Look to the generals, the great patrons and architects, the captains of industry, and the princes of the Church for a gauge of an institution’s vitality. Virile epochs, however tumultuous, make way for a Charlemagne, an Abbot Suger, a Carnegie, or a Leo the Great. In effete, self-doubting times, froth and effluvium ride the waves while solid substance founders.
It was an ancient Greek scientist who first figured out why a dense element, such as gold, sinks in water, while less weighty matter or a hallowed-out vessel floats. An adaptation of Archimedes’s law of hydrostatics might suggest why so many insubstantial bishops “lead” the Catholic hierarchy while substantial priests rarely rise above the rank and file.
Living in a small town, my clerical acquaintance is limited; yet I’ve known three parish priests—orthodox, kind, and courageous—who would make admirable bishops. In all likelihood, they will remain in the boonies when Father Chuckles moves to the chancery.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In the contemporary Church, honorable exceptions notwithstanding, such is our flyweight leadership. Against the waves pounding the walls of an eroding Christian civilization, our bishops erect a bulwark of position papers. The motto of the USCCB could be convene, confer, defer. The faithful draw as much sustenance from their broody settings as they do from a Kiwanis convention. More ominously, few take sightings from the Rock of Peter, now seemingly as light and porous as pumice stone. Many of the Catholics I know have taken to prayer for divine intervention, trusting the promises of Christ, and suspecting that the crisis is now beyond human agency to arrest.
In considering this state—temporary, we pray—of dissolution, troubling questions flood the mind:
Why do today’s successors of the Twelve so rarely bring to mind the first bishop, that sturdy fisherman who sought only one perk from the Important People of his day, namely, to be crucified upside down?
If a Caravaggio or a Rembrandt were looking for a Petrine model, would he find one at the synods, the USCCB gatherings, or the Al Smith dinners? In those precincts, he might find a likeness of the shivering defector, warming his hands at the brazier, and trying to fit in. I tell you I do not know the man. This might be the first example of what our bishops now call “speaking truth to power.”
Why are our shepherds as docile as lambs and sucking doves when a Senator Leahy hints that “certain matters” could be looked into? If this timidity bespeaks a who-are-we-to-judge humility, why is non-judgmentalism so selective? A priest who purges his church of a rainbow flag and a homilist who prays for—rather than apotheosizes—one who committed suicide, is straightaway banished to episcopal re-education camps. Peaceful pro-life students are chastised with equal alacrity. Will the bishop declare MAGA hats anathema and impose a march with rainbow flags for penance?
After Archbishop McCarrick’s outing, Cardinal Wuerl’s withdrawal, Archbishop Viganò’s j’accuse—dealt with by obfuscation from chancery fog machines—is a loss of government largesse the sole reason for pastoral discretion? Why balk at a “rabbit hole” as if it were an abyss?
It’s not the Middle Ages, when emperors and kings genuflected before princes of the Church, but must bishops be so ready to crook the knee before the henchmen of our post-Christian state?
When did prelates take a solemn oath to laugh, clink glasses, and abase themselves before politicians who promote abortion and mock marriage? Is it possible they esteem such company?
Can a cardinal be blind to the diabolical aesthetic of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”? Are bondage masks festooned with rosaries, transparent garb adorned with Sacred Hearts, and pectoral crosses and golden crowns of thorns draped over semi-nude bodies “beautiful”? So said a beaming prelate who “didn’t see anything sacrilegious” in them. And why would he? The “Gala” came with a Vatican seal of approval.
How is it that diocesan newspapers brood obsessively over the sins of capitalism—climate change, carbon footprints, racism, homo- and Islamo- “phobias,” the injustice of borders and capital punishment, income inequality, and the lack of single-payer government-managed health care with its attendant rights to choose and to terminate? Why do societal sins now supersede those prosaic personal ones that still plague your retrograde soul?
Why are abortion, pornography, same-sex “marriage”—to say nothing of the final judgment—rarely addressed from the pulpit? Have the bishops censored in camera these “negative” topics, or is their near universal avoidance just a function of hive-like conformity?
How did funerals—even when presided over by a bishop—morph into mini-canonizations where mourners are advised to pray to, rather than for, the deceased?
