How to Red-Pill a Bishop

“If you think that your priests and bishops are not saints, then be one for them.” — Robert Cardinal Sarah

I know that many of our readers were irate over USCCB president Archbishop José Gomez’s statement on the 2020 election. Many of you were angry that he referred to Joe Biden as the second Catholic president in U.S. history, given the man’s uncritical embrace of the Democrats’ extremist positions on abortion and gender ideology.

Now, whether Mr. Biden calls himself a Catholic or a Buddhist or a Hare Krishna, Mr. Biden is not the legitimately elected President of the United States. The Archbishop, like many other Americans (including Tucker Carlson), jumped the gun on that one.

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But the thing is, Archbishop Gomez didn’t say that Mr. Biden was a Catholic. He chose his words very carefully. He said, and I quote, that “he joins the late President John F. Kennedy as the second United States president to profess the Catholic faith”—which is perfectly true! Mr. Biden, like JFK, does profess to believe in Catholicism. He does claim to be a Catholic. And it seems to me that His Excellency went out of his way not to call Mr. Biden “the second Catholic president,” or something to that effect.

This election season has been rough for Archbishop Gomez. Late last month, a meme began circling the internet claiming that His Excellency said, “I don’t like the way Trump talks. He is so rude. So, I am voting for Biden.” The quote is obviously fake. It sounds like a bad caricature of a Trump critic (“Orange man bad!”). Nevertheless, the meme made such a splash that Archbishop Gomez had to issue a statement denying that he’d ever said anything to that effect.

That Archbishop Gomez didn’t endorse Mr. Biden may actually come as a pleasant surprise to those of you who know His Excellency as a trenchant critic of President Trump’s border policy. But Archbishop Gomez is vast; he contains multitudes. He’s solidly orthodox on a range of issues: abortion, homosexuality, gender ideology, and contraception, to name just a few. In fact, after his phone conference with President Trump on Catholic education, America magazine’s Father Matt Malone accused His Excellency of “being too chummy” with the President.

The laity may be forgiven for not knowing any of that. Some folks in Catholic media only talk about the bishops when they find something to complain about. Even then, many of us can’t necessarily back up our criticisms with evidence.

For example, one well-known columnist recently declared that “countless bishops told Catholics that they could vote for Biden in ‘good conscience,’ and they did.” That simply isn’t true.

There are 271 active bishops in the United States. I can think of one (Joseph Cardinal Tobin) who strongly implied that he would vote for Biden and two (Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Bishop John Stowe) who emphatically opposed President Trump. Many were critical of him on particular issues, as any citizen might be of any elected official. Usually it’s immigration, an issue on which most of the bishops’ opinions are just silly.

Still, only a handful of bishops are really dead set against the President. Meanwhile, I can also think of two (Bishops Joseph Strickland and Thomas Tobin) who have expressed strong support for President Trump. Timothy Cardinal Dolan also seemed to be leaning in that direction.

In fact, most U.S. bishops didn’t weigh in one way or the other. That’s probably because they don’t think it’s fitting for a bishop to endorse political candidates. We may disagree with them on that point; I certainly do. But, if so, that doesn’t mean the bishops are evil. It doesn’t mean they’re secret Biden supporters. It just means that… well, they’re wrong.

By no means do I intend to excuse those errors. But nobody thinks the bishops are perfect—least of all the bishops themselves. In fact, I know quite a lot of them really appreciate the scrutiny they receive from the Catholic press.

For example, I had a conversation with a good, center-right bishop a few years ago about something fishy that was going on in his diocese. I like him and I trust him, and I couldn’t believe it was happening under his watch. So, I called him asked, “What’s going on here?”

His response has always stayed with me. “I have no control over my diocese,” he sighed. “The bureaucrats run everything. They were here when I was appointed to [this diocese], and I still can’t even figure out how many of them there are. Please, report on [the incident]. I can’t clean the place up all by myself. I need help.”

Of course, not all bishops take that attitude. Some are too arrogant to accept any criticism. Some are hopelessly entangled in left-wing ideology. Some are, quite simply, evil.

But we, the laity, have no idea how much power these Deep Church bureaucrats have, and we can’t really appreciate just how bogged down the bishops are. Being an ordinary is a terrible job, and I have it on good authority that more priests turn down episcopal appointments than accept them.

My friend Francis X. Maier spent twenty years as a Catholic journalist before going to work as chancellor to Archbishop Charles Chaput. Archbishop Chaput is as solid a bishop as they come, as I’m sure you’ll agree. A few years back, Fran reflected on everything he’d learned being on the other side of the chancery door. He wrote,

The average Catholic is simply unaware of the pressures on a typical bishop: the erosion of his privacy and personal life, the shortage of resources, the abundance of needs, the sometimes difficult relationships with priests (who are brothers, not employees) and religious communities, and a dozen other issues. These burdens don’t excuse a bishop’s failures, but they should at least earn him the same understanding and civility a layperson would expect under similar circumstances.

No, it’s not to excuse their failures. But we should realize that most of these men aren’t evil. Not by any means. Most of them are just overwhelmed. And all of them are fallible, just as we are.

Readers may be pleased to learn that several bishops subscribe to and read Crisis Magazine. I remind our writers of this fact often—not to seem self-important, but so they bear in mind this fact: If we choose our words carefully, there’s a chance we can actually change those bishops’ minds.

