You’ll find out when you reach the top

Elliot Milco, no stranger to our readers, has a piece at First Things about the Argentine bishops’ protocol and the Holy Father’s endorsement of it. He makes this point:

The Church teaches and has always taught, from St. Paul to the Council of Trent and beyond, that grace strengthens and liberates us from the bonds of sin, and that while we may never, in the present life, be perfectly free from the inclination to do wrong, it is possible through grace to keep the commandments. This doctrine was given force of law in Trent’s decree on justification: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” The same decree explains that “God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and aids you that you may be able.”

The real problem with the Argentine norms is their deviation from this larger and more fundamental principle: that grace truly sanctifies and liberates, and that baptized Christians are always free to fulfill the moral law, even when they fail to do so. Jesus Christ holds us to this standard in the Gospel. It is presumptuous of Francis—however benign his intentions—to decide that his version of “mercy” trumps that given by God himself.

(Emphasis supplied.) In addition to the Decree on Justification, one is reminded of St. Matthew’s Gospel, when Our Lord says “Take my yoke upon yourselves, and learn from me; I am gentle and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ch. 11, vv. 29–30.)

We are not qualified to say whether the Tridentine anathema applies to the Argentine bishops’ protocol or Amoris laetitia or whatever, so we will prescind from a serious doctrinal analysis. (We are sure that Pope Boniface X or Pope Clement XV will clear things up for us one day in the dim and distant future, and we, of course, look forward to getting things sorted out.) But we will remark briefly on the pessimism of such a view, which is desperately gloomy. What else can we say of an attitude that says that one simply cannot do something that is by no means impossible, merely a little difficult? What a negative judgment! Yes, yes, the Amoris laetitia defender says, everyone knows what the rule is, but, well, you can’t live up to it. Even if you want to, you’ll just fail. Why fail? Why try? We’ll just change the rules. Of course, such a bleak view of the world is hardly sustainable; who would want to live in a world without possible escape, in which everyone is doomed to failure? Perhaps such a view is compatible with Christianity, but it seems compatible only with great difficulty with the confident, joyful Christianity that the Church has proclaimed to the world since, oh, Pentecost.

(We will leave to your imagination, dear reader, what one might do to take a little bit of the chill off such a view, to try to make it fit with the Church’s traditional teaching—what one might, for example, call this approach to get some warm feelings back into it.)

Not only is this view pessimistic, it’s also infantilizing. Throughout one’s childhood—our childhood, at any rate, if you can believe that we had one, dear reader—one wants to do more than one is “supposed to.” It’s not impossible; others do it, why can’t we? One wants to take the training wheels off one’s bicycle. One wants to sit at the grownups’ table at Christmas dinner. One wants to play basketball with the older kids. One wants to hang out with the seniors when one is only a sophomore. It is infantilizing to be told you’re not strong enough, clever enough, or whatever enough to keep up. It is infantilizing in the moral context, too. One is told that one is so morally weak that one is categorized with children—that their sins aren’t really sins. They don’t know any better. They’re not strong enough, clever enough, or whatever enough to do what Christ commands them to do, even though Christ promises them his help in doing it. Better to sit at the children’s table, to get a bigger set of training wheels, and let the grownups lower the hoop so that you can shoot 3-pointers like Steph Curry.

Perhaps we’re a little off the mark with the infantilization bit, but the problem of infantilization in the faith has been on our mind today, given this insightful essay by Jesuit Fr. Robert McTeigue. He observes:

In other words, the illusion that Christianity is actually a “play-date” with religious decorations attached, while temporarily stimulating to young people, is affecting the rest of the Christian community. Excitement and novelty become the hallmarks of “authentic” faith and worship. This leads to a threefold problem.

First, it exalts the adolescent and trivializes the sacred. Second, it distracts the folks who should know better from handing on the fullness of the faith. Third, perhaps worst of all, it leaves our young ill prepared for the next stage of their lives. We are promising them a perpetual playground when they should be preparing for a spiritual battleground. Giving children what the world tells them they want rather than what the Church knows they need does not serve them well and does not glorify God.

(Emphasis supplied.) While Fr. McTeigue is criticizing specifically the usually embarrassing outreach to teenagers, his insights have a broader applicability. The idea that Christianity is some sort of religious play-date is by no means limited to children, and excitement and novelty have indeed become hallmarks of “authentic” faith and worship. The threefold problem Fr. McTeigue identifies is a problem undergirding most—not all, but most—of the problems confronting the universal Church today.

One can check Fr. McTeigue’s boxes in this context. Just think about the Amoris laetitia solution. Do we exalt the adolescent and trivialize the sacred? And how! Are the teachers of the faith distracted? You could say that. Are Catholics being left unprepared for the next stage of their lives? Oh my, yes. Thus, we think that, in addition to reflecting a pessimistic view of the capacity of the average Christian, who has, after all, been promised grace by Our Lord to discharge his duties, the view of the Amoris laetitia defenders infantilizes the Christian. The Christian can’t do what’s required of him because he’s a moral child. Perhaps he could be taught, challenged, and helped to do better. Certainly that’s what one does with children, as a rule. But what does it say that a large number of the world’s bishops, including, apparently, the Bishop of Rome, don’t think that that’s a viable option?

And this brings us back to pessimism. One is inclined to ask them what they know that the rest of us don’t. Certainly the German bishops, politically powerful in this pontificate, want their Kirchensteuer back. (As though the doctrine on bigamy was the reason for Germany’s slide into irreligion.) But is that all? Or is there something more serious that the hierarchy sees that leaves it unable or unwilling to help Christians conform their lives to Christ’s call? One can dress up the idea in any number of ways, but, at bottom, there is an implication is that we are simply incapable of doing that which Christ tells us we can do because Christ will help us do it. And there is an implication that, for whatever reason, it’s not feasible to help us do better. This is not a comforting thought.

Milco urges us not to worry about the Pope or his program—instead we should deepen our understanding of the traditional teaching of the Church and pray for the Holy Father, good advice to be sure—but confronted by such a deep pessimism, can one help it if one does worry? Confronted by such an infantilizing view, can one help it if one even gets a little upset?