Throughout Lent the Catholic headlines have been disheartening. Ash Wednesday saw us lining up for ashes and hearing the words, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” even as the headlines blared the sickening news of 21 priests suspended in Philadelphia on sexual abuse allegations. “It feels,” wrote a friend, “like these nests of filth will never be cleaned out, not in our lifetimes.” “It feels,” I replied, “like we can never do enough penance, like there isn’t enough penance in the world,” to ever make amends.
On the same day a popular priest-preacher with a Church-militant message announced to his fiercely loyal fan base that he had been placed on administrative leave by his religious superior, pending investigation of “conduct unbecoming a priest,” although—thankfully—with no hint of criminality attached. His policy-decreed absence from the programming line-up of the Eternal Word Television Network quickly inspired a financial backlash against that bastion of Catholic orthodoxy. All of Catholicism seems roiled. Another priest has told his Maryknoll superiors that his conscience cannot allow him to live out his vow of obedience to his superiors and to the Church owing to the issue of female ordination.
In Kenya, Former Archbishop Emmanuel Milingu ordained a married bishop to his newly formed Restored Universal Apostolic Church, while in Canada a transgendered teacher dismissed from a Catholic school refused a settlement he feared would “muzzle” him. As I write this, there is breaking news that well-known Catholic colleges have been aligned with Planned Parenthood. In the Diocese of Scranton, another preacher, this time a Church-militant layman with another fiercely loyal fan base and an “unapproved apostolate” has been refused permission to speak on Catholic property.
All of that is exhausting to contemplate, and it doesn’t even begin to consider the tremulous state of the Church in Ireland and Old Europe, or the slaughter of thousands of Catholics in the Ivory Coast, the suppression of Catholics in Vietnam, the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan, and what this worldwide see-saw of fervor and disillusion even means.
The Church seems always to be challenged during the Lenten season, but this time the attacks are not foreign, as it were, but domestic: Interior factions are attempting to pull the Church toward their own interests, and as Holy Week approaches the Body of Christ seems as openly vulnerable as Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, with each splayed limb tied to a blindered, huffing beast, all too eager to charge in its own direction.
We have seen this before, or course. Today’s Mass readings seem eerily apt: Led out of Egypt by the stuttering murderer, the imperfect Moses—upon whose faulty shoulders God placed the burden of migration and formation—is laid the dissatisfied, impatient, and unhappy grouse: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!” (Nm. 21:4)
And because they are distrustful, disobedient—disinclined to trust whom God has chosen, or God’s own meandering “plans of fullness” in the midst of seeming chaos—they are bitten by vipers; they become ill. They are struck down.
Our Lenten time in the desert has felt similarly discordant and serpent-struck. Our Christ-loving Pope—I wouldn’t want to be in his place—is beset on all sides; his curia often “helps” him into more difficulties; his faithful priests are besieged and brokenhearted, and the unfaithful ones must still be converted and, like recalcitrant sheep, coaxed back into line. The laity are confused, mostly ill-catechized and grazing farther and farther afield, where they are prey not only to the brazen wolves, but the ones disguised as fluffy lambs, too.
Those who expected a Rottweiler Pontificate are grumbling at the necessary emergence of a steady, sheep-herding Border Collie Pope, one focused on getting us all safely corralled before night falls.
The polarized factions within our Church are, it seems to me, a little viper-bitten, like our Israelite ancestors. There is from the left the constant tug upon this Eternal Body, an attempt to drag the One, Holy and Apostolic Church into the non-absolutes of trends and thin boundaries where—like other churches seeking to conform to the age—she will ultimately cease to be true, and then cease to matter.
From the right there is a resurgent Church Militant, amalgamated with a Tea Partyesque inclination to distrust any authoritative body—the pastors, bishops, indeed the entire Magisterium—they deem too interested in mercy and not keen enough on justice. As Tea Partiers will call John Boehner a Republican in Name Only (RINO) for not getting 100 percent of what they wanted in policy negotiations, these will call a bishop, a cardinal, even a pope, a CINO—Catholic in Name Only—if wayward Church members are not publicly labeled heretics, and excommunicated before the throng.
In his hapless humanity, Moses—and I wouldn’t want his place, either—prays for the very people who are abusing him and tearing the community apart, and the Lord says to him, “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.” (Num. 21:8)
And those bitten, who looked up on the mounted, “fiery” serpent raised on the pole were healed.
For us, pulled ever leftward, yanked impatiently by the right, it is Christ, raised on the centering vertical beam, upon whom we must gaze in full reliance that where He abides there is no confusion; in his All-Holiness, there can reside no chaos.
“Are you assailed by the temptation of the serpent? Then gaze at the mystical serpent lifted up on Calvary; see there our Lord victorious and triumphant in his bodily death and the cross will provide a healing remedy.”
— St. Augustine
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM . . .” (John 8:28)
We can only pray, with sincerity, with great fervor and with fasting, that those among us bitten — and the viper strikes without warning — will remember to look up, look up, and be healed.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.