And They Will Set You Free

Imagine a people, and the church in which they grow up — a church in which the people worshipped with fervor during adolescence and to which, perhaps for a season, they even imagined giving their lives, or their very blood. With age and its distractions, their fantasies fade, but the attachment lasts.

One day, the people — accustomed to material abundance and the nearly immediate gratification of their desires beyond anything in memory — become exposed to something new, full of ideas and possibilities that seem sweet, reasonable, kind and self-affirming; this new thing makes them feel so good about themselves that they must have it. They appeal to the church and say: “Give us this! It will make us happy, and we will thank God, who obviously wants us to have it.” And the church, this wise mother who is charged to teach Truth Eternal, in season and out, says: “This cannot be yours, because it is not within our power to authorize; this goes against the command of the One who is Truth. But if you will remain open, in obedience, you will come to understand these Truths, and they will set you free.” 

The people remain, but always with an expectation that their personal truths will eventually prevail. Mindful that they have been denied, though, their resentment builds; they mark every sin within the church, all of its human faults and deep failings, and slowly they convince themselves that their ardent desiring is not objectionable, but the sin-riddled church clearly is. And so they break away. With astonishing speed, a new church is formed in authority, trained in tolerance, unified in purpose and installed within sacred structures confiscated by law, while the disgraced and rigid old church and her clergy are hounded underground. 

If this schismatic fantasy sounds like improbable nonsense to you, consider that such a scenario has already taken place in history — right down to the confiscation of properties and the hiding of clergy — and is in fact considered, as Stephanie Mann writes [see pages 26-29], to be one of King Henry VIII’s great “achievements.” Many factors were involved in Henry’s establishment of the Church of England, but the king was comfortable enough (and powerful enough) that money, additional power and political expediency, in and of themselves, might not have swayed him to action. It took the appearance of Anne Boleyn — the ardently longed for new thing that made him feel hopeful and good — to lead him into schism and ever-deeper corruption. Turning away from Truth, Henry created his own “truth,” relative to the day.  

All of this speaks to our own era of material abundance, instant gratification and what our good Pope Benedict XVI calls “the dictatorship of relativism,” wherein we create our truths and then drown them in a syrup of sentiment disguised as justice: I like her and she wants to be a priest, so she should be. Divorce doesn’t matter. They’re so nice, why shouldn’t they marry? It’s not fair; the Church is cruel! The circumstances of 1530 England are remarkably similar to circumstances in the West of today. Personal autonomy seeks greater freedom and worldly wisdom encourages self-actualization above all. It is not surprising that Pope Benedict XVI foresees a “smaller” Church in our future, if the flock is not regathered and fed on the liturgical fare that will come our way this Advent, with the introduction of the new Roman Missal translations (see Pages 30-34). Not only will these accurate translations reunite us liturgically with our brethren in Europe and elsewhere, but our embrace of the horizontal beam of the cross — humanity and Church reaching toward each other — will more deeply connect to that stationary vertical, heaven-focused post that is so vital, if anyone is to be raised up. TCA

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine oblate, and managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as the Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com