June 8, 2021 (Steven O’Reilly) – Mike Lewis over at Where Peter Is has offered his ruminations on the state and future of evangelization. The lengthy essay (4,600 words plus) ponders “What can we offer the world?” The question Mr. Lewis wants to set before the reader is how to best evangelize in the world as it is now, where there is a “cultural division between the Catholic Church and Western society—especially on moral issues—is as wide as it has been since the rise of Christendom.” This similarly lengthy essay is my critique of and response to Mr. Lewis’ article.
The Question: “What can we (the Church) offer the world?”
The “dictatorship of relativism” about which Pope Benedict XVI once warned the Church no longer exists according to Mr. Lewis. Instead, he claims, today’s progressives are not “relativists” because they “subscribe to moral dogmas just as strongly as Catholics do.” I disagree with Mr. Lewis’ view that the “dictatorship of relativism” has “fallen and been replaced.” Progressive “orthodoxy” is not a fixed thing. Not being firmly fixed to any true Christian or philosophic principle, it shifts over time in the direction of greater and greater error.
Regardless, it is fair to say the Church has not done a good job over the last several decades in evangelizing the outside word or catechizing its own members. How does the Church evangelize then in the world as it is now? Mr. Lewis begins by citing Pope Paul VI. Mr. Lewis says:
In his 1975 encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Saint Paul VI reminded us that the Church “exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace” (14). Later in the encyclical, he explained the importance of changing our approach to evangelization when situations require it. He wrote, “This question of ‘how to evangelize’ is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture” (40).
It is unfortunate that in quoting Evangelii Nuntiandi that Mr. Lewis did not quote Pope Paul VI’s very next line: “On us particularly, the pastors of the Church, rests the responsibility for reshaping with boldness and wisdom, but in complete fidelity to the content of evangelization, the means that are most suitable and effective for communicating the Gospel message to the men and women of our times.” If Mr. Lewis had read the above line he might have thought twice about what he wrote in his article, as it appears light – in my view – on sharing the gospel in “complete fidelity to the content of evangelization.”
‘Traditionalist’ Catholics Bad
According to Mr. Lewis, “successful evangelization” in our time “must respond creatively to unprecedented changes in the world, and should be mindful of the unique obstacles in each society.” What are the obstacles to evangelizing in the West? Well, according to Mr. Lewis, that challenge is to “show that Catholicism is not an obsolete religion filled with superstitious bigots and conspiracy theorists.” That is the challenge? Yes, according to Mr. Lewis, that is the challenge. And believe me…he will enlighten you shortly as to who he believes these “bigots” and “conspiracy theorists” are. Mr. Lewis does not disappoint (emphasis added):
The declining Church in the West has suffered serious blows to its moral credibility in recent decades. This has resulted in declines in its ability to witness in the public square, its influence in halls of power, and its capacity to evangelize the culture. Historians and sociologists will research, write, and debate what caused the fall of Christendom for ages to come, but we Christians today don’t have the luxury of centuries to take stock of what went wrong if we want to survive this crisis. More importantly, if we fail to recognize how the Church is perceived by the wider society, our beloved faith will be reduced to little more than an afterthought by the prevailing culture in a generation or two.
This is the key challenge facing Church leaders today, and it is something that Pope Francis has consistently tried to address. He has faced strong resistance in these efforts, mostly from within the Church. Many times during his eight-year pontificate, Francis’s progress has been hindered. His initiatives have been blocked repeatedly by other Catholic leaders who promote more reactionary, ideological approaches to the faith. And this has cost valuable time. Unless our Church leaders can quickly learn how to be serious voices of social and moral truth on the world stage, Catholicism will soon drift into an age of cultural irrelevance.
Back in April, I explained why dissent on the Catholic right presents a unique danger to the Church. Unlike dissenters on the Catholic left, who usually express their disagreements with Church teaching openly, dissent on the right presents itself as doctrinal orthodoxy. Dissent on the left often leads Catholics to defect from the Church, whereas those on the right typically don’t plan to go anywhere.
Since 2013, particularly in North America, reactionary dissent from the right has almost always involved strong anti-papal sentiment (including accusations that even Pope Francis himself is a heretic). More recently, it has led well-meaning Catholics into doctrinal error and the embrace of dangerous ideologies, including forms of nationalism, populism, and integralism that are incompatible with the Catholic faith. Catholics in this group are prone to accepting conspiracy theories like QAnon, Covid-19 denial, and anti-vaccine propaganda. Many have even started accepting white nationalism, dubious end-times prophecies, unapproved apparitions, and SSPX talking points.
