Msgr. Charles Pope: A Lament for the Diminishing Church

Daily Reading & Meditation: Monday (September 30)
September 30, 2019
Fr. Dwight Longenecker: St. Michael is the Hammer of Heresies
September 30, 2019

By Msgr. Charles Pope, Sept. 29, 2019

I suspect the suffering and diminishing Church we experience today is harder for those of us are older, especially 55 and older. This is for two reasons. First the scandals, the decline and disorder happened on our watch and we, especially the clergy, have a lot of repenting to do over what we have done and what we have failed to do. Another reason is that the older among us remember a time when things seemed better; when the Church was strong and growing, more certain of herself, more dignified. It was not a sin-free time but things seemed more unified, more orderly. This is not mere nostalgia, the numbers bear out the truth that by most every meaningful measure Catholics were once more cohesive, loyal and the Church much stronger. Consider the following description of the Church in the 1940s by Thomas Reeves in his 2002 book America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen.  (A book well worth reading).

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Catholic Church in America blossomed. Traumatized by the blatant anti-Catholicism of the 1928 presidential election, Church members had responded by creating separate Catholic scholarly organizations, professional societies, book clubs, trade unions, even summer camps. … The hostility evidenced by Protestants stemmed partly from the fact that the Catholic Church was thriving.

In 1940, there were nearly twenty-three million Catholic communicants in America, almost three times as many as the Methodist Church could claim, and the Methodists were by far the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Catholics outnumbered any single protestant denomination in thirty-five of the forty-eight states. 

Mass attendance was in the 75 percent range or better (in contrast to the flagging attendance in increasingly secular western Europe). In Philadelphia churches, for instance, especially those with second and third generation American families, attendance at Sunday mass hovered around 90 percent. Charles R. Morris, an able historian of American Catholicism, described the appeal of the Mass: “The total experience – the dim lights, the glint of the vestments, the glow of the stained-glass windows, the mantra like murmur of the Latin – was mind washing. It calmed the soul, opened the spirit to large, barely grasp Presences is and Purposes. For a trembling moment every week, or every day if they chose, ordinary people reached out and touched the divine.”

Latin liturgy, Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, meatless Fridays, fasting before Mass, the rosary, the Baltimore Catechism, retreats, the novena (in 1938, 70,000 people attended 38 novena services at our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago every week), kneelers, large families dressed in their Sunday best, mantillas, and chapel caps, religious in habits, statues, large gothic or baroque churches with dark, quiet places and side altars, elaborate priestly vestments, the smell of incense, the sound of bells at the Consecration, the feeling of awe at the miracle of Transubstantiation – these were all common features of the American Catholic world in the time of the Church’s fastest growth and greatest self-confidence.  

Parochial education was booming; in 1943 there were over 2 million pupils in almost 8,000 schools, and 16,838 men in Catholic seminaries. Some nine million people subscribed to 333 Catholic newspapers in 1942. More than a hundred publishing houses were linked with the Catholic Press Association. There were 726 Catholic hospitals. 

Protestant paranoia was in some sense justified by the strong spirit of evangelism reflected in the “Make America Catholic” movement. Catholics reported about 86,000 converts annually in the United States. A serious attempt to reach African-Americans was underway. Urban laborers were increasingly attracted to the pro-labor teachings of Leo XIII, the “Pope of the working man.”

Many liberal intellectuals were outraged by the Church’s prosperity during this period. … Attacks reached their crescendo in 1949 and Paul Blanchard‘s best selling book American Freedom and Catholic Power. Begun as a series of 12 articles in The Nation, Blanchard’s book called the Catholic hierarchy rigid, medieval, fascist, totalitarian, tyrannical, bigoted, un-American, arrogant, dishonest, and the enemy of science and objective learning. He said that Catholicism conditions people to except censorship, thought control, and ultimately dictatorship. There is no doubt the parochial school, whatever may be it’s virtues, is the most important decisive instrument in the life of American children. Blanchard called for a “resistance movement” to prevent the Church from taking over America and crushing “western democracy and American culture.” (pp. 163-167)

Yes, those were, at least to an external observer, the halcyon days of the Church. Halcyon is a word which bespeaks times of happiness, success, and prosperity. It is a word often used to describe an idyllic time in the past that is remembered as better than today.

