Justin’s Apology

Justin’s Apology September 1, 2018
Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr among the philosophers – photo by me

My patron saint is Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr. Every morning I ask him to pray to G-d for me, fervently fleeing unto him, the speedy helper and intercessor for my soul. I need it these days. Here across the Dnipro, it looks like our sister church over there on the Tiber is having a full scale meltdown. I too have weighed in on the scandal, arguing that the problem seems to me that her ecclesiology in practice is basically a church of bishops’ conferences with no people, especially not as active agents in the liturgy. I have argued that the problem does not seem to me to be a ‘lavender mafia’ in the sense of gay priests eroding church teaching, but rather a human trafficking ring. I have contended for a look into Byzantine liturgical practices so that churches that call themselves Catholic might pay attention to the agency of lay people in their worship. While writing all of this, I’ve striven to stay conscientious of how I was coming to these positions as I continue in conversation with my sisters and brothers both in and across the churches, and have had one lapse. Now I want to reflect with my patron saint on how it all feels.

Since I’ve begun writing on the abuse crisis in the Latin Church, things seem to have gotten worse. On the heels of the Bishop of Rome meeting victims of abuse in Ireland, a memorandum from his former nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has been published in the world of Catholicism. The memo, as it is well known now, accuses Pope Francis of lifting sanctions imposed by his predecessor Benedict XVI on the now disgraced former Cardinal McCarrick, who was recently exposed as having abused seminarians and minors while posing as the celebrity episcopal front of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in handling the 2002 sex abuse crisis. Much consternation has ensued. On what might be called the more conservative side of things – indeed, on the site titled The American Conservative – Orthodox writer Rod Dreher has outlined his speculations of the palace intrigue involving both a ‘lavender mafia’ that is out to change Catholic teaching on sexuality and a faction of conservatives that had felt snubbed in their multi-million dollar donations to the Vatican. On the other hand, secular journalists such as in the The New York Times have demonstrated that there are problems with Viganò’s testimony, not least a possible desire to settle scores with the Bishop of Rome who fired him from his post as United States nuncio. For Viganò’s part, he has issued two clarifications, one about the accusations that he himself quashed an investigation into Twin Cities Archbishop Nienstedt’s own sex crimes and the other about how he organized the meeting between Kim Davis and Pope Francis during the pontiff’s 2014 United States visit, a situation over which Viganò was allegedly fired because he supposedly waylaid the pope with an inappropriate photo op in the madness of American politics. The latest thing is that Benedict’s McCarrick sanctions appear to have been ‘private.’ Both sides – and maybe there are more than two now, though I can’t be bothered to keep track – are again in a feeding frenzy over it.

However one slices it – and America Magazine seems to be trying to slice it thinly indeed by claiming that there is no meaningful ‘civil war’ in the Latin Church (as First Things editor Matthew Schmitz put it dramatically in a New York Times op-ed) at the level of the non-committal everyday Catholic – there is trouble among the hierarchs of the Latin Church. At heart these Viganò revelations do not really change my assessment of the Latin Church since the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out, or the McCarrick affair, for that matter – or maybe even earlier than that as I processed the Latin Church’s sex abuse problem during my long journey from evangelicalism and Anglicanism to Catholicism. The problem, it has always seemed to me, is that the Latin Church is a church of all bishops and no people, and for all that has been said about the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the identification of the church as the ‘people of God,’ the truth about the debate over whether the Vatican should decentralize its authorities to local bishops’ conferences or concentrate it in its own curia means that the whole thing is just episcopal drama. The Viganò debacle bears out this thesis. As if we were following Pope Francis’s suggestion to secular journalists to do their jobs and read Viganò’s statements independently without his comment, the lay people of the Latin Church seem to think that their job as Catholics is to align themselves with this faction of bishops over that other cabal. In this way, there seems to be almost total buy-in from the people themselves that their church is one solely constituted by bishops, for whom they are simply the madding crowd.

The honest Protestant onlookers onto this mess have been rightly throwing spitwads. Sometimes I think they are subtweeting me, scoffing that I knew what I was getting into when I became Catholic and now am advocating something akin to the Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers when I definitely knew better. A friend of mine told me that I’ll have to cite Jan Hus for my views. Of course, I have been saying that what I’m saying is Catholic because liturgy is impossible without the cooperation between hierarchy and lay people, but I suppose this view is born out of an experience of my church, a Greek Catholic one that does not operate in a Latin mode. So is the fact that our sister church is doing church as if it were a church of all bishops and no people what it means to be Catholic? In a perverse way, yes, especially if one takes a truly perverted reading of my patron saint when he says in his apologia that one knows what Christians are about when one looks at what they actually do.

In this way, Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr perhaps offers a mode of reflection that is different from the noise machine that is the current state of Catholic Internet. Over the last week or so, I have never felt more policed for my social media shares by fellow Catholics than on the Viganò case. It is as if my friends, colleagues, and readers want to whip me into some kind of partisan agreement. Reflecting deeper than my knee-jerk reaction that this phenomenon pointed to the Americanization of the Latin Church and the consolidation of its deep partisan divides especially in the Obama years, it occurred to me that much of what happens on Catholic Internet is a kind of apologetics. People read the Internet intellectuals because they want evidence that what the Church teaches is real, or true, or morally defensible. In their turn, Catholic apologists have behaved like evangelists, much like the ones I knew and read when I was an evangelical Protestant, putting forward ‘evidence that demands a verdict,’ in Josh McDowell’s immortal phrase, and showing that certain conclusions must be reached by an honest assessment of the facts.

