Diverting the Focus of the Shepherd

The often uneasy relationship between bishops and the Vatican has come to the forefront in recent years, as increasingly unpastoral directives are being issued by Rome.

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In the midst of the Dot-Com boom in the late 1990’s, I worked for a growing Internet startup. Unlike many startups of the era, however, we were not successful because of high-rolling investors who gave us the ability to bankroll Super Bowl commercials with little more than a crazy business idea. Instead we were “boring.” We were successful because we had grown a solid and recurring customer base to whom we delivered a functional and useful product. In fact, in the early years of the company we had no investors.

Once the Dot-Com boom intensified, however, that changed. With venture capital investors throwing millions of dollars at the dumbest and most thread-bare ideas, we figured a few investors might be interested in an actual functional company. So we received our first infusion of capital, which we believed would help us grow, compete, and eventually dominate our market. What we didn’t realize was that it would move our focus away from what mattered most: our customers.

You see, when your business is completely funded by your paying customers, you do everything you can to satisfy their needs. They come first. But when venture capitalists enter the picture, your focus transfers from your paying customers to your investment “partners.” They start calling the shots. What the guy who gave you $5 million thinks becomes far more important than the customer who pays $50/month. But ultimately it’s the $50/month customer who makes or breaks your business. He is, after all, the reason you exist. 

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Needless to say, our diverted focus caused many problems that led to a reduction in revenue and eventually drastic downsizing.

I took this trip down memory lane not to give business advice, but because it reminds me of the dilemma faced by many bishops today. Do they keep their focus on their sheep (i.e., their “customers”), or do they divert it instead to the often capricious whims of their “investing partners” in Rome? Sadly, too many bishops appear to be forgetting whom they serve, prioritizing subservient middle management over serving their customer base. Sadly, too many bishops appear to be forgetting whom they serve, prioritizing subservient middle management over serving their customer base.Tweet This

Take, for example, the Vatican drive for “synodality.” This concept, which was an obscure ecclesial term just a few short years ago, has supposedly become the raison d’être of the Catholic Church today. It’s declared the most important initiative since the Counter Reformation and promised as the cure for all that ails the Church. Yet no one serious would suggest that the average laymen cares about—much less clamors for—synodality. It’s the pet project of desk-bound ecclesial officials who likely never engaged in any significant pastoral work in their lives—and who want to remake the Church in the image of the modern decaying world. 

In spite of this, we see bishop after bishop embrace the push for synodality as if it actually matters. Even though there is zero enthusiasm for Synods Talking About Synods among the rank and file, bishops advocate for synodality as if it were part of divine revelation. Yet it’s likely they wouldn’t have been able to define the word ten years ago (and in fairness, there still doesn’t seem to be one definition even now). In doing this, bishops have diverted their focus from the real concerns of their flocks to the fantastical whims of Vatican ideologues. 

Another example of the bishops’ diverted focus are the restrictions being imposed on the traditional Latin Mass. In most dioceses, the TLMs are celebrated at a handful of Ecclesia Dei communities and diocesan parishes. Those who attend these Masses cause little trouble for the bishop and are often a source of support for him. But because some Church leaders in Rome are offended by a few trad mean tweets, the directive has been handed down to crush these communities.

A bishop is thus asked to decide between caring for the souls of some of the most faithful members of his flock and following the whims of men in Rome with little to no pastoral experience and even less knowledge of the needs of the local diocese. So again, will the bishop divert his focus from his sheep in order to follow the capricious demands of his controlling “partners?”

By this author:

Now, to be clear, the running of the Catholic Church is not identical to the running of a business. Bishops have an obligation to Rome that surpasses a start-up’s obligation to its investors. But this works in both directions: a bishop also has a far greater obligation to his flock than a company has to its customers. A bishop, after all, is responsible for eternal souls, not widgets. To turn from that obligation out of fear of displeasing a Vatican official is a dereliction of a God-given duty. 

Canon law recognizes the supreme priority of souls under a bishop’s care in Canon 87, which states:

Can. 87 §1. A diocesan bishop, whenever he judges that it contributes to their spiritual good, is able to dispense the faithful from universal and particular disciplinary laws issued for his territory or his subjects by the supreme authority of the Church. He is not able to dispense, however, from procedural or penal laws nor from those whose dispensation is specially reserved to the Apostolic See or some other authority.

§2. If recourse to the Holy See is difficult and, at the same time, there is danger of grave harm in delay, any ordinary is able to dispense from these same laws even if dispensation is reserved to the Holy See, provided that it concerns a dispensation which the Holy See is accustomed to grant under the same circumstances, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 291

Note first that the bishop has the authority essentially to ignore regulations from Rome if he feels doing so is best for his flock. And even if a Vatican command is a regulation he is not allowed to dispense (because it is “specially reserved to the Apostolic See”), he still can dispense from that regulation as well if he cannot get an answer from Rome in a timely fashion or if Rome has regularly in the past given such dispensations (such as allowing the TLM for decades previously).

For those who understand the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, none of this should be surprising. It’s common sense: who knows his flock better: the shepherd who interacts with them and lives with them, or the faceless official thousands of miles away? 

Bishops, therefore, must return their focus to their sheep; they must put their flocks first in priority—ahead of the countless documents emanating from the Vatican. In doing this, they will be the true shepherds Christ calls them to be, rather than imitating middle managers mindlessly following senseless commands. Or, as the final words of the Code of Canon Law state, “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes” (Canon 1752).

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/CNA]


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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