27 October 2015

In the Absence of a Shepherd


Portrait of a Jesuit High School

Midway through the last century Loyola Academy was relocated from the neighborhood of Rogers Park (where it was founded in 1909) to a newly constructed campus in the prosperous and insular North Shore, just outside Chicago.  Architecturally, the new campus is an expression of the modernism of Cold War era institutional architecture: a series of bland cinderblock units arranged along pale hallways, without any ornament or character.  The more recent additions to the building mimic its original spirit, and a number of classrooms have no windows.

Despite its architectural design, which might be described as a mix of "cinderblock dungeon" and "potter's field of the soul", any visitor who arrives at 1100 Laramie Avenue on a school day will immediately perceive the wealth of the place.  Surveying the parking lot, one will find a reasonable number of BMWs and Mercedes—gifts from proud parents upon the acquisition of a license.  The grounds are well-kept, and include ten new tennis courts, three playing fields, two large gymnasia and a swimming pool.  (This does not include the six further playing fields, four baseball diamonds, and field house located at the school's athletic campus in nearby Glenview.  And of course it omits the school's ample boating equipment.)

Loyola's population is striking in its uniformity.  The student body adheres overwhelmingly to a narrow stylistic ideal: big brand, preppy, athletic.  Eight years ago everyone owned the same North Face fleece jacket and wore the same Ugg boots.  Nowadays UnderArmor is everywhere, and boat shoes are seeing a small renaissance.

Student culture mirrors the architecture of the place: conformity is valued above all, and conformity not to a heroic ideal so much as to the tasteless, quantitative standards of bourgeois "success".  Good grades and college acceptance function as everyman's lofty spiritual goal, and a solid athletic record is the object of his daily labor.  In terms of actual moral values and aspirations, cynicism is the norm. Everyone knows that personal distinction (whether in service, sports, or academics) is a means to college acceptance and little more.

The school styles itself a "Jesuit College Preparatory Experience".  The heart of this is "college preparatory", just as the heart of student formation is the preparation for the college admissions process. This is, after all, the chief desire of the parents who keep the school running. But this central goal is framed by the words "Jesuit" and "Experience".  What do they mean?

Like many Jesuit institutions nowadays, Loyola is a bit ashamed of its Catholic roots.  When the term "Catholic" pops up in official correspondence, it is usually prefaced by "Jesuit" or "Ignatian", as if Ignatian Catholic were a distinct religious identity to which the school subscribed.  This subtle distinction is amply internalized by the student body.  Students periodically refer to themselves as "Jesuit"; I have even heard it used in contrast to "Catholic" as an expression of deprecation for the Church.

The Ignatian ideals of the school are informed by the mission of social justice, which the Society of Jesus embraced following the Second Vatican Council.  Superior General Pedro Arrupe is frequently invoked, as are his catchphrases "educating for justice" and "men and women for others".

Loyola Academy, like the Jesuits themselves, is caught in a lifestyle contradiction between its material reality and its rhetoric of choice.  The school is insular and wealthy, but it idealizes solidarity with the poor and community service.  Its students are touted as "leaders in service", but the main cultural distinction of the place is its ability to compete athletically with the neighboring public school, which is three times its size.

The spiritual identity of the place is captured by the word Experience.  The school's "Chapel of the Sacred Heart" (a dedication few people are aware of, as it is totally devoid of iconography related to the Sacred Heart) inspires slightly less solemnity than an airport chapel.  The tabernacle is hidden in a back corner, where awareness of it will not trouble the relaxed conviviality of the space.  For the most part, students only enter this place for "Gesu Chapel Services", in which episodes from the life of Ignatius of Loyola are used to lead them to reflect on their own experiences and struggles.  Mass is offered daily, but few students attend.  The atmosphere fits the ideal of the liturgical movement: the president of the assembly leads a dialogical reflection on the experiences of the community and the call of the Gospel.

If you ask a Loyola student what the Gospel is about, they are likely to answer "service".  If you ask them what prayer is about, they are likely to tell you "reflecting on your experiences".  Service and self-awareness make up the heart of Ignatian Catholicism.  In the theology classroom, these two themes predominate.  Other, more doctrinal strains occasionally enter and fade, but from the first semester "Sacramental Journeys", to the senior elective "Justice Seminar", theology courses are centered on coming to terms with one's own narrative, being authentic, and seeing how Christian stories of justice, solidarity, community and leadership offer valuable tools in these tasks.

My Experience at Loyola

From 2003 to 2007 I was a student at Loyola Academy.  I experienced the school as an evangelical protestant, and it left me with a very cynical understanding of what Catholicism is about.  Catholicism, I would have said in 2007, is an old religion that has recently tried to modernize, and done a bad job of it.  Catholics do not have any special respect for Scripture.  In order not to have to say that the Bible is a bunch of fables, they warp their understanding of "truth" into something relativistic and experiential.  Throughout my years there, I saw atheist classmates repeatedly praised by religion teachers as being more "advanced" than the rest of us, which led me to question whether my teachers really believed in anything.  Catholicism, I thought, was vague, overly political, and sentimental.  It was a spiritualization of socialist politics that had collapsed into all-inclusive formlessness.

After entering the Church in college and earning a graduate degree in theology with the Dominican Friars, I returned to Loyola to work in its theology department.  To this day, I'm not sure how I got the job.  They had a last minute opening, and I was familiar enough with Ignatian jargon to make a good impression in the interviews.  My first day at work with the department, I was subjected to a conversation about the future of Catholicism.  The consensus among my co-workers was that the hierarchical, institutional Church needed to go, and would eventually fall apart.  They thought institutional collapse would liberate the Church and enable it to become something new, something better suited to meet the needs of the age.

