Jolly old St. Nick needs to know who's been naughty so his trusty sidekick Krampus can prepare a fitting comeuppance when they arrive together in bleak Tradistan. This year, we think the enormous untruth at the heart of the sede cults -- their claim to represent the unchanging Roman Catholic Church -- is worthy of the grisly creature's grim attention.
We're not talking here about malformed clergy gone rogue, the suppressed moral imagination of the lay folk who tolerate and support bad behavior, the self-regarding clericalism run amok, the absence of oversight and accountability, or the leadership's petty rivalries and dirty tricks. What we have uppermost in our mind is Sedelandia's visible disunity of practice.
Tradistan is nothing but a tangle of isolated cult centers, with only a superficial resemblance to the true Catholic Church. Each little enclave is an entity to itself, with its own peculiar, if not deviant, notions about the liturgy and Catholic life. Before the reforms of Vatican II, Catholics could expect no surprises when they visited another church. Now, however, when we assist at a chapel other than our own, we immediately notice how strangely different it is. The impression is that of an artisinal commodity -- an object that thrives locally but cannot survive in the general community.
In one chapel, for instance, a morose priest -- a notoriously malformed, hectoring moralist -- languishes unzipped from reality. He cleaves to the rubrics of Pius XII, yet on Palm Sunday at his second Mass, he reads all the wrong Gospels. Obsessed with women's clothing, he concocts bizarre rules for ladies' summer footwear and threatens not to perform a baptism unless a young, female bystander, whom he deems improperly dressed, leaves. He denies communion to the faithful when he can't remember whether they went to him personally for confession. In the confessional, he has the wicked habit of postponing absolution so he "can think about it."
In other chapels under a different cult master, the Leonine prayers have been banned. In their place, we often hear weird, jury-rigged centonizations. (However, sometimes young clergy have been known to recite defiantly the prayers when at a mission, so even there we find no consistency.) Still in other chapels, we learn that the wandering bishop who controls them has been declared a "missionary" bishop with jurisdiction throughout the world! In another, the goofy priest attempts to coerce the male laity into making their confession to him face-to-face, not in the confessional. The one thing common to all these splinter groups is how differently the clergy say Low Mass. The casual observer notices wild incongruities in the time each priest takes, while the trained eye spies glaring inconsistencies of gesture and screaming defects.
The one thing that seems to unite all these warring practitioners is their fixation on money. They trot out more fund-raising efforts than a PBS station. Yet even the non-stop cash solicitation varies in intensity and purpose. Some of the clergy are content to go off their rocker only if they don't get their pay immediately before Mass. Others have greater ambitions for lavish building ventures, luxurious foreign travel, and fine dining. In these latter chapels, everything is monetized. The appeal for more money drowns out every other message, and no fund-raising opportunity goes untried. Each visit to these lucre-loving chapels greets Catholics were ever new projects worthy of their financial sacrifice, from apartments for foreign priests living abroad to garish holiday decorations.
This Christmas, the same disparity of practice will be on parade again for the disedification of the faithful. One chapel will go all out on a hugely expensive, grotesquely over-the-top Midnight-Mass extravaganza never seen in the good old days, while another will have to wait until Christmas Day to suit the shoddily vested, minimally formed priest's whims. Cultlings may tell themselves that this wild variation is Catholic and normal, but wiser heads know better. All this idiosyncrasy is repugnant to the true Catholic spirit and does not differ in kind from what we see in the Novus Ordo, the Protestant denominations, and the evangelical sects.