Has the Church been infiltrated?

Both Jews and Greeks were scandalized by the Incarnation. Could the Son of God truly become man, taking on our weak flesh, and suffering to the point of death? That same shock and disbelief could be applied to the Church, the continuing Incarnation of Christ in the world: does God truly work through a communion of weak and even sinful human beings to teach his truth and communicate his grace? Many cannot accept this truth.

I teach Church History for the Denver Catholic Catechetical School (sjvlaydivision.org/enrichment-courses) and we explore the shocking scandals and sufferings of the Church throughout history, but also how God uses these events in his providence and draws good out of evil. In the course of the story of the Church, there are many cases of betrayal, where Church leaders have given into corruption and undermined the Church’s mission and integrity. There are also cases of infiltration, where individuals with a preexisting agenda enter the Church’s leadership to direct the power and influence of the Church to their own ends. Examples of this infiltration would be the appointment of Arian bishops by the Emperor Constantius, the use of the hierarchy by monarchs for their own political gain, and the subversion of the Church by modern regimes beginning with the French Revolution and extending to proven Soviet agents.

Taylor Marshall, a philosopher and apologist, has released a popular and controversial book, which attempts to trace a recent movement of infiltration beginning in the 19th century: Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within (Sophia, 2019). The book has garnered a lot of attention, including from the secular press, partly due to the thousands of people who agreed to be part of the “launch team.” It has also gotten some harsh critiques from Catholic pundits for recycling conspiracy theories. Striking a balance, I find that Marshall has raised some important questions and concerns, but also offers an oversimplified narrative that does not tell the whole story and, even when raising valid concerns, makes some unsubstantiated assertions.

In a way, the book takes on too much and too little the same time — too much by trying to connect so many dots, too little by not addressing the topics in enough depth. Many of these “dots” are significant: major changes to the governance of the Papacy through the loss of the Papal States, Marian apparitions, stated goals of infiltration by secret societies, upheaval surrounding the Second Vatican Council and liturgical reforms, and current confusions over doctrine. Accusations of Communist and Freemasonic influence are leveled in general fashion, without even distinguishing the distinctive elements of the two movements and their general historical trajectories, such as the dynamics of the Church in Communist nations.

These complex issues are strewn together in an infelicitous manner and their significance to the narrative is not always spelled out but rather implied. Sometimes they are introduced in such passing manners that their essence becomes obscured, such as in the Modernist controversy, a subject I’ve studied and taught, and which, in my opinion, is not accurately portrayed; and likewise with the nouvelle theologie, a movement of return to the sources of Scripture and the Fathers, which Marshall portrays in one sided fashion, without acknowledging contributions made by these theologians, despite genuine concerns.

Difficulties in the Church surrounding sexual morality are not presented in light of the general cultural upheaval of the sexual revolution, but rather as a long-standing plot against the Church. His narrative also oversimplifies the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI by reducing them to a few issues that fit within his perspective and does not present the full complexity of the Vatileaks scandal.

There are also some holes in the narrative. For instance, in referencing Bella Dodd’s congressional testimony in 1953 on Communist infiltration of the Church beginning in the 1920s, Marshall creates a list of possible Communist Cardinals. To take one example of Cardinal Francis Spellman, he was ordained a priest in 1916. One wonders how he could be part of a plot that began in the late 1920s to plant Communist seminarians. The former Cardinal McCarrick’s time in St. Galen, Switzerland is introduced in conjunction with the nearby presence of a bizarre Masonic group, but without evidence of any connection between them. Pope Francis is treated as the climax of Freemasonic influence without any serious exploration of his Peronist political background or the turmoil of the Jesuits during the time of his ordination. Marshall also fails to consult more recent and updated research on the death of John Paul I and the assassination attempt on John Paul II, which debunk what he implies in his narrative.

Overall, we should be concerned about the problematic influence of the modern world on the Church. Even if it is true that on occasion leading churchmen have been influenced by Masonic or Communist ideology, which appears to be true, the bigger problem is that a majority of Christians have been following the world more than Christ. Rather than addressing the multifaceted and complex difficulties facing the Church in a sober and responsible way, Marshall inflames the current crisis of the Church and in his conclusion advocates a “recognize and resist” mentality. The solution is much more fundamental: the Church must embrace genuine reform through radical conversion to the Gospel. This will not come from policies and programs, but a deeper adherence to the truth and grace offered to us by the Church through the holiness of Christ, not the strength and purity of her own members or leaders.

