Vice Column: A failed church

Clement Harrold

Student Government Vice President

“This house believes that the American experiment has failed.” So reads the motion for last weekend’s Dumb Ox Debate, the first of this semester. Though provocatively worded, the House’s position has proven thought-provoking for me, such that I have spent considerable time reflecting on the question over the past few days.

As with many of the debates, the resolution hinges on a definition, in other words, what exactly it is that we mean by the “American experiment.”

Nevertheless, it seems to me –– and the dictionaries tend to agree –– that in its essence the experiment is simply the Constitution, with all the principles and ramifications it bears.

Understood in this light, the experiment is little more than the end result of the disputes between the federalists and the anti-federalists. Among other things, this means republican democracy, checks and balances and –– crucially –– the safeguarding of the federalist principle without ceding too much ground to central government.

If I am correct in this assessment, then it seems difficult not to conclude, together with the House, that the American project has gone seriously awry. For, despite the best efforts of Madison, Hamilton and others, history has undoubtedly proven Brutus right in his profound concerns as to the inevitable rise of the federal government at the expense of the states.

Consider, for instance, the federal Supreme Court’s rulings on various hot-button social issues: because of Roe v. Wade, individual states are no longer able to protect their unborn children; because of Obergefell v. Hodges, individual states are no longer allowed to preserve the institution of marriage; because of Bostock v. Clayton County, the groundwork has been laid for denying individual states the power to define even so fundamental a reality as gender.

If this isn’t a failure of the American experiment, I am not sure what is. Brutus’ worst fears have been realized, and, despite the best efforts of Madison and Hamilton to create checks and balances, a once-great democracy has now been reduced to a crude techno-oligarchy at best, and at worst a dictatorship of five unelected lawyers.

What’s all this got to do with the Church? With the Church as such –– the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church –– perhaps not a lot. But with the American Church in particular, and with the western Church more generally, the parallels between the decline of American democracy and the utter failure of the institutional churches are acute.

Over the past several decades, the full fruition of a centuries-long demonic effort to eviscerate and all but destroy the American hierarchy has begun to take on a definite form and shape.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the ideologically-driven applications of the reforms resulting from the Second Vatican Council led to the stripping of the altars, the “razing of the bastions,” a liturgical emasculation and iconoclastic cleansing on a scale not seen since the Reformation.

In the 2000s, the uncovering of the sexual abuse crisis rocked the establishment Church to its core. A cancerous sickness reaching to the highest levels of the episcopacy, this was a diabolical masterpiece that destroyed the faith of millions and resulted in financial payouts to the tune of tens-of-billions of dollars.

With the advent of the Obama years, the true pusillanimity of the American hierarchy became further apparent. For, in spite of the hemorrhaging Mass attendance of recent years, the truth is that Catholics remain one of the country’s largest voting blocs –– some 51 million people.

Yet, rather than using their considerable influence to seriously advance a culture of life, instead the vast majority of prelates opted for a cowardly silence, a silence which became deafening in the 2020 election.

Even more irreparable than the damage caused by the foregoing, however, is the incalculable harm wreaked by the institutional response of the Church to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though of course not as wicked as the abuse of minors by priests, the damage in this case is far more existential, for it entails a rejection of the Church’s very identity.

History will judge the decision to close the churches for Easter 2020 as a decisive point of rupture in American church-state relations. Never before has the U.S. hierarchy engaged in such a wholesale capitulation to the secular government.

When the moment of truth came, the bishops backed down. Worse, they knelt down, bending the knee to Leviathan in meek acceptance of the proposition that sanitizer and face masks would be more effective than prayer and worship in fighting the invisible foe.

The end result? A corrupt institution, an effeminate clergy, a faithful in disarray. In too many ways, a church that exists to be by, of and for the people, but not of God.

Naturally, even in the face of these challenges, the universal Church, the mystical Body of Christ, continues to endure. She remains in her essence unspeakably beautiful, and we know that death will never claim her.

But for the Church of the United States, as with the American experiment as a whole, the prospects are hardly so hopeful. At this critical juncture, it is surely incumbent on the faithful to step forward in defense of the Church and nation they love –– and to hope that they are not too late.