There is no going back, just going through

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

April 22, 2024

By Christopher R. Altieri 

There are days I’d like to go back to before the abuse-and-coverup crisis exploded into worldwide scandal, and that desire is perhaps the most pernicious of them all.

“I just want to go back to before,” says FBI Agent Olivia Dunham to Special Agent-in-Charge Phillip Broyles in the pilot episode of the science fiction series, Fringe (2008-13). Dunham is a good agent who found herself in the middle of something very big and very scary.

“I don’t think you can,” says Broyles, and then they’re away on a romp through five seasons of top-notch sci-fi that—like all real and really good sci fi—is a dramatization of fundamental theological questions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that, of late.

I mean to say about the desire to go back to before, and about how we just can’t, and about how much of our present malaise—because, let’s face it, we’re in a rut around here and have been for a while—is really owing to our desire to go back to before: to before Francis, to before Benedict, to before JPII, to before the Council (Vatican II, Vatican I, Trent, Lateran V, Florence, Constance, take your pick—you get the idea), to before the collapse of Christendom, to before the Great Schism.

There are days I’d like to go back to before the abuse-and-coverup crisis exploded into worldwide scandal, and that desire is perhaps the most pernicious of them all.

I’ve written about how, when the gruesome business began to come into the light, we longed for “the good old days, the happy time, when ignorance was bliss and Father could be trusted and the Bishop was a smiling cipher who confirmed our children and otherwise did neither good nor harm in any way we could discern or cared to.”

“We wanted what we knew, which was little, and we wanted all of it.”

I wrote those lines in 2018 about Buffalo and Bishop Richard J. Malone. Buffalo has been back in the news lately, not in a good way. The diocese has put its headquarters up for sale and historic churches like the stunning St. Casimir’s are fighting to stay open. For what it’s worth, I hope the folks at St. Casimir’s find a way to save their church or at least keep it going long enough for me to visit.

We set ourselves up, like so many ecclesiastical Gatsbys, beating against a current in a hopeless struggle that dissipates our strength and makes us hopeless idiots. The only way out of this mess is through it. The only way through it is dangerous—mortally perilous—but there is no way back. Whoever the next pope turns out to be, he will do well to be mindful of that.

Here are three things—just three—the next guy should do to help the whole Church through the awful morass and into the fast water.

First and foremost, he should publish the list of bishops who have faced investigation under Vos estis lux mundi, along with the findings of those investigations and the results of any trial(s) or other criminal proceedings against them. If any bishop chose resignation rather than trial, he should say so. He should issue a decree making the announcement of investigations and the publication of the investigators’ reports a matter of course.

There are ways to do that while also protecting the people and institutions who deserve it. It is frequently messy and never perfect, but practicing opacity and calling it transparency is a fool’s errand.

Second, he should liberalize the use of the old books—by Apostolic Constitution, if possible—and let the faithful decide with their pastors which books they want to use. He should take steps to reward bishops who show genuine care for dignified celebration in their jurisdictions according to the rubrics—whatever they are—and lead the way by jettisoning the practice of stadium-style papal liturgies in favor of something like the old Missa coram Summo Pontifice, perhaps even very like.

This would doubtless go better in some places than in others, but it would everywhere separate the questions regarding the reception and implementation of the Vatican Council II from the intestine conflict over the books Pope St. Paul VI promulgated in 1969. In short, it would hasten the end of the ridiculous liturgy wars and allow Catholics to receive the late Council on its merits.

Third, he should convoke an actual synod of bishops and give it something real to consider—some real problem of governance to discuss—like the practicalities of reforming diocesan financial structures and practices so that real responsibility is really shared. He should hear experts among the lay faithful about how to craft and implement real financial reform.

Sure, there are folks who would see the next guy give serious thought to things like removing the obligation to celibacy for secular clergy or the restoration of Minor Orders and the Major Order of Subdeacon in the West, or restoring the Order of Deaconesses (not to be confused with ordaining women to the diaconate), and maybe he should, but the fact is that such and similar reforms would require dioceses to have much more stable financial footing than they do now.

Fringe was terrific, by the way.

It starred Aussies John Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop and Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek as Peter Bishop, Jasika Nicole as Agent Astrid Farnsworth, Blair Brown as Nina Sharp, and featured Leonard Nimoy as William Bell. The one-offs are a veritable Who’s Who? Of Hollywood over the past four decades: Christopher Lloyd, Peter Weller, Martha Plimpton, Michael Kelly, Chadwick Boseman, even Meghan Markle.

The late, great Lance Reddick (+3/17/2023), perhaps best known for his stint as Cedric Daniels on The Wire and for Charon in the John Wick movies, played the aforementioned Phillip Broyles.

Noble’s Dr. Walter Bishop needed to figure out whether he even wanted to be good but was willing to give it a go if it meant repairing his relationship with his son, Peter, and was certainly both impossibly brilliant and mad as a hatter. I’d watch John Noble in anything, as willingly as I’d watch James Earl Jones count to ten, but Fringe was ultimately a story about redemption through love stronger than death, and that’ll get me every time.

It’s a story told through some of the most thoroughly researched sci-fi absurdity ever committed to film, but Fringe is ultimately a story of a love that heals the fabric of whole universes—plural—through the willingness of a fellow named Peter Bishop, whose very self is a bridge between worlds, to lay down his life.

I hope there’s not a Catholic alive who ain’t a sucker for that.