our lifetimes.

      We are living in a time when the church has made it impossible for ordinary people to relate to it. Many priests are alienated. Perhaps, our church will be, in the words of Oscar Wilde, the church of the unfaithful. I have a good mind to rename this blog Father Robin Hood or something along the lines of something describing ecclesiastical outlaws!

      • Michael Frost says:

        Maybe where any cognitive dissonance lies is with a desire somehow to be both outside of any one recognized institutional Church yet also somehow to be positively recognized by that Church and to interact with it in a way one one finds pleasing or desires, as well as to simultaneously hope to somehow be inside of a recognized institutional Church one fully agrees with and have a positive experience within it? If so, the problem likely sets in when the appropriate recognition either fails to materialize or goes from positive to negative over time, or the actual experience within isn’t what one had longed for or expected? Then the individual has to psychologically adapt to their now experienced reality.

        Has me thinking…Was it Pius IX who said something to Pusey or Keble about why would they want to be a bell ringing people to the Church when they chose to remain outside of it? Not sure how they responded back.

        (I’ve always found the theory of cognitive dissonance fascinating. Some early research on it involved people reflecting on the experience of eating worms, by both those who did and did not so consume. The mere eating of worms tends to make one’s perception of both worm and eating of worm more favorable. Why would you eat a worm unless you liked it? So of course you like eating worms after you’ve had one.)

      • I have never known a more accurate description of the TAC. This is why I have tried to follow the ideas traced out by people like Bishop John Plummer (look him up on Google) that consist of ceasing to refer to the mainstream church bodies and forge a new identity. Probably the most coherent form of such a new identity would be monastic or “Robin Hood” ministry to the marginalised.

        Would Pius IX have been talking with Anglicans? Did Pusey & Keble travel to Rome or the Pope to England? Was there written correspondence?

        As for church bells, there are thousands of them in this country – and all in communion with Rome – and very few people respond in terms other than something like Cette maudite cloche! J’en ai marre!

        Please keep commenting. You have good things to say and which help to make this blog worthwhile.

  2. Here is a kind comment from Young Fogey in his blog:

    Real free Catholicism. Fr C’s disillusioned with the official church. Understandably. Many churchmen, including many trads, are jerks. But as he also notes, just about every attempt to improve on it by starting your own version remains small and/or is short-lived, from the Old Catholics (tiny liberal European denomination in communion with the Episcopalians) to the vagante start-ups Peter Anson wrote about that still pop up. Do-it-yourself church as a principle/doctrine’s a dead end. Some ideas for answers. A hint is from Fr C’s old priest in France, from the real pre-conciliar church; the trad movement’s circumstances — small, understandably defensive, in many places in the military-like Counter-Reformation religious-order mold, which of course isn’t for everyone — make it ‘not what we were’. As I’ve said, the real traditional church was/is a big tent, ‘here comes everybody’, strict in principle as it should be but easygoing in practice. (I understand Orthodox in Greece and Russia are like that too.) We’re not a cult; the church couldn’t micromanage you even if it wanted to, and priests have better things to do. Regarding religious liberty, there’s long been a middle ground between ‘Bring back the King of France!’ and the heresy of indifferentism: pre-conciliar American Catholicism, the church meets the founding fathers and their old republic that stayed out of people’s way in religion. (In America we didn’t need the council; by at least the ’40s we were already accepted without compromising.) Mainliners (the Anglicans I was born into thanks to a marriage conversion a generation back) think I’m reactionary (no women’s ordination; non-homosexualist); some brother trads think I’m liberal/an Americanist. That’s OK. Vatican II was the wrong thing to do but John Courtney Murray was right, as is Fr C that the church flourishes most in freedom.

    • Here I reply to John Beeler, recognising his concilatory and kind attitude.

      There’s not really very much to say except that in time, I and others of like ideas, attitude, etc. may just have to let go. Perhaps the TAC can get back some of the coherence it once might have had in the last years of the twentieth century. I have known priests to soldier on saying Mass alone in a private house, waiting for a sign that never came.

