Although Colorado’s Supermax is the federal prison that is featured on all the TLC shows, Colorado’s death row for our homegrown felons is actually on the Eastern Plains. For my second assignment as a priest, I was sent to a parish containing within her bounds that very Correctional Facility.
Upon arrival, I had a plan to reach not just the Catholics, but all the semi-professed Christians at the prison. I would hold a Bible Study called “What the First Christians Believed,” but not write “By Fr. Dave Nix” on the flyer. It was an immediate success. Many people from all denominations arrived. Great discussion ensued for the first two weeks. However, one non-dom felon with too much time on his hands (imagine that in America’s prisons) had learned…Hebrew. By week three, he jumped on my smallest inference to the Catholic faith, attempting to debate the meaning of New Testament Greek words transliterated into his Hebrew purview. By our fourth meeting at that enormous prison, a fight broke out between the Catholics and the Protestants. The guard arrived to protect me. No punches were thrown, but my cover was blown. As if the cassock hadn’t given it away, they now knew: I was a Catholic.
Numbers dwindled. Within three weeks, I was sitting in my Bible Study room with one man…a single black man from Brooklyn who was getting released in two weeks. That evening, we gazed across the hallway through the classroom windows to see another large room, filled with Muslims doing prostrations. Depressed, I asked him “Why do you think Islam is the number one growing religion in the world?” The man must have learned a lot in his prison sentence; He answered: “Because there you get what you see. No games with God. No loopholes.”
Rewind a few years earlier in seminary. I was saying to my friends that, as a priest, I would not have girls on the altar as acolytes. A formator overheard me and chimed in: “You wouldn’t want to be less generous than the Church.” Ok. I went away feeling corrected and, um, ungenerous.
But it hit me a bit later that the common ground between the two above stories is this: Is the mind of God found in the tradition of the Church or in the Church’s loopholes? Imagine that your 15 year old son or daughter had a curfew of 9pm, and “on very rare occasions” you allow her to come home at 11pm. What if she came home every night at 11pm and midnight? We would rightly conclude that there was something wrong with her sense of fatherhood.
Now consider that the Church has held a great many things sacred for many centuries, and how now dispensations are overruling. We must remember God’s words: “For I the Lord do not change.”—Malachi 3:6. Consider how, under great pressure from progressive bishops, Pope Paul VI hesitantly allowed communion in the hand to occasionally replace communion on the tongue in circumstances that almost seem to read “safe, rare and legal.” St. John Paul II was put under similar pressure to allow altar girls to occasionally join the army of boys on the altar. Dispensation…now become norm.
Did you know that the 1917 Code of Canon Law said that it is “forbidden” to marry a non-Catholic? The 1983 Code of Canon Law similarly says it is “prohibited” to marry a non-Catholic. Both codes refer to the dangers to salvation to the Catholic party (cf. Pope Pius XI’s Castii Conubii.) I’m not against the Church occasionally granting dispensations to a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic, but when was the last time you heard of a Tribunal reminding the couple that such norms are in place for the salvation of their eternal souls? Was the Apostle Paul’s admonition to be “equally yoked” purely the Revelation of an arbitrary Father? Or, is there any chance Our Father’s original plan was the most generous?
Liturgists (including Chief Liturgists) also need to consider whether rubrics be capricious…or from a reasonable God. For example, Vatican II reads that the Mass should be offered normally in Latin, but that the vernacular language may also be allowed. Which is the rule and which is the exception? Or, consider how Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI notes that even in apostolic times there was no precedent for the priest to face the people during the sacrifice of the Mass. Nowadays, however, that small loophole to the 2000 year-old Catholic (and Orthodox) norm has covered the globe. This was all for the sake of filling the parishes. Has it worked?
A point of dogma needs to be made: It is not just pious devotion, but it is actually the dogma of the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. Thus, in order to understand the generosity of the Fatherhood of God, we must consider the mind of the Church through tradition, through 2000 years, not just modern loopholes.
I think I could summarize Jesus’ message to the Pharisees in one sentence: “Stop playing games with God.” Jesus’ main message to the Pharisees was not to abolish the law (See Mt 5:17) nor overturn the necessity of the commandments for salvation (See Mt 19:17) nor even end liturgical sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7-8.) Living in a country with so many Protestant overtones, we nowadays tend to picture a Jesus who, being a bit of a flippant religious-cowboy, wanted to end the Jewish hierarchy. Even this is not true (See Mt 23:3.) Jesus admits that the Pharisees still remain on the “chair of Moses,” but “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (23:23). In other words, “Stop looking for the loopholes, and start living for God. He does not play human games based in human tradition.”
I believe there is a key to attract men to the Catholic Church. It’s to stop playing games with dispensations in the name of being “pastoral.” I’m not saying a system of hard-core rules is key to making disciples of all nations. Nor am I promoting those ultra-conservative men who talk to their wives like they talk to their daughters (both like slaves.) But think about what that man from Brooklyn recognized in those 20 young black men prostrating at the prison. He saw that these men were attracted to a way of life that was concrete. These Muslim men—most of whom grew up without fathers—suddenly found a solid and clear-thinking system of religion that did not require a PhD in theology to tell you the rules didn’t apply to you if you know how to play this or that theological game. No, those inner-city men had had enough childish games in their adolescence to land them in prison. Now, they had something clear-thinking, something the male mind longs for, even if it sunk its teeth into something as sick and violent as Islam.
If a religion without a loving Father (Islam) has attracted men without fathers, how much more will the plan of a loving Father change our nation if we can be clear-thinking and clear speaking? We don’t want to make Kouachi-brothers of a new militant-Catholic-bent, but see my point: How much more do Catholic men contain a capacity for reaching the inner-cities of America if we can become unafraid of a full Catholic vocabulary? The maternally-run suburbs of America could use some good men, too. We as Catholics have the unique ability to reveal both the mercy of God and the expectations of God to a hurting and very confused nation. The peace in the womb doesn’t begin with women. It begins with men exercising self-control and protecting the women in their lives. It is peace that Jesus seeks to give us, but not as the world gives it.
Most young Catholic men secretly long for coaches, priests and mentors who will actually believe in them as sons. Young men long to see their dads (biological and spiritual) keep the high bar, not found in the confessional of priests who tell the penitent that because his masturbation “is an addiction, it is not done with full consent.” That’s a copout of responsibility for one’s penitents. No man ever wanted to live within a “dispensation” of weakness. Rather, most young men actually respond to a tough coach who believes in them. They want to be told that they can reach the high bar of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They want to give their lives away with other brothers.
In July of 2007, Pope Benedict wrote Summorum Pontificum to again promote the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. He had a very interesting line in there: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” This is an important sentence because it shows that God, as Father, does not change His mind for His family, based on the fads and whims of the time. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”—Hebrews 13:8.
Mass attendance statistics are pretty good proof that our hearts resonate with something “eternal” more than “pastoral.” Why? Because there is protection and freedom in God’s eternal order found in the liturgy. There is protection in the house rules, the unfolding of the Universe, the beauty of the Church, the two-parent Family. Rules without relationship leads to rebellion. But relationship without rules leads to a surrender without content—indeed, a surrender that is short-lived.
To be sure, the Gospel is ever ancient and ever new, with new creativities of evangelization growing out of every century of the Church that were surprising and unexpected. But as GK Chesterton wrote: “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
This was originally published under the title Why Pastoral Dispensations Lose Catholic Men.