No one expects to discover in a drug dealer the character of Johnny Appleseed or Santa Claus, overflowing with compassion and the milk of human kindness, scattering sweetness and light wherever he goes. On the other hand, I suspect even the most hardened undercover cop in his local antidrug unit would be shocked to witness a dealer who, having supplied a customer with heroin for years, openly mocked and derided the addict for the physical and moral degradation to which he had succumbed as a result of his addiction. It is a scene whose wickedness would challenge even the pens of Dickens and George Cruikshank to portray. Nevertheless, the situation as I describe it is in some degree a metaphor for the relationship between liberalism and the Holy Church of Rome.
There is no institution I can think of in recent times that has received more derisive, contemptuous, sneering, snide, wildly unbalanced, presumptuous, impertinent, generally hostile, and above all ignorant treatment than the Church has since February 11, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement from the Chair of Saint Peter. (In this respect, the New York Times’ treatment of the story has been incomparably the most shameless I have seen.) Despite Benedict’s patent physical decrepitude, the media instantly agreed on a Party Line—unanimous, as Party Lines are meant to be—to explain this (nearly) unprecedented event. (It is an interesting fact that Cardinal Newman once suggested that a pope should be elected to a term of 20 years, after which he should step down, lest his flock be tempted to accept him as God.) The Pope, so went the story, was finally unable to cope with the difficulties facing “a Church in crisis”; “a Church divided” between reaction and enlightenment; a Church as worn out, superannuated, and increasingly irrelevant as the poor irrelevant octogenarian theologian himself; a Church plagued by maladministration and by sexual scandals that followed inevitably from Her adherence to an unnatural and unhealthy sexual code of medieval origin that relies on dishonesty and hypocrisy to sustain it in practice. So much for Pope Benedict and his reign. During the three-week interregnum that ensued before the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Supreme Pontiff, the Party Line continued relentlessly to unspool: Now is the Church’s last chance to see the light, to reform, to save Herself from oblivion. To do so, She must reconsider (i.e., accept) the ordination of women priests, a married clergy, gay marriage, abortion as legitimate medical practice, and so on and so forth. While the Party Line stopped short of advocating Pope Garry I as the ideal result of the conclave, that could only have been because Mr. Wills, an expert on subjects as diverse as Richard Nixon, Abraham Lincoln, G.K. Chesterton, papal sin, Jesus’ real intentions, and what Saint Paul actually meant to say (neither man having ever quite achieved a level of articulateness sufficient to express himself with a clarity acceptable to Garry Wills), considers priests and popes unnecessary, not simply undesirable. Then, three weeks later, the Sistine Chapel labored and delivered—not a mouse, but a relatively unknown Jesuit cardinal from Argentina who took for himself the name of Francis, after the saint of Assisi who was a friend to the poor and to animals, a reputedly humble man who eschews a private car and prefers to dress as simply as Vatican etiquette allows. Could this possibly be progress—not, of course, the instantaneous transformation of a 2,000-year-old institution the liberals had demanded, but a modest step forward at least? Liberals answered that question themselves by immediately spreading rumors that Pope Francis, while serving as the Jesuit provincial in Argentina during the so-called Dirty War between 1976 and 1983, was complicit with the military dictatorship in kidnapping and “disappearing” critics of the dictatorial regime, including some of his fellow priests. Whether or not the new Pope is guilty as charged, we do know that he did not side with the various left-wing guerilla groups wreaking bloody mayhem in Argentina at the time, and that he was, and remains, an enemy of liberation theology—which is all good liberals really need to know about the man.
In respect of the relationship between secular liberals and the Catholic Church, I admit to having a bit of a bias myself. What business is it of people outside the Church whom She elects to the papacy, or appoints to any other ecclesiastical office; what Her beliefs and Her teachings are; whether Catholics are to have a new English translation of the Mass; whether the wider liturgy is to be subject to a reform of the reform, with Gregorian chant returned and guitar and clown Masses proscribed; whether American nuns are happy with the Pope; and whether women should be accepted to the priesthood? Quite obviously, it is none of their damned business, and they should be told so in no uncertain terms by believers within the Fold. Further, they should be asked just why they think Catholics should care what they think about what is, quite literally, a family affair. So, as I say, I am biased against them for that. But not only for that.
