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Goodbye, Good Men - by Michael Rose

If you build it, they will come
Field of Dreams

In 1938, James Cagney made a movie called Angels with Dirty Faces. This was a real old-fashioned two-fisted gangster epic, full of big hats and ‘let ‘em have it’ dialogue. Cagney’s co-star was Pat O’Brien, ‘Hollywood’s Irishman in residence’, playing Father Jerry Connolly, Cagney’s boyhood friend, now parish priest of their old neighbourhood. Connolly is engaged with Cagney’s character, Rocky Sullivan, in a struggle for the souls of the Dead End Kids. For our purposes, one scene in particular illustrates the point of Michael Rose’s book: Father Jerry follows the Kids into a bar and fails to get them to leave. When a barfly accosts him, asking ‘what’s the matter, can’t you get them go to heaven with you?’, Connolly decks the wino with a single punch and walks out.

Now, if you’re a Catholic of a certain age, you’ll be familiar with priests like Father Jerry. Indeed, I’ve known a few who could go the distance with Mike Tyson (and when he could still fight), but although O’Brien’s portrayal was accurate for 1938, men like Jerry Connolly are a thing of the past in Roman Catholic seminaries today. Or are they?

That question is very much the theme of Rose’s book. He is not, of course, advocating the kind of muscular Christianity demonstrated by Pat O’Brien in the movie, but he does wonder where all the manly priests of yesteryear have gone. His answer is that they’re still out there, they just can’t get in the gates of the seminary because of the liberal freak show which has taken over the Catholic Church in the wake of Vatican II. Now, the word ‘liberal’ is little more than a term of abuse in the US these days, and for that reason, I was wary about the book initially, especially considering its subtitle - How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church. Too often today, when we talk about ‘liberalism’, we tend to mean some vague, woolly doctrine with no underpinning philosophy, but with plenty of words like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ (which I’m not even certain is a word.) Probably, we call it ‘liberalism’ for want of a better term, and I think it’s indicative of that outlook that no proper name has ever attached itself to it. ‘Political Correctness’ is about as near as it ever came, but even that’s a clumsy moniker.

What is clear, however, is that a worldview like that injected into an organization like the Roman Catholic Church is poison. Rome doesn’t do compromise. With Rome, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be etc, etc; That’s why they call it ‘The Eternal City’. The Catholic Church is not a denomination; all the other churches are, but Rome is the Church - it’s why we always spell it with a capitol C. The rest, like Latin nouns, decline away from that which is perfect. You may or may not believe all of this, but the point is that the Church does, and it stops being the Church when it starts worrying about stuff like ‘inclusivity’. It already is inclusive, in that anyone is free to sign up and join the club; but the club is what it is, and you’re not going to change it. It isn’t Canterbury and it doesn’t share communion with heretics.

Now, I’m not saying all of this to pick a fight with non-Catholics. I’m simply describing what the Roman Catholic Church actually is. It is magnificent, glorious, maddeningly inflexible, obnoxious, inhuman, completely out of step with the world and, at any given moment (according to its critics), about to disappear into history. It never quite does, of course, and the reasons for that are arguable, but what even atheists can agree about is what we might call the brand recognition of the Church. There is nothing else like it. Even the Orthodox doesn’t match the 2000 year old imperial grandeur of Rome, so either you get with the programme or you hit the bricks - there’s always room for one more in Canterbury.

Rose doesn’t put the case in such terms, of course, but rather concentrates on the calamitous collapse in vocations over the past forty or so years. The ‘liberal’ analysis would have it that this is due to the out-of-touch nature of the magisterium, most particularly the prohibition on homosexuality, female priests and married clergy. In an attempt to counteract this decline - if Rose is correct - what has happened is a kind of asymmetric warfare between imperial Rome and the liberal elite out on the frontiers of the Church. This has taken the form of what Rose calls the ‘Gatekeeper Phenomenon’, whereby liberals in favour of gay, married and women priests have inveigled themselves into positions of administrative authority within the dioceses and religious orders and have been systematically blocking the admission to seminaries of any man who believes himself to have a vocation, but who upholds the magisterium.

In fact, it is surprising how little scholastic research has been done in this area, and by necessity much of the book is anecdotal in nature, but if what is recorded here is even half true, the situation is shocking. Seminarians marked out as too ‘rigid’ or ‘inflexible’ - and thus unsuitable of ordination - because they have been seen praying the Rosary, or attending Benediction, or for having knelt at the consecration. This last was seen as an over-devotion to the ‘Real Presence’, the Catholic doctrine that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. Again, whether you believe He is or not, the Catholic position is that He is, and in the presence of God Almighty, you kneel.

