Category: How Do You Sleep At Night

One of my favorite — and most convincing! — Catholic bloggers, Mark Shea, utterly decimates the tired line about how the Church should sell its unspeakable wealth to feed the poor. As a friend of my husband’s used to say “If the Vatican sells all its art to buy everyone in the world lunch, what happens when it’s time for dinner and everyone is hungry again?!”

Shea explains what our critics are really saying and why it’s so stupid (with some help from Vatican expert John Allen):

” … ‘Why are art treasures, specifically dedicated to God by the artist so that any Roman beggar can see them for free to uplift his heart, not made the private property of one rich man and hidden in his villa?’ … One often hears of the proverbial wealth of the Vatican. An interesting comparison was made of the operating budget and the ‘patrimony’ of the Vatican by John L. Allen, Jr.:

Operating Budget: (Vatican) $300 million; Harvard ($3.7 billion)

Endowment/Patrimony: (Vatican) $1 billion; Harvard ($30.7 billion)

… We are now the corrupt rich Byzantines whose ruling class hordes its wealth to buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. The spectacle of watching some manicured Talking Hairdo ‘confronting’ the Vatican about its wealth while investing in Goldman Sachs and being paid a gazillion dollars to pontificate on he knows not what is one of the more sick-making pieces of hypocrisy on display in our media culture. We Americans pay 1/300 of the Vatican’s annual operating budget to cover two nights of Joe Biden partying in Paris and London. Joe, meanwhile, gives a whopping $369 to charity.”

On either side of the “narrow gate” of Christ and His Church, there are those who see it but refuse to enter it; some of them want to enlarge it, some of them want to make it still narrower, and some want to move it altogether.
This post deals with those who wish to both displace and narrow the gate beyond what Our Lord intended. They are “sede vacantes,” those who insist that the Seat of Peter (“sede”) is vacant (“vacante”) — in plain English, those who believe in the Church and the papacy, but hold that the current pope is not validly elected and that the Catholic Church is not really, well, the Catholic Church any more. Therefore, for them, their pope-less band is the “Catholic Church,” not that group of imposters in Rome and elsewhere, and if you’re not one of the chosen few of them, you’re a heretic.
I’ve only recently become somewhat acquainted with this rather bizarre belief by reading and attempting to understand the webpages of some of its adherents. It seems that this group (small, but loud and obstinate) does not believe there has been a valid pope since Pius XII, who reigned until 1958, and dissents from anything proceeding from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, including the Ordinary Form of the Mass, recently canonized saints, recently approved Church movements, and just about any papal teaching that doesn’t directly derive from Pius XII or an earlier pope. That covers a lot of ground.
I have a hard time understanding the logical or emotional appeal of the “sede vacante” position, particularly since its adherents don’t seem interested in explaining it beyond spewing strange conspiracy theories, or in debating it, and seem to pride themselves on being a tiny “remnant” of the real Church. Additionally, I don’t see how their problems can ever be resolved. The conundrum they’ve asserted (a pope-less Church and invalid actions galore for four decades) has no solution and their habit of fault-finding/-inventing and bitter rebellion will make it hard for them to ever humble themselves and re-enter the Church. Nonetheless, I’ll attempt to identify and address their major arguments.

Sede vacantes hold that a cardinal named Siri was elected pope in the conclaves of 1958 and 1963, but was prevented from assuming power by some sort of conspiracy. Of course, as conclaves are secret, only the cardinal electors can state with any authority what occurs in them, and they are sworn not to. Furthermore, Cardinal Siri himself remained obedient to the popes of the Church until his death in 1989, so it seems hardly likely that he considered himself a pope-in-exile. The sede vacantes, like all conspiracy theorists, have their photos (in this case, inlvolving the colors of the different emissions of smoke from the conclave) and bad guys, but they are long on innuendo and short on fact or reason.

Still more illogically, sede vacantes hold that Vatican II and the popes of that time and subsequent to it have somehow been “condemned” by popes who were dead before the council even met! Essentially, the sede vacantes will cherry-pick the statements of popes whom they like and apply the words of these popes to popes who don’t suit their tastes. It’s quite a trick to assert that a dead pope condemns a successive pope from the grave! There are other serious problems with this argument. For one, when He established the papacy upon Peter, Christ assured the invincibility of the Church (Matt 16:18) and if She truly has no pope, She has been conquered and He lied, which He cannot do. Also, the Church teaches that each pope is a successor of St. Peter and holds all of the powers of that office, so the powers of the office do not “dilute” over time (that is, it is erroneous to say that St. Peter was the pope with the most authority, that each of his successors have had less authority than those before them, and that Pope Benedict XVI has still less authority than Pope John Paul II).

What the sede vacante position boils down to is a profound disagreement with the doctrines and implementation of the Second Vatican Council — “modernism,” in their catch-all term. Hence, the mental contortions to discredit the Council and recent popes. There are many legitimate complaints about the implementation of the Council, though the documents themselves are quite profound. Our Holy Father has frequently critiqued the changes-for-the-worse in liturgy and one need only look at the sad decline in practice and numbers of many religious orders to see big problems, but the spiritual-Luddite mentality of the sede vacantes and their ugly rhetoric that often smacks of anti-Semitism (for example) is not the solution!