To return to the metaphor of the heroin dealer and the addict: Is it really lost on liberals that the behavior they condemn on the part of the Roman Catholic clergy and the hierarchy is the same behavior they promote or, at any rate, excuse in the secular world? Liberals not only demand “toleration” for sexual perverts on the ground that what they do is just as natural and healthy and respectable as heterosexual acts, they actually celebrate them and their activities. No doubt, if pressed, they would have to admit (even profess) that not only women but practicing homosexuals should be ordained as priests. Would not putting an openly gay priest in the confessional risk subjecting a ten-year-old boy to precisely the same “abuse” liberals accuse clandestine homosexual clerics of perpetrating on innocent children? But here they have a problem, since some liberals (perhaps even many of them—who knows at this point?) believe that man-boy love, as they call it, is also natural and wholesome, since love, after all, is love and worthy of being celebrated in happy bacchanals in whatever dark wood it pushes up its flower face. This problem goes very deep: Indeed, it penetrates to the root nature of liberal irrationality, which is continually tripping itself up and getting in its own way by the constant invention of “rights” bestowed upon distinct and opposed parties whose interests frequently contradict one another.
What liberals cannot understand—or profess not to understand, or simply don’t wish to—is that, to the extent the Church really is in existential crisis (a thing hardly any Catholic I know of except a liberal one seems to believe), it is owing to Her members having been corrupted by the liberal culture of hedonism, immorality, and the climate of temptation that culture has established throughout all liberal democratic societies. Liberals who accuse Catholic priests, officials, and laity of hypocrisy in sexual and financial matters are bent on ignoring (here the meaning of the French verb “not to know” is more apt than the English one) what every educated Catholic knows: The Church is a human and an historical institution as well as a divine and transcendent one, and She is therefore—as She always has been in the course of Her long history—susceptible to secular influences, nearly all of them malign temptations sent by the Enemy. While liberals are frequently surprised to hear it, Catholics are, equally with Santerians, Rastafarians, Wiccans, and Tibetan Buddhists, human beings, not semihumans degraded from their natural status by priestly ignorance and superstition. Put a Christian man or a Christian institution to the test, and you are as likely as not to discover that he and it are potentially corruptible, as every Catholic who is at least as honest as the average liberal believes himself to be will admit. No educated liberal should be shocked by the fact that the Roman Catholic Church and Her individual members are scarcely immune (though admittedly they should be more resistant) to the general weakening of the moral social fiber liberalism encourages and to the allure of the sensate world that liberalism holds out as paradise on earth, the only paradise attainable by human beings created in the image, not of the Christian God, but of Bacchus or Henry Ford. (Wendell Berry has said that the next great division within humanity will be between those people who consider themselves men and women and those who think of themselves as machines, mass-produced like Ford cars. But Berry is almost as wrong here as he is in his support of gay marriage. No advanced modern really believes he is a machine: Rather, he accepts himself as a creature of evolution possessing an infinite freedom to realize an infinite number of desires.)
Liberals are on no firmer ground when they fault the Church for inefficiency, maladministration, incompetence, and waste. Only imagine the president of the United States and the prime ministers of Italy, France, Spain, and Greece criticizing Benedict for his political and managerial ineptitude! Bureaucracy, in modern states especially, is quintessentially a liberal institution. When liberal secularists call for better administration of the Church and of Vatican City (which, as I have said, is none of their concern), they are really calling for a Church that is just as overweening, arrogant, corrupt, wasteful, and softly tyrannical as governments in Washington, D.C., Paris, and Moscow. Liberals do not wish for the more “free,” “open,” and “democratic” Church they say they want. They are hoping instead for a Church with the morality of Bill Clinton’s White House and the open and democratic spirit of Barack Obama’s. They want, in other words, a Church that is exactly like any modern secular liberalized country, perhaps because they think they might have a use for it—as a universalist multicultural megachurch, perhaps, funded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and templed in the former Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, international center and symbol of the interstate religion of the New World Order.
In place of the imaginary pseudospiritual tyranny it hopes to destroy, liberalism seeks to erect yet another and very real secular tyranny of a type familiar to us all. The staff of the New York Times (among innumerable other people) are working to realize that project on a round-the-clock basis, day by day, year by year. They will not succeed, but, of course, they cannot know that.