Running the Church on Hail Marys

“This attitude of resignation with regard to truth lies at the heart of the crisis in the West, the crisis of Europe.”  ∼ Pope Benedict XVI

“You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys.”  ∼ former Vatican Bank president Archbishop Paul Marcinkus

As jarring revelations about the contemporary episcopacy continue to come to light, it has become evident that these two statements are causally linked.

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Let’s begin with Pope Benedict. There can be a crisis of truth in three ways. One can fear that there is no truth; it is to this type of giving up on truth that he directly refers. But one can also fail to speak the truth when it needs to be spoken, or one can hide the truth through obfuscation or lies.

Why does one fail to speak the truth that needs to be spoken? Faithful Catholics complain frequently that priests and bishops put little effort into explaining and defending difficult matters of faith and morals such as the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, or sex and marriage. Two typical explanations tend to surface: 1) disenchanted people will leave the Church, or 2) irritated people will refuse to give money to the parish or diocese.

The first of these explanations is particularly striking. The attitude seems to be that Mother church wants to hold her children in relationship, so She avoids any explanations that may make those children feel “unwelcome.” No pressure; keep them close. Tell them the parts they want to hear; finesse the parts they don’t want to hear. Look constantly for ways to stretch the limits of faithfulness.

No one ever seems to be concerned about the number of Catholics who are living objectively sinful lives, or abandoning the Church entirely, because they are not receiving clear teaching. The main concern is keeping the numbers up (though one must reasonably ask whether that is actually happening), and, along with it, maximizing the amount of donations being made to keep the parish or diocese running. Sure, tell the whole truth when you are preaching to a friendly audience, but don’t risk it with an unfriendly one. People might walk out. Keep the corporation, and our positions, intact.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that many priests and bishops are, in fact, interested in the truth, and are sincerely, if imperfectly, trying to be faithful to the deposit of faith with which they have been entrusted. I had a pastor once who spoke fearlessly on many issues, but would not give sermons on contraception because he would lose donations. This is just one small example of an “attitude of resignation with regard to the truth.”

Of course, an overall attitude of faithfulness is not always on display. I had a colleague, a priest, once tell me how he handled the issue of women priests in his classroom when the Vatican had said that it was time to stop talking about it. It went something like this: “I say to my class that I’m not allowed to talk about this, but if I were to talk about it, I would say something like this…” whereupon he would lay out all the opposing arguments to the Church’s position. So very clever. He would, naturally, defend his actions as technically faithful to the teaching in the same way that a husband caught in a clinch with another woman would tell his wife he had technically not yet cheated on her.

Then there are the priests and bishops (not to mention politicians and others in positions of power) who have spent their lives in open rebellion against the truth, making outrageous statements about which they are not taken to task until enough people complain. The policy is apparent: “For the sake of the Church, let’s pretend this never happened. Unless someone really makes a stink out of it that we can’t ignore. If that happens, don’t punish or otherwise embarrass the perpetrator; that would be uncharitable.” Whether it is charitable or merciful to the confused people in the pews seems not to matter. The only mission of the shepherds—to feed the sheep with the Living Truth and protect them from the predations of the enemy—has taken a back seat to corporate management.

Obfuscations and lies are evident in the ongoing scandals upon us now, not about doctrine, but about action: bishops and priests involved in sexual acts ranging from pitiful to disgusting to horrifying. (Of course, there are other bad acts which priests and bishops have engaged in over the millennia: embezzlement, extortion, slavery, and even murder. But our current scandals are mostly about sex and abuse of power.) For years—and years—the reaction of the hierarchy has been this: “For the sake of the Church, let’s pretend this never happened. Hide it. If it comes to light, deny it. If it can’t be denied, never call it what it is. Always give the offender another chance; it’s the charitable and merciful thing to do. If necessary, use your position of God-given authority for the sake of the retention of power and property, rather than using power judiciously for the sake of one’s proper authority. If we don’t, the corporation will suffer, and so will we.” Even priests and bishops who, in other circumstances, are fearless truth-tellers when it comes to doctrine have fallen into this trap. “Hide the truth. Keep the numbers up. Keep the parishes open. Retain cash and properties at all costs.”

It has become increasingly clear that the current problem with the episcopacy is a perversion of true hierarchy (sacred order) that has turned bishops from shepherds into middle managers, and the Vatican into a corporate headquarters full of bureaucrats, all of whom have lost touch with the Church’s mission and concentrate instead on growth of market share or, failing that, self-preservation.

Seeing this is how one comes to believe that the Church can’t run on Hail Marys.

This is also how a few truly evil bureaucrats can groom and promote like-minded men until chanceries, seminaries, and the Vatican itself are crawling with those who do unspeakable things and get away with it.