Why the dearth of timely warnings about what a vote for the Party of Death implies for those issues that the bishops once deemed “non-negotiable”? Why such scorn for a president who told his opponent in a national debate that “ripping a baby out of the womb” might be all right with her, but it wasn’t with him? Such straightforward language brought millions of pro-life voters to their feet—and to the polls. The bishops, however, were unmoved; they did little to encourage such combativeness, having been sedated with dulcet tones and rarefied vapor during Obama’s eight years. Why were chanceries more supportive of an administration that coerced nuns to insure contraception and abortifacients?
If you’ve written to ask your diocesan paper, or your bishop, to explain these mysteries only to receive a deflection that ignored your question, were you perplexed? (Such was my experience; however, my suggestion—that a gay-tolerant culture in the seminaries was at the heart of the “abuse” crisis—might have revealed fanaticism unworthy of a response.)
Like the apostle in his most craven state, these bishops, too, when in important and potentially vindictive company, come across as politic and self-preserving and in no way overbold in showing allegiance to that nonperson whom the authorities spit upon. Where among these latter-day Peters, Ambroses, and Augustines is that holy impulse to admonish, let alone lop off an ear? Aquinas tells us that an absence of passio, when commensurate with the provocation, is no virtue; it is, rather, a peccatum. The presidents of Catholic universities who purge crucifixes in deference to pagan and faux-Catholic commencement speakers, have taken the measure of their broad-minded bishops. As do those prelates who distribute communion to drag queens and abortion-enabling politicians. Like their bishops who refuse to admonish Politically Correct Catholic U, they see nothing sacrilegious. Perhaps if Our Lord restores their sight, as he did with Bartimaeus, they will weep salvific tears and become, if not saints, at least men—with the grace of their office. So let us pray.
In Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, there is a futile gathering of Tory ministers at the country seat of Sir Leister Dedlock. The lords are well provided for by the baronet. Each is given his own room and attended by a servant. Between lavish meals and restorative naps, Lord Doodle, Viscount Poodle, Secretary Noodle, etc.—the rhyming names indicate their peas-in-a-pod vacuity—are plied with tea and liqueurs; they repay their host’s hospitality with orotund pronouncements and sonorous banalities. But as they pontificate on the dangers to England’s stability, it becomes plain that the fog enshrouding the baronet’s country seat is more than a meteorological mise en scène. The fog is a metaphor for the dim, emasculated ruling class—habituated to ease, anxious for position, and soporific with conferring and conferencing. Not the sort who could rouse a nation—or themselves—to resist the gathering storm or the leveling wind. They are, at best, an irrelevancy.
In the late 1980s, at a conference (yes, I attend them, too), I had the good fortune to be seated with Father Vincent Miceli, author of The Antichrist. He was a great raconteur, and during lunch he regaled us with stories of his travels and stays with various bishops. At breakfast one morning, he asked his host bishop why so much heterodoxy was allowed, “like poisonous mushrooms,” to proliferate in his diocese. The bishop averred that an independent itinerant lecturer could have no grasp of the powerful forces that pushed back against even the mildest efforts at reform. Many of his priests, especially at the university, were Teilhardians or liberation theologians, adept at ridiculing any whiff of orthodoxy. There was the priest council that resented the slightest call to liturgical norms as an imposition of authoritarian personality; likewise the music directors who loathed chant and loved the tinny tunes of Glory and Praise; the school religion teachers who wanted only modernist catechisms filled with strange doctrines; and the pantsuited nuns, the parish councils, and even many regular churchgoers who spurned the mildest call to order as top-down clericalism at odds with the spirit of Vatican II. In short, he asked, what could one bishop possibly do with so many organized forces arrayed against admittedly needed reform? He expected his guest to understand and to commiserate. He didn’t. He felt the passio of wrath.
I don’t remember Father Miceli’s exact words, but in essence this is what he said:
My dear bishop, you were ordained to lead the flock, not to fall into line. Your authority is handed down from the twelve, who were burnt and tortured and crucified, and from Our Savior. He doesn’t expect you to get along; he expects you to lead. You have the authority. Use it for the good of Holy Mother Church!
Father Miceli was never made a bishop. He has, however, much to say to them in this hour of their need. If only they would listen.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a painting by Georges Croegaert (1848-1923).