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  • How Not to Criticize the Church

    by Russell Shaw

    That rigorist Christian apologist of the second and third centuries Tertullian wasn’t what most people would call a funny guy, yet now and then, when something really got his goat, he seems to have been capable of a sharp-edged sort of humor. As in this:

    If the Tiber cometh up to the walls, if the Nile cometh not up to the fields, if the heave hath stood still, if the earth hath been moved, if there be any famine, if any pestilence, “The Christians to the lions” is forthwith the word.

    Does that sound like anybody you know? I think of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other New Atheists who say they’d like to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested for his and the Church’s sins against humanity when the pope visits Britain in September.


    Tertullian couldn’t do much directly about the pagans in his day, and we can’t do much directly about the pagans in ours. But it isn’t too much to ask that the Catholic critics of the Church, revved up anew by the latest round of frenzied media reports about clergy sex abuse, sober up and try to think straight.

    There is a right way to criticize the Church, and there is a wrong way. Lately we’ve had to put up with much too much of the latter.

    But it’s hardly new. Some liberal Catholics and some conservative Catholics have labored for years — unwittingly, to be sure — to create today’s poisoned environment. In both cases, it’s been “the bishops” this and “the Curia” that. And although neither bishops nor Curia are exempt from criticism, a good deal of all this has been knee-jerk and unfair. Now we see the results.

    I know a woman — a good, devout Catholic woman, I should add — who’s apparently never read or heard anything derogatory about the Catholic Church without accepting it as gospel truth and hastening to share it with her coreligionists in hopes, it seems, of opening their eyes as hers have been opened. She’s been doing that for quite some time, and when she gets to heaven I expect she’ll bend St. Peter’s ear about the Church’s faults.

    A more sophisticated practitioner of Catholic breast-beating is the writer Garry Wills. Wills was at it again in the May 27 issue of the New Republic with an article delicately titled, “Forgive Not: A Catholic’s Struggle with the Sins of His Church.”

    Let me be clear. Clergy sex abuse is a horrible thing. Its cover-up over many years by people in positions of authority in the Church in the United States and other countries was profoundly wrong. Blame for the agonizingly long time it took to recognize and admit the problem and take remedial action can’t rightly be sloughed off by high-ranking people in the Vatican (but Benedict deserves credit for doing a much better job of facing up to it than most).

    Fair enough. But Wills goes further and uses the abuse scandal as a launching pad for polemics against his Church concerning much else that he doesn’t like. There’s a legitimate place for polemics, and some of Wills’s targets deserve it. But polemicists have no more right than anybody else to play fast and loose with facts.


    As Wills, not for the first time, does at several points in his New Republic article. For example: When the present pope was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he argued that doctrine isn’t set by majority vote. “But that,” Wills writes, “is precisely how creeds and doctrines were formulated. At the great Eastern councils . . . hundreds of bishops from around the world voted on the deepest mysteries of the faith . . . . And there was no Pope at any of those councils.”

    That’s half the story — the half it suits Wills to tell. The half that doesn’t suit him he ignores. It’s true that no pope was present at those great councils of the early centuries. But legates of the bishop of Rome were there. And the assent of Rome to the decisions of a council was necessary.

    A case in point that Wills ought to acknowledge, but doesn’t, was the council held at Ephesus in the year 449. With good reason, it has entered history as the Latrocinium — the “Gang of Robbers.” It was called to address the Monophysite heresy (one nature in Christ). But Monophysites got control of the proceedings and rammed through a statement supporting their position.

    The statement, it appears, received the signatures of all the bishops then present — exactly 108 of them. Along the way, Monophysites resorted to violence in which the elderly patriarch of Constantinople was killed and the three papal legates were forced to flee.

    Back in Rome, Pope St. Leo I wasn’t amused. He rejected the views of the Gang of Robbers and pressed for a new council. This fourth general council was held at Chalcedon in 451 and, as the pope wished, reversed Ephesus and affirmed that Christ had two natures, human and divine.

    I suspect that even Wills wouldn’t be pleased at the thought that, in line with his theory of conciliar democracy, he and I and many of the rest of us might well be Monophysites today if Leo hadn’t taken a strong stand against that long-ago gathering in Ephesus. But whether he would or wouldn’t, precisely as a polemicist Wills needs to tell the story straight.

    A new and timely instance of doing just that in relation to current events is Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis, by Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson, newly published by Our Sunday Visitor. Erlandson and Bunson don’t duck unpleasant facts; they deal with them head-on.

