Strike the shepherd, says our Lord, and the sheep will be scattered. In times when the Church is decapitated, whether through persecution or corruption, you do not (to paraphrase the Chestertonian aphorism) wind up with people believing nothing. You wind up with people believing anything.
Case in point, the rise of the Right Wing Catholic Conspiracy theorist Taylor Marshall’s farrago of crazy called Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within.
We are living in hour when the bishops have killed the trust that is the one and only thing that gives them the ability to govern the Church. Oh sure, the Holy Spirit confers that power. But the sociological reality is that if they piss away the good will of the their flock by, you know, raping that flock or lying to that flock or generally screwing that flock over, only superhuman acts of faith from members of the flock will take seriously the grace of ordination and trust that the Holy Spirit will continue to protect the Magisterium from error in preserving the Tradition. That He does continue to do so does, in fact, happen to be the truth and is precisely why the grace of the Holy Spirit is necessary for the Church, since we are all such dolts and sinful slobs that the Tradition would have run aground five minutes after Pentecost otherwise. So for their failures, the bishops have not (and cannot) pervert the Tradition.
But the sociological fact remains that most people don’t trust that truth about the Faith and so bishops who piss away the trust of their flock generally have to die and be replaced by bishops who do not have a track record of appalling failure before trust is restored.
We live in such an hour right now. And the trouble with such hours is that supernature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so there is always some crook or crank who is ready to fill the void with bogus visions and revelations, or with a lunge for power, springing from either a diseased head or a wicked heart.
Here in the US, we have seen multiple, well-funded efforts to destroy Pope Francis, centering around right wing Catholic media that have hated his living guts from the moment he was elected. From Rorate Coeli’s declaration of war scarcely minutes after his election as they published a screed by a Holocaust-denying Argentinian reactionary, to Steve Skojec’s mystical revelations about Francis’ “cold dead eyes” to the absurd claims that he is a Gaia worshipper for publishing Laudato Si, to endless drips of poison from Raymond Arroyo’s “Papal Posse” to the host of petty complaints about everything he says and does, big and small, the message has been consistent: the Right Wing Righteous are at war with the Holy Father and see themselves as the saviors of the Church from him.
The biggest stab at destroying Francis (before Vigano’s attempted coup last summer) was the absurd panic over the dubia about Amoris Laetitia, which went nowhere. Two of the authors of that dubia are still alive: Cardinal Raymond Burke and Bp. Walter Brandmuller. The other two, being old, died. Naturally, Francis was accused of murdering them by the Righteous, who denied they were suggesting that even as they suggested it. This gives Normals some sense of the mindset we are dealing with.
Cardinal Burke has gone on to show the good sense for which the Righteous have distinguished themselves by backing Steve Bannon’s Nazi Hogwarts initiative as somehow comporting with Catholic Faith. The Italian government has just smashed that effort.
Meanwhile, one of their biggest defenders and a loud enemy of the Holy Father, Bp. Athanasius Schneider, for his part, thought it would be the height of good sense to endorse Infiltration, demonstrating to Normals yet again that only a fool would trust the judgment of these people.
Jeffrey Mirus performed the first autopsy on the book. I urge you to read not merely this excerpt, but the whole thing:
The loss of sanity
One of the reasons certain groups in the Church tend toward conspiracy theories is that they have so little understanding either of the complexity of the issues they are considering or of the Church’s perennial reflection of the larger culture from which she draws her members. For such groups, there is always some high point of Catholic history after which every change has been a bad change that must have been caused by a conspiracy. The reader’s sanity may be restored by the simple expedient of defying offending authors to identify any time in history in which the Church was not beset by both external hostility and internal weaknesses.
Take the thirteenth century, which is commonly considered the height of Catholic civilization, making it a great example. The Church in that period, and for a considerable time before and after, drew her bishops from the younger (non-inheriting) sons of the nobility, and so was beset by prelates who were in general preoccupied with worldly affairs and fortunes, and were guilty of all of the political errors and sins of their age, not excluding luxury, self-indulgence, spying, bribery, secular expediency, immoral punishment of opponents, and sometimes open warfare. My point is that the weaknesses and sins of the dominant culture from which the Church draws her leaders and her rank and file are always reflected in major ways within the Church, even if the corresponding level of sin is never as great as in “the world”.