Our job isn’t to preach to the choir. Crisis doesn’t exist for those who “get it,” but for those who don’t. And that includes many bishops.

That’s something that many of my colleagues in Catholic media don’t seem to realize. There are bishops in their audience. It’s foolish for us to speak as if they weren’t in the room. Most of our prelates are trying to separate God’s truth from the Devil’s lies, just as we are. Many of them are also at a grave disadvantage, being hemmed in by diocesan functionaries on all sides and overwhelmed by tedious administrative busywork that distracts them from their real pastoral duties. There’s an everlasting chorus of bureaucrats, lobbyists, special-interest groups, and courtiers droning in their ears. They need good Catholic media as much as we do—perhaps even more so.

Believe me, I know it’s frustrating how few of the bishops do “get it.” But there’s only one way we can change that: by communicating to them as effectively as possible. If we act like everyone who disagrees with us is evil and/or stupid, they’ll probably do the same, and we’re sure to make no progress.

What’s true of news media is also true of social media. Take the recent dust-up between Bishop Robert Barron and some traditionalists on Twitter. The confrontation was sparked (from what I can tell) by Bishop Barron’s favorably quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Dare we hope that all men be saved?” Bishop Barron, like Balthasar, apparently believes there’s a “reasonable hope” that nobody will spend eternity in Hell.

I don’t share that belief, but here’s the thing: Balthasar is one of the most celebrated theologians of the modern Church. He was close friends with Pope Benedict XVI, and the two founded an influential journal of theology together. Another of his admirers, the great Father Aidan Nichols, just published a brand-new book called Balthasar for Thomists. Father Nichols, you know, signed that open letter calling the Pope a heretic. He’s no crypto-modernist.

Let it suffice to say that Balthasar is not a fringe intellectual. If Bishop Barron was misled by one of his writings—and, again, I think he was—that doesn’t necessarily make him a crypto-modernist, either.

His Excellency seemed genuinely shocked, not by the existence of criticism—surely that was inevitable—but by the cruelty of his critics. He responded by closing ranks and seeking out allies to oppose the “RadTrads” (his words). That’s not a very mature or productive response, but it was very human. We may forget that the bishops, like us, are only human.

What’s sad is that Bishop Barron is a very effective evangelist with a real passion for saving souls. He would be an invaluable ally in the cause of Sacred Tradition. Instead, he called together a war council. According to one report, that council included a representative from America magazine—home of the infamous Father James Martin. Lo and behold, a few months later, Bishop Barron’s endorsement appeared on Father Martin’s latest book.

That’s not to excuse Bishop Barron. I think he has conducted himself poorly throughout this whole affair. (We at Crisis called him out for making that deal with the Devil, and I’m proud that we did. Someone had to, anyway.) But we can’t control that. We can’t spit venom at a man and expect him to shower us with rosewater. That’s not how human beings work. At some point, we have to be the bigger men.

The fact of the matter, my friends, is that we can’t “beat the bishops.” They’re not elected officials; we can’t vote them out or recall them. They’re our divinely-ordained leaders, and they’re not going anywhere. Christ established His Church as a monarchy, not a democracy. If we don’t like it, we’d better take it up with Him.

We certainly can’t browbeat them into saying what we want them to say or doing what we want them to do. It’s never wise, trying to bully someone who’s bigger than you.

So, we have two options. On the one hand, we might create our own hierarchy, like Anglicans or Sedevacantists. On the other, we might try to work with the bishops. We can address them calmly and respectfully, hoping, not to thwart them, but to win them over. We can recognize that most of them—not all, but most—really are trying to be faithful to their sacred office, and that they welcome the advice of wise and respectful laymen.

The Venerable Archbishop Sheen once asked,

Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, and the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and your religious act like religious.

Now, pay attention. That’s not our right: it’s our mission. That’s the objective Our Lord has set for us, and He expects results. So, if we appear before the Judgment Seat and Christ says to us, “Why did you insult Bishop Barron like that? You drove him into the arms of a heretic,” we might say, “Because, Lord, he was wrong on the internet! Anyway, he’s a bishop. He should’ve had thicker skin.”

We might say that, but I don’t think He’ll buy it. If our father is prone to anger, the Fourth Commandment tells us that, as loving and dutiful sons, we must be sensitive to that weakness. If I provoke my father, knowing full well that he’s easily provoked… well, I don’t want to imagine the rebuke I’ll get from my Maker when I go to meet Him. Dunking on the bishops isn’t worth my eternal soul. Better to follow Saint Paul’s advice to the Galatians: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

So, I’m all for filial corrections, but only if they’re truly filial—if they’re issued, not only to protect our fellow laymen from error, but also to call wayward fathers back to the Truth.

My friends, please bear in mind that not everyone sees things as clearly as we do. We’re a very small, privileged minority. Our goal should be to open the bishops’ eyes, not to shout them down. We should be appealing to them as effectively as possible, not browbeating them into submission (an exercise in futility if there ever was one). If we treat them like enemies, they’ll do the same to us.

You can slip a red pill into a bishop’s wine, or you can stand outside his chancery and hurl them at his window by the fistful. One method will be more effective than the other. I’ll let you guess which.

[Photo credit: Catholic News Agency]


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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