At last we come to it. Mr. Lewis, having examined the question and the problem of evangelization of the West, concludes the problem is “reactionary dissent from the right.” For anyone somewhat familiar with Mr. Lewis and Where Peter Is, understanding their political and theological leftist bent and the red-colored glasses through which Where Peter Is views the landscape of both the Church and America, puts into perspective many of its accusations against the “right” above. [NB: Mr. Lewis in his article says he uses “right” and “left” to describe “forms of dissent” in the Catholic Church. Where he uses it in citations I provide, that is the sense he wants to give to it. Generally, where I use the term “right” or ‘traditionalist’ or ‘conservative’ in theological context, I intend “right belief” or orthodoxy – i.e., acceptance of Catholic teaching; and where I use “left” I generally intend “dissent” from traditional Catholic teaching, that or ambiguous to questionable acceptance of Catholic teaching. The terms are used loosely but despite this looseness in usage, ‘most readers have a sense of what they mean in this context.’ All that said, those on the ‘right’ of Mr. Lewis reject the suggestion they are “dissenters” from Catholic teaching; and would instead question one or more theological positions held by those on some on the “left” including some at Where Peter Is, such as regarding the permissibility of the divorced and remarried receiving Holy Communion in certain cases while in an objective situation of sin.]
First, Mr. Lewis speaks of “accusations that even Pope Francis himself is a heretic” and of the “strong anti-papal sentiment” of the “right.” Personally, I do not believe the claim of “strong anti-papal sentiment” is accurate, at least in so far as it regards the Petrine Office because conservative and traditional Catholic long for the pope to “confirm the brethren” – such as by answering the Dubia. While there is strong sentiment and concern with regard to Francis, this has not occurred in a vacuum. There are things which Pope Francis has said, such as the Abu Dhabi statement, and or has failed to deny he said, such as found in various Scalfari interviews, which are troubling. There was also the controversy over the Pachamama idol, and of course, the question of Amoris Laetitia and its true interpretation and magisterial significance, regarding which even some Francis-apologists have significant, conflicting opinions (see Confusion at Vatican Insider? and The Confusion of the Francis-Apologists). The controversy over Amoris Laetitia could have been resolved by now had Pope Francis only responded to the Dubia with five simple “yes” or “no” answers. We will return to the question of Amoris Laetitia in connection to the seeming hypocrisy of Mr. Lewis later on in this article.
But aside from the ongoing debate over things Pope Francis has said or done, Mr. Lewis wants to tar “reactionary” Catholics with a bizarre collection of errors, ranging from nationalism – even “white nationalism“(!) – populism, conspiracy theories, and dubious end-time prophecies from unapproved apparitions. Later in his article, Mr. Lewis seemingly even throws in “neo-pelagianism.” All this makes it hard to take Mr. Lewis and his accusations seriously. Let us briefly consider “nationalism.” In our times, what being a patriotic American is to one person might be evil nationalism or populism to another – perhaps to the likes of Mr. Lewis. It certainly is often a false charge used by those on the political left who generally favor globalist policies. To many on the Democratic left, just being a Trump supporter qualifies one as a “white nationalist” or “white supremacist.” Absurd. Does that mean there are no “white nationalists” anywhere? No, but such accusations or that of “white privilege” or “white supremacist” more often than not are a tactic cynically employed by the political Left – infamous for playing identity politics – to bludgeon and cow their politically conservative opposition. The truth is, while “white nationalism” is indeed an evil thing, there is no real evidence it is a significant ‘thing’ among Catholics.
Mr. Lewis’ inclusion of “integralism” as a dangerous ideology of the right is yet another example of him throwing more mud at a wall to see what sticks. Personally, I am not an integralist. My only interest here is an application of common sense. Mr. Lewis and Where Peter Is are stretching their credibility beyond the breaking point by suggesting “integralism” is a “dangerous ideology.” Mr. Lewis need not hyperventilate. Relax, Mike…There’s no chance the USA will become an integralist society any time soon.
There are other bizarre attempts to build straw men for Mr. Lewis to knock down. I will not waste much time on these, such as Mr. Lewis’ claim the “right” is accepting “dubious end-time prophecies” and “unapproved apparitions.” Personally, I like to stick with approved apparitions. Regardless, I don’t think interest in Catholic prophecy is unique to left or right. For example, I know there are writers with views closer to those of Mr. Lewis who have a strong interest in end-time prophecy (e.g., see here, here), including not-yet-approved apparitions (e.g., here). Separately, Mr. Lewis also suggests Catholics on the “right” are prone to “accepting conspiracy theories.” One of his examples is QAnon. While, yes, there were folks on the right who accepted it, there were many on the left — and I suspect there are Where Peter Is readers among them — who accepted many of the crazy anti-Trump conspiracy theories, such as the Russian Collusion hoax. Certainly, Catholics like Nancy Pelosi believed it. The point being, conspiracy theories are found across the political (and theological) spectrum. In sum, Mr. Lewis is a victim of pareidolia. He sees a pattern where there is none.
