Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington has written a caution of sorts to all of us nasty Catholics of the “right”. His concerns “center around the dismissive and [disrespectful] attitudes many have developed toward the bishops.” It was also recently picked up on this blog here.
If you read his post, you’ll find it very balanced and sober. And, of course, he makes a good, overall point, but he doesn’t seem to really get it. He certainly thinks he gets it, but he really does not. From my standpoint, anyway, his position seems flippant to the massive abuses that are occurring in the Church. I’d like to offer some rebuttals to some of the points he makes…
I am well aware of the (often legitimate) frustrations by some Catholics that the Bishops, either individually or collectively have not always shepherded in a clearer way; a way that both disciplined dissenters and corrected liturgical abuses and also encouraged those who tried to remain faithful. I get that. These have been difficult decades for the Church and for our culture.
“Difficulty”? That’s it? No, these are not simply “difficult decades”. If there was ever an understatement, this would surely be it. There is massive negligence on an unprecedented scale in almost every area of Church life – at least that is what the hard statistics tell us. The proper assessment of this disaster is not to sugar-coat the scandal with “difficulties” and “frustrations”, as Msgr. Pope appears to do. These soft characterizations show us that Msgr. Pope needs to be more forthright in admitting the gravity of the problem, and he won’t do that because that would compel him to be more critical of the bishops’ behaviour. Msgr. Pope, of course, needs to soften the problem so he can shift the burden of justification back to us, but I’m not inclined to engage in this kind of shell game.
But frustrations should not be permitted to draw us, even subtly, toward a posture that practically speaking severs our union with the bishops. Some of the comments that routinely come in to the blog here are quite shocking in their sweeping dismissal of the bishops, even the Pope. Some of them are so strong that I cannot post them. What makes them particularly shocking is that, these days, most of the comments of this sort come from those who would define themselves as conservative Catholics. That reflects somewhat the readership of this blog (i.e. more conservative), but it is shocking to hear conservative Catholics use the language that I had always associated with dissenters back in the 1970s and 80s.
Monsignor, with all due respect, we are not severing our union with the bishops. It is the bishops who are, by their horrendous witness in so many areas, severing their union with us. Why do you believe that it is only the laity who can do the severing? Shall we enumerate example after example of these betrayals? Are these betrayals not to be considered a kind of severing? Where would you like to start? The child porn scandals?, The investment in porn scandals?, The homosexual sexual abuse scandal?, The CCHD Abortion Scandal?, The Development & Peace Abortion Scandal?, Pro-abort “Catholic” Politicians receiving Communion?, The fostering of dissenters in their dioceses? and even at their national conferences?, The Ted Kennedy Funeral Fiasco?, The recent Lesbian-Eucharist dust-up in your own diocese?, ”Gay Masses”?, Episcopal support for Gay Civil Unions?, The Winnipeg Statement?, Eco-Justice?, Global Warming?, Clown “masses”, Enneagram workshops?, the Judas-sized betrayal of Catholic parents on education?, and the fostering and promotion of child porn in Catholic schools? And that’s just off the top of my head. We could go on all night and well in tomorrow morning before we start to find some shallow water.
It’s beyond me and quite extraordinary how you can have the temerity to accuse us of “severing union with the bishops”. I ask you, Monsignor, quite honestly: are you for real?
Let’s take Canon 915:
Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.
The laity believe that pro-abort politicians should be refused Communion because they are not in Communion with the Church. Simple enough. That’s what Rome teaches, and that’s what the Pope believes too. But for some reason the bishops generally don’t want to refuse Communion over such a trifle as abortion; at least your bishop (Cardinal Wuerl) doesn’t. To “sever union” with the bishop on this issue (and many others, if the truth be told) is to maintain unity with the Holy Father and the bishops united with him. So, please, Monsignor, let us be honest about the reality of this situation. To characterize this scandal in such a facile manner as “the Laity” vs. “the Bishops” is completely vacuous on so many levels, that one must question the sincerity of someone who would propose such a perspective. So I ask you again, Msgr. Pope, who precisely is severing our communion? It is not the faithful “laity on the right” who are refusing to obey the Church’s canons and teachings. We can all read Canon 915, and it’s pretty clear. And it’s not clear because we say so, either. It’s clear because the Church says so. Here are some more exhibits - A, B, C, D.
