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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Reformation 2.0

detail from 'Melancholia I' (1514) by Albrecht Dürer

Not long before his death, the Russian philosopher and visionary Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900), who had publicly sought union between the Catholic and Orthodox churches to great personal and professional cost, is recorded to have said in response to his Orthodox critics: “I am supposed to be Catholic, but as a matter of fact I am more of a Protestant.”[1] In the light of recent scandals in the Catholic Church, I’ve been feeling the same way.

Suddenly, seeing conservative bishops decked out in lace and birettas and having seminarians hold the edges of their copes seems even more anachronistic than before (and it looked extremely anachronistic before). Meanwhile, the sight of liberal clergy arrayed in rainbow vestments comes off as just plain creepy.

But, I must confess, the most disturbing thought I’ve had over the last few weeks is probably one many of us have had but have been afraid to speak: if we can’t trust these men with the task of shepherding the flock, can we trust them as guardians of the sacraments?

I know the bishops are supposed to be chosen by the Holy Spirit. But come on already. Some are truly holy men (I’ve met a few), but most are simply some variety of academic/lawyer/manager, certainly in the Americas (I imagine the same is elsewhere). I don’t see much evidence of “risking it all for the faith,” especially when risking one’s status or career is at stake. They are good at issuing statements on Archdiocese letterhead, though. Bold, bold stuff.

I have met bishops who risked much, particularly a number of Romanian bishops of the Byzantine Rite who spent decades in prison under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. I also know of a bishop, Casmir Rembert Kowalski, OFM, who had been imprisoned by the Chinese Communists under Mao. He ordained my late pastor. Of Bishop Rembert, Fr. Cyril told me, “He had the ugliest hands I’ve ever seen.” Bishop Rembert’s Chinese torturers had torn out his fingernails with pliers in their failed attempts to get him to surrender his faith. But now we get ridiculous performances full of sturm und drang by the anti-Francis coterie to use the disclosure of the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the McCarrick scandal to attempt a coup of the Vatican. Welcome to The Da Vinci Code on Ice. Somebody get His Eminence an albino.

"This is the best we could do, Your Emminence."

In contrast with these examples, the episcopal political power games now on display are really and truly sickening. The only power Jesus was interested in was the power to forgive sins, heal the sick, drive out demons, and raise the dead. No one held his robe. He didn’t have a personal assistant. He worked with his hands. He laid down his life for his friends.

As I’ve written earlier, the failures of morality and courage now coming back to haunt the American episcopate (not to mention its counterparts in Ireland, Chile, and elsewhere) call seriously into question Catholic doctrine. I wouldn’t know how to begin sifting through Church history to discern when the Holy Spirit spoke and when it was coteries of prelates and hierarchs jockeying for power (I won’t get into the political nastiness disguised as piety concerning Henri de Lubac and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin at the moment—but I could. John Milbank has written about de Lubac’s case here). What I do know is that faith in the bishops has been almost completely destroyed, probably for decades if not longer. No earnestly-written pastoral letter can fix that. It’s too late.

I now wonder if the faithful will just contravene the bishops and take the sacraments into their own hands by establishing house churches, with or without an ordained priest to administer them, now that the notion of apostolic succession has been exposed as a fairytale. Many more people would be walking away right now were it not for the sacraments, which are kind of held hostage under penalty of excommunication. Still, some people may be ready to undertake such a risk, no longer thinking they have anything to lose. It may all be a matter of not being afraid to die.

I also wonder if rogue priests, Orthodox as well as Catholic, will release the sacraments from episcopal control and practice intercommunion. The bishops of both sides have been “holding meetings” over reunification for 1000 years now (truly the scandal nobody talks about). They can easily schedule conferences for few thousand more. What’s the big rush? I’m not all that convinced they want reunion, an insult to Christ himself (John 17:21). If we’re waiting for bishops (Catholic and Orthodox) to heal the schism, we’re in for a good long wait. If reunion ever happens, it will be from the bottom up.

Of course, much like Reformation 1.0, such developments will lead to lots of insanity. Pent-up rage, Oedipal and otherwise, will find an outlet. It will get ugly, possibly violently ugly. But it could also get beautiful. Both Protestant and Catholic mysticism (Boehme and the Philadelphians on the Protestant side, for example; Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross on the Catholic) flourished in the centuries following the Protestant Reformation, and I suspect Reformation 2.0 will follow a similar trajectory—equal parts insanity and beauty. And, like its predecessor, the spark that lit Reformation 2.0 is corruption within the hierarchy.

Solovyov dedicated his life—and sacrificed his career—for the cause of a true ecumenism and a genuine reunion of Christians. In his A Short Narrative of the Anti-Christ, he imagines such a reunification after a period of scandal and persecution. Significantly, a sign appears in the heavens anticipating that reunion: the Woman Clothed with the Sun. “This is our banner!” cries Pope Peter II, “Let us follow it!”[2]

The Woman Clothed with the Sun, for Solovyov anyway, was synonymous with both the Virgin Mary and the Divine Sophia. Indeed, sophiology, anchored as it is in the Real and the metaxalogical space where the natural and the supernatural become one, could have done much to avoid the troubles we are now witnessing (more about that another time). In Solovyov’s interpretation of Revelation 12, Sophia is the catalyst for union.

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t even know what I will do. But I do know one thing: we can never return to how things were. The order of the world has changed.

Arvo Part's Salve Regina

[1] Reported by his friend, the philosopher Lev Lopatin. Quoted in S.L. Frank (ed.), A Solovyov Anthology, trans. Natalie Duddington (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974), 25.

[2] Ibid., 247.

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