The Solution: Listening and Passivity? Huh?
Mr. Lewis moves on to accuse “reactionary and traditionalist Catholic” of having a “militant and belligerent style of attack against people and ideas” which “has only fueled the fires of division.” This laughable and hypocritical bit of analysis is from the man, who as we just saw, tarred conservative Catholics with a whole set of assertions and accusations, inclusive of “white nationalism.” Regardless, quite obviously for Mr. Lewis, the traditionalist and conservative Catholic is the bad guy in the scenario he is laying out. He even goes on at additional length to drive home that point:
The sex abuse crisis, especially in 2002 and 2018, severely damaged the US Church’s reputation. It didn’t only damage trust. Yes, clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up absolutely made Church leaders look like massive hypocrites who didn’t practice what they preached. But perhaps the more lasting damage was the way it led many Catholics (and even non-Catholics) to reconsider the validity of the Church’s claims on moral authority.
This should have become evident to the US Catholic bishops long ago. Polls continue to show that the number of Catholics who practice the faith and agree with the Church on social and moral issues is in steady decline. Unless the Church validates the things they already believe, most Catholics in the West don’t care what it has to say about abortion, divorce and remarriage, sexual morality, bioethics, contraception, and gay marriage. Additionally—in the US, anyway—many conservative Catholics disregard the bishops’ views on immigration, the death penalty, climate change, poverty, racism, healthcare, refugees, education, and most other teachings seen as “liberal” in the contemporary American political ecosystem.
Again, Mr. Lewis demonizes the right for supposedly disregarding the bishops’ views. But as is usual with Mr. Lewis, he is neither fair nor honest on the subject of conservative or ‘traditionalist’ Catholics. Conservative Catholics do not, for one example, advocate racism. Good heavens! How are conservative Catholics ‘disregarding their bishops’ on that score? Utterly absurd. As to this and other items on his list, Catholics may differ in their prudential judgments as to the best policies and laws to address such issues where Catholic social teaching may apply, or whether – such as in the case of climate change – if the thing is even an issue at all. However, there is no room for prudential judgment on abortion, divorce and remarriage, bioethics, contraception or gay marriage; yet, Mr. Lewis seems to want to make a false equivalency between them. And the reason for this seems to be that Mr. Lewis appears to think the Church must accept the world’s definition and policy prescriptions on the prudential questions above if it hopes to win over folks to its views on abortion, etc., for as he says: “Unless the Church validates the things they already believe, most Catholics in the West don’t care what it has to say about abortion, divorce and remarriage, sexual morality, bioethics, contraception, and gay marriage.” Wait! So the Catholic Church must “validate” things others “already believe”? I thought the Catholic Church validates only what it believes.
Though what Mr. Lewis ultimately wants is somewhat unclear and ambiguous throughout his piece, one may come away with the distinct impression it amounts — in practical effect if not intent — to a surrender to the world. It is true the sexual abuse scandal has played a part in the bishops’ loss of moral authority in the eyes of many, as Mr. Lewis suggests. However, other factors were already in play decades before that scandal became widely known. The decline in “the number of Catholics who practice the faith and agree with the Church on social and moral issues is in steady decline” is also attributable to a combination of poor catechesis, the collapse of Catholic education, and the bishops’ and the popes’ failure to strictly enforce orthodoxy among theological faculties at Catholic universities, and in religious orders such as the Jesuits. Of course, there are other factors that have played a role, such as societal changes at large, particularly in and since the 1960s. But remembering “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi,” and seeing how Catholic belief, practice, and living have lapsed over the last 50-60 years, one cannot help but consider that liturgical factors have played a part as well. Ultimately, at least in my view, one common theme among these factors is a general failure of the bishops to act in their office as shepherd, whether it be in tending the flock, or protecting it.
