By Ralph Martin
Ralph Martin is the president of Renewal Ministries and Director of Graduate Theology Programs in Evangelization and a professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He holds a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum University in Rome. Pope Benedict XVI appointed Martin as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. He was also appointed as a peritus for the Synod on the New Evangelization which was held in Rome in 2012. Martin is the author of A Church in Crisis.
It’s clear that we are living in a time of confusion and division, both in the Church and in the world. I am not qualified to evaluate whether this is the worst confusion the Church has seen or not—we have been through some pretty bad times over the centuries—but it is serious. And it is our time and our confusion, so it is something we must deal with.
The world is always beset by confusion and division, but it is certainly intensifying throughout the world as hostility to the Church and its teachings grows. Many human rights groups who track the persecution of Christians worldwide claim that even more Christians are being persecuted and killed for their faith today than in the early centuries of the Church when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire.
Fortunately, none of us reading this have had to live through the terrible centuries and decades where there were corrupt popes engaging in immorality, selling church offices, and carrying out military adventures. We have been blessed in our lifetimes by solid popes, some of whom have been canonized. We are not, then, a generation dealing with profligate popes, but we are dealing with serious confusion in the Church over doctrinal and moral matters of the utmost importance. This confusion sometimes seems to be emanating now also from Rome. It isn’t that heretical doctrine is being formally taught, but confusing and ambiguous documents, informal comments, and perplexing events and actions seem to regularly muddy the waters on what exactly the pope or a particular synod of bishops might actually be attempting to communicate and what we are still supposed to believe as Catholics. This has left national bishops’ conferences and individual cardinals and bishops openly disagreeing, sometimes in very disagreeable ways, about how to interpret these documents, comments, and actions. Along with these confusing statements and actions, there is good solid teaching that is clearly in continuity with the Deposit of Faith, but how to put the two streams together is often quite a puzzle.
Here I need to say something about my approach to evaluating the role of Pope Francis in analyzing the widespread confusion and ambiguity. Like many people, when Pope Francis was first elected, I was thrilled by his fresh approach to the trappings of the papacy. I loved that he decided to live in the Vatican guesthouse, that he dressed simply and even used inexpensive cars to travel in. I even responded positively to his repeated exhortations about not being afraid “to make a mess.” I, for the most part, really liked Evangelii Gaudium, his apostolic exhortation following upon the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, even though it was rather silent on the eternal consequences of unrepented serious sin. I had been appointed by Pope Benedict as a theological consultant to that synod and was there for its entirety. Even though his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium broke with tradition and wasn’t really an elaboration of the final approved propositions from the synod (Pope Francis wasn’t at the synod), it had many wonderful things in it, and I assign it and teach it in my classes at the seminary.
However, as time went on, and particularly after the intense battles at the two Synods on the Family and the publication of Amoris Laetitia, it became clear that there was a serious ambiguity in the document that many thought opened a pathway for divorced and remarried people to be allowed to “move beyond” their first marriage(s) and receive communion in good faith, without submitting the opinion of whether their first marriage(s) were valid or not to the judgment of the Church by petitioning for an annulment.
This put me in the difficult place in which I presently find myself. Despite some of the extreme attacks on Pope Francis, he is clearly the legitimately elected successor of St. Peter and deserves the respect due to a pope. Catholics who think they are defending the faith by calling the pope an apostate or heretic are doing a great disservice to the Church and sowing fear and suspicion among not an inconsiderable number of the faithful. In attacking the pope in such an extreme way in the name of preserving the Catholic faith, such critics are themselves drifting into a sectarian mentality or even informal schism. I am alarmed by how many concerned Catholics I meet in countries all over the world who are living in fear and doubt because of some of the more extreme attacks on the pope. It needs to be said that Pope Francis, in many of the things he teaches officially and says informally, conveys clearly orthodox and inspiring things. He is certainly not officially teaching heresy, and it is important to keep in mind that he says he believes everything in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But he clearly says and does things that seem to contradict or put into question other admirable things he has said and done.
Some people are perceiving that issues we thought were settled a long time ago are now reappearing in rather aggressive form at the highest levels of the Church. The number of bishops openly proposing teachings contrary to those established by the Church seems to be growing. A number of the prominent hierarchy in attendance at the symposium on priesthood have promoted a “welcoming” attitude toward LGBTQ people but notably omit a call to repentance that has always been central to Church teaching on human sexuality.
On the doctrinal and moral issues, we are seeing a polarization that seems to be getting worse. On the one hand are those who celebrate the softening of sexual morality, the truth about Jesus’s uniqueness, and the reality of hell, and are glad to see “the spirit of Vatican II” back again. On the other hand, in reaction to this blurring of doctrine and morality and also liturgical abuses, we are seeing an aggressive “traditionalist” resurgence, advocating a return to the Tridentine liturgy as a touchstone of real orthodoxy. Often, unfortunately, this movement brings with it an attack on the legitimacy of the Novus Ordo and those who frequent it—namely, the vast majority of practicing Catholics. Sometimes, the traditionalist resurgence is combined with vicious attacks on the pope and false and rash judgments labeling him a heretic, an apostate, or even the Antichrist.
Is there a way forward that avoids these polarizing extremes without compromising the truth in any way? I believe there is. It’s the path that Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI tried to guide us on during the many years of their pontificates: the authentic interpretation of Vatican II, the challenging way of the Gospel, of the real Jesus, as revealed to us in Scripture and tradition and articulated for us today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But it is not enough to just point to these sources of light and truth. We must specify what truths must be recovered today in light of what is being attacked and bring clarity where the confusion is greatest.
As we begin to address specific issues and hopefully bring the truth and light of the Gospel to them, it is important to remember that all this confusion and division is happening under the providential hand of God. He is permitting the confusion, the ambiguity, the division, and he has a plan to bring good out of it. It is clear that the Church is in need of a deep purification. God is permitting the darkness to be exposed so that the deep wounds of sin and infidelity may be healed, that profound repentance may take place, and the light of Christ shine forth ever more brightly.
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In A Church in Crisis: Pathways Forward, Ralph Martin offers a detailed look at the growing hostility to the Catholic Church and its teaching. With copious evidence, Martin uncovers the forces working to undermine the Body of Christ and offers hope to those looking for clarity.