The "Father Tim" Argument
Layman Looks at the Case of Necessity
by Edwin Faust
did not say: Where is the Lord? and they that held the law knew me
not, and the pastors transgressed against me." - Jeremias 1:8-11
We are simple folk, most of us. We understand what is written large upon the human heart, and what is spoken plainly. We understand love and loyalty, and their dark opposites.We do not always understand subtlety.
Subtlety lives in shadowlands, places with unlighted passages and unexpected turnings where lurk the long words and intricate legalities that are the progeny of subtle minds. Subtlety confuses us, creates doubt, and doubt throws us off balance; when we try to regain our footing, we can be moved off the mark of truth. Doubt is the tool of clever men who need careful watching.
Our Lord spoke in parables, but He was not subtle. His commands and counsels are clear. We know without doubt what He means when He tells us that to love God is to love our neighbor. Even the dullest mind can comprehend the moral of the story of the Good Samaritan. We are not sure what it means when a Vatican press release or papal allocution tells us that the fullness of justice calls all of humanity to recognize and rightly grant to others the esteem that is demanded by the inherent dignity of the human person, a dignity that cannot be afforded its proper scope of actualization without a freedom whose exercise can only be perfected if undue and oppressive economic burdens be removed as obstacles and, therefore, a true Christocentric perspective of the polity of the developing nations must lead to the righteous request that Third World debt be forgiven.
Truth is simple.
It needs no translation.
Truth, so our common sense tells us, is solid, not liquid or gas. Truth can be held and hefted and passed on to another and remain what it is.
Our Church, until recently, has been mindful of our nature and guided us as a wise mother guides a weak child - with clear precept and long patience. And while our pastors were good men, we were right to trust them, for they gave us truth. But our pastors now - most of them - no longer give us truth - not purely, not entirely. They have taken from our hands the solid substance of the faith and have blown at us the vapors of odd teachings, impossible to grasp; teachings like bad air. We can no longer breathe in our parishes.
Unless we, too, become subtle.
Unless we grow used to the bad air, as sewer workers do, and come to inhale the dank fumes without aversion. Some do.
Others, in an attempt to fight for the simplicity of Catholic truth, make the mistake of meeting the enemy on his own ground and with the weapons of the enemy's choosing.. With the best of intentions, these well-meaning souls try to enlighten their dim brethren by brandishing canon law, presenting selected quotations from the doctors and fathers of the Church, and firing off a barrageof historical precedents. In short, they come to sound too plaintive and verbose, too learned and legalistic. They, too, begin to sound subtle. And they engender distrust. And most of us simple folk, given the choice between two confusing positions, tend to accept that one proposed officially, for at least we then have the consolation of being obedient to duly constituted authority, even if we lack the benefit of comprehension. Few will risk stepping outside the canonical precincts of the Church on the basis of something uncertain, obscure, officially disapproved; few will endure the hardship of long travel to attend a Traditional Latin Mass on Sunday if they harbor some doubt that by doing so they might be risking their good standing in the Church. Few are ever convinced by arguments.
Of course, diligent Catholics whose research and reason enables them to lay before us the arguments for orthodoxy furnished by revelation and tradition and the positive law of the Church are to be commended. It is important for us to know that we are right, though all the world and the hierarchy declare us wrong. It is important to know that no papal legislation has abrogated the perpetual indult that allows the Tridentine Mass to be said. It is important to know that obedience is not a virtue in itself, but only when is serves the good of souls. (The Nazi war criminals tried to excuse their actions in the name of obedience, just as many of today's clergy will try to justify their failure to resist disastrous innovations in the name of obedience.) It is important to realize that canon law is superseded in cases of necessity, when the salvation of the faithful is at stake, for that salvation is the first and supreme law of the Church. It is important to settle these matters in our minds, to put our consciences at ease.
Having acquired this information, however, we must be very circumspect about dispensing it. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us near the beginning of his Summa Theologica that although human reason can arrive at a knowledge of the Creator and some of his attributes, few individuals are intellectually equipped or temperamentally disposed to pursue such knowledge; therefore, God, ever merciful and ever mindful of our weakness, provides us with Revelation. Similarly, in the present crisis in the Church, relatively few of us are capable of reproducing in a clear and compelling way the often intricate arguments we've studied. As a general rule, when it seems wise to argue, we will do better to rely on what is called the sensus catholicus, whereby we direct our listener's attention to that which he knows to be orthodox, and lay beside this orthodoxy the false cant that tries to mask itself as the faith. We can also point out the obvious fact that many of those who officially represent the Church either don't know or don't believe what the Church has always taught. This way of arguing sometimes works. But prudence is needed. - supernatural prudence - and such prudence tells us when it is profitable to speak, and when silence is golden. And common sense is needed, a quality that is becoming increasingly uncommon. Let's look at some cases. ...