And even beyond canon law, the attitude towards the Eucharist needs to be firmly corrected. Who are the principle physical guardians of the Eucharist? What does the Old Testament, the New Testament, and 2,000 (less 40) years of Judeo-Christian heritage clearly teach us? The priests are the guardians of the Holy Eucharist. Let me repeat it again: the priests are supposed to be the guardians of the Holy Eucharist. They have the right and the duty to protect the Holy Eucharist from defilement within the boundaries that the Holy Church has provided for them. But today, that protection from clear defilement is not happening in any kind serious way. And why is that? Because, for all intents and purposes, many of the bishops of the Catholic Church do not really believe they are the Guardians of the Holy Eucharist. Or, if they do, they believe that everyone else is just as much a guardian as they are. This is the de facto position of many of these bishops. This poisonous approach is founded on relativism – the same relativism that has infected almost every area of Church life. The medicine for relativism that Catholics have held by necessity is the same principle which is best understood in relation to authority. Authority has defined boundaries. The opposite of this principle is also clear: when everyone has authority, no one has authority, just like when everyone is guardian of the Eucharist, then no one is. The Pope did not condemn relativism only for the World. He condemned it because the bishops have largely bought into it, too. The god of personal autonomy has contorted public morality, which is binding on everyone for all time, into a personal, relativistic scam-ethic which has infected everything and caused massive destruction in its wake. That’s why everyone gets to deceive themselves about their virtual absolute right to receive the Eucharist, and no one – and certainly not the bishops or priests - is going to get in their way. If you listen to the more abrasive “Catholic” politicians, that’s exactly what they say. And guess what? They are not being contradicted in any meaningful way, and they sure are not having any discipline applied against them. Like the culture of spoiled, adolescent brats and whiners all around us, our permissive parents – including our spiritual ones – have just let everything go, man. The murky haze of Vatican II’s “spirit” is still floating around in their heads and has not sufficiently cleared for them to see what everyone else sees. The absolute greatest sin for many Canon Lawyers, even so-called conservative ones, is to have a self-professed provacateur-Lesbian activist’s self-esteem irretrievably hurt by being quietly denied Communion by a priest! Can you imagine the indignation, the outrage, the atrocity of such a thing?! Heaven and earth shake with such an injustice!
In effect the dissenters of that time would dismissively opine that the Pope and bishops were out of touch and really knew little of what they were talking about when it came to sex and contraception, further, that bishops should listen to the faithful and get out of people’s bedrooms. They would also indicate that the bishops and the Church had all the wrong priorities and were not credible leaders; that the faithful could safely disregard their directives in any number of matters, especially sex. Thus a kind of parallel magisterium of experts and activists on the left generally worked to undermine respect for true Church authority, and sought to set forth their own priorities and interpretations of Church teaching and law. In their world, being a Catholic was an increasingly “self-defined” thing, and authority in the Church, to the degree it existed at all for them, was pretty theoretical.
Enter the conservatives – Yet, as I say, many of these attitudes, some times more subtly expressed, are now coming from more conservative circles in the Church. In the end there is a widespread dismissal of the role of the local bishop and or the bishops in general to shepherd the Church, set priorities, and to be a source of unity for the local Church.
To compare the Left’s real dissent to the false characterization of the “Right’s dissent” is absurd. Now it is true that I don’t speak for the far-right who do indeed dissent on Church teaching and practice, but for the regular Joe-Six Pack Catholic who has had enough of the shitty leadership in the Church, to compare our beefs with the Left’s dissent is completely ridiculous. The Left does really and truly dissent on Church teaching. The vast majority of “conservatives” do not dissent. The widespread dismissal of the role of the bishops is directly related to their fidelity to the Catholic Faith. Don’t try to shift the blame here. We have objective measurements and evidence of why the dismissal is happening. If the bishop wants to be a “shepherd, set priorities, and be a source of unity”, then he need only start acting like a true father instead of a church politician. The crisis of the episcopacy in our age is a crisis of fatherhood, as it mirrors the crisis in fatherhood in society at large. Try giving the advice you gave above to children of an absentee father, a permissive father, or a father who delegates his responsibility to the village (like, for instance, individual bishops do with the USCCB). See how far that gets you in the matter of trust and respect with your kids.
Sometimes this dismissal comes in a legalistic way such that many will say, “If something isn’t infallibly taught by the Pope, or if the bishop isn’t repeating dogmatic teaching, I can wholly ignore them.” Perhaps this is true in a purely legal sense, but really, if we believe that our bishops are anointed by God to lead us, should they have to always meet this high criteria? Should we not remain open even to non-infallible teachings, and, as a general norm, accede to the just and reasonable directions set by our shepherds? Are their prudential judgements of no importance to us at all?
Here’s the problem: because the bishops have almost completely destroyed our trust in them, their instructions on purely prudential matters and matters of less consequence which would otherwise be accepted by the laity are dismissed. If they don’t get the big things right, then there’s little room and goodwill to obey them on the smaller ones.
The second common way that many are dismissive of the Bishops (and even the Pope at times) is more attitudinal. For example, “Oh to heck with that stupid bishop, he’s just an idiot and shill for the left. He’s all wrong on immigration, and doesn’t emphasize abortion enough in his sermons and letters…to heck with him.”
Well, yes. In substance, you can be a good Catholic and disagree on immigration policy. But you can’t be a good Catholic and disagree on abortion. The fact that the bishops emphasize immigration policy to the point of dogma and give abortion relatively short shrift is a perfect example of how unbalanced the position of some bishops has become. Case in point: the Canadian Bishops allocated 20-30 times more money for “social justice” (including funding pro-abort groups) than they do for pro-life work. Facts have a way of bringing focus and clarity to the discussion like nothing else, Monsignor. When the laity have to keep reminding the bishops to get back to the middle of the boat, you know there is a serious problem with their religious formation.
Cardinal George in his recent ad lumina visit to Rome summed up the difficulty the bishops face here in America in the following way:
The Church’s mission is threatened internally by divisions which paralyze her ability to act forcefully and decisively.
On the left, the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the nature of the ordained priesthood and that the Church herself are publicly opposed, as are the bishops who preach and defend these teachings.
On the right, the Church’s teachings might be accepted. But the bishops who do not govern exactly and to the last detail in the way expected, are publicly opposed.
The Church is thus an arena of ideological warfare, rather than a way of discipleship, shepherded by bishops. And so, the Church’s ability to evangelize is diminished. Cardinal Francis George, May 28 2011 Ad Limina Visit.
Really? So the Cardinal attacks the Left and throws in criticism of the Right to keep it “balanced”? After all, we need to spread the blame. Good grief.
We are not asking for the moon. We are not asking for them to govern perfectly. But when holy priests are sanctioned for defending the Holy Eucharist from defilement, the scandal is not corrected but instead becomes politicized into an ”ideological war” of the Left vs. the Right for the bishops. You know, like citizens of Sodom have rights too, you know. Like the absolute right to receive the Eucharist under any circumstances and all circumstances (or as good as). Talk about hubris. The reaction of your own diocese, Monsignor, is an example par excellance of the problem with the episcopacy today: your own auxillary bishop throws our most cherished beliefs (and the respect owed to those beliefs) under the bus so as to not offend the official and public representatives of Sodom.
I ask you, Monsignor, have you no shame whatsoever in dismissing our justified reactions? Not even a little?
In other words, trying to lead Catholics is like herding cats. And our descent into ideology stabs unity in the heart and gravely wounds our ability to impact our culture in any real effective and unified way. Consider that there are as many as 70 million Catholics in the U.S. Were we really together on any one topic, we would be a force to reckoned with. But we are not, and are thus largely ineffective as a force for positive change.
We are not effective because Catholic teaching is not being pastorally applied. If our leaders don’t take our beliefs seriously, then why should our enemies? If you don’t have any self-respect, don’t expect your opponents to grant it to you.
Repeated attempts to cumbaya with the bishops have been rebuffed, sometimes quite childishly. Whatever happened to the “dialogue” envisioned by Vatican II? When dialogue involves repentance and humility on the part of the bishops, they become so Pius X on us.
And it is always easy to say “It’s that other slob who is responsible for the disunity.” But as Cardinal George notes, the bishop’s aren’t getting much support from any sector of the Church.
