There is no debate about the proposal that there are two churches in the Christian Church today. The recent fuss of Judge Smolenski being asked not to present herself for communion at St Stephen’s parish in Grand Rapids has brought the clash of the churches to mind, and I’ve been pondering just how to understand a Catholic like Judge Smolenski.
Her understanding of the Catholic faith is so completely different from mine. What makes her tick? She clearly views this thing called Catholicism in a totally different way than I do. Furthermore, she is not alone. So called Catholic politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, a slew of Catholic celebrities and vast numbers of Catholics in the pew (or not) view the Catholic church in this way.
So how to get into the modernist mindset?
It’s complicated. We have to pick at the knot.
First, we have to untangle the aspect of cultural Catholicism. To use Judge Smolenski as an example, she was one of nine children all baptized at that church. They received a Catholic education and she claims to have been a member of that church for over sixty years. From the name I guess she is of Polish descent. She is a good example of a huge number of American Boomer Catholics who have been driving on the fumes of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith. They were Polish, or Italian or Irish or Spanish or French so they were Catholics.
That’s ok. They’re still Catholics and praise God. Nobody wants them to leave. In one sense their Catholicism is deeply rooted. It’s part of their heritage, and they have a genuine fondness and respect for it like we all should have for our heritage and the faith of our forefathers. Naturally they are not only proud of their heritage but defensive about it. They might never go to Mass but they’re still Catholic and you better not criticize it or tell them you know more about than they do. It’s like, “My grandmother made the most fantastic perogies and she prayed the rosary every day. Don’t you come telling me how to make a perogie or how to be Catholic OK?”
But a few generations into being Americans they were not only Polish-Americans they were more American than Polish and as their ethnicity faded so did their Catholicism. It got absorbed into materialistic, American modernism. This brings me to the second contributing factor: the “spirit of Vatican II”. While these post war Catholics were becoming gradually more and more American, the second Vatican Council hit and hit hard. Suddenly it was Catholicism itself which was going to be a driving force for being modern Americans. While these post war cultural Catholics were growing up they received the Spirit of Vatican II catechesis which was big on social justice, personal spirituality, ecumenism and “building bridges.”
The religious heritage from the Catholic Church–the devotions, the statues, the rosaries, the incense, the altar boys, the kneeling and receiving communion on the tongue, all that stuff was relegated to grandma’s ecclesiastical attic. Sometimes literally. I’ve been in some old churches in the midwest where the basement or the rectory attic are crammed with old candles stands, statues, missals and all that old religious “junk.” Along with the paraphernalia of grandma’s religion was stashed grandma’s religion. The old Catholicism was relegated to a museum, a historical archive or a basement store room. At best it was an interesting artifact. At worst it was the symbol of an outworn, out of date and irrelevant religion.
What’s the result? Nancy Pelolsi and Judge Smolenski Catholicism.
What does that look like?
There is a huge clash which they really cannot see between the true contemporary Catholic faith and what they think the Catholic faith is. They really do value and honor their Catholic heritage. They’re sincere when they say they treasure the Catholic Church. However, the Catholic Church they treasure is one which is like the Vatican Museum on the one hand and the Democrat party on the other. They love and cherish the old buildings, the art, the history and their particular ethnic and family heritage, but they treasure it as we treasure all the stuff in museums. On the other hand they have been taught that the Catholic Church in the modern age is a radical agent of societal change. Their Catholic Church is the “missionary church” going out to the margins with the message of peace and justice. It is a Franciscan church–always reaching out to the poor, the victims and the neglected. That is the Catholic Church and they are the ones being faithful Catholics because they are turning over the tables in the temple full of fusty old religious reactionaries.
Now we can understand why Judge Smolenski allegedly led a group of LGBTQ activists to St Stephen’s Church wearing Gay Pride badges, and why she campaigned to have Fr Nolan removed from a chaplaincy and why she went public over his pastoral phone call. She’s not being a bad Catholic by doing this. In her mind she’s being a good Catholic.
The modernist sees the Catholic Church, therefore as an activist organization. If certain teachings of the Catholic Church seem to go against that progressivism that is only evidence that these things need to be changed. Women’s ordination? Same sex marriage? The church has eventually changed on other matters like slavery and capital punishment. The progressive sees it as a worthy mission to pioneer change, to step out and take risks and challenge the church to live up to its true calling to bring peace and justice to all the oppressed.
What about the Christian message of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the salvation of our souls and the redemption of the world? This is where the third element comes in: universalism. The American Modernist Catholic is universalist. If he or she is not a universalist explicitly then he or she is so unconsciously. Universalism is the heresy that teaches that Christ’s saving work is done and because he died for all, all will eventually be saved. “Evangelization” consists of letting everyone know this good news and encouraging them to live that way. The church’s work of evangelization is not to preach about sin, but to emphasize that God’s mercy already covers all wrongdoing. The message is “You’re already saved. You just have to realize it and start living that way. “Salvation” consists of realizing that you are good and activating the God within.” Along with this is the need to redeem the world and that means political activism, becoming a social justice warrior and fighting for an integral ecology.
This is why any talk of judgement of any kind is anathema to the Modernist American Catholic. “God loves everyone just as they are. There is no judgement. All are welcome. There is no sin apart from the sin of not realizing and activating the God within.”
It is easy to see, therefore, how this leads to a final aspect: ecumenism. The religion I have just described is indistinguishable from mainstream Protestantism. It’s interesting that Judge Smolenksi has found a home in her local Methodist Church. That fits. This also leads us to understand the modernist’s approach to ecumenism. He thinks the ecumenical task is already accomplished. He does not see the difference between Catholics and Protestants, and he’s right because there is no difference between modernist Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism. Why have so many Catholics scooted off to the Protestant churches? Because they really believe there is no difference and the Protestant church has better preaching, a fantastic youth group and a Starbucks in the lobby.
What’s to be done? I can’t see that much can be done about this at all except to sit it out. We are in a transitional period. The Judge Smolenski Catholics will continue to disappear–vanishing into that great crowd that no man can number–lapsed Catholics. Their ranks are being filled by a younger generation of modernist Catholics, but they are fewer and are more committed to their activism than their Catholicism. Eventually a new kind of authentic Catholicism will emerge, and I encourage you to listen to my podcast series The Future Church to understand where things are going. You can listen for free at BreadBox Media or listen to the full length version of each podcast here on the blog if you are a Donor Subscriber.
In that series I consider the trends affecting the Catholic Church globally and discern the future direction of the church. It is one in which modernist Catholicism simply disintegrates in the wave of Southern Catholicism–and by “Southern” I don’t mean Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. I mean Africa. Listen and learn! Connect to BreadBox media here and if you want to become a Donor Subscriber to listen to the full length podcasts go here.