A neighbor of mine, a retired school teacher and widow who lived alone, had grown subtle in her old age. She came to our home on holidays, for she had no family of her own close by. She dined with us one Easter Sunday not long ago. After we came to the table and said grace, she began to tell us of the wonderful sermon she had heard that morning at the Presbyterian church.
"But I thought you were Catholic." I said.
"I am Catholic," she answered,
"Then what were you doing at the Presbyterian Easter service?"
"Oh, I go there a lot. It's closer than the parish church and it's okay now."
"Sure. You can go to any church now."
"The Church. The pope. You know the pope goes to Protestant churches and prays with their ministers. He even goes to synagogues. It's the same God. It's not like the old days."
"When I was growing up, we were taught that to take part in a Protestant service was a mortal sin against faith."
"Well, I was, too. I even used to be afraid to walk too close to a Protestant church. I thought I'd get contaminated, or something. Can you believe it? But it's different now. The Church has changed. It's so much better than it used to be. Much more Christian."
Later that evening, when our guest had departed, duty obliged me to gather my children about me and tell them that the old woman was much mistaken; that the Catholic Church is the one true church; that we are forbidden to attend Protestant services; that the pope's praying with heretics in the churches built to rival and supplant his own is a grave mistake, possibly a grave sin. They listened silently, then I sent them off to bed with the usual admonitions to brush their teeth and say their evening prayers. I then sat alone, meditating on the embers in the fireplace and marveling at the speech I had just made. "How has it come to this?" I thought. "Why is it necessary for me to say such things?"
I made no attempt to correct our guest at dinner, for there seemed little likelihood of converting her while slicing the Easter ham. Experience has also taught me to limit instruction to those who ask for it. Our guest was eminently content to remain in her error, which she prized as a form of latter day enlightenment, the absence of which in her earlier life, and in the life of the Church, she regretted. The memory of many ill-fated arguments in the past also counseled me to silence. I recalled once receiving the shocked reaction and hard words of a family member who had learned that I was then driving my wife and children a distance of 100 miles from our home each week to attend a traditional Latin Mass, one that was not approved by the bishop.
"That puts you outside the Church," the indignant relative declared.
"I don't think so."
"But you're disobeying your bishop, and that means your disobeying the pope, and the pope is the vicar of Christ. You're disobeying God."
I then began a rather complicated apologia in which I explained the limits and right uses of authority; the permissibility and, in some cases, moral requirement to resist canonically established power when it is perverted from its ordained purpose. I drew on history, made excursions into the Arian heresy, cited St. Paul's rebuke of St. Peter in the Second Epistle to the Galatians, talked about St. Catherine of Sienna's chastisement of the court of Pope Gregory X1 at Avignon. In short, I wearied all my listeners and convinced them only of the fact that I could be a huge bore on certain topics. At family reunions, the monitum is now issued in whispers as I pass, "Don't discuss religion with him."
So I held my peace with our erring guest. And I am ever less generally inclined to indulge in polemics. Few, if any, have been argued into the Church, and most of us lack the requisite charity and prudence to avoid doing more harm than good when we try to convince an opponent of his error and, what is perceived to be, our truth. Adversarial egos rear their ugly heads and the combat becomes personal..
But there arise instances in which one has to explain, even defend the faith, and the correct practice of it, now known as Traditional Catholicism (as though there can be a Catholicism that rests on something other than tradition). How to argue wisely and graciously is a large question..
The record of my many failures, and too few successes, has led me to stick primarily to what I call the Father Tim argument. I realized the simple force of this argument one late winter afternoon when a foretaste of spring visited the little town on the coastal plain where we live. My boys and I walked to a nearby lake, 10 acres of shining water set like a round mirror in a basin surrounded by a heavily wooded park. They took their fishing rods; I took a cigar and a few glasses of fine port concealed in a closed-top coffee mug, just in case the sin police might be about. (One never knows what forms of pleasure might be forbidden by Calvinist statute in particular places.)
My boys roamed the rim of the lake, casting and reeling; I sat on a bench on a hill that gave me both a clear view of the shore and of the path that encircles it. This path is well trod by the health-conscious or vanity stricken, people usually of middle age who jog or walk very fast, their ear phones on, their arms and legs working vigorously, trying to shed the evidence of past indulgences.