It was curious to me how many people, even those whom I love and respect, have sorted themselves so quickly into camps regarding the Viganò letters and have become a kind of apologetics machine for their views. Perhaps my favourite example of this was when I shared the homily by the North American Ordinariate Bishop Steven Lopes, incidentally from the same hometown as me and a alumnus of the same high school as mine to boot. Lopes says in his sermon that he knew rumors since he was a seminarian of the McCarrick abuses, and this portion of the oration was shared with glee by Matthew Schmitz on Twitter. Thanks to Pater Edmund, I soon heard the entire thing and realized that Lopes was calling for the faithful to step back and retreat with the words of Christ in the Farewell Discourses, slowly considering what was unfolding in the Latin Church as kind of theological moment. Alas, after I shared it, others said that I had been taken in by someone who admits on tape that he knew about it and did nothing, and what’s more, he’s on the board of the Napa Institute, which implicates him in a kind of conservative cabal. But he’s from Fremont and a Mariner too! I protest, while secretly still liking what he said on their own terms. Soon, I’ll be implicated for being in the wrong hierarchical alignment too, I suppose, as I continue to talk out of both sides of my mouth by sharing The American Conservative and America Magazine equally, while professing to disdain the Benedict Option (no apologetic can be offered for its shallow reading of the ‘eros’ of the ‘sexual revolution’ of the Sixties, I’m afraid).

Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr says to look at what Christians do as the defense of their faith, and a shallow reading of his apologies often focuses on his dictum to look how Christians love each other. We used to scoff at that as evangelicals and say that there is no way that kind of apologetic would hold up now, which is why we need the ‘evidence that demands a verdict’ sort of knock ’em dead arguments, which is why I chortled with glee when I read Karl Barth much later on declare that ‘anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel – that is, Christian Apologetics – is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome’ (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 35). But a deeper reading especially of the First Apology yields a very different mode of reflection, I think. There, Holy Justin offers a site for reflection on that love that is supposed to bind Christians together: the Divine Liturgy. In fact, the bulk of the First Apology is a reflection on the action of the Divine Liturgy through its climax in the Holy Eucharist. It is a kind of reflection that reminds me of what the Holy Hieromartyr Ignatius of Antioch also used to say – that where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church, a nod to the centrality of the liturgical action that makes Christ bodily present in our midst through the transfiguration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood.

Perhaps if we reflect on the Latin Church’s abuse crisis and the Viganò revelations through the mode of Holy Justin’s liturgical apologia, the dimension of Catholicism that I outlined in my previous posts that involve the laity in the action of the liturgy becomes more realized. Picture this scene. The hierarchs of the Latin Church, who are supposed to be presiding over the eucharistic celebration, are assembled at an altar, and instead of offering the mass, they have formed themselves into factions, cabals, and mafias. The call-and-response dynamic is more pronounced in the Latin liturgy than in my own tradition where the lay people have to fend for themselves most of the time, but what is happening in the Latin Church is as if certain bishops are calling out to their faithful, and they respond to them, while others call out to another group, and they offer responses too. The result is liturgical cacophony, the noise machine that is the current state of Latin Church political commentary at present. Certainly, this factionalism is not a new phenomenon: the Holy Apostle Paul and the Holy Hierarch Clement of Rome both rebuked the Corinthian church for it, and Holy Ignatius of Antioch writes about it too. But on the Corinthian note, the Holy Apostle Paul has strong words for this kind of thing. This kind of liturgical cacophony is a symptom of not discerning the Body and Blood at the altar, and the result is that those who partake of this Eucharist eat and drink judgment on themselves, for which reason he says that some are sick and have even ‘fallen asleep,’ which is a very not good thing to have happen.

What does it mean to be Catholic in this situation? It is, I submit, no more and no less than to discern the Body and Blood in the Eucharist. To do so would require a step back from involvement in the palace intrigue of the Latin Church and to discern what those palatial politics are really about. I am not saying that we should not get down to the truth – far from it, as I am actually saying that the lay people have a right to dig down to the bottom of their dysfunctional liturgical presiders. But stepping back reveals the true horror of this situation. The Body of Christ is fragmented, with the bodies of abuse victims littering the floor of the altar, and the people who are responsible are those who should be presiding over the liturgy. This is the only apologia we should be offering on Catholic Internet – that the demand to clean up the house of God is neither puritanical nor Donatist nor Protestant nor reformist, but because the people of God in the Latin Church are actually Catholic and do not want to get sick or die when they partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, which the longstanding abuse crisis reveals is what has been happening for quite some time. Perhaps this is the most terrible truth of this apologetic: it shows that, as we Byzantine Christians say, Christ is among us, the answer being he is and will be, which means that whether or not one discerns that he is truly present in the Eucharist, he will always be there.


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