In the past few weeks I have come into contact–both in person and in social media–with people who have felt the need to lecture me on their individual learning in areas of the Catholic faith. I stepped in at a Catholic bookstore when a man was telling a woman in full communion with Rome that she should go to SSPX Masses. I tried to explain to him that we shouldn’t be encouraging people to wade into complicated areas with a group that has not been fully rectified with the Church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made progress in that area, but not nearly as much as this gentleman believed.
He then went into a tirade about how he had read all sorts of things and knew more than I did, even after I tried to tell him that I am in fact a theologian who has studied the documents of Vatican II quite a bit, because he had launched into an attack on those documents. The discussion was futile. It was like talking to a brick wall. He knew better than I did and that was that.
I’m sure he does know more on some things than I do. Everyone does. However, he demonstrated a weakness to me that is very common in the line of thinking of that particular crowd. This is true in both social media and in person. I can attest that the hostility many of us face from these folks online is just as prevalent in person, which I must admit, took me aback quite a bit. The weakness is a form of turning in on oneself.
Fr. Chad Ripperger, an exorcist and FSSP priest has warned this particular group of people, who are of a more traditional strain–as in only the Latin Mass, all else is invalid, Vatican II is wrong, etc.–that a martyr complex or persecution complex is destructive. This is precisely what tends to present in these circles. The rest of us–apparently myself included–are the enemy who is keeping everyone from the fullness of Catholicism. I personally veil in the Novus Ordo and I prefer a balance of English and Latin in the Mass e.g. Sanctus, Mysterium, and Agnus Dei. I’m not a fan of the banality of Marty Haugen, Dan Schutte, and David Haas. Those are merely my preferences, however. In the end these decisions are up to the individual priest and the bishop. We can’t allow our disagreement with certain choices to trap us in anger. I’ve done this before and it causes nothing but harm.
The danger I see is that far too often these folks read or study in isolation. I rarely see appeals to Sacred Scripture or Magisterial teaching, ether that or they cherry-pick documents. Whenever someone tries to explain the development of doctrine, as articulated by Blessed John Henry Newman, it is discarded. I’m not entirely sure these folks realize that Christology, for instance, took centuries to develop and is still developing in certain areas. The psychological dimensions of Jesus Christ are being examined by many theologians at present, as an example.
These people often focus on their own abilities to understand things. It’s a focus on “I” read this or “I” know this. It is often predicated upon a private revelation they studied, which is a good as far as it goes, but private insights and revelations are not Magisterial teaching and are not binding on the faithful. If I have a private experience of God, you are not bound to follow what He has revealed to me. You aren’t even bound to believe that it happened to me.
If the Church approves a private revelation, then we can at least trust that it does not contradict the Church’s teachings on faith and morals and it is a safe message to incorporate into our spiritual lives. We must always keep in mind, however, that our faith is not entirely encompassed in the message of Fatima, or the still not fully approved apparitions at Mejugorje, or any other private revelation given as a great grace to the saints. Our faith is understood through Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. The three legged stool if you will. Once we unhinge ourselves from one of these legs, the stool will topple over.
There is nothing wrong with being an autodidact. Every faithful Catholic should have a regular habit of studying great spiritual works. Most importantly, all Catholics should be spending regular time praying and reading Sacred Scripture. Issues arise when we do so in isolation without ever seeking guidance from others, especially orthodox learned priests, theologians, teachers, spiritual friends, or catechists. We are made for communion with one another. This means that we should take our studies and what we learn to other people. This offers us the opportunity to humbly accept correction–I am corrected on a regular basis, as it should be–and to make sure that we are not in fact erroneously understanding something.
Spiritual teachers are an indispensable aspect of the spiritual life. It’s for this reason that priests receive formation from other priests, theologians, and philosophers. It is why theologians are required to undergo years of study under learned and trusted teachers. We need to balance our self-study with discussions and learning with other people. This includes those who may not be book-ish, but whose simple faith is a guiding example to us. I learn a lot from my husband who never cracks open a work of theology.
If we have fallen into protectionism, isolationism, anger, or vengeance then we are desperately in need of guidance. There are some people who have become so blinded by their anger at the Church that they relish the day they think when it will come burning down. Not only is this anti-scriptural, it’s to fall into the trap of sinful anger and wrath. These are traits that are quite common in certain circles. If we find ourselves pulling away from the Magisterium, for instance, then we have put ourselves in danger. We are then heading towards the same mistakes of the Reformation. We place ourselves above Our Lord in thinking that we know better than He did when He gave the keys to St. Peter. We somehow know better than 2000 years of Church Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
If we believe that we can ignore an Ecumenical Council, then we once again are in danger. This is one of the reasons I urge people to read and study Church history. Far too many people think only with our current age in mind without being able to put it into the much needed wider context of the whole history of the Church. Periods after Ecumenical Councils are notoriously rocky. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI even said it takes 100 years for a Council to be fully implemented correctly. This period in history is not somehow significantly worse than others. The heresies may be slightly different or old heresies have found prominence again. There is not a golden age of Catholicism where everyone was leading holy lives and our leaders were all pristine saints. The Early Church faced division and violent martyrdom. There’s a reason the saints are held up as pillars of light to emulate in our dark world.
This practical understanding does not in any way excuse the sins of the hierarchy and the faithful. It is in fact possible to understand on a practical level the weaknesses of human beings and to be righteously angry in the face of great evil. The former is simply to understand how Fallen men and women work through their salvation with Christ in fear and trembling, often in a very broken, weak, and sinful way. The path to holiness is to battle the sin that lies in our own hearts and to be purified. That cleansing process takes a life-time, and even then, we may still need much time in Purgatory. That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious consequences when we choose grave evil. It doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be very real consequences for when members of the hierarchy cause great scandal or that measures shouldn’t be put in place to prevent such scandals. There absolutely need to be! It’s important to remember that Christ Himself spoke frequently of the realities of Hell.
I simply mean that at a practical level, we do have to keep in mind that the path to holiness is a constant battle with sin, temptation, weakness, character defects, other people, the world, and the Enemy. I’m not a saint, yet. Are you? It’s not an easy path and anyone who says it is hasn’t fully understood that the Cross and the Resurrection are a package deal. Often those of us who focus on other people’s sins–we all do it–do so in order to avoid looking at ourselves. If we spend most of our time looking outward, then we are avoiding the very real work required interiorly and it is work. This is also something that needs to be done with knowledgeable, holy, and orthodox guides.
If we truly want to change the world and the Church, that is not going to be accomplished by ranting at other people both in person and in social media. In fact, that type of aggressiveness does more to harm our mission than to help it. If we truly want to transform the world and bring people to Christ then we must be actively pursuing holiness. That means a willingness to conquer the darkness in our own hearts and wage the intense battle that is required of us to do so. We have to stop focusing so much on the evils out there to the point that they rob us of peace. We can’t fight the battles out there if we haven’t fought the battles within our own hearts. Do we see the plank in our own eye? In the end we will persevere because it is Christ who fights with us and for us. With Him all things are possible. Even the most hardened of hearts can become radiant and holy. We must remember that this cannot be accomplished in isolation. We rely on Christ and His Mystical Body to succeed. We cannot walk the path in isolation.