The people of the path form a kind of cafe society, and as they pass one another again and again in the orbit of their exercise, they exchange smiles and greetings and, occasionally, pause for brief conversation. As I sat on my bench, exhaling the rich, blue smoke of fine Honduran tobacco and luxuriating in the complacency with which I regard my inevitable decrepitude, a waddling mass of cellulite in sweat-stained spandex rounded the bend, his chubby arms pumping furiously as he tried to power-walk his way to slimness. He was equipped with the requisite headphones attached by wire to a CD player fastened to a kind of Velcro cincture that depressed the flesh about his waist, causing a bulge of blubber above and below the tight belt. I had seen this creature before.
"Hello, Father Tim," one of the ladies chirped in passing him.
"Hel---lo, my dear," he gasped, as though in the throes of an asthmatic attack.
He also smiled at me and said hello. I said hello back, but the word father stuck in my throat.
As I looked at him motoring along the path, his duck-footed steps pushing his bulk forward, I thought of the priests I had known as a boy, of how I had admired these men and longed to be like them. "Who would wish to be like Father Tim?" I thought. "Who would want to emulate this poster-boy for the Vatican II Church?" And I looked protectively at my sons, intent upon their fishing, and vowed to keep them far from the reaches of the Father Tims. It then occurred to me: "Here is the best argument for not going to the local parish - Father Tim.. He provides the most compelling reason for going to the Traditional Latin Mass. If only I could conjure a vision of Father Tim when engaged in arguments with conservative Catholics, I would need say nothing more. I could simply point to that vain and vapid piece of effeminacy and rest my case."
When I first moved to this neighborhood, three years ago, I felt it incumbent upon me to visit the nearby Catholic Church and observe what transpired there. One Saturday evening, I took up a post in the rear of a large, semi-circular hall - a sort of theater in the round sliced in two. The pews radiated from an open space along the straight line of the far wall. In the middle of the open space a square table, covered in white linen, was flanked by two thick candles in polished brass holders. Mounted on the wall directly behind the table was what is known as a 'resurrexifix,' a postconciliar atrocity that features an hermaphroditic figure in flowing robes ascending into space from a cross. The crucifixion without pain. The resurrection without sacrifice. The messiah without definite sex.
As I took in the scene, a small organ with too much amplification drowned out the sound of the chatter of conversation with which the faithful prepared themselves to hear Mass. A procession came into view from the vestibule, headed by a pubescent girl in cassock and surplice carrying a plain brass cross on a wooden pole. She was followed by two more similarly vested girls bearing acolyte candles. Then came a woman waving what appeared to be a Mass missal above her head. She was followed by two more ladies, whose function was not signified, as they held nothing. Behind this pair followed a man in a light suit adorned with a large pectoral cross, the sort that bishops wear, which hung from a chain about his neck. Finally, came Father Tim himself, wearing a long flowing chasuble and smiling and nodding incessantly as he made his way slowly up the aisle.
When the organ music died down after the singing of some non-descript song, Father Tim said good evening to everyone, and everyone said good evening to him. This pleasantry observed, Father Tim then said, "As is our tradition, let's all greet our neighbors." This signaled a flurry of hugs and handshakes accompanied by a babble of considerable volume. When order was restored, Father Tim said the Kyrie and sat down. (He never said the confiteor, I later learned. Talk about sin is so depressing.) Then proceeded some readings by some of the ladies ranged about the sanctuary, if such it can be called. The sermon - the beginning of it - was delivered by the fellow with the pectoral cross, who I discovered was none other than Deacon Joe. It was finished by Father Tim.
Deacon Joe, a man of middle age and monotonal voice, preached a homily that struck me as exceedingly strange, even in the strange land that contemporary Catholicism has become.
"Tomorrow afternoon at 2 o'clock, we will have the blessing of the animals in the parking lot," he announced. "This has become one of our most beloved traditions."
(It seemed that this parish was much given to the invention of traditions.)
"You know, for some of us, our best friends are not found among our fellow human beings, precious as those about us may be (scattered laughter from the congregation); our best friends are our pets. They stand by us when often friends and relatives do not. It is only fitting that we ask God's blessing on these precious creatures and that we thank Him for the blessing of their presence in our lives."
He then called upon Father Tim to say a few words. Father Tim walked some way down the center aisle, so that he stood a few pews into the congregation.
"I always like to preach from this spot. It reminds me that I am really one of you, and it should remind you that you are really very like me. We are all called to the priesthood, you know. We all have a vocation. We just exercise it in different ways. So, fellow priests and priestesses (some laughter here), let me tell you about Toodles."
