Sacrilege at the Shrine Points to Deeper Crisis

A widespread activistic and anti-ecclesial spirit threatens authentic synodality.

Pro-choice messages projected onto the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2022.
Pro-choice messages projected onto the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2022. (photo: Courtesy photo / Catholics for Choice)

In one sense, last week’s sacrilegious stunt by abortion activists at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — during the March for Life Prayer Vigil, no less — was a shocking and uniquely disturbing affair. The grotesque demonstration of “Catholics for Choice,” which included projecting pro-abortion slogans on the walls of the basilica while people prayed for renewed reverence for human life inside, was a new low for dissident Catholics who already actively misrepresent the moral status of abortion.

But in another sense, the underlying logic by which the activists operated is nothing new, nor is it particularly unique. Their sacrilege was indicative of not only a flawed understanding of the human person, and therefore of morality and prenatal justice, but also a flawed understanding of the nature of the Church: of her configuration, the sources and authority of her teachings, and even of her purpose and mission. This activistic, anti-ecclesial spirit is an all-to-common reality in Catholic life today, and it threatens to undermine current efforts to promote authentic synodality within the Church.

The concrete actions of the pro-abortion activists in Washington served as a kind of anti-sacrament, a manifestation of this warped understanding of the Church. At the shrine, they reduced the church building to a mere backdrop, a blank canvas upon which to literally project their own agenda, just as activistic ecclesiology reduces the Church to a mere human institution, an arbitrary assemblage of positivistic laws with no grounding in divine truth, which can be manipulated by whomever holds the levers of power.

Instead of even attempting to refer to Scripture, objective morality, or the Church’s magisterial teaching on abortion, the messages the abortion activists projected traded in demagoguery and political jargon, just as activistic ecclesiology more widely ignores the authoritative sources of Church teaching, or, perhaps even more nefariously, isolates elements of this teaching from the whole in order to advance a predetermined conclusion.

And the goal of abortion activists at the shrine was undoubtedly to sow confusion, embolden dissent and undermine Church leadership, as if the Church is a mere parliament whose doctrines and disciplines can be radically altered if just the right lobbying techniques from the world of partisan politics are employed.

Fundamentally, activistic ecclesiology is not an actual ecclesiology, because it rejects the Church’s own self-understanding of itself, instead imposing upon it the worldly logic of politics-as-power and subjectively-engineered truth. And while the pro-abortion sacrilege at the Shrine was uniquely grotesque, we can find other examples of its underlying anti-ecclesial spirit in action all around us.

Consider the actions of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a dissident group whose “synodal toolkit” has been included on the Synod of Synodality’s official resources page. Similar to the Catholics for Choice activists, it’s not merely the material object or goal of the group that is inconsistent with an authentic Catholic spirit, but also the anti-ecclesial way in which they aim to advance their agenda. Rather than promoting a collaborative vision of engagement with the bishops of the Church, one that recognizes the magisterium’s unique duty and charism to safeguard the deposit of faith, the Women’s Ordination Conference’s synodal plan includes ways to avoid “interference from the bishops,” amplify their own voice, and hold the Church “accountable” to their own version of synodality. The reason why is obvious: their agenda has already been rejected by the Church’s teaching authority, so they intend to impose it upon the Church through other, anti-ecclesial means. 

Or recall the 2018 activistic efforts of a coalition of Catholic and secular LGBT organizations, who exploited the World Meeting of Families in Dublin as a “unique opportunity” to promote within the Church a view of human sexuality and sexual morality incompatible with Church teaching. The activists resorted to coarse lobbying tactics typical in the halls of partisan politics, setting up an “email blast” system through which Catholics and non-Catholics alike could inundate delegates to the bishops’ synod on young people with messages demanding that Church teaching be changed.

Of course, perhaps the most glaring instance of this anti-ecclesial spirit today is alive and well in the “Synodal Path” underway in the Catholic Church in Germany. Participants have described the process as dominated by “trained political activists,” its explicit goal to demand changes to established Church teachings related to sexual morality and ordination through a process that is inherently at odds with any orthodox ecclesiology or understanding of the development of doctrine. The German Synodal Way is, in fact, not a true synod, and its resolutions will be in no way binding, but it is a glaring example of the way in which some would deny the true nature of Church, allegedly to make it more relevant today.

The Synod on Synodality is a target for these kinds of anti-ecclesial, activistic pressure campaigns, as those who dissent from Church teaching recognize the vulnerabilities of the synodal process if it isn’t firmly rooted in authentic ecclesiology or fundamental theology, as expressed, for instance, in the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentiumand Dei Verbum. Pope Francis has already identified “complacency,” “intellectualism,” and “formalism” as three risks that could undermine the Synod, and anti-ecclesial “activism” could certainly be added to the list.  

Certainly, doctrine does develop and the laity are an essential dimension of the Church. But any authentic development must be governed by a desire to make the Church evermore like herself and truer to what she already possesses, not attempts to impose secular doctrine upon the life of the Church, like She is some mere object to be used. It also must be practiced with a genuinely ecclesial spirit, one that holds together both the equality of the baptized with the hierarchically differentiated and divinely-instituted vocations and offices of the faithful.

For this reason, St. John Henry Newman pointed to the Blessed Virgin Mary as “our pattern of Faith,” a model we can turn to in order to understand how we can both abide by and be inspired by Divine Truth. Mary, Newman says, did “not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it.” Mary believed first out of love, accepting the faith, and then sought to develop what she had received in docility. For Newman, she symbolizes the faith of not only the unlearned, but also the great doctors of the Church, showing us how to apply the Gospel today and also how “to triumph over the sophist and the innovator.” 

Mary shows us that only by first accepting in faith what the Church teaches can we have any true development. By imposing their own “Gospel” on a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother, the pro-abortion activists demonstrated that they’re not interested in true development, just exploiting the Church to advance their own agenda. Their stunt might have been uniquely grotesque, but the anti-ecclesial spirit that animated it is all-too-common in Church life today.