News flash: Bishops Say Church Promoted Atheism!
The Magi followed a star and found Christ. But many who grew up following Christian beliefs and
practices have lost sight of him. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) recognized that the Church herself has inclined many to atheism.
Atheism… stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion (“The Church in The Modern World,” no.19).
As a Catholic, I grew up in a Church where we were taught the cut-and-dried doctrines of the catechism, which were, for the most part, true. But in popular preaching and teaching they were often seriously distorted. A glaring example was the teaching about “mortal sin.” What it meant to us as children was a sin God hated so much he would burn you in Hell for all eternity if you did it and died before you got to Confession—for example, if you missed Mass on a single Sunday or ate a hamburger on Friday!
The multitude of forbidden but hardly consequential actions that were labeled “mortal sin” made God a monster. Many, like my brother who took refuge in agnosticism, grew up terrified of God.
If a first marriage failed, and you remarried after getting divorced, the priest refused to give you absolution for your sins or to let you take Communion at Mass. Unless you could get an “annulment,” your only choice was either to abandon your second spouse and children or live together in celibacy, like “brother and sister.” If you could not in conscience do either one, you had to resign yourself to spending eternity in Hell.
Your parents wouldn’t burn you at the stake for your remarriage, but current Church teaching at the time assured you God would.
Another example was “Purgatory.” People whose sins were forgiven—totally—were nevertheless required by our loving Father to “pay” for them—either by prayers, penances, and works of charity on earth, or by burning in the fires of Purgatory until they had given sufficient “satisfaction” to God. It was taken for granted that only great saints did sufficient penance on earth. The rest of us expected to spend up to many years burning in Purgatory until we had paid our debt.
There were, of course, “indulgences” that could shorten the time, but the less said about them, the better. It was customary to “have Masses said” for the dead, for which the money given to the priest was called a “donation,” because to call it payment would have been simony. The expected donations for “high” Masses and “low” Masses were posted like a price list in the bulletin, or sometimes on the door of the church. Canon Law forbade the priest to take more than one donation per Mass, because the Mass could not be sold to (correction: “offered for”) more than one person at a time.
Defending the theology behind all this would be a challenge to a Jesuit!
On Sundays the mystery of the Mass was emphasized by the Latin ritual, whose words were intelligible only to the priest and to God. The rules taught the sacredness of the altar area, the “sanctuary,” by forbidding most of the laity, and all women, to enter it. The congregation were silent at Mass; even the responses assigned to them were made by “altar boys” in their name. The message was clear: the Mass was something the priest did. The laity could watch, but they had no part in the action.
Clericalism was so taken for granted we didn’t even know the word. All interaction with priests and bishops was ruled by a protocol which, while friendly, kept everyone aware that the clergy were “higher” and more sacred than the laity. No one would dream of calling a priest by his first name!
Priests always dressed like professionals, in black suits. Bishops lived in mansions, and the pope lived in a palace in Rome. The hierarchy were expected to live an affluent lifestyle and to assume courtly titles like “Your Excellency,” and “Your Eminence,” while people genuflected before them to kiss their rings as the leftover sign of an obsolete feudal homage.
This was “scandal,” precisely because it didn’t shock us. To “scandalize” is to cause people to lower their ideals. We don’t imitate what shocks us. But the lifestyle of the clergy, and especially of the hierarchy, assured us—and still does—that wealth, prestige, and power are not just normal, but are preferable in the Church for those who can acquire them.
The point is, we thought all this was Catholic doctrine. We didn’t know that much of what we grew up with was simply the way the people of our culture practiced their religion and handed it on as it was popularly understood in their time and place. Over the centuries, all sorts of errors and distortions had crept in unnoticed—until Pope John 23rd called together the Second Vatican Council to “open the windows and let in some fresh air.” In the very first session of the Council, the bishops identified three things, “legalism, clericalism, and triumphalism”—the three identifying characteristics of the Pharisee party in the Church today—as the roots of much that was distorted in the Church.
They called for changes. And the Pharisee party fought back bitterly, as they did against the change called for by the “apostles and the elders” when they met together in Jerusalem to decide about admitting Gentiles into the Church.
The Pharisees are still fighting against anything that would change the rules and regulations, cultural perceptions and practices of the Church they grew up in. They close their ears to the Bishops’ plea: “We urge all concerned, if any abuses, excesses or defects have crept in here or there, to do what is in their power to remove or correct them, and to restore all things to a fuller praise of Christ and of God” (Vatican II, “The Church,” no. 51). As far as the Pharisees are concerned, there were no “abuses, excesses or defects” in the Church at the time the bishops spoke. They all “crept in” after, and because of, the Council itself.
What has this got to do with the visit of the Magi? It may have more to do with their return. The Magi did not stay with Jesus. They did not become Jews. But Matthew says that “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another way.”
By “another way.” They went home as Christians. The Church celebrates them in the liturgy as saints. But we do not know how they lived or expressed their Christianity; just that from then on they walked “by another way.” In them, before the Church had even been established, she was “catholic.”
When we understand what it means to say the Church is “catholic,” we will know what it means to say Jesus is “Universal Lord.” And we will understand why Matthew told the story of the Magi.
(In connection with this, see Why Jesus?, chapter six: “Jesus Is An Inescapable Question.” )