Some seminaries were virtually off limits to straight men, so packed were they with homosexuals. And bear in mind, we’re not talking here about men with a gay orientation who nevertheless uphold the magisterium, but rather, predatory homosexuals who see no reason to give up the life just because they have undertaken holy orders. It actually wasn’t safe among these people. One professor of philosophy tells how she was physically attacked and spat on by a ‘liberal’ priest for quoting Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas is to Catholicism what Thomas Jefferson is to America; spitting on him is like spitting on the Declaration of Independence.

What is most disgusting about these people is their propensity for joining up, doing their damage and then leaving the Church after they have wrought a trail of vocational destruction. This is the major theme of the book. If Rose is correct, the vocational crisis is almost entirely a product of liberal theology. There are large numbers of orthodox men out there with true vocations who are being beaten back at the gates of the seminaries because they are perceived by the liberal diocesan vocations directors as too conservative. Many of these gatekeepers are actually nuns who joined up under the delusion that it was only a matter of time before Rome caved in on the demand to ordain women. If they get a sniff of orthodoxy off a prospective candidate, it’s goodnight Vienna.

The theology of the Catholic Church has been refined and developed over 2000 years. It doesn’t buckle under the vagaries of the day, and it’s message is unchanging. It is a massive mistake to think of it as being something that needs to be adjusted to the imperatives of a given age; the idea is to change the world, not the Church. Liberals don’t seem to get that, which is perhaps why so many of them abandon their vows (after doing their damage, of course).

Most of the names used in the book have been changed to protect those priests and seminarians who spoke to Rose from liberal reprisal. One of the few who spoke openly to Rose was Father John Trigilio. His story is perhaps most indicative of the sickness infecting the Church. It took him fourteen years to achieve ordination. Usually, it takes seven (except for Jesuits), but in his case he had to fight tooth and nail at every turn to advance. Fortunately, he had the strength to do so, for unlike many of us today, he received an excellent grounding in Catholic theology at his high school, one of the few left at the time which also functioned as a feeder for seminary. As a result, he was in a position to challenge the unorthodox and (in some cases) downright heretical practices of some liberal priests. That stance cost him seven extra years, in one instance losing his place at one seminary when the bishop who had sponsored him retired and the dean who was acting as locum until a new bishop was appointed took it into his own hands not to renew Fr Trigilio’s place.

If Rose is correct, there is no shortage of committed vocations out there. There is a shortage of the kind of vocations which the liberal gatekeepers are trying to encourage, however. What’s more, the sex scandals which have rocked the Church these last twenty or so years seem to be broadly (although it has to be admitted, not exclusively) dating from the period of liberalization post-Vatican II. The scenario seems to be something like, ‘ok, you’re gay: why not be a priest, since you’re supposed to be celibate anyway?’ The subtext seems to be that the Church is changing and you’ll soon be able to bring your boyfriend into the presbytery. But, of course, the magnificent thing about the Catholic Church is that it doesn’t change, not like that anyway, and those who come in under the delusion that it will, end up crashing and burning when the reality of the ministry becomes too much for them. Remember, about 90% of abuse allegations come from boys, not girls; they weren’t being abused by priests, they were being abused by homosexual priests.

Meanwhile, ‘Father Jerry’ types with genuine vocations and the manhood to carry them though life are being stopped at the doors of the seminaries by nuns who want to be priests and liberals who have a problem with the magisterium. That is what’s causing the shortage of vocations, and the evidence seems to back Rose up. Those dioceses which stand firm on the magisterium, which will not tolerate a loose or even heretical liturgical practice seem to be the ones who are increasing their vocations. The liberal dioceses are dying. This should not come as a surprise. The whole ethos of the Catholic Church is that it does not trim and tack with every breeze that blows. It’s not about bringing the gospel to the world; it’s about bringing the world to the gospel.

This book is some ten years old. Even at the time of writing, there was evidence coming through that younger priests were rejecting the ‘aging hippy’ outlook of the reformers and returning to the orthodox line. That seems to have accelerated in the last decade or so. I would be interested in some serious academic study being done on this question. For the present, this is all I can find.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
An excellent review. Personally I've been too afraid to read this book! Have heard all sorts of horrors from Irish seminarians! Let's hope the Apostolic Visitation will lead to drastic reforms..though I ain't holding my breath.
Jan. 22nd, 2012 06:24 pm (UTC)
Re: review
Oh, no need to be afraid to read the book - it's quite good, although I would have preferred if more of the contributors had allowed themselves to be identified. As for the Apostolic Visitation, it may already have begun to bear fruit. The Irish Times is bemoaning the fact that seminarians in Maynooth are no longer encouraged to mix in with the regular pupils as though the priesthood were just another job. The poisonous effect of regarding the priesthood in that light is one of the themes of Rose's book; those dioceses which rowed back from it benefitted. And if the IT is hacked off, then I suspect we're going in the right direction!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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