A Monday night in January when the temperature is 19 degrees isn’t the best time to realize everything you believe about the Catholic Church is a minority opinion. But there I was, driving to my parish church in the wake of a massive snowstorm that buried much of New England, leaving my region racked by blasts of cold of interstellar intensity. I hoped the church would warm me up. Little did I know I know I was about to enter what could be called Church, Inc., where bureaucracy’s narrowing vision and corruption of language have done damage to many of my fellow Catholics.
There were only about 20 people there, including the pastor and the parish council. The church was built, we were told that night, as a Vatican II church, but later refurbishing put the tabernacle behind the altar, now a lovely Italian marble instead of the ugly white Lego box it replaced a few years ago. The parishioner who told us this story seemed to miss the old altar for the fellowship it afforded everyone without the tabernacle in the way, but I could be wrong.
At Pope Francis’ request, Catholics throughout the world are supposed to gather this year on a listening journey to, well, listen to one another. I recognized some faces and knew a few from living in the neighborhood. The trouble started when I walked to the microphone. I didn’t prepare much, and so launched into a passionate litany of dismaying aspects of our parish life that I think need addressing: the lack of a spirit of adoration in our liturgy due to the boomer musicals steeped in a sentimentality that reeks of the 1980s, the lack of prayerful quiet in the church, the priest’s bad habit of cracking jokes at the end of Mass, the loss of focus on saving our souls, and so forth. Then someone on the parish council asked what I meant by a “spirit of adoration.” At that moment, I knew I was deep in the belly of Church, Inc. Let me explain.
Yes, the church needs organization, paid staff, and donuts after Sunday services, but with Church, Inc., these realities take on an entirely new meaning. They become an end in themselves. If this sounds like the church focusing on itself too much, it is exactly the opposite, for, in this misapplied purpose, the church simply mirrors the world, and when she does that, she fails.
Or, better, we fail her because we see her in a natural frame that diminishes her supernatural purpose: the salvation of souls. But you wouldn’t know that from our listening session. You would see a church overtaken by a fear that the world will find her lacking in self-doubt and self-accusation in regard to sins of exclusivity, favoritism, racism, and lack of accompaniment. When a parishioner asked our pastor if he had ever — just once — turned away someone who was seeking help, and the reply was “no,” I thought the bubble of unreality was going to burst, but it didn’t. The reason it didn’t is not obvious, but once you start examining how the employees of Church, Inc. use language, things start to clarify.
As Sebastian Morello, a journalist and former student of the late Roger Scruton, put it, there is an infestation of “Ecclesiastical newspeak” in the Catholic Church that forms a false reality using language in which words signify something directly opposite their actual meaning: theology opposes doctrine, pastoral means excluding anyone traditionally minded, accompaniment affirms the sin with the sinner for God help us if we “condemn” anything anyone actually does. Even the so-called “New Evangelization” marketed under St. John Paul II often enough means never directing the Gospel message to those who have never heard it. (READ MORE: The Pope’s Horizontal Church)
I did take a journey of sorts in my memory on the drive home. I thought of when I discovered musicians in high school such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and realized these guys strum guitars much better than the choir at church, so why go to Mass on Sundays when I could skip off to my friend’s house and hear better tunes? That’s one of the truths that Church, Inc. can’t understand. When it comes to doing anything except adoring the one, true God in ritual worship handed on through the centuries, the world always has the better business plan. Worldliness, after all, is what the world does best.
I learned a lot that night, some of it painful, like my own impetuosity about what needs fixing in the church despite all the fixing that needs doing in my own soul. But more to the point, I painfully pondered this thorny question: if the leaders of the church fail to show her children the way to answer the deepest longing of their souls — the yearning for eternal friendship with God — who will step in, and show us? My dear shepherds, I am still listening.
Michael J. Ortiz teaches at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland.