I have written here before, (often to the great consternation of more than a few readers) of my concerns about disunity in the Church. In particular my concerns center around the dismissive attitudes many have developed toward the bishops. While this attitude was once the domain, largely, of dissenters on the theological left, it has now become quite a common attitude among many theological and ecclesial conservatives as well.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
Cardinal George in his recent ad limina 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
St Ignatius expresses the ancient and apostolic witness to the respect that we ought to have for the bishop:
It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honor of Him who has willed us to do so, since he that does not do so deceives not the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible….I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ,… As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. (Ignatius to the Church at Magnesia 3,6-7)
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. (Ignatius to the Church at Smyrna, 8)
None of this ancient teaching comports well with the derisive attitudes too common today regarding bishops among some of the faithful. God has summoned us to unity and obedience. And unity and obedience should not be reduced to theoretical concepts. There is an actual and real bishop to whom you and I each owe respect and obedience. And even in those rare cases when the Bishop is clearly at odds with a Church teaching or required practice, we humbly seek dialogue. And, if that is not successful, we appeal to higher authority in the Church. Other things being equal, we should seek and cultivate unity with the local bishop. We should seek to understand his priorities, along with that of our pastor. And even if these priorities do not perfectly match ours, we do well to remember who is the anointed leader and who is not. There is a reason that the Bishop is the leader and I am not. At some level we have got to trust God and accept that he works even through imperfect men.
A final thought from another Church Father meditating on the recent Christmas Feast:
And what can we find in the treasure of the Lord’s bounty more in keeping with the glory of this feast than that peace which was first announced by the angelic choir on the day of his birth? For that peace, from which the sons of God spring, sustains love and mothers unity; it refreshes the blessed and shelters eternity; its characteristic function and special blessing is to join to God those whom it separates from this world….For the grace of the Father has adopted as heirs neither the contentious nor the dissident, but those who are one in thought and love. The hearts and minds of those who have been reformed according to one and the same image should be in harmony with one another. – From a sermon by Saint Leo the Great, pope (Sermo 6 in Nativitate Domini, 2-3, 5: PL 54, 213-216)
Beware the Church of one.
This songs says, I need you, you need, we’re all a part of God’s body. Stand with me, agree with me, I need you to survive.