Toward a Confessing Church, Revisited

Published April 25, 2024

The Catholic World Report

I’d like these comments to do two things. I want to share some general thoughts about True Confessions: why I wrote it, how I wrote it, what I found, and why I hope people will read it. And then I’ll offer a few words about the current situation of the Catholic Church—especially in the United States, but also in the context of Rome and its current ambiguities.

Briefly put, I wrote the book because I could. I’ve worked in and around the Church for 46 years; 23 of them as senior aide and chief of staff to Charles Chaput, an exceptional man and a great bishop. When you do that, you see and experience a lot of things that people on the outside of Church structures—and even more so, people outside this country—never see and often don’t understand. Or don’t want to understand.

I dealt with the human, the legal, and the political fallout of the sex abuse scandal for 18 years as part of my duties. But more often—much more often—I saw the integrity and self-sacrifice, the joy and the hope, of the priests and people I worked alongside. So I’ve never lost confidence in the Church. Not for a moment. I love the Church, her pastors, and her people more today than when I started. Yet at the same time, a faithful life in the Church is a lot like a long and successful marriage. The framework is love, the spirit is trust, but the candor can get pretty blunt. And True Confessions has a boatload of candor about what’s right and wrong in the Church.

I started my career as a screenwriter and story analyst in LA, and the title True Confessions comes from the 1981 film of the same name. It’s a long way from an exercise in piety, but as films go, it’s profoundly Catholic, and one of my favorite movies. I also had Augustine’s Confessions in my head as I wrote because, like Augustine, we confess our sins, but we also confess our faith. Baptism makes all of us confessors of Jesus Christ, his Church and her teachings. The central question of a Christian life is whether we’re true to what we claim to believe, or if we’re lying to ourselves and everybody else when we call ourselves Christians. Every one of the men and women I interviewed for True Confessions believes and actually lives what the Church teaches, or at least sincerely tries, often at personal cost. In other words, they don’t lie when they pray.

Which brings me to the book’s methodology. At first I thought I’d write the grand analysis of the Church in the United States. But others have already done that very well. So I settled instead on a mix of personal commentary and in-depth interviews, 103 of them over a 17-month period, with bishops, clergy, religious, and laypeople in 25 states across the country. And I focused on committed, faithful Catholics. The tepid, the dissenters, and the chronic complainers already get plenty of media attention. I wanted to know what faithful people think; why they have hope; why they have joy; why they love and stay in the Church at a time of external hostility and internal confusion. And I think True Confessions delivers on that.

So why should anyone bother reading it? Let me put it this way.

We live in a pivotal time because we’re in the middle of a new reformation; literally a “re-formation” or deep restructuring of the way we think about the world, its organization, and ourselves; what it means to be human. The key social, cultural, and political issues of our day are all anthropological. And Psalm 8, verse 4, asks exactly the key question: What is man that God—assuming a God exists—would care for him?

In other words, is there anything transcendent or special at all about us as human animals, beyond our ability to think ourselves into one crisis after another. In the real world, we’re never as smart as we think we are. So again and again, the blowback from our mistakes is always a huge surprise. Without the humility and wisdom that come from a deep faith in God, humanity is not much more than a Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And the magic we play with can have very unhappy results.

Tocqueville wrote that, “If faith be [absent in a man, then] he must serve; and if he [seeks to] be free, he must believe.” Put simply: No God, no freedom. When God leaves the stage, the state inevitably expands to take his place. Without the biblical God, we invariably end up with a disguised form of idolatry. And it usually involves politics, because politics is about getting and using power.

This is why any discord that enfeebles the Catholic community and its witness from within is so corrosive, not just for the Catholic Church, but also for a culture of true freedom. Pope Francis has championed some important elements of Catholic teaching. His commitment to the poor is beyond question. But his criticism of American Church leadership and the nature of Catholic life in this country is not merely unwarranted. It’s ill-informed, damaging, and often just mean-spirited.

Along with his strengths, Francis has an uncanny ability to create ambiguity, which then feeds confusion and conflict, which then actually weaken the Catholic witness in this country at a time when that witness is urgently needed.

So again, why bother reading True Confessions?

Read it to learn what faithful American Catholic bishops and priests, deacons, religious, and laypeople actually think — not what others think they think, or claim they think, or want them to think. On matters of religion, our mass media are often ignorant at best, and hostile at worst. Yet there’s a tremendous amount of energy and hope in the authentic, believing Church. And I saw it again and again in my interviews. As believers today we’re dealing with too many problems to count, including a decline in our numbers. But we’re not powerless. If we remember Church history, it’s never really been different. When I interviewed Cardinal Timothy Dolan—who has his doctorate in Church history—he stressed that there’s never really been a “golden age” of tranquility for the Church; she’s always in a cycle of growth, stasis, decline, and renewal. Fear—fear of the future and fear of our problems—drives out love and saps the spirit, and if we really believe in the Gospel, there’s no excuse for it. In the long run, numbers do matter in the renewal of a culture. But character and conviction matter more. And so do courage and endurance. They come first; the numbers follow.

I’ve been a fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the great Lutheran pastor murdered by the Third Reich—for more than 50 years. But it was my wife Suann who reminded me why he’s so relevant here, right now, to True Confessions as a text and also to our times. So I want to end with him because there’s a delicious irony in suggesting a Protestant patron for our Catholic moment.

When he spoke of the Catholic Church, Bonhoeffer described himself as a friendly critic and critical friend. He wrote much of his great book Ethics at Kloster Ettal, a Benedictine monastery. I think he’s important for us today because he cofounded the “Confessing Church” movement in Germany at a time when many Christians in Germany’s mainline Lutheran Church were eagerly submitting themselves to a murderous regime and grafting its doctrines onto the Gospel. The Confessing Church refused to do that. And its pastors and members paid the price. But they remained true to the Word of God.

We’re a very long way from Germany in the 1930s. Our circumstances are drastically different. But maybe not quite so distant or so different as we’d like to believe. The obligations and the privilege of our Baptism haven’t changed. We’re all of us called to be confessors of Jesus Christ; confessors of his Church and her teachings—in our private actions but also in the public square; which, by the way, underscores the importance of this institute and the work of its faculty, staff, and supporters in forming the next generation of leaders. Jesus said the truth will make us free. He didn’t say anything about it being convenient, and it very often isn’t. But when our confession of faith is true, when it comes from our heart and reshapes the course of our life and the focus of our loves . . . then we can call ourselves Christians.

And if True Confessions helps some people see that and live that, then it was worth the effort.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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