First published in ‘Christian Today’
How might St Paul, the Archduke Ferdinand and the Catholic Church come together in a story set at the end of 2022? They might offer themselves as useful interpretative devices as the story of what is happening in the Church in the West today continues to unravel.
Some commentators who have been following my journey and reading my work have taken an interest in the fact that I have withdrawn my application to be ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church, and wondered why. The dynamics that drove the story might have a wider application than just us.
In my critique of the heterodoxy of developing Feminism and its promotion of relativism and all things gay, I found myself on a journey that left an increasingly compromised Anglicanism and went into the Roman Catholic Church – along with very many others.
There are two ways of engaging with this: looking back or looking forward. Let’s not look back; this is not the moment to re-hash Calvin, Zwingli and Luther. Things have moved on. Even in the Christian world.
Imagine for a moment the Reformers of the Sixteenth century ignoring what was going on in their day, and being fixated with, say, the Synod of Brixen 1080. Then Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII were squabbling over an investiture controversy. Would you still fight about this over 500 years later? “Forget the reforms of 1519 Martin, let’s do a rerun of that seminal struggle in 1080. Where exactly do you stand on that one?”
It is more constructive to look forward instead and deal with the issues we face today.
Today the Church throughout the Western world is facing cancellation. They may not be collecting the lions yet, but they are certainly cancelling Christians at work and in the public square. Christians are even being cancelled in the Church.
When I became a Roman Catholic (which I did because I came to believe that what it taught about itself was true, and because Protestantism was slipping away from its capacity to read Scripture honestly), so many people turned to that old proverb “Be careful you don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire”.
I knew perfectly well I was jumping into the fire.
The Roman Catholic Church has suffered the same propagandisation of their people as the Protestants have. Secularism, relativism, and the progressive collectivist politics from the Left have swept through the education system and the media, producing great pressure to change Christianity into the image of a form of cultural Marxism.
It’s everywhere. It affects whole swathes of Catholic bishops just as much as laity. Maybe more! But there are good reasons for thinking (though this is not usually acknowledged or seen by Protestants) that protected by the Magisterium (the collective assessment of the work of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus to protect and lead the Church over the years) the Catholic Church has the resources to see off this explosive cultural and philosophical revolution.
But the balance of things changed when Pope Francis appeared. Where the rubber hits the road here, is in the account of how the Catholic Church’s invitation to ordain me to the Catholic priesthood got caught up by a change of political weather. But this is not about me. It affects all of us. It is a theological or spiritual weather event. What happened to me is simply a small window and is happening everywhere.
Let’s get back to St Paul and the Archduke Ferdinand. St Paul has this excellent reminder that gifted by the Holy Spirit each one of us has to find our role in constituting the body of Christ, and having found it, live it, so we can answer for the exercise of our abilities and the devotion of our hearts and minds to Jesus, when we stand before him on the dissolution of time, space, and our ever-crumbling bodies.
There are as always different ways of understanding any narrative but mine is probably best made sense of by joining the dots from the time when I was arrested and interrogated by the KGB for Bible smuggling in Moscow in the 1980s. The experience left a memory of a taste or a smell. Imagine for a moment that demonic spirits have an odour to them. Corrosive, rusty and unforgettable.
One day, in about 2003, twenty years later, when chaplaining and teaching in a radical red-brick, very progressive British University, I smelt and tasted that memory again. Out of nowhere. I was shaken. I saw something I thought was defeated and dead morphing back in an altered form. Intellectually and rationally I suddenly saw a political and philosophical movement reconfiguring itself and preparing an assault on freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and an assault on Christian ethics lapping like a tide around our ankles.
And the tide was coming in, slowly but surely each year. Having changed my mind from being deeply sympathetic to same-sex attracted minorities, I saw them instead as fronting an assault on the Christian conscience. The minorities were soon to be reversed. Now it is Christians, not gays, who are persecuted for believing that heterosexual marriage is the glue that God intended to hold our communities together. A movement that pretended equality had ambitions to destroy Christian sexual and social ethics. And my place in the body of Christ?