Mr. Lewis seems to grasp a part of the problem as being societal change, yet he cannot help but take still more pot shots at Catholic conservatives. He writes (emphasis added):
Perhaps the faithful’s increasing disregard of episcopal authority, obligatory rules, and doctrinal teaching is the inevitable result of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The Church in other Western countries has declined even without major sexual abuse scandals. But the Church in the United States has historically been something of an outlier, with higher levels of religious practice and Mass attendance than many other nations. This remains the case, because we do still have a sizeable conservative religious minority that’s not going away soon. Unfortunately, many of the Catholics in that minority have succumbed instead to the dangerous, post-reality mindset typically associated with Protestant fundamentalism. They also seem to have greater allegiance to capitalism and political leaders than to Catholic social teaching and magisterial authority. In other words, they’ve also drifted away from the Church, just in a different way.
Once again, Mr. Lewis manifests his own leftist mindset. His statement, for example, that conservative Catholics have a “greater allegiance” to political leaders than to Catholic social teaching and magisterial authority is a hoot. Mr. Lewis does not comment on the cult of personality that clearly existed around Barack Obama, nor does he extend his analysis to express his concern that a majority of Catholics voted for pro-abortion candidates such as Al Gore in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Joe Biden in 2020 (see What Happened to the Catholic Vote in the 2020 Presidential Election?). It is not a question of conservative Catholics ‘drifting away from the Church, just in a different way‘ as if these are merely two sides of the same problem coin, as Mr. Lewis seems to imply. We have already touched upon the fact that there is latitude for prudential judgment with regard to specific political and economic policy solutions in relation to Catholic social teaching; but there is no such latitude on issues such as abortion or gay marriage. The United States is essentially a two-party system, and thus prudential judgment must be made in weighing one’s vote as a Catholic between the two parties — each of which have their own warts. Yet, seeing how Democratic policies in our major cities have increased poverty and homelessness over the decades (e.g., look at Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles), and how the Democrats are polarizing our society over race (identity politics), etc., it is impossible to see how, especially in light of abortion, a Catholic of the “left” or “right” could vote Democrat in good conscience in our ‘contemporary political ecosystem.’ Consequently, it is difficult to see how Mr. Lewis concludes that Catholics on the “right” are the greater problem.
Given that Mr. Lewis seems to admit the liberal Catholic has “drifted away” as well in supporting pro-abortion politicians, one would think he would agree with the bishops who want to enforce Eucharist “coherence”, i.e., denying Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion. Yet, Mr. Lewis cannot seem to muster any outrage at the scandal that Joe Biden represents:
While I very much oppose President Biden’s position on abortion and honestly can’t comprehend how he tries to reconcile it with his Catholic faith, the bishops’ approach to his presidency suggests that they somehow missed the last 20 years and everything that’s happened in the Church and society since. Not only that, but many of them are outspoken on a national level about culture war issues while doing very little or nothing about reactionary extremist clergy in their own dioceses.
According to Mr. Lewis then, it is the bishops who are seemingly at fault here because they “somehow missed the last 20 years and everything that’s happened in the Church and society since.” Say what? What does that mean, and why does that mean the bishops should not exercise their authority as bishops now over Biden or any pro-abortion Catholic politician? Talk about non sequiturs. Further on in his piece, Mr. Lewis speaks of Archbishop Aquila who has spoken out about the need for Eucharistic coherence when it comes to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Mr. Lewis writes (emphasis added):
“Archbishop Aquila certainly has the right to speak freely on issues of importance to the Church. Yet his priorities don’t appear to align with his primary responsibilities. Aquila has shown persistence in repeating his position on the issue of denying Communion to pro-choice politicians from his Denver perch. Yet as archbishop of Denver, is his presence at the forefront of this issue necessary? After all, the clear target of this push, President Biden, spends most of his time in Washington, DC, and Delaware, not Colorado.”
Certainly, Mr. Lewis understands that Joe Biden is a national figure in the United States. Biden’s public affirmations of being a Catholic even while actively supporting abortion policies should be a concern to not only all bishops in the country but to all Catholics as well. Consequently, the issue is not simply one of interest to Cardinal Gregory in Washington DC. It is an issue of vital importance to the Catholic Church in the US.
But, rather than favoring a more active stance by the bishops, Mr. Lewis favors passivity. He quotes Pope Francis from Fratelli Tutti, not about teaching the Faith, but rather about “living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins” (Fratelli Tutti 191). Mr. Lewis said something similar earlier in his article that appears to describe what this means to him in practice (emphasis added):
The bishops of this country apparently fail to realize that they no longer have the standing in society to be taken seriously on ideas, morals, or cultural values. Some of this was beyond their control, but in other ways they bear great responsibility for their own irrelevance. And the longer they assume a posture of confrontation against the prevailing culture, the more quickly the US Church will collapse.
