When Bishops Earn Our Gratitude


May 30, 2014

Whenever veteran Catholics stop to consider the on-going crisis of faith in the Church, now entering its fifth decade with no abatement in sight, the news does not come as a surprise. They have longed suspected that the center would not hold. And it is no particular sunburst to say so. They certainly know, for instance, that among the so-called faithful there is a huge swath of opinion that is either clueless about what exactly to believe or unconvinced that any of it is worth believing. By now, surely, more or less everyone has gotten off the bus and can see for themselves the extent of the devastation wrought in the post-conciliar period by the loss of a corporate and shared faith.

But there is another aspect to this business that has largely escaped the attention it deserves, at least in the popular press where, increasingly, Catholics are instructed as to what to think and how to behave.  In fact, it is a far more alarming development than levels of attrition among the laity because, while the fallout from the loss of faith will certainly affect those of us who are expected to pray, pay and obey, the real and lasting damage has already been done owing to the failure of leadership among many of the bishops, the chief exercise of whose office, after all, is to teach, govern and sanctify the rest of us. The nature of the crisis they face is not a loss of faith, of belief, but of nerve.

What I mean by that is not terribly complicated; it isn’t a matter of rocket science. Unlike the rank and file who very often will appear not to know anything about the teachings of the Church to which they belong, here are the Teachers themselves who, knowing exactly what we are to believe and how we ought to behave, seem strangely unsure of themselves in summoning the courage to defend all that they know.   How this can be with men divinely appointed to uphold the Church’s faith, enjoined no less by the founder himself to “guard the noble deposit” (2 Tim 1: 14), is a source of both bewilderment and pain.

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Now it not altogether true that all the bishops are sunk in cowardice; there are real and undeniable pockets of resistance out there, of Shepherds not supinely bent on going along in order to get along. An outbreak of niceness may well be raging throughout the land, causing not a few of our leaders to soft pedal the hard sayings of the Gospel.  But not all are lowering their voices lest they give offense to the wolves baying just beyond cathedral doors for episcopal blood.

Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki, for example, who presides over the diocese of Springfield, Illinois, where the notorious Sen. Dick Durbin has long been a member, confirmed this year his intention to uphold the judgment of one of his pastors in withholding Holy Communion from so conspicuous a champion of abortion rights. This most exemplary bishop has made the killing of unborn babies, which has long been the hot button issue of our time, into a litmus test to determine the authenticity of Roman Catholic adherence to the Church’s moral teaching.   And in his appeal to Canon 915, which plainly prescribes that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” he is spot-on.

Will his example catch fire? The verdict is still out on that one.

Meanwhile, on the matter of gay marriage, which is the other hot button issue at the moment, there is a very bright and stalwart Archbishop in Detroit by the name of Allen Vigneron, who not only has sense enough to parse the relevant distinctions on which proponents of same-sex marriage have lately been impaling themselves, but is possessed of a passion for enforcing the Church’s teaching that should endear him to orthodox Catholics everywhere. “For a Catholic to receive Holy Communion and still deny the Revelation Christ entrusted to the Church,” he has announced, “is to try and say two contradictory things at once: ‘I believe the Church offers the saving truth of Jesus, and I reject what the Church teaches.’”

Such an exercise in equivocation will not go unnoticed, or unpunished, on his watch. “This sort of behavior,” he bluntly reminded those who will not desist from actively promoting perversion, “would result in publicly renouncing one’s integrity and logically bring shame for a double dealing that is not unlike perjury.”

Have the advocates of same-sex marriage taken notice? Who knows? But in the meantime His Excellency has left them no wiggle room whatsoever. At least in Detroit, that is.

Then there is the example of the former Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, who has since been translated to Rome, where he is doing splendid things for the Church, who robustly announced his approval of Canon 915. Why does he like it so much? Because the application of it provides the perfect remedy for the two grave and terrible disorders which have lately threatened the integrity of the Church’s faith and life. “The priest’s refusal to give Holy Communion,” he has declared (and without a scintilla of irony), “is a prime act of pastoral charity, helping the person in question to avoid sacrilege and safeguarding the other faithful from scandal.”

How can anyone possibly improve on that? If clarity, as Ortega y Gasset once famously put it, is the philosopher’s courtesy, then it really is an example of the most admirable hospitality, i.e., charity, when the Church, having drawn her line carefully in the sand, goes on authoritatively to remind us of the precise limits of permissible dissent. Not everything is allowable, she is saying. God will not suffer with impunity continued and egregious assaults upon the truth of which she, the Church, stands as repository. And if the Church herself must someday have to answer before God for this endowment he has solemnly entrusted to her, then she needs to make it her business to ensure basic compliance. Especially as it impinges upon the most sacred reality of all, to wit, the Holy Eucharist, concerning which there is nothing more necessary for her to preserve or defend.   How can it serve as a sign of unsurpassed unity unless those who receive are themselves united in the things for which we must all have a shared love?

The point is, the Church remains the custodian of all that God wishes to give to the world Christ suffered to redeem, beginning with the gift of himself. And so she must give witness before the world to those truths that finally transcend the world. These are not her truths, by the way, but his. It is not, as Cardinal Newman so memorably put it, “that which thou hast discovered; but what thou hast received, not what thou hast thought out; a matter, not of cleverness, but of teaching; not of private handling, but of public tradition.”

Isn’t it about time for all the bishops to step up to the plate and declare, not just where the Church stands on these issues of life and love, but what precise sanctions exist in order to enforce the importance of what it is she believes? How will the world be moved to believe in Christ if his Bride, the Church, can’t even keep her own house in order? What else does it mean to call her Mater et Magistra (to recall the lovely phrase used by Pope Saint John XXIII in his encyclical of 1961)? It means that having been chosen by God to help shepherd the human race back to him, she mustn’t be afraid to tell us of the dangers we face when we fail to listen and obey. And that to disregard the strictures necessary for us to make it safely home, we risk taking ourselves to hell.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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