      I understand John’s disillusionment and can only speculate where his thought will move next.

  3. Dear Fr. Chadwick,

    If I may suggest, the council of our Lord, in two proof texts, may be applicable here. Luke 12.1 (“… he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”) and Matthew 23.3 (“all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not”).

    Did you perhaps think that the age of the Pharisee and the hypocrite was over? I believe that it was Ezra Pound, in his Guide to Kulchur, who remarked something to the effect that the Catholic Church lost its authority and power when Her prelates no longer believed the doctrine they were bade to teach. I rather believe that that those prelates lost their authority when they no longer knew that doctrine.

    I believe that in all ages, there are some few who actually attempt to learn and to live the life of Christ. These we call ‘saints’. They often do this alone in the desert; these we call ‘hermits’. Often they do so in small families or groups, like St. Jerome in Jerusalem, St. Basil in Cappadocia, St. Augustine in Africa, or St. Benedict in rural Murcia. These we call ‘monastics’.

    I believe, like the best of the Romans, the Orthodox, and even of the Anglican traditions, that Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and true Church Authority (as expressed in the Councils and the Synods, at least) are the means by which the Holy Spirit has spoken to us. We still have the opportunity to listen, and to follow. And we still have the opportunity to serve the Lord, through the Divine Liturgy, in the beauty of holiness.

    Yes, it is a pity that we are living in a new Dark Ages, where the light of Christ and of His Church no longer illumines. That light still exists though, and we are promised that the darkness shall not quench it.

    I therefore suggest, in this new time of spiritual warfare, that we ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’

    • Michael Frost says:

      Interesting, a positive reference to Ezra Pound. The fascist who promoted Il Duce. And liked Hitler. How many years did he end up spending in a psychiatric hospital? America’s Quisling. At least the Norwegians had the decency to execute theirs! American leniency.

      • Ah, yes, Mr. Frost. The fallacy you are at present indulging in is called argumentum ad hominem. It proceeds from the assumption that if you can attack the person who holds a particular point of view, you need not actually address the original argument.

        And, I will repeat, the Roman Church lost its authority in and with the modern world when its prelates (with few exceptions like His Holiness Benedict XVI) no longer knew the doctrine they were bade to teach. May I suggest that you address that issue instead?

      • Michael Frost says:

        Bernard, No, more just a distaste for what he stood for, which showed his extremely poor judgement and warped worldview. One that advocated for evil, and an evil that was especially pernicious. One always has to evaluate the source of information. And some sources aren’t hardly worth using, if ever. For me, I wouldn’t ever think of quoting Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, or Pol Pot in relation to Christianity, or anyone who was their disciple (like Pound or Heidegger). There are so many more far valuable sources to use than rely on anyone who promoted evil as a positive way of life.

  4. ed pacht says:

    Agreed. Jesus, while he did counsel listening to what the Pharisees said, cautioned his followers against them as ‘whitewashed sepulchres full of dead men’s bones’ — and he did say, by their fruits ye shall know them. what a man’s personality is says little about the content of what a man says — he may indeed be speaking truth — but it does say a whole lot about the degree of weight one gives to his words. I’m not likely to listen overmuch to someone whose life is evil – nor should I.

  5. As you are unwilling actually to address the issues which I raise, I pray that you spare me, if not others, your alleged moral outrage. It makes far more heat than light. I prefer light.

    • Please note that I am addressing Mr. Frost here, and not Mr. Pacht. Mr. Pacht is at least engaging in argument here, rather than quarrel.

    • Bernard: You have just come onto this blog and you are now throwing your weight around. You are therefore on moderated status and your comments will not be published if they are rude or aggressive. And, by the way, I did give some ideas of Julius Evola some thought, but found that right-wing neo-paganism had no more basis in providing a spiritual platform than tired-out nineteenth-century Catholicism. I have no sympathy of totalitarian politics of any kind.

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