In the past, perhaps the Church could still credibly claim the moral “high ground” against an increasingly hedonistic society. Today, that type of appeal rings hollow. The culture doesn’t see the Catholic positions (particularly on sexuality and women) as uptight or strict; they are viewed as immoral and oppressive. In light of the abuse crisis and the endless revelations of sexual abuse of both children and adults, the Church is also seen as hypocritical.
Despite this, much of the Catholic right and many of the US bishops are still naively operating under the notion that appealing to a culturally obsolete moral code is a constructive way to advocate for Catholic teaching in the public square. Many also don’t seem to realize or care that being harsh, condemnatory, and dismissive contributes to the image of the Church as morally reprehensible, turning off potential converts—those who might be interested in exploring the Catholic faith.
In these sectors of the Church, many seem to think listening is capitulation and empathy is weakness. This perspective seems to motivate much of the reactionary opposition to Pope Francis, who constantly exhorts Catholics to engage in listening, dialogue, empathy and openness.
Yes, as I’ve said, the bishops have a credibility problem. However, the solution to that can hardly be — as suggested by implication by Mr. Lewis — that the bishops stop teaching the Catholic faith with regard to moral issues. Why else would Mr. Lewis suggest that the bishops “no longer have the standing in society to be taken seriously on ideas, morals, or cultural values.” Obviously, if one cannot be taken seriously on an issue…one should shut up. That seems to be the implication here.
The sexual abuse crisis is not fundamentally a problem with the bishops’ credibility, though a erosion of credibility was a result. Rather, the core problem, in my view as suggested earlier, was that the bishops failed to exercise their authority; failing to act to tend and protect the flock entrusted to them, whether by insisting on orthodoxy and orthopraxis, or protecting it from predator-priests and bishops. The bishops’ handling of the sexual abuse crisis is only one aspect of this. And it is here where I think the gulf between Mr. Lewis and myself might be illustrated. Mr. Lewis sees that the bishops have lost credibility on moral issues, and as a consequence he appears to believe that this credibility problem will only be exacerbated should they act against Biden by denying him Holy Communion. My view, to the contrary, is that the bishops will lose credibility if they do not take significant action against Biden.
The truth is, the Catholic bishops have done little over the last 60 or so years on major moral issues such as abortion besides issuing occasional documents against abortion, reiterating the Church’s pro-life stand, etc. But the ‘culture warrior‘ bishop of the last few decades that Mr. Lewis seems to have conjured up in his article, I would submit, is a figment of his imagination. It is another straw man. I was born in the early 1960s. For most Catholics, exceedingly rare has been the homily where a bishop or priest has spoken out from the pulpit on abortion, gay marriage, contraception, etc. Such priests generally would get replaced by the bishop from the fear it would hurt the collection basket, and the bishop’s annual appeal. If Mr. Lewis has been hearing those sorts homilies which instructed the Catholic faithful, I would have loved to attend his parish. But, as it is, remembering and experiencing the Church through the 70s through today, the ‘culture warrior’ bishop that Mr. Lewis describes is — for all practical purposes — a myth. Rather, over the last many decades the bishops have failed to vigorously exercise their authority to protect the flock (e.g., watchful insistence on orthodoxy and orthopraxis) and this in turn has led to many of the ills the Church has now witnessed, whether it be poorly catechized Catholics, liturgical abuses, liberal theology departments, the collapse of vocations, pro-abortion politicians professing to be “Catholic” with impunity, the sexual abuse scandal, etc.
Yet, despite what seems quite obvious, Mr. Lewis lamented in his piece:
In these sectors of the Church, many seem to think listening is capitulation and empathy is weakness. This perspective seems to motivate much of the reactionary opposition to Pope Francis, who constantly exhorts Catholics to engage in listening, dialogue, empathy and openness.
Mr. Lewis needs to better define terms. Certainly, “listening” and “empathy” are necessary components of apologetics and evangelization. Indeed, as St. Peter wrote, one should be ready to give a defense of one’s hope with “gentleness and respect” (cf 1 Peter 3:15). Yet, “listening”, “dialogue”, “empathy”, “welcoming,” and “openness” are ambiguous terms when used by either Pope Francis or Mr. Lewis. These things cannot be ends in themselves but too often that appears to be the intended reality. I don’t believe anyone ever converted to Catholicism because of “climate change” or bishops’ policy statements on healthcare or education. I believe that rare has been the case of a someone converting because another “listened“, or was “open” or because “differences are welcomed” — whatever that really means. Certainly, love the sinner. However, specific sins or sinful lifestyles cannot be “welcomed” by the apologist, the evangelist, or the Church; nor can they be “open” to them. If Mr. Lewis means something else then he should explain himself better.