But why couldn’t the Church run on Hail Marys?

Never for a moment was Jesus concerned with how many people followed him. He never changed or softened his message to get numbers. When he taught about marriage, people said, “This is too hard,” and they left. When he told them that the only way to eternal life was to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they thought he was insane, and they left. He scolded and threatened the Scribes and the Pharisees. He told sinners to stop sinning. The day he died, you could count on one hand the people who stuck with him; most everyone closest to him denied him and deserted him. It wasn’t about the numbers. Inspiring people to join is the Holy Spirit’s job. Jesus’ job was being faithful to the commands of the Father.

When the Church got started, of course there was, and remains, a hierarchy. The Apostles alone had been entrusted with The Good News of salvation, a salvation that could only be obtained by taking up one’s cross. This was a hard message to deliver, but deliver it they did. And despite the fact that charity is at the heart of the Gospel message, the Apostles did not start out looking to found a charitable organization. They preached the Gospel. Their followers, filled with the grace of the Spirit, set out to put their faith into action in acts of charity, even founding institutions through which to do so efficiently and on a large scale. But this was not the work of the bishops. Eventually, with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of many more, the task became so large that helpers were required to spread the Word and bring the sacraments to the people: priests and deacons were entrusted with the same sacred task, under the authority of the bishop and, ultimately, under Peter and his successors.

Hierarchy is a necessary component of authority. But somewhere along the way, those in charge of the Catholic Church lost focus. In order to run an organization efficiently, human beings resort to human institutions. But because we are fallen, we can get confused about what the goal is; organizations suffer mission creep. When the original mission is a product or service, the organization might survive the drift by producing new products or different services. When the mission is “Tell others the Truth that I have told you,” mission drift is not a simple change; it is a fundamental corruption. And a hierarchy that allows this to happen is itself corrupted.

Obviously, we must return to the truth, and by that I mean first that we must cast the harsh light of day on the nasty little dark rooms wherein these heinous acts have taken place, and on those who have done them, as well as on those who covered them up. No more lies, no more obfuscation, nothing but the pure light of truth. Every perpetrator needs to be removed from office. Second, we must return to the truth in the sense that the passing on of the deposit of faith and the delivery of the sacraments must again become the first and foremost task of the bishop and his priests. And the way to guarantee that this is the main focus of the bishops and priests is to take from their hands any other tasks and concerns that are not these.

Everything must go: care for the material needs of the poor, schools, and property management. These are all things that ought to be handled by the laity, or religious orders of sisters and brothers, who have been inspired by holy zeal to bring their own resources to bear on these areas. The Church has, unfortunately, like so many organizations that grow too large and abhor the perceived inefficiencies of subsidiarity, centralized the work, allowed the bureaucracy to grow, and multiplied rules, regulations, and policies beyond the ability of anyone to grasp them, or, if grasped, apply them properly or stop abuse of power. And so, rather than refocus on what is most important, many have chosen to just keep the organization running—the man-made institutions, the apparatus and property holdings, and those who manage them.

Take from the bishops and priests any other task but bringing the Word and sacraments to the people. The bishop’s only job will be to preach and teach, celebrate Mass, confirm and ordain, and in between move around his diocese to see to it that his priests are preaching, saying Mass, baptizing, presiding over marriages, and sending the dying on their way—and, when they are not, to remove them. Let the laity, or religious orders with a specific charter, start charitable organizations and run Catholic schools and hospitals, and when they are not operating in accordance with Catholic faith and morals, inform the public that these are no longer to be considered Catholic organizations, and that Catholics ought not to support them. Furthermore, the very size and scope of the contemporary diocese is a cause of burgeoning bureaucracy. Triple the number of dioceses, and give each auxiliary bishop his own flock to pastor.

The pope, too, will need to follow a similar (though not identical) path. His main task is to oversee his bishops, and he will need an office for Doctrine. Most everything else is on the chopping block. And we will need to rethink the very concept of those “princes of the Church,” the cardinals.

This solution is not like “liberal” solutions to the problems in the episcopacy and priesthood: the end of the hierarchy, introducing the election of bishops, allowing women priests and married priests. Its aim is to relieve the bishops and their representatives of all the management of worldly things which have driven them away from a proper love and defense of what is true and good and beautiful, the Deposit of Faith, and the souls with whom God has entrusted them. Maybe then we will rediscover that they can run the Church on Hail Marys. In fact, Hail Marys are our best hope.


  • Stephen J. Heaney

    Stephen J. Heaney is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, MN, where he has been teaching since 1987. He received his PhD from Marquette University in 1988.

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