USCC Watch: Bishop-Bashing — A Cautionary Note

Sometime about a year ago, the National Committee of Catholic Laymen (150 East 35th Street, New York 10016) issued a brilliant little pamphlet by William Gavin entitled The Politics of God. On one level, Gavin’s essay was a short, readable history of the life and struggles of St. Athanasius. But the particular appeal of the pamphlet lies in the way Gavin related that great saint’s career to the problems of the Catholic Church in America today.

The danger that Athanaskis faced, as Gavin describes it, was the politicization of the Catholic faith. The Arian heresy — dangerous enough in itself — had spawned a political movement that threatened to take over the young Christian faith. As we all know, the Council of Nicea condemned Arianism, and St. Athanasius ultimately triumphed. But for years, he stood alone as the representative of orthodoxy against a powerful political alliance.

Readers of Catholicism in Crisis should have no trouble recognizing the parallel that Gavin’s pamphlet sketches. This journal was founded by Catholics who feared the growing politicization of the Church in America. But before we go any further, perhaps it would be wise to keep in mind the particular virtue in St. Athanasius which Gavin himself emphasizes. While he battled against a host of politically sophisticated operators, and recognized the political implications of his battle, Athanasius nevertheless kept the paramount theological issues uppermost in his mind. The battle might be political, but the cause was religious.

Why do I mention this? Because if we hope to derail the efforts to manipulate Catholicism for partisan purposes, we cannot afford to become partisan ourselves. We must keep in mind, above all, that this is not a political battle. Yes, of course, the battle involves political issues. But our real object is — must be — to defend the faith.

This is not simply a theoretical point. During the last several months, I have noticed a frightening growth in hostility toward the American bishops. No doubt the bishops have brought some of this hostility on themselves, and their staff operatives have aggravated the problem. Still, the phenomenon is a dangerous one. Whether or not they have ventured too far into political waters, the bishops remain our spiritual shepherds.

Bishops are not ordinary men. Armed with the fullest power of holy orders, they are specially blessed with the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. A bishop may express his opinions too freely on issues outside the scope of his proper authority, but that does not alter the nature of that authority. A bishop may be a lousy political analyst, but he is still successor to the apostles. If we erase that understanding, what have we accomplished? We might stop the trend toward radical politics within the Church, but only by subverting the Church’s real teaching. We might win the battle, but we would lose the war.

Does that mean that we can never criticize a bishop? No; only that the criticism should be voiced respectfully and prudently. Respectful criticism acknowledges the bishop’s rightful authority, and suggests that he is not exercising it properly. Prudent criticism recognizes that if laymen butt into the bishops’ bailiwicks, they cannot really object when bishops turn the tables.

This, too, is an important recognition for those of us who object to episcopal involvement in partisan politics. Ordinarily, politics is the realm of the laity. That is, the Church realizes that laymen, not priests or bishops, will ordinarily have the special knowledge and skill necessary to enact the faith in the political world. If bishops begin concentrating too heavily on prudential judgments, they are usurping the proper role of laymen.

By the same token, theological issues are ordinarily the realm of the hierarchy. (Of course there are professional theologians as well, but their task is determined by their dialogue with the bishops’ teaching authority.) When laymen begin making their own pronouncements on what constitutes heresy, they are abusing the bishops’ authority. And when they claim that certain bishops are heretics, that betokens a sort of arrogance that has no place in the life of the faithful.

What, then, can a layman do if he thinks his bishop has committed some serious offense against the faith? The first step, of course, would be to talk with that bishop himself. Then, if he is still unsatisfied, he should write to the Papal Nuncio. And then wait, quietly. If he thinks that the bishop has taught errant doctrines (or allowed errant doctrines to be taught in his diocese), the layman should do his best to see orthodox doctrines advanced more forcefully. But he should not presume to denounce the bishop.

Too often, orthodox Catholics begin to think of themselves as the Pope’s special representatives, battling against the American hierarchy for the good of the Roman Church. Let’s face facts. The Pope does have special representatives in this country: the bishops. If he disapproves of their behavior, he — not we — has the authority to reprove them.

Recently, the Vatican has given ample indications that the Holy Father is indeed dissatisfied with the American bishops. Still, it would be going too far to suggest that the Pope has decided to purge the American hierarchy. The new bishops are impressive priests and leaders, but they are not revolutionaries; they have not embarked on a rash of excommunications and heresy trials. As one friend put it, Archbishop O’Connor did not get his PhD in political science from Georgetown by clubbing people on the head. Anyone waiting for the new bishops to denounce their episcopal colleagues should be prepared for a long wait.

Recall, too, that political savvy is not the most essential characteristic of a good bishop. (If any of the twelve apostles was a political genius, he left the Church no signs of his skill.) I take my own bishop, Washington’s Archbishop James Hickey, as a case in point. When he speaks out on political issues, I blanch; if he were running for public office, I would vote against him. But he isn’t running, and I’m not voting. Far more important, in my view, is the fact that a person coming to Washington can be sure of finding a lively, orthodox parish; liturgical and doctrinal deviations are comparatively rare, and when they come to light the Archbishop deals with them forcefully. (I have heard especially vociferous “progressive” priests insist that Hickey’s middle initial A stands for Adolph.) After the next consistory, I suspect that the Archbishop will be wearing a red hat. He deserves it.

There really is a struggle going on in the Church today. There really are people abroad preaching unsound doctrines, and flouting the authority of the Magisterium, and twisting the Church toward purely political ends. Perhaps some bishops can be numbered among the culprits. (Personally, I suspect so.) But the problem will not be solved by collapsing the serious religious problems into simple political issues. Some of our political opponents agree with our essential goal, and some of our political allies reject it; no political issue constitutes a litmus test. Our ideological opponents might think that religion and politics are coterminous. But they are wrong.

 

By

Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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