Frankly, most conservatives don’t really care about the kind of unity which is extolled by many in the hierarchy which is really a pathetic excuse for not dealing with the problems. The search for unity becomes a stumbling block when it supersedes truth. There is no such thing as authentic unity without truth. Unity itself is subordinate to the truth. Jesus came to serve the Truth, not to be united with every fool with ”Happy Holidays” on his lips.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his famous “Historical tracts”, describes the situation in the fourth Century during the Arian crisis which had engulfed the Eastern Church and much of the Western Church. The two bishops standing against Arianism were the Pope and Saint Athanasius – the latter was the source of the famous phrase Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius Against the World”) for his trenchant defense of the Trinity against the subordinationist heretics. The “sensus fidelium” of the laity ended up saving the Church because they would not follow the heretical bishops who subscribed to the Arian or Semi-Arian heresy. In fact,today, we have widespread moral and theological heresy going on in the Church. Some of it has even reached the top.
The argument made by Newman in fact went beyond insisting that the laity have abilities in their own sphere, to insist, essentially, that the consensus of the faithful may preserve important doctrines even when the bishops fail – pointing especially to the history of the Arian controversy. This elevated view of the position of the laity did not become important in the wider Church until the Second Vatican Council.
Here, of course, I must explain: in saying this, then, undoubtedly I am not denying that the great body of the Bishops were in their internal belief orthodox; nor that there were numbers of clergy who stood by the laity, and acted as their centres and guides; nor that the laity actually received their faith, in the first instance, from the Bishops and clergy; nor that some portions of the laity were ignorant, and other portions at length corrupted by the Arian teachers, who got possession of the sees and ordained an heretical clergy;-but I mean still, that in that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the “Ecclesia docta” than by the “Ecclesia docens;” that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism; that at one time the Pope, at other times the patriarchal, metropolitan, and other great sees, at other times general councils, said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth; while, on the other hand, it was the Christian people who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength of Athanasius, Hilary, Eusebius of Vercellae, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them.
Canonist Ed Peters over at In the Light of the Law has some interesting insights in to this as well:
I often explain and defend in my blog legitimate exercises of ecclesiastical authority. I do this because we live in an age that distrusts exercises of authority in general and ecclesiastical authority in particular. Even within the Church, exercises of ecclesiastical authority are often suspect, nay guilty, till proven otherwise. Part of me understands that suspicion, at least when it arises from ‘the right’: I grew up with happy-clappy catechesis, suffered through clown Masses, watched the devastation wrought on religious life, mourned the closing of one Catholic school after another, etc, etc, etc…..
But, by the grace of God, I never let my disappointment ossify into distrust. As a result, I do not cling to my opinions about how things should be done in the Church (however sound my views might be) in the face of legitimate ecclesiastical determinations otherwise. I know all about Canon 212 § 3 3. It’s Canon 223 I’m concerned with now.
Widespread, knee-jerk distrust of ecclesiastical authority is perhaps the most crippling legacy left to the John Paul II generation of Church leaders by the past. This distrust is, of course, unfair to [the] new generation [i.e. of seminarians and younger priests] —who have done nothing to deserve it—but it is also increasingly incongruous to them. They didn’t grow up with the wackiness that many of us remember, and so they don’t understand the animus that is often directed by some otherwise orthodox Catholics against Church leaders just because they happen to be, well, leaders in the Church. Occasionally, when I see a solid young priest or seminarian suffer such [treatment], I call him aside and explain what things were like back in the day, and why patience is called for in this case or that. He listens, nods his head, and says, “Yes, I see what you mean, it must have been terrible. Well, time to get over it.” These guys are great.
Distrust of ecclesiastical authority has for the most part been well-earned by the hierarchy. This is not a good thing, but it’s the consequence of poor leadership and cowardice. There’s no point in shooting the messenger or ignoring that there are serious problems in the Episcopacy. And please, PULEASE!, stop trying to cow the laity into believing that this distrust is our fault. And, by the way, the distrust is hardly “knee-jerk”, either. The foundation has been very well-laid over decades and with innumerable examples, and being ramped up exponentially in the last few years. In fact, this distrust has been a great blessing for the Church in some instances. After U.S. CCHD and Canadian Organization for Development & Peace were busted for their support for abortion groups, the bishops told us that everything was fine. Well, it wasn’t fine. We didn’t trust them. And because we didn’t trust them, we kept digging and finding more atrocities and scandals. Three years on and the Development & Peace abortion scandal still keeps going. If we were to blindly ‘trust the bishops’, we’d still be the useful idiots of the abortion-pushers in the U.S. (in the case of the CCHD) and the Global South (in case of Development & Peace). When we trusted the Canadian bishops, they told us that we could use contraception (or as good as), and guess what? 40+ years on and that God-damned Winnipeg Statement is still being referred to as justification for dissent. Was that trust well-placed? Please, let us be serious and honest about the problems here and not pretend that the bishops have not been principally responsible for the lack of trust we place in them. They made their seamless garment and now they’re wearing it and finding it uncomfortable.