The Contradictions and Hypocrisy of Mr. Lewis
The hypocrisy of Mr. Lewis comes into full display in his discussion of Archbishop Aquila of Denver, who he describes as “the most conspicuous current example of a bishop who seems less interested in tending his own flock than in publicly opining on national and global affairs“. In other words, according to Mr. Lewis, Aquila is someone who needs to mind his own business! For Mr. Lewis, Aquila’s offense on the American national stage was that he authored (1) an article in which he expressed his view that Catholic politicians who favor abortion and euthanasia should be denied communion (see here), and (2) he publicly critiqued a private letter he received from an unnamed bishops on the subject — and who later turned out to be Cardinal Cupich (see here).
Given Aquila is Archbishop of Denver, Mr. Lewis wonders are his actions “necessary”? Mr. Lewis adds: “After all, the clear target of this push, President Biden, spends most of his time in Washington, DC, and Delaware, not Colorado.” Mr. Lewis’ complaint is ridiculous. Biden is a national figure, a “Catholic” of national prominence. Therefore his apostasy on abortion is a scandal impacting Catholics across the country. Thus, the question of how to deal with him, and other apostates like him who continue to identify as “Catholics”, such as Nancy Pelosi, should be of great concern to every Catholic bishop in the United States. It is quite peculiar. Why is Mr. Lewis — who is so supportive of episcopal actions against Catholics on the “right” (e.g., Fr. Altman, Fr. Ripperger, Fr. Nix, etc.) for alleged wrongs — so hesitant to support an action against Biden/Pelosi/others consistent with Canon 915 and which addresses a clear, manifest, and public scandal, inclusive of sacrilege against Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist? Very strange. Mr. Lewis should worry less about the bishops’ lack of credibility and more about his own.
Yet, as bad as is Mr. Lewis’ hypocrisy above, it gets worse. Mr. Lewis objects to Archbishop Aquila having the temerity to respond to the German Synodal path (Forum 1) in an open letter to the bishops of the world (see here). The Forum 1 document speaks of the possibility of the ordination of women, saying in part: “We are therefore also committed to casting qualified votes so that access to all Church ministries and offices — including all ordained ministry — is opened to those believers who are called and able, regardless of gender or station in life.” It seems, for Mr. Lewis, Archbishop Aquila’s letter opposing the Forum 1 document is the sort of episcopal action he has railed against throughout his article. It seems, Mr. Lewis believes a bishop should not act as Archbishop Aquila did, i.e., teaching firmly on a moral or doctrinal issue, such as female ordination. Consider….Mr. Lewis writes (emphasis added):
In response to the prevailing view on women’s ordination, the German document proposes re-opening the dialogue in the Church: “Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stated that the Church has no right to ordain women to the priesthood. However, due to new insights into the witness of the Bible, into the developments of Tradition, and into the anthropology of gender, the coherence of his argumentation and the validity of his statement are often questioned. It is necessary to reconnect again the witness of Scripture and Tradition with the signs of the times and the sense of faith of the people of God. Forum 1 proposes that the church in Germany, during the Synodal Path, should also give a reasoned vote on the question of the admission of women to ordination, which includes an invitation to the universal Church and the Apostolic See to study anew the questions raised, and to find solutions” (emphasis mine).
While an underlying desire for the ordination of women seems evident in this passage, the paragraph amounts to a formal request for the Church to study the issue. Archbishop Aquila is having none of it: “The approach adopted here seems calculated to undermine the definitive and permanent character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders” (p. 5). He says that the Synodal Path, in its “desire to democratize the Church’s governance and entertain the possibility of admitting women to the priesthood, the essential distinction between the priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood—clearly affirmed at Lumen gentium §10—is implicitly called into question” (p. 3).
But assuming that Bishop Georg Bätzing, the chairman of the German Catholic bishops’ conference, is telling the truth, what is the problem with discussing women’s ordination again, perhaps at a deeper level? He insisted in a recent interview, “It is absolutely clear that there are matters that we can only discuss at the level of the Universal Church. We will contribute from Germany with our reflections.” Here he is indicating the German bishops’ intention to remain obedient to the Church, even if they don’t receive their desired outcome. Unless they receive a “no” from Rome and proceed to ordain women anyway, I don’t see how this approach can honestly be described as “schismatic.”
Why is Aquila resistant to the opportunity to enter into dialogue about this challenging teaching? It’s no secret that many Catholics would like to see women in ordained ministry in the Church. They don’t believe this because they want to make God angry or destroy the Church. For such Catholics, it is a matter of justice and upholding the equal dignity of women. These are two values that the Catholic Church upholds. Yet in light of those principles, many find the Church’s answers on the question inadequate. What’s wrong with returning to the subject to address these questions comprehensively?
