The engine of sacrilege

by Alan Fimister

Pew research forum frequently reports dismal statistics about US Catholics, which doubtless reflect a similar picture for the rest of the western world.1 Only 39% of US Catholics attend Church at least once a week. Only 30% believe in absolute standards of right and wrong. 48% believe abortion should be legal in most cases. 70% think homosexuality should be accepted. 57% favour same-sex marriage. 69% of US Catholics do not believe in transubstantiation. Even among Catholics who attend Church at least once a week, 37% do not believe in transubstantiation.2 The errors and heresies reflected in these statistics are not trivial. They entail the rejection of primary precepts of the natural law which cannot be inculpably denied. In the case of transubstantiation, St Paul himself tells us that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29). And yet, if you attend a Catholic Church in the USA or any other prosperous western country, you will almost invariably see that every (or almost every) member of the congregation receives communion. The consequence of these miserable realities is that it is virtually certain that well over half of the communicants at western Catholic churches every Sunday are receiving communion sacrilegiously. Well over half of the communicants at western Catholic churches every Sunday are eating and drinking judgment upon themselves. 

It is no use blaming the surrounding secular culture for this disaster. Britain and the United States possess extensive networks of Catholic schools. The hierarchy has control over these schools and, where that control is contested, it still has the power to strip them of their Catholic status. Priests are canonically obliged to preach at all masses on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation. They have every opportunity to tell their congregations that, if they do not believe in transubstantiation, if they believe in legal abortion or the moral permissibility of homosexual acts, or if they have voluntarily omitted go to mass the previous Sunday, they must not receive communion until they have conformed their belief and practice to the Gospel and received sacramental absolution. One almost never hears even the weakest approximation of any such a statement in any homily. Why on earth not?

One explanation, not to be discounted, is that many clergy are also unorthodox on one or more of these points. However, this is very far from the full explanation. Even clergy who do believe in all these doctrines and in the terrible consequences for those who receive communion while denying them still do not warn their congregations not to receive communion in this state. This is equivalent to holding a dinner party at which half the food is poisoned and just letting the event go ahead. In fact, it is far, far worse. Why would someone who had devoted his life to the divine service and believed and professed the Catholic faith do such a thing? How many clerics have allowed themselves to be devoured by this engine of sacrilege of their own creation?

The Church may not be of the world but it is in the world. It possesses buildings, schools, hospitals, abbeys and convents and innumerable other temporal concerns. These institutions cost money and that money is donated by the laity. If a priest were to tell his congregation the truth — that two-thirds of them should not be receiving communion — a large proportion of those people would leave and take their chequebooks with them. The lower clergy fear the anger of the higher clergy, the higher clergy did not get where they are by emptying their churches (well, not at that rate anyway). Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are just the more grotesque and notorious instances of a phenomenon that is poisoning the life of the church and stretches from the humblest local parish to the thresholds of the Apostles. 

But this is preposterous — evil in fact. It is much better for a non-believer or a hardened sinner to know that he is such than to eat and drink condemnation upon himself week after week. At least, that way, he has a chance of repentance. There is literally no point to these buildings, schools, hospitals, abbeys and convents if they only lead to the damnation of those who frequent them. The emptying of these edifices would be pure gain if it cleared the ground for new growth. Even if one’s preoccupation were merely with the human reality of the Church, it is still suicidal to proceed in the present fashion. It will ensure the total extinction of Catholicism in these countries in one or two generations. 

Some of these clergy are in denial. They suppress the obvious implications of what they know to be true. Others, however, are pure parasites. They know that, according to Catholic teaching, they are inflicting more and more terrible damnation on their congregations and they either do not believe or do not care. They know that, even humanly speaking, they are ensuring the destruction of their local church within a few decades but they reason that by then their careers will be over. Like John Maynard Keynes, they reason: “in the long run we are all dead”.

Indeed we are. 

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again, if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless, if you warn the righteous man not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and you will have saved your life.” (Ezekiel 3:17–21)

If you travel to certain countries in Eastern Europe, you will find that a significant proportion of the congregation do not receive communion, even on weekdays. At the beginning of Mass, two priests enter the church. One goes to the altar and the other to the confessional. The second priest hears many confessions during the Mass and most, sometimes all, of those who did not go to confession during that Mass do not go to Communion. Is this because they are all conscious of grave sin? Hardly. It is because they understand What it is they wish to receive. They understand the demands of the Gospel and, perceiving the Lord’s true Body they wish to be sure they have given due respect to His Mystical Body present in their neighbour and to seek His forgiveness if they have not. 

The Church is stronger in these places but still weakening. Evidently, there is more to be done. 1 Corinthians 11:29 is notoriously absent from the lectionary of the Novus Ordo Missae. This absence is merely symptomatic of the general evisceration of the ritual language which reinforced general belief in the Real Presence. Genuflection, the centrality of the tabernacle, confession during Mass, the unified orientation of the priest and people, constant allusions to the unworthiness of the priest and his people. Attempts to subject traditional congregations to the same sort of polling as Pew research forum has applied to the Catholic population in general has yielded 98–99% orthodox answers. 

Those uncomfortable with traditional Catholicism object that this is a highly motivated self-selecting minority. Yes! That is the point! The Catholic Church is supposed to be a highly motivated divinely selected minority, not a moribund cultural association for the descendants of Irish, Italian, Iberian and German immigrants. This is not a diminution of the Church’s universal mission; it is a vital sign of a clergy and people who actually take that mission seriously and want it to succeed. 

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:1–4)

Confront many perplexed and miserable Catholics with these facts and they will object that they find the sociological profile of traditionalist congregations unedifying. An Australian academic a few years ago caused outrage by enumerating what she imagined to be the weird and not-so-wonderful characteristics of the faithful at the Latin Mass. Leaving aside the justice or injustice of these allegations, it is famously spiritually suicidal to concern oneself with the shortcomings of one’s fellow worshipers. Liminal causes attract liminal people, as Fr Benedict Groeschel used to observe, reflecting on the colourful personalities of his founding generation of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.3 The ecclesiastical powers that be have (not for the first time in the last two thousand years) rendered the Gospel a liminal cause within Christ’s own Church, but “there must always be a degree of liminality in any follower of Christ”. I once asked the friar who baptised me why he had converted to Catholicism. He said that the Catholic Church was so full of mad people, it could only be the one founded by Christ. “[T]he foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the wise” (1 Cor 1:27).


  1. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/catholic/
  2. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/
  3. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/06/the-life-and-death-of-religious-life