End Notes: Arrant Nonsense

The Catholic can too easily (and increasingly without warrant) feel superior and patronizing when reading of such married clergy as those depicted by Anthony Trollope. Mrs. Proudie, termagant spouse of the Bishop of Barchester, rules the diocese because her husband has been reduced to episcopal putty in her hands. One can still read such delightful passages as those recording the struggle between the bishop’s chaplain, Mr. Slope, and Mrs. Proudie for possession of the bishop’s soul as powerful arguments on behalf of a celibate clergy. Mrs. Proudie wins because she shares the bishop’s pillow and can exert that influence that, with nineteenth century discretion, Trollope leaves to the imagination of the reader.

But there are different ways in which rulers can be ruled.

There are occasions when episcopal oversight, the etymological function of bishops, becomes mere overlooking.

Recently, Catholics were confronted by headlines announcing that the Catholic bishops of the nation had addressed the question of homosexuality, and were, in effect, urging parents to accept as a given the deviant sexual orientation of their children. Like so many statements of this kind, it was a study in ambiguity and, since such statements amount to press releases, they are not destined to be carefully read in any case. Their framers can predict the headlines they will create. This statement gave aid and comfort to the homosexual ideology, and seemed to put the full force of the teaching Church behind the proposition that while some may achieve homosexuality and others have it thrust upon them, there are those who are simply born that way and parents must lovingly accept them as such.

Quite apart from the arrant nonsense of such claims—they are ideological through and through, instruments in a campaign to destroy the morality bishops are ordained to preach and pass on to the next generation—there is the question of the status of this statement.

A few months ago, it occurred to some cardinals, archbishops, and bishops that the Catholic Theological Society of America had outlived its usefulness. This society had convened to call into question the Church’s competence to decide on the question of women’s ordination. Quite rightly, it was asked whether such an organization has not outlived its usefulness for the Church—if such a criterion would even occur to a majority of its members.

It seems that a time has now arrived when the bishops of the United States are going to have to take a serious look at their Washington bureaucracy, and ask whether it has not in large part out-lived its usefulness. The “bishops’ statement” referred to above seems not to be a statement of our bishops after all. Many of them were as surprised to hear of it as we were. Such compromising of the teaching authority of the bishops can scarcely be tolerated by them. If this is overlooked, what does episkopein mean?

Social scientists have had much to say about the process of bureaucratization, that diffusion of responsibility that renders functions anonymous until deeds are done without discernible doers, and men become oppressed by the instrument they created to facilitate their work.

The post-conciliar Church has become excessively bureaucratized. It has happened in Washington, it has happened in dioceses, it has happened in parishes. Who has not been struck by the army of people listed on the parish bulletin without which, apparently, the work of the pastor can no longer be done? It is clear enough that no one person could perform all these many tasks. The question arises, however, as to the need for all this activity.

Special Eucharistic ministers have slowed up the distribution of Holy Communion, not facilitated it. Many lectors cannot, alas, be heard. Others, alas, can be. There is a rotarian feel to the parish Mass that ought to, at least, be thought about. Is all this really necessary? Are there so many buffers between priest and people that the pastoral function is no longer effectively exercised?

We can all be humbled by the thought of previous generations, the enormous tasks performed by individuals. This is nowhere more true than in the case of the heroic priests and bishops who built up the Church in this country. Would they have delegated so many tasks, even if they could have?

There are many ways in which the clergy and bishops can be compromised, and being married—taking Trollope for my authority—is only one of them.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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