My admittedly limited dealings with members of this group have been frustrating and, for the reasons I’ve discussed above, I doubt most Catholics will get very far in discussions with the sede vacantes. However, we always have recourse to prayer and that, frankly, is what I recommend for these souls lost in their self-made sea of errors. And, it is also important that we pray that they not lead more troubled Catholics out into the murky waters with them!

This is the first installment of How Do You Sleep At Night?!: Catholic answers to common objections.

(The title of this series comes from a rather heated exchange I had recently with a fallen-away Catholic on a secular news blog. He was angry that I remain Catholic and defend the Church after learning of the sex abuse scandal. So, his beef is the first topic of this series.)

The sex abuse scandal is probably the most common objection raised against the Church in the United States today. The question seems to be: If Catholic priests can abuse children, how can the Catholic Church be Christ’s Church and how can people stay in it?! Out of sheer Christian charity and honesty, this question must be addressed directly. Here’s my brief answer:

Fact 1: Many people over many years were abused by a very small minority of Catholic priests and leaders.

On a related note: The vast majority of Catholic priests and leaders are, at a minimum, upstanding citizens and, in many cases, striving heroically for holiness. Thus, it is a grave injustice to claim that all or most priests are abusers and to make jokes with that punchline! We do not lump the innocent with the guilty! Abuse is no more rampant in the Church than it is in any other religious group or secular group (teachers, mailmen, plumbers, etc.).

Also, many of the accused priests are dead and are thus unable to defend themselves, and even if they are still alive, they are forced to try to prove, often years later, that they did not do what they are accused of — the burden of proof seems to be on the defendant, not the plaintiff here; this raises the distinct possibility that people wanting to make a fast buck off of the Church at the expense of Catholic parishioners and genuine abuse victims may lie! Additionally, there are many people who hate the Church’s positions on abortion and other issues and would be more than glad to lie to harm the Church’s credibility! Furthermore, some of the accusers “recovered” their memories of abuse through highly suggestive “therapy” that may in fact convince them of the reality of some things that never even happened!

In fact, though abuse did happen, it is likely that the scandal has been inflated for malicious reasons.

Fact 2: In addition to being a violation of civil and criminal law, sex abuse is a grave violation of immortal Catholic teaching — God’s Law — against the abuse of children, homosexuality, abuse of one’s priestly authority, etc. God is the most offended party!

On a related note: The Commandments and Church teaching and law predate the civil and criminal codes — and are firmly opposed to this sort of abuse! The fact is that if the priests in question had followed the Commandments and Church teaching, there would be no sex abuse scandal! There is no problem with Church teaching, then, for it is in place to prevent these evils.

Abuse of even one person is a grave wrong done to him and to God! Sex abuse victims need proper psychological and spiritual care and are also entitled to punative damages (money from the guilty to punish them for their offenses) from those who hurt them.

Furthermore, it is inaccurate to call much of the abuse “child abuse.” In reality, much of the abuse was man-on-man homosexual abuse, with boys almost at adulthood. Here again, if Church laws about celibacy and homosexuality had been followed, there would be no sex abuse scandal!

We all need to strive to eliminate the sin from our lives, then, and follow Church teachings. Those who smugly assert their moral superiority over abusive priests are often turning a blind eye to their own sinfulness and, in some cases, grave sinfulness against God!

Fact 3: Many bishops handled the scandal poorly, attempting to cover it and rehabilitate the offenders within the Church.

On a related note: Many have attributed the basest of motives to the bishops. Their motives may have indeed been bad, or they may have been doing their best to protect the Church from the very outpouring of hate that has materialized! Perhaps they also thought that it was their pastoral duty to try to rehabilitate abusive priests. Though they made mistakes, as all of us do, they are now learning from them and turning accused abusers over to the authorities, even in cases of very flimsy accusations. Who knows how many innocent priests have been ruined by false accusations?!

Furthermore, a number of those involved in groups that accuse the bishops have long had an anti-Church agenda and are less than diligent about weeding-out false abuse accusations. The same can be said about many of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who have at times bragged about their efforts to eliminate the Catholic Church! Attempting to undermine the Church has become a nasty little cottage industry. Who pays the price of this profiteering off of abuse? The real abuse victims, of course, as well as the many good priests subject to public contempt, the Catholic faithful who suffer the loss of parishes and services, and the poor and others served less by the impoverished Church! This is shameful; American justice does not punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty who cannot be made to pay, let alone those whose guilt has not been proven!

The bottom line is that flawed and sinful priests do not make the Church any less Christ’s, as every last person on earth is a sinner. Sin is no “smoking gun”! Priests, though in service of the unblemished Body of Christ, need Christ’s saving power just like everyone else! Catholics, then, are obliged to stay in the Church and honor the priests who bring Christ to them in the sacraments because Christ wills us to be part of His Body! We only punish ourselves by removing ourselves from the avenues of God’s grace out of spite for His Church and priests!

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