Toodles was the name of Father Tim's tabby. He retailed at some length some supposedly humorous story intended to illustrate the wisdom of his cat, and invoked the memory of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he described as the first man "to dance with wolves." He announced that both he and Deacon Joe would be offering blessings to animals, and he urged no one to be shy about bringing forward his or her pet, no matter how odd a pet it might be. Lizards, snakes, rats, gerbils, ferrets and fish were all welcome to receive the benediction.
As I mused about the orthodoxy of blessing animals, the gifts were offered by two ladies in pants suits and the Mass speedily came to the consecration and communion. Orchestrating the large number of eucharistic ministers and passing out the profusion of chalices and bowls took Father Tim and Deacon Joe some time. This was my cue to leave. As I stood outside the Church, I watched those who had just received what they may or may not have regarded as the body of Christ exit the building. Many a communicant took the host in his hand and placed it in his mouth while walking out the door. One man, still visibly swallowing his Lord, stopped to buy a newspaper from the enterprising lad who peddled the day's disinformation on a table by the front entrance. As he gulped, he fumbled in his wallet for a dollar bill.
"This is my official parish," I thought. " This is what the bishop offers me, the place to which I am supposed to bring my children to worship God and to learn the faith. I am expected to expose my boys to the vagaries of Father Tim and Deacon Joe and hope for the best."
I went through this mental exercise, as I find it good to do from time to time, merely to renew my resolve to continue making whatever sacrifices prove necessary to see to it that I and my family get to a Traditional Mass offered by a true priest who teaches sound doctrine. I don't especially care whether such a Mass comes with episcopal approval, though I certainly think it good that some such Masses are approved; I find it a twisted argument to insist, as some do, that one should only attend Traditional Latin Masses that are disapproved by the bishop.
This is not a perfect world, and no perfect solution exists. We should welcome the faith wherever we find it and not be needlessly exacting. Bearing this in mind, I think it good that we also regard one another's eccentricities with a large measure of tolerance. At Traditional Latin Mass centers, some odd people are found, but we may appear a bit odd ourselves, so it is wise as well as just that we not be too censorious. However, one must beware the sede-vacantists and the Feeneyites, for they are given to commit verbal assaults with a monomaniacal ardor that can drive potential converts to orthodoxy back into the fold of Father Tim. I find it best to limit social interaction and attend to the Mass, which is the sole reason for being there. These Mass centers are, after all, not parishes in the true sense, but outposts in the liturgical wilderness. They are temporary retreats where we pray for a return to sanity in the official precincts of the Church. ...
Now, I am aware that the Father Tim argument is an argument ad hominem. That is, it suffers from the logical defect of attacking a position not on its own merits but on the merits of the man who espouses it. One cannot deny that it is possible for a bad man to back a good cause and that a liar now and then tells the truth. And therein lies the weakness of the argument. But Our Lord also told us that we shall know a tree to be good or bad by the fruit it bears. Father Tim is a typical post-conciliar fruit. His number is legion.
When my Catholic neighbors look at me with incomprehension upon learning that I attend Mass at a chapel 50 miles from my front door, I say to them, "Should I let my boys grow up with Father Tim as their image of a priest? Can I expect them to admire and learn from Deacon Joe? Or acquire faith in the Blessed Sacrament from that circus of a Mass?"
This gives them pause.
Sometimes, I will be advised not to take my family to the Father Tim-Deacon Joe show and to attend the old monsignor's Mass instead. But the old monsignor's Mass is pretty much the same as his associate pastor's, only duller. The old monsignor, I learned from the neighbors, has two interests in life: golf and the beach. When not on the links, he causes his parishioners some discomfort by wandering about them on the strands, surprising the bikini-clad ladies and casually chatting with them, their near-nakedness evincing no apparent shock or disapproval from him. I'm told he dislikes discussing religion, a duty imposed upon him occasionally by his circumstance, and leaves the running of the parish to Father Tim and his busybody women, who are all afire about ecumenism and the Charismatic movement, the teachings of which they incorporate in CCD classes and their preparations of recipients for First Communion and Confirmation.
The situation I've described in my official parish is a general condition in most parishes. Even if a more personable and less embarrassing priest than Father Tim is in residence, the sense of the faith will still be absent where the spirit of Vatican II reigns and, even worse, the errors taught may acquire greater force from the respectability of their purveyor.
So should it seem prudent to argue the merits of orthodoxy with another member of the Mystical Body, I would suggest keeping it simple. Point to things close to home, like Father Tim. Of course, the poor soul whom you are addressing may have no memory of anything other than Father Tim and the ecclesiastical ambiance created by him. Describing the faith in such a case is a bit like describing color to a blind man. But Our Lord made a practice of giving sight to the blind. He still does.
Reprinted from the August 2000 edition
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