And it is here where the hypocrisy of Mr. Lewis reaches its zenith. Any Catholic familiar with the battle over Amoris Laetitia and the Dubia cannot help but be struck by the sheer hypocrisy of Mr. Lewis. Mr. Lewis (and Where Peter Is) has been one of the loudest voices against any who questioned Amoris Laetitia’s apparent teaching that active adulterers could receive Holy Communion in certain cases. Mr. Lewis and his website have been relentlessly harsh on the Dubia submitted by four cardinals, as well as towards the four cardinals themselves. Yet, the Dubia simply asked Pope Francis several “yes” or “no” questions about the proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia and a particular footnote within it. It is not unusual for cardinals and bishops to submit Dubia to a pope, and have them answered. Indeed, it is a common practice. Yet, these “dissenters” — in Mr. Lewis’ view, and that of other writers at Where Peter Is — do not even deserve to have the Dubia questions answered (see here and here)! Any who who might have honest and sincere reservations and or confusion over Amoris Laetitia (given certain interpretations of it contradict Familiaris Consortio 84 and other past teachings) are simply written off and dismissed as “dissenters” by Mr. Lewis and Where Peter Is. Search as you may in Mr. Lewis’ writings, or those of his ilk at Where Peter Is — you will not find any talk of “dialogue”, “empathy”, “welcoming”, “openness” for “dissenters” on the question of Amoris Laetitia!
While Mr. Lewis has no patience or time to “dialogue” with those with honest questions about a footnote that appears to directly contradict Familiaris Consortia 84; Mr. Lewis, as we have seen, thinks it perfectly fine for Synodal Path German Catholics to question the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis against female ordination! Indeed, Mr. Lewis is puzzled as to why Archbishop Aquila is “resistant to the opportunity to enter into dialogue about this challenging teaching.” However, Aquila’s “resistance” might be appreciated in consideration of OS 4, in which John Paul II taught (emphasis added):
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful. (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4)
Above, we have a teaching with all the hallmarks of an exercise of papal infallibility. It is clearly a definitive judgment on a doctrinal matter. Pope John Paul II citing his Petrine ministry, “declares” women cannot receive priestly ordination, and that “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” Indeed, Pope John Paul II expressly says his teaching is given “in order to remove all doubt.” Yet, Pope Francis makes no such appeal to Petrine authority in Amoris Laetitia and arguably disclaims it (see Amoris Laetitia 3), and no where does he say his “judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” While Mr. Lewis attacks Catholics who are either confused by or have difficulties with what Francis actually said in Amoris Laetitia — which has no doctrinal pedigree similar to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis; Mr. Lewis is fine with Synodal Path Catholics questioning and dialoguing over a clearly infallible teaching that must be “definitively held” by the faithful. Yet, Mr. Lewis does not wonder why Pope Francis is “resistant to the opportunity to enter into dialogue about this challenging teaching,” i.e., Amoris Laetitia. Apparently, questions for Mr. Lewis from the “Left” are fine but not from the “Right.” Contradiction and hypocrisy.
But, returning to the question of evangelization. It should be obvious that citing the Synodal Path and its view of female ordination as an example of the sort of “listening” and “dialogue” Mr. Lewis has in mind does not help his argument or his case for what he believes evangelization should look like. There can be no question or dialogue on female ordination, Mr. Lewis. “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.”
Mr. Lewis’ 4,600 plus word essay sanctimoniously decries “polarization” and “divisiveness” while at the same time engaging in divisive attacks on conservative and traditional Catholics. If Mr. Lewis intended or hoped to win “conservatives” or “traditionalists” over to his view of things or to enhance his credibility by his article, I doubt very much he will be successful. Instead, I think he merely cemented the general view of Where Peter Is as a site that leans heavily to the “left,” both politically and theologically. The latter is particularly evident in Mr. Lewis’ commentary related to Joe Biden, Archbishop Aquila, and the Synodal Path/female ordination. Further, this “left theological” bent is exhibited when Mr. Lewis suggests various conservative priests be disciplined for statements on Covid vaccinations while at the same time he objects to efforts to withhold the Eucharist from Joe Biden owing to his active support of abortion. This leftward tilt is also seen when Where Peter Is holds out the work of Fr. James Martin SJ as an exemplar of the sort of modern evangelization that is needed (see here), and the sort for which Mr. Lewis essentially argues in the article we have been discussing here.