But when some Catholics idealize a previous period—and particularly when they dislike both the popular ideas and the ecclesiastical changes of their own time—they are prone to what I call Traditional-ISM—the insistence that the particular forms of Catholic life that were characteristic of some mythical golden age are part of Sacred Tradition, and that whenever these idealized forms are changed, it is a mark of the triumph of Satan, brought about through the conspiracies of Satan’s human tools. It’s the Modernists! No, wait, it’s the Communists! No, wait, it’s the Masons!…. Yet 999,999 times out of a million, we are simply dealing with the complexities and lukewarmness of a frail and sinful humanity, of which each of us—including each conspiracy theorist—is a card-carrying member.
An intellectual wasteland
I mentioned the profound lack of understanding of the complexity of the issues which such writers seem so easily to diagnose as good or evil, while attributing the evil to a plot. In the pages of Infiltration we find profound misunderstandings and gross oversimplifications of just about everything. I will offer just five examples:
Institutional or missionary?
- The Papal States: Marshall regards the loss of the Papal States as the beginning of the end for the Church, never recognizing the ways in which the possession of territory interfered with the Church’s mission, so much so that many—including the great convert Blessed John Henry Newman (who is expected to be canonized later this year)—were convinced that the Papal States ought to be given up for the good of the Church. Yet somehow the territorial claims of the Pope, which did not exist for the first 700 years of Church history and were based at least in part on a forgery called the Donation of Constantine, are regarded by the author as central to the Catholic presence in the world.
- The New Theology: So abysmally ignorant of theology is Taylor Marshall that it never crosses his mind that La Nouvelle Theologie was not primarily the creature of Modernism (by which it was certainly abused) but grew in large part from the fervent desire of many of the greatest and most faithful theologians of the twentieth century to “return to the sources” (ressourcement), to revivify theology through a return to Scripture and the Fathers, and to escape a heavy-handed neo-scholasticism. Theological inquiry tended, at this time, to be subjected to a philosophical system that was considered determinative of orthodoxy and enforced as such by the Holy Office. This often undermined not only legitimate theological freedom but both the Christian sense of mystery and the relational dynamics of the Gospel. Anyone who chafed under this system in the 1940s and 1950s—men like de Lubac and Congar and von Balthasar, and later even Ratzinger—is dismissed summarily by Marshall as a Modernist.
- The Liturgical Movement: There was a strong liturgical movement in the first half of the twentieth century which later bore fruit in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium). Whatever one may think of the implementation in various places over the years, the liturgical movement was concerned to eliminate the inessential encrustations that had been added into the Roman Rite over the centuries in order to restore the famous “noble simplicity” of the rite, so that it would be easier for Catholics to unite themselves with the essential action of the Mass through what is now called “active participation” (understood as spiritual participation). Encrustations and accretions that had crept in included such things as the “prayers at the foot of the altar” (which were originally prayers the priest said to prepare himself for Mass) and the “last gospel” (with which the Mass closed long after the Liturgy of the Word had been completed), and a number of other less obvious things. Moreover, the Mass, which was originally deliberately said in languages (Greek and Latin) that most people knew, could no longer be understood by the vast majority. But in a breathtaking fit of classic Traditionalism, Marshall takes the changes called for by the Council to mean that the Council Fathers wished to obscure the central nature of the Mass, when the purpose was just the opposite.
- Religious Liberty: The author ascribes the wildest abuses of Catholic teaching on religious liberty to the Second Vatican Council, never recognizing that the Council’s simple point was that the human person must be free of political coercion in matters of religion because the human person has a serious duty to seek the truth. Therefore, as with all reciprocal relationships between moral duties and rights, religious liberty must be protected by the State as much as possible within the limits of the common good. But Marshall seems to believe that such a notion is a conspiratorial concession to the Modernists or the Masons…or somebody.