That is not to say that trust cannot be recovered. It can be recovered. But the days of cheap trust by virtue of the office they hold are days now long gone. Going forward, trust is earned by them, not granted to them. That’s the price that complicity in sodomy and their role in the spilling of unborn blood over 40 years has cost them. It’s time for the propagandists of “let’s not get too worked up in the Church over the scandals” movement to stop wagging their finger at the reality, and deal with it like true men. Take some responsibility for a change and stop blaming the messenger.
Yes, distrust has led many to become disconnected from the bishops, who are our legitimate shepherds. This legitimate authority is the case even if they are not perfect. The first 12 bishops didn’t exactly lead with perfection either. Christ chooses and anoints imperfect men to lead the Church. And while we have every right to both petition the bishops and seek to influence their decisions, trust and respect are essential components of such a dialogue.
You speak like trust and respect cannot be betrayed by a bishop. Can a father not betray the trust his family places in him? Look around you, Monsignor, at the fatherlessness of America. Are you so naive to believe that this has not had an effect on the Episcopacy in the Church and their exercise of their fatherhood? We have a culture today which answers this question quite dramatically. We’re not talking about “perfection” here, Monsignor. We’re talking about basic fidelity and witness to fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Faith. If they can’t apply basic fidelity to the Church’s teaching, then the jig is up and they need to seriously consider retiring for the good everyone – for themselves and for us. You can talk about all the trust and respect we should owe our bishops, but without substance and relationship, those virtues become merely legal jigoism. It has to be backed up with their example. Catholicism is supposed to exist beyooooooooooooond the paper, beyond the chancery, beyond the bureaucracy.
Being disconnected from the bishop is not of God and dangerously leads to becoming a member of a Church of one. Too many today proudly spout their views, and seem to imply they are more Catholic than the Pope and more orthodox than the bishops because they are able to quote St. “So and So” who said it just this way, and that is what it means to be truly Catholic. But its pretty hard to be truly Catholic and be utterly dismissive of the bishops or to remain at odds with the local bishop without a very severe doctrinal reason.
You are absolutely right. But it’s easy just to show us one side of the coin. Why don’t you really show us the other side of the coin? Or is it to painful for you to admit that episcopal infidelity is what truly is destroying our trust and respect for our bishops. It’s true that being disconnected from the bishop can lead us to becoming a member of the Church of One. I almost decided to join that Church a couple of years ago when I was so disoriented by the betrayal of the Canadian Bishops over their continued support of pro-abort groups which amazingly continues even to this very day. But if the Church of One is not an option (and it’s not) then neither is the Church of None, where the Catholic faith exists in theory only.
The bishops today are like the permissive father who allows his daughter and her boyfriend unrestricted access to her bedroom in his own house, all the while promising to himself to politely address this “complicated, pastoral” situation at an appropriate time (which happens to be well into the future, of course). Confrontation, after all, is so pre-Vatican II, except when it’s about faithful Catholic priests at the behest of Lesbian activists. Then it’s lickety-split, as a lightning bolt from the heavens. Meanwhile, his son (the laity) stands by helplessly because he’s not the father and it’s not his house. All he can do is sit there, cry out to heaven for some justice because his father is deaf and dumb to his pleas. In some cases, if he’s pissed enough about his father’s betrayal, the son will check out, leave the house, and shake the dust off of his sandals.
Now does this characterization upset you, Monsignor? I sure hope so. It upsets me too, but it doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. The moral of this story for you is simply this: start dealing with the reality of what the Church has become and stop shooting the messenger who brings you uncomfortable news that you would otherwise not hear or address.
“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21:41-46)