    “One of the lessons of the scandal,” they write, “is that the truth is not our enemy and is not to be feared. The facts must be faced, but they must also be examined with balance and honesty.” Disclosure requires that I say the authors are friends of mine, and I am a contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. But the book stands on its own as an honest exercise in collecting and reporting facts.

    But to end on a downer: Not the least depressing feature of the Wills article is the news that a tenth anniversary edition of his book Papal Sin will be published later this year. Like its author’s current polemics, the original edition of that volume also was an indiscriminate mélange of fact, half-fact, and non-fact. Tertullian, where are you when we need you?

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Austin

      Wills is a columnist and not a theologian. He is entitled to his opinion, and others are entitled to disregard it. Some of the Bishops would like to silence any and all criticism of themselves, as would have happened in the Middle Ages, but that is not going to happen in the Western World today.

      The hierarchy has not made its peace with the modern laity and for the most part, does not really know how to deal with the laity. We constantly hear “The Church is not a democracy,” which means that we don’t get to elect the Pope and Bishops, but it does not mean that the laity must shut up. The Bishops would probably like only “house men” to be able to write about the Church, but that is not going to happen. Wills and others will express their opinions and that will be it.

      Shaw does not seem to be able to deal with opinions different from the party line, apparently being a “house man” himself.
      The Bishops can no longer “command” people to be silent, they need to persuade and as Andrew Greeley would say “charm the laity.” Perhaps the problem is that so few of them are charming?

    • Donna

      >The Bishops can no longer “command” people to be silent, they >need to persuade and as Andrew Greeley would say “charm the >laity.” Perhaps the problem is that so few of them are >charming?

      Isn’t being faithful more important than being charming ? Con artists are charming by necessity. So are some sociopaths. (Bundy, Jones, and Manson leap to mind…)

    • Austin

      The Charming part was a bit of humor, which you apparently did not get. My point was that the modern laity will not engage in blind obedience any more. The Bishops need to convince them, which apparently, they are not doing very well. Coverups by Cardinals Law, Mahoney and others, as well as taking bribes and protecting perverts like Maciel, by Sodano have eroded their credability, which cannot be easilly won back.

      If you want to talk about con artists, I can think of a few in the hierarchy, such as Maciel and Sodano. The modern laity is not going to be dragged back to Trent, much as the hierarchy would like to do so, and I think the smarter ones are aware of this. The old “pay, pray and obey” model no longer works.

      Some of the posters here want anyone who dissents in the slightest to be excommunicated. That’s not going to happen, so be prepared for vigorous debate, much as the “house men” dislike it.

    • Rebecca Balmes

      As I’ve seen it, at least in the US, the problem is not that the Bishops aren’t listening to the laity… it’s that they’re abdicating their authority to lay commissions, committees, advisors and employees! I’d love to live in a diocese where the Bishop actually took responsibility, taught and guided.

      I agree that those in the pews are right to speak up to their Bishops. I just wish our criticisms would be heard, and not diverted by their lay handlers. It’s gotten to the point here (Archdiocese of Baltimore) where we’re resorting to ignoring all fundraising from the Archdiocese and putting what we would be spending on that straight into the coffers of our excellent (and much abused by diocesan officials) parish. If/when we ever get a visit from a Bishop, I somewhat pity that man for the sharp tone of rebuke he will hear from our parishioners (including my husband, Grand Knight of his Knights of Columbus council) on some of the leftist drivel and blatant extortion that pass for policies in this Archdiocese. Though, I must add, none of the criticism will have anything to do with scandal in the priesthood.

    • Donna

      the laity is hardly a monolithic thing. Something one part thinks is good may make another part apoplectic. Which laity should we listen to ? Are we back to numbers again ? [smiley=think]

    • Ryan Haber

      Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

      Austin is spot on. Not only have we nothing to fear from the truth, but Truth is the only thing that can save us. The Pharisees were not, by and large, wicked men. But they were, like the rest of us, sinful. They refused to see that, and for that refusal, they earned the wrath of the Prince of Peace.

      Brothers and sisters, let’s not do likewise: denying that we the Church (“we are Church”, right Spirit of Vatican IIers?) are sinful; denying that we have sinned; throwing each other under the bus because we’re afraid of the talking-heads or the sharks-in-suits.