- The Promises of Christ: While Marshall does not deny the promise of Christ to be with the Church, the alleged success of the endless conspiracies and infiltrations he recounts are sufficient to undermine any reasonable confidence in these promises, or at least to confuse inessentials with the essentials which are guaranteed—which amounts to the same thing. To his credit, at the end of the book, the author considers the various responses we might make to his extravagant claims, and he rightly concludes that any proposed solution which suggests that the Church does not remain intact, or that we no longer have a true pope or true cardinals and bishops, must be rejected in favor of simple resistance to the evils that now appear to dominate the Church. But he is unwilling to allow even those modern popes who have already been canonized to instruct him or his readers on what the key evils are. Instead, he must cling to his private judgment, his conspiracies and his plots to prove that everything he personally dislikes has arisen through a devious orchestrated manipulation by particular evil groups.
Infiltration, as I have indicated, displays an understanding of human history typical of your mad relative. What else can we expect from a book which makes wild assertions about plots, conspiracies and complex theological or institutional problems, each of which the author claims to treat decisively and beyond doubt in roughly three to five pages! Moreover, Marshall seems not even to realize that culture cannot be explained by conspiracy, and conspiracy cannot be proved by correlation.
The larger cultural truth about modern history is that the Catholic Church is going through a long transition from being one of the pre-eminent institutions of Western culture—with all the attendant personal complacency, ossification, and worldly complicity—to re-engaging the world in terms of Christian mission. It was just this problem that Pope Saint John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council to consider under the heading of “renewal”, and just this transition which Pope Saint Paul VI and Pope Saint John Paul II tried to effect against all odds of quick success.
For this purpose, it was necessary to streamline or even jettison many things, but above all to explore the important roles of bishops, priests and, yes, laity in the Church’s mission, which must not be understood as an institutional task administered exclusively from Rome, with the Pope as a kind of corporate head issuing memos to his branch offices. One of the greatest fruits of the Council, hastened immeasurably for a time by the default of so many clergy, is the growing sense of dynamic Catholic mission among the laity, nourished by the sacraments and guided as needed now by spiritual direction from growing numbers of outstanding priests.
Have Freemasons placed their agents within high positions in the Church? Marshal cites a 19th-century document showing that the Freemasons wanted to subvert the Church. But showing they wanted to infiltrate the Church does not prove that they actually succeeded. He cites a list of purported Freemasons that circulated around the short pontificate of John Paul I in 1978. The fact that someone circulates a list doesn’t prove the list was accurate. These facts are the beginning of a serious investigation, not the conclusion.
He shows that the town of Sankt Galen has a historical connection with Freemason and Satanic groups. He places a young Theodore McCarrick in the town of Sankt Galen in 1949. Unfortunately, simply placing these people and institutions in the same location does not tell us what they did or indeed whether they did anything at all. Indeed, Marshall himself says, “One cannot help but wonderif Sankt Galen served as an infiltration center for recruiting young men to infiltrate the priesthood. Perhaps the arrival of the fatherless Theodore McCarrick to Sankt Gallen…” (emphasis added).
In other words, Marshall is speculating, not proving. Once again, the beginning, not the end, of a serious investigation.
As Dr. Mirus makes clear, the really bad thing about this book is the fact that any serious Catholic publisher ever decided that it merited printing, much less that Sophia Institute and CRISIS!!!!!!! have poured so much time and money into the advertising and media buzz that they have. They are trumpeting this paranoid, unsubstantiated twaddle as an all time classic, something Catholics will turn to in future years for the TRVTH, the Hidden History of our Time, the Goods.
Alas, they are right that countless conservative Catholics–their minds filled with conspiracy theory junk, unable to think with the Tradition, steeped in the prideful belief that the problem is Shadowy Forces, Those People Over There, Communists, Masons, Gays, and Liberals and certainly not they themselves are the enemies of the Church–will return to this nutty piece of junk again and again just as Fundamentalist Protestants (with whom they share far more than they realize) return to the work of Jack Chick for spiritual sustenance.
Meanwhile, to those who still know how to think with the Tradition, I urge you: redouble your efforts to do so and do all in your power to teach others to do so as well.