To my surprise I began to be given a voice and a platform in the public square to represent orthodox Christianity. I can understand that some people wondered if this might be caused by a hunger for media exposure and a delight at being in the limelight. But since it came with the cost of being lampooned and ridiculed for being an obscurantist, bigoted dinosaur, and the loss of my job, position and what little prestige my academic and broadcasting work had accumulated, not so much.
I had hoped that this role in the body of Christ might be congruent with what I thought was a vocation to be a Catholic priest. On being confirmed or received into the Catholic Church, one takes a saint’s name. I had long loved with a deep growing affection the wonderful St Augustine. But instead I took the name of St Athanasius. The Church in our day was surrounded by a deep, corrosive and dangerous intellectual and moral heresy, which I thought I understood and knew needed public repudiation. And the public platforms that were being given to me day after day allowed me to do just that.
Where does the Archduke Ferdinand come in? In the form of a South American cardinal called Jorge Bergoglio who was a friend of a friend of mine. Greg Venables, Anglican archbishop in South America knew him well, and told me what a wonderful thing it was that he was becoming Pope Francis. The lesson of Archduke Ferdinand is one to do with falling dominoes. Who knew that his assassination would precipitate the First World War and all the horrors that flowed from it.
And who knew that Bergoglio’s election would precipitate a crisis in the Catholic Church between traditionalists and progressives that I too would get caught up in?
Pope Francis has a thing about stuffy traditionalists. I’ve met my fair share of condescending, superior, clergy who make you feel less than you are. I can sympathise. But rightly or wrongly he has turned his dislike of them into a papal crusade against all traditionalists. But it is the traditionalists who are holding the Church to its timeless values, faithful to the Gospel and tradition. And so the dominoes fall. It’s bad enough when Christians are cancelled in the public square, but much worse when they are silenced by the Church.
One of the more surprising developments recently has been the number of Catholic priests who have been cancelled by their bishops. In Ireland just recently Fr Sean Seehy preached directly to his congregation:
“What is so sad today is you rarely hear about sin, but it’s rampant. And we see it, for example, in the legislation of our government. We see it in the promotion of abortion. We see it in this lunatic approach of transgenderism. We see it, for example, in the promotion of sex between two men or two women. That is sinful. That is mortal sin. And people don’t seem to realise it. But it’s a fact. And we need to listen to God about it, because if we don’t, then there’s no hope for those people.”
And his bishop cancelled him.
In fact there is now an organization called ‘The Coalition for Cancelled priests’.
But I also make waves. I think they are waves that serve Jesus and the Gospel well, but they are waves. So I was alarmed when I was told that to move forward to be re-trained would require being silenced. “It would never be prudent to permit our seminarians to assume such a high-profile media role when they are discerning a move towards ordination.”
There are two ways of seeing a platform in the public square. One is an opportunity to speak for Christ; the other, a distraction and a cause of controversy and turbulence. A large domino fell across my way. Had God given me the voice, the influence and the platform only to close it down? We don’t have enough priests. But perhaps we have fewer prophetic voices saying “thus saith the Lord.”
There may be a wider issue of discernment here for others. After Rod Dreher’s analysis that we have lost the public fight and need to keep our heads down and reconfigure a Christian community underground and out of view, many of us are going to have to reconsider our vocations, our place in the body of Christ.
Standing on the bridge with Horatio holding back the Etruscan hordes long enough for our community defences to be put in place (see Macaulay and ‘Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore’); or building Christian presences that keep their heads down and the flame of faith alive.
It’s not clear yet how the struggle in Catholicism is going to pan out. The progressives are trying to use a clumsily engineered consultation process called the Synodal Way to spearhead the cause of feminists and gay activists, in their campaign to take over both Church and world and make the Church give up revelation and heaven and reflect secularism and utopia instead.
Pope Francis, always enigmatic, is keeping us all guessing about where the Vatican and papacy is going to put its weight. Probably more important is what happens when the 266th successor of St Peter gives way to the 267th.
Whatever the dominoes do, I think it best to continue to keep faith with what God has given me to do. And try to follow the example of St Paul and St Athanasius, to keep, protect and share the faith, in the public square, until I am silenced by the state, rather than by the Church.
Gavin Ashenden is Associate Editor of the The Catholic Herald and a former chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II.