      Let’s pray hard that Jesus Christ, who reveals man fully to Himself (Lumen Gentium, 32), will reveal to us who we are by nature and in grace – and so set us free.

    • georgie-ann

      Proverbs 31: “Charm is deceitful,…”

      …& verbally demonizing whole portions of the Church with a belligerent attitude, feels somewhat counter-productive,…have we NO bright lights left at all, that are worth our gratitude and respect?,…i’ve certainly met plenty of really wonderful people–(i didn’t say “perfect”)–who i think are doing the best they can, and who would benefit from our kindness, help, and gently shared observations,…

    • Samuel-TMC

      The Charming part was a bit of humor, which you apparently did not get. My point was that the modern laity will not engage in blind obedience any more. The Bishops need to convince them, which apparently, they are not doing very well. Coverups by Cardinals Law, Mahoney and others, as well as taking bribes and protecting perverts like Maciel, by Sodano have eroded their credability, which cannot be easilly won back.

      If you want to talk about con artists, I can think of a few in the hierarchy, such as Maciel and Sodano. The modern laity is not going to be dragged back to Trent, much as the hierarchy would like to do so, and I think the smarter ones are aware of this. The old “pay, pray and obey” model no longer works.

      Some of the posters here want anyone who dissents in the slightest to be excommunicated. That’s not going to happen, so be prepared for vigorous debate, much as the “house men” dislike it.

      Austin, while your observation that the laity will continue to challange the Church is probably accurate, there is a just way and a sinful way to go about this, as the author of this good article pointed out. For example, SNAP is an example of a group who’s leaders should probably be severely reprimanded or possibly even canonically censured (interdict, excommunication) by the bishops. Their critizisms and long ago lost the light of a plea for justice and have taken upon themselves the mantle of hate, impiety, and rebellion. The sins of Bishops and Priests does not justify the maliciously divisive screechs of detractors. Furthermore, as a Catholic I find your suggested aligning of the Most Holy Council of Trent -and the Catholic culture it inspired- with overreaching and tyrannical bishops as a blasphemous suggestion. Most of the bishops in our Church may seem to be weak, tepid, effete sorry-excuses-for-leaders, and even if many of them are malicious towards the true Faith, we laymen should side with David who -when the wicked Saul was deliverd into his power- ‘refused to touch the Lord’s anointed. The saints speak in unison: it is wrong for the laity to judge any heir of the Apostles. May modern Liberal culture be damned, and I will side with Scripture, tradition, and the Apostles.

      And Mr. Shaw, good article. If I may be allowed one criticism, it is that “Liberal” Catholics, as you called them, are not innocent victims of the malice that drives them against the doctrines and apostles of Holy Church; they are ruled by an evil ideology that has been condemned unequivocally by the Church: Liberalism.

    • Sam Schmitt

      Austin seems to think that Mr. Shaw is a strict “pray, pay, and obey” shill for the bishops, but this only shows his own ignorance of what Mr. Shaw has written about the clergy and the laity in the Church. I know it’s always easier to resort to cliches than to engage the argument at hand, but it can get laughable when someone, say, tries to dismiss Newt Gingrich as a toady of the labor unions.

      And I always scratch my head about comments such as “the modern laity will not engage in blind obedience any more.” Austin can rest easy – the last time I checked, 80 – 90% of Catholics didn’t even bother giving the Church’s teaching on contraception a second thought, the abortion rate for Catholics is the same as the rest of the population – heck, only a small percentage even bother going to mass every week. So much for “blind obedience.”

    • Gabriel Austin

      Pay, pray … is a neat sounding phrase. Like most neat sounding phrases, it is hollow. I doubt that there was ever a time when it was true.

      The scandal of the sex abuse was not the actual abuse. It has likely gone on for years, if not for centuries. The scandal was the cover up, the pussy footing, the look the other way, the don’t mention it.

      For those upset by criticism of the bishops, and those attempting to defend the behavior of the bishops, I recommend a study of the episcopate from the founding of the Church. Was there ever a time when many [most?] bishops did not misbehave? The astonishing thing is the number – minority though it be – of good bishops. Consider the number of new orders that were continuously founded in response to the bad behavior of religious. The only thing incorrupt on this earth is the Church, not it leaders, not its members.

    • Alex

      Insults of the Church seem an inevitable consequence of unceasing criticism — but, unfortunately, not of the Church, primarily, but of those human beings who are a part of it and who are disagreeable to the one criticizing.