COMING UP: Faith and politics in the United States

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Cherished principles of the American revolution include religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. These principles should have benefited Catholics, who sought refuge from the persecution of the formally established Church of England. Catholics, however, could only vote in Pennsylvania and Maryland after the founding of the United States. Despite the original purpose of these principles, they have now falsely come to mean popularly that religion should have no role in public life. Not only did the Founding Fathers not intend this, but the Church also calls us to active engagement in political life by living out our faith in society. A number of books published in the last few years shed light on this call.

Josef Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Faith and Politics (Ignatius, 2018)

This volume collects a number of distinct writings on the topic of politics from the life of the retired Holy Father. It addresses some of the most foundational elements of society: the relation of personal freedom to truth, how human dignity undergirds law and justice, and how faith gives reason a more expansive view of the goal of human life. Ratzinger explores the relation of faith and politics in the early Church for insights into the problematic secularism that now dominates our political life. In the end, he proposes that society depends upon an ordered freedom that directs government toward the fulfillment of shared goods. We need a genuine freedom that contains “the ability of the conscience to perceive the fundamental values of mankind that concern everyone” (101).

Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (Crown Forum, 2017)

Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia represented a strong Catholic voice in the public square, though not without controversy. This volume offers a collection of his speeches, dealing not only with law, but also with education, the arts, virtue, and friendship. In his talks touching on faith, he contrasts Jefferson’s supposed sophisticated rejection of miracles with the wisdom of St. Thomas More; encourages us to live a distinct and even weird life in the eyes of the world; exhorts Catholic universities to fidelity; navigates the thorny issue of separation of Church and State; speaks on the importance of going on retreat, and the necessity and limits of faith in public life. He advises: You must . . . not run your spiritual life and worldly life as though they are two separate operations” (147). A Catholic justice, he clarifies, fulfills his office not by seeking to legislate opinion or belief from the bench, but by interpreting the Constitution and the law with integrity and precision. These speeches capture his living voice, in a compelling and accessible manner, which can continue to inspire Catholics to enter public service.

Daniel J. Mahoney, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018)

Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College, examines the trajectory of politics since the French Revolution and proposes that a humanitarian religion has supplanted the Christian faith and undermined the integrity of local, participatory politics. Favoring an abstract globalism that promotes individual rights and autonomy, “we increasingly despise meditation and the political expression of our humanity. In truth, human beings experience common humanity only in the meeting of diverse human and spiritual affirmations and propositions that arise from the concrete human communities in which we live” (8). This abstraction has also entered the Church, as Christians “increasingly redefine the contents of the faith in broadly humanitarian terms. Christianity is shorn of any recognizable transcendental dimension and becomes an instrument for promoting egalitarian social justice” (13). Mahoney draws upon key thinkers who have pointed to the dangers of humanitarianism — Brownson, Soloviev, Solzhenitsyn, Ratzinger — and the book is worth reading simply as an introduction to their thought. He concludes that in embracing the Church’s rich tradition of faith and reason, we can also return to a genuinely human political life, through “the humanizing discernment made possible by conscience” (124).

Timothy Gordon, Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish without Rome (Sophia, 2019)

Gordon’s thesis seems to follow Mahoney’s in that Catholic Republic argues that the Catholic faith is necessary for the future of the American republic. Insofar as the flourishing of any republic depends upon an acknowledgement of the truth and virtue for its realization, Gordon’s thesis is correct: The Church can and should help our society to reach its true good. The details of Gordon’s assertion of a crypto-Catholicism underlying the Constitution and American life, however, overplays its hand. He contends that a so-called Catholic Natural Law, the Church’s development of the law of reason accessible to all people, uniquely supplied the vision for American government. In this, I find that Gordon overlooks the unique (and problematic) contributions of the Enlightenment to the American founding, as well as how the Catholic tradition teaches natural law and good politics as natural realities, not something that the Church owns and transmits in an exclusive fashion. While Gordon does note some instances of indirect consultation of Catholic sources, there are too many jumps of assertion that require more detailed explanation and proof. The book would have worked better as an exhortation to approach American politics from a Catholic perspective rather than a largely unproven accusation of plagiarism.