The picture in Europe, as we will see in tomorrow’s post, was nothing like this. Two horrifying World Wars had more than shaken the faith of Catholics in Europe where the numbers of practicing Catholics were plummeting.  But in America that would wait another twenty years.

Yet something must have been going on under the surface for it to have collapsed so quickly. We as a Church were certainly ill-prepared for the cultural tsunami that hit in the 1960s. Wave after wave roared through our culture, sweeping away all the landmarks, all that was familiar. The waves of the sexual revolution, radical feminism, rebellion against authority and tradition, drug use, no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, the normalization of fornication and homosexual acts, cohabitation, sexually transmitted diseases, and now the bizarre world of “transgenderism.” Yes, wave after wave, and it was a fast destruction.

The roots of modern ills stretch philosophically back to the close of the Middle Ages as the rise of Nominalism spun an ugly though intricate web through Descartes, Locke, Hume and ultimately to Nietzsche and Nihilism, or Sartre and Existentialism. In effect we stepped back from reality in increasing ways and either in nihilistic madness said that nothing has meaning, or in existential hubris declared that we can just make up our own meaning and live that. All of this, like a witch’s brew was bubbling in the background.

In the Church we sought to resist this through the Counter-Reformation, and later through the resistance to Modernism. But through the awful, bloody and revolutionary 20th Century we lost ground and increasingly compromised with the world. Our distinctive and ancient Catholic faith slipped through our fingers.

While the second Vatican Council was surely a major battlefield (for a thoughtful treatment of this period I recommend The Second Vatican Council, an Unwritten Story by Roberto de Mattei), the war was bigger and older than that. For, truth be told, the ones who threw the revolution in the Church were all raised in the “old system” with the Latin Mass, the old Catechism, and regimented seminary formation, usually in Latin.

The crazy college kids who threw the cultural revolution were also raised in the old system: prayer and the pledge of allegiance in the schools, and for Catholics, the Latin Mass, parochial schools, uniforms, “Sister says” and solid catechetical foundations.

So, even in those halcyon days described above something was brewing. Seemingly the external glory of the Church in America of the 1940s and 50s was three thousand miles wide, but only two inches thick. When the earth shook with our indignation in the 1960s, things broke up quickly. Angry rebellion was everywhere in those years. Iconoclasm was rampant and we congratulated ourselves as the wrecking balls hit just about everything.

Something came over us that was bigger and older than a four-year Council. Some of us like to point to the vision of Leo XIII and the hundred years of trial that God permitted for the Church. But as the years tick on well past one hundred, I wonder if the explanation isn’t more complicated and mysterious; God’s providence is often paradoxical. One thing is clear to me, we are under a period of pruning and punishment for our sins in the Church. The rot was a lot deeper that I knew ten years ago. It is so much more awful than I ever thought then, and I am convinced we are going to see a lot more exposed in coming few years.

I sit before the cross in the rectory chapel a lot these days. Even as I type this, I am near it. And, how frequently I just sigh. Words cannot express the grief I often feel for the Church, the Lord’s Bride and my Mother. How we, her children have soiled her beautiful garments and torn at them. But she is always the Bride and never the widow for her Groom lives forever.

And here in this chapel and in the Eucharistic Presence of the Groom, I await the renewal he will surely bring. I am aware that more purification may first be needed. And so I wait, and I sigh, and I accept my share in the purifications needed.

This motet is by William Byrd and it says,

Ne irascaris Domine, satis,  
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.

 Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.

Be not angry, O Lord; enough.
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.

Your holy city has become deserted.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Lament for the Diminishing Church