Given Mr. Lewis is concerned about “dangerous ideologies,” it would have been interesting to hear his analysis of BLM and Antifa, which have shown themselves to be dangerous over the last year in terms of destruction of public and private property, deaths of civilians, and police officers. It would also be interesting to hear what Mr. Lewis would say about what some in leftist Catholic circles have said about moving the Church away from certain moral issues (see Podesta and The Catholic Spring). Perhaps Mr. Lewis has written something asking the American bishops to discuss these “dangerous ideologies”, etc. But if he has done so, I don’t recall seeing that article.
Mr. Lewis began his essay with the title and question: “What can we offer the world?” Understanding that Mr. Lewis’ preference — as I understand it at least — is that the bishops should not focus on culture war issues, presumably abortion, gay marriage, sexual morality, etc., but rather that they should focus on things fallen away Catholics and the world do accept — presumably, climate change, immigration, healthcare, etc. All of that, plus a healthy dose of “listening”, “dialogue”, “openness”, etc. If this is the approach Mr. Lewis is recommending, it is easy to answer his question regarding “What can we offer the world?” The answer is: ‘not much.’
In the end, Mr. Lewis does not in my opinion get close to a real solution for the question he posed. Indeed, it appears to me at least, he is farther away from it now than when he began his essay. For my part, I will not attempt an all encompassing answer here. However, it seems to me, the Church’s evangelization problem in part is not so much the episcopal exercise of authority but rather a failure to exercise it either effectively or at all. This was the root of many problems, including the sexual abuse scandal. So, ultimately, the lack of credibility for the bishops began long before the sexual abuse scandal.
Credibility can and must be won back by the bishops but it won’t be done through “listening” and “dialogue”. Supposed listening and dialogue have done nothing over the last 50 years or so to move pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia “Catholics” back to adherence to Catholic teaching. As we are seeing in the “synodal path”, the appeal for “listening” and “dialogue” is little more than a cover for dissent on issues such as female ordination. The bishops should not listen to the likes of Mr. Lewis. Punting on the Joe Biden problem would only serve to further damage episcopal credibility in the US. A tough stand on Biden can only help the bishops reassert their credibility and teaching authority. Archbishop Aquila’s recent interventions on Eucharist coherence, and Forum 1 are most welcome. They are a couple of important steps closer to the sort of clear statements on Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxis the bishops need to firmly assert, and both the faithful — and the unfaithful — need to hear. This is the way to evangelize. Let’s have more of it.
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A former intelligence officer, he and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is author of Book I of the Pia Fidelis trilogy, The Two Kingdoms. (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com or StevenOReilly@ProtonMail.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA or on Parler or Gab: @StevenOReilly).
Neo-pelagianism is a heresy in search of a heretic. Where are the neo-pelagians who believe “salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures“? Mr. Lewis doesn’t explicitly link neo-pelagianism to the “right”, but given all else he says against “traditional” Catholics, one cannot be faulted for having the suspicion this was what he intends. Perhaps Mr. Lewis will clear this up. When he does, I would be happy to change my footnote accordingly. But until then, as Fr. Kevin M. Cusick quite correctly points out: “Is it not rank Pelagianism to claim to believe one can be saved while living in practical state of adultery? No reception of Communion, rendered useless and sacrilegious by one’s sinful state of life, can change this fact” (see Wanderer). But such a view, that living in a practical state of adultery can be fine is advocated by the folks over at Where Peter Is (see Doctrine of Mitigating Circumstances on Where Peter Is; and my response On the Doctrine of Mitigating Circumstances).
And, indeed, the article that Mr. Lewis linked to is from the leftist and activist Sojourner organization (see here and here); many of whose directors appear to be heavily involved in Democrat and or other leftist causes.
“We are committed to ensuring that the opportunities already offered by canon law are consistently used to promote equality. We are also committed to ensuring that ministries and offices in the Church are made accessible to all who have been baptized and confirmed, and that they are filled accord-ing to their charisms and vocations, their aptitude, ability, and performance. We are therefore also committed to casting qualified votes so that access to all Church ministries and offices — including all ordained ministry — is opened to those believers who are called and able, regardless of gender or station in life. We are convinced that the new clarification of access requirements will create a basis for the gifts of the Spirit given to the Church to be more effective and for the witness of the Gospel to gain in strength.” (German Synodal Path, Forum 1)
- Roma Locuta Est has published a series of articles on some the problems posed by certain interpretations of Amoris Laetitia (see Summa Contra Stephen Walford; Confusion at Vatican Insider?; The Confusion of the Francis-Apologists; Pope Francis, the Open Letter and the Pesky Preface). It remains our position that Pope Francis would help clarify the situation by answering the Dubia.