I was never sure to what extent the department saw through me.  I'm not very good at dissembling, though I held my tongue and generally avoided confrontation.  What I experienced in most of my colleagues there was a deep loathing for many of the fundamentals of the Catholic Faith: the hierarchy, tradition, Catholic morals, the idea of doctrinal orthodoxy, the sacraments, the truth of the Gospel—even, in one case, the person of Christ.  Day after day, I quietly witnessed conversations in which religious were mocked for wearing habits, the Catechism reviled, proponents of chastity lambasted, the virgin birth casually rejected, and Christ displaced from the Gospel.  I was given syllabi for courses in which I was required to teach the primacy of individual conscience over Magisterial teaching, explain that grace is "God's ubiquitously offered gift of self", and direct students to adopt a "realized eschatology" in which heaven is seen as nothing more than an aspect of the present life.

All of this was deeply scandalous to me, and upsetting when I thought of the spiritual corruption that awaited my students after they left my classroom.  I laboriously reframed all the "Ignatian" spiritualistic nonsense in terms of actual Catholic doctrine, and tried to make sure that all of my students had at least a basic grasp of the Gospel.

New teachers were required to attend Ignatian formation seminars, in which we were informed that the population collapse in the Society of Jesus meant that lay educators needed to be ready to carry the "Ignatian Identity" forward to the next generation.  My first year, I read the autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola so I could understand the man better.  It left me very clear on one point, at least:  Ignatius was not "Ignatian" at all.

Without a Shepherd

Throughout my first year, as I felt the weight of my colleagues' hatred for the Catholic Faith and their hostility toward my "inauthentic" adherence to orthodoxy and the tradition, one consoling thought I had was that, when I inevitably left Loyola for something else, I would be able to write to someone in the Archdiocesan administration and make them aware of the rank heresy and outright anti-Catholicism among many of the theology faculty there.

That, at least, was my thought until fall of 2014, when Blase Cupich was named successor of Cardinal George as Archbishop of Chicago.  Cardinal George's tenure as Archbishop was not perfect.  In many ways he was an American version of Cardinal Ratzinger: fiercely orthodox, committed to reform, but too tolerant with the corruption and error of the "Conciliar Church", and too hesitant to take disciplinary action against dissidents.  Whatever his weaknesses as Archbishop, Cardinal George was a friendly face—someone who believed in the Gospel, believed in the weight of his office, and was ready to defend the truth out of zeal for the souls under his care.

Not so Archbishop Cupich.  Since taking office, the Most Reverent Archbishop has indicated, by word and deed, that his idea of a healthy Church is a multicultural community celebration, in which the primary values are diversity and inclusiveness, with everyone doing their best to advance something very close to the platform of the Democratic Party.  More recently he has informed us that personal conscience is supreme and inviolable, and that the Church needs to respect the decisions made in conscience by the faithful, and move forward with them.  Whatever His Excellency's intentions may be, whatever his confusion of speech or befuddlement of mind, this is not the sort of man you could comfortably approach with concerns about the spiritual destruction of thousands of children at the hands of heretical, anti-catholic "Ignatian Educators".  This is a man who is in all probability perfectly in step with all of that.

And if we climb higher, to Rome, and look to the Holy Father, what do we see?  More of the same. Just as Francis George was the American version of Ratzinger, so Blase Cupich is the American version of Bergoglio.  I do not judge either man's spiritual condition or intentions, but a certain strain of befuddlement is so evident in their words and actions that one cannot doubt their antipathy to traditional orthodoxy.

In such a Church, where do you look for guidance and support when the wolves are devouring Christ's lambs? What authority is on your side?  The general absence of legitimate authority, the absence of clerics ready to stand up for the truth, makes it almost impossible to speak in defense of the orthodox faith.  In the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, we have been scattered because there is no shepherd, and when we are scattered we become food for all the wild animals.

It is against this background that I experience the protestations of many Catholics, who are committed to believing that Everything Is Fine in the Church.  Somehow their insular context or good fortune has spared them from seeing the massive damage and scandal being done by our clerics.  These people do not have to stand before hundreds of children who are already mostly committed to the corruption of the present age, and hear the words of the Supreme Pontiff quoted as evidence against the teachings of Christ.  They do not have to hear conversations about how X pastor feels emboldened in his tendencies by Francis's perceived liberalism, or how Y priest is now secure enough under the present Archbishop that he will officiate at the marriage ceremony of two men.  And not knowing these things, even committed, it sometimes seems, to remaining oblivious of them, these Catholics turn those of us who cannot help but know them into the enemies of the Church.  We are cranks, unhinged, hysterical, wackos. We are crypto-schismatics.  We are to blame for the present sense of chaos.  How could we dare to lose faith in the Holy Spirit's protection of the Pope and the Hierarchy!  We must affirm!  Everything is fine! Really!

How easy it must be to stand by "Everything is Fine", when the life of the Church is an abstraction, and not dozens of real faces one has to see and attempt to guide day after day.  How comforting it must be to say "Things have been this bad before!" when the corruption of the times is thought of generally and not with respect to a particular person's spiritual development and eternal destiny, which is being visibly impacted for the worse by the scandalous vagueness of those in authority.  With such an easy frame of mind at stake, who can blame these Catholics for defending the comfortable abstraction against the doomsayers and cranks?

Where does that leave us, fellow Christians, Pastors?  When the Church is divided between those fighting for heresy and those struggling to pretend that nothing is wrong, where can the faithful find refuge?  This is, I believe, the growing crisis of those committed to the ancient faith.  What can we do but put our hope in Christ?
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
We must pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out worthy laborers.  We must be like Mary and John, who remained with the Body of Christ when everyone else had fallen away.  And may God preserve us in Faith, Hope, and Charity unto everlasting life.

In te Domine speravi; non confundar in aeternum.