More Failures of Leadership from Bishops’ Conferences

Since the presidential election, I haven’t been watching the American news channels much, I haven’t had the heart. The US appears to be about to go over something they are calling the fiscal cliff because of Obama’s triumphalistic behavior: he won, so he’s not compromising with congressional Republicans who want much-needed public spending cuts, and he’ll blame them if they do all go over this cliff (there are, I understand, other analyses of what is happening, but I like this one best). This cliff may not seem like our business, but it is: if they do go over it, it will have a very severe effect on the American economy and therefore on everyone else’s, including ours.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to write about: watching, for old time’s sake, the wondrous Megyn Kelly on Fox News the other day (she comes on at the most convenient time for English observers) I came across an interview with a Fox anchor called Bill O’Reilly, who seemed like a good egg, so I had a look at his own more primetime show, The O’Reilly Factor. This, according to Wikipedia, is “the most watched cable news television program on American television.” I found, interestingly, that he is not only currently running a campaign in defense of Christmas against the atheists who want any mention of it banned in all public places and institutions, but also one more broadly in defense of Christianity itself, against the increasingly aggressive secularism more and more endemic in American culture. Inter alia, he protested last week at having to lead such a campaign himself because of the total failure of leadership in all the mainline churches. He didn’t say so, but he sounded like a Catholic to me (Wikipedia confirms this). This is what he said: “There’s a lack of will and a lack of leadership in the Christian communities generally speaking. I have to lead this campaign. The biggest sinner in the world is leading this campaign. What God’s saying is, is there anyone else who can lead this campaign? Anybody except O’Reilly? Anybody? I have to lead this campaign. We don’t get, what we’re not getting, is organized leadership from any of the churches. They just don’t engage.”

Sound familiar, dear English readers? The day after I saw that (you can watch the whole discussion here) I read this, on Fr Ray Blake’s admirable website.

I have rarely seen Fr Blake more passionate: “I cannot help but feel very angry,” he says, “that since the letter from the Archbishops of the four Provinces of England and Wales we have heard nothing officially from the Bishops or the Bishops’ Conference on ‘gay-marriage’. In the last few days I have received communications from several individual priests urging me to write to my MP or to the Prime Minister, I have also received emails from a few non-Catholic Ministers of Religion and a local rabbi, and as it is Brighton from a group of gay Christians who recognize the redefinition of marriage as an attack on the stability of the family but from the hierarchy there is only continuous silence.”

What’s interesting here is Fr Blake’s analysis of exactly why this is so, which is one I have more than once argued myself: it’s the existence of the bishops’ conference as a bureaucratic entity (rather than as a spiritual body). It’s the bureaucratisation of our hierarchy—so that only the official episcopal spokesman in a particular area, as chairman of some board or other run from Eccleston Square, with its own lay secretary (probably an ex-priest or laicised nun), or on the other hand the archbishops speaking collectively (an extreme rarity)—may speak for the other bishops: this means that individual bishops have their own prophetic voice if not silenced then severely weakened.

As Fr Blake interestingly says: “A Curial Bishop once told me that a few Episcopal Conferences in the world give leadership but most frustrate it. In our case the bishops’ conference certainly frustrates the accountability of individual bishops to their presbyterates and their people, an accountability which was in the vision of Vatican II, in its strengthening of the bond between a bishop and his diocese.” Fr Blake goes on to quote the present Pope, who over two decades ago said: “The decisive new emphasis on the role of the bishops is in reality restrained or actually risks being smothered by the insertion of bishops into episcopal conferences that are ever more organized, often with burdensome bureaucratic structures. We must not forget that the episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function.” (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

The fact is, however, that since episcopal conferences have no theological basis, individual bishops could still say exactly what they want to say at any time, whether the conference bureaucrats like it or not: and one or two have actually started to do just that. There was, you will remember, the great Bishop Patrick O’Donohue of Lancaster, now alas retired; and more recently and repeatedly, there has been (guess who) Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury. On the subject currently exercising Fr Blake, he says this:

Bishop Davies said [the Telegraph reported in June]:

“The Deputy Prime Minister was recently reported as saying he could not understand why Christians and other people of faith saw a legal redefinition of marriage as a matter of conscience: it would not, he claimed, impinge on religious freedoms.

“Experience, of course, might make us cautious of such assurances, even those given by a Deputy Prime Minister, that this agenda will not threaten religious freedom.”

He said that concerns were not solely about religious freedoms but also the attack on marriage as the foundation of family life.

“Today we see a government, without mandate, disposing of any credible consultation, seeking to impose one of the greatest acts of ‘social engineering’ in our history in uprooting the legal definition of marriage. Marriage lies at the very foundation of the family.

“For all generations to come one generation of politicians sets out to demolish in the name of an ‘equality agenda’ the understanding of marriage that has served as the timeless foundation for the family.

“The Government is seeking to do this at the very moment when marriage as an institution has been more weakened than ever before. Yet it asks: why are people of faith concerned?”

Bishop Davies added: “So far from weakening and confusing the foundation of the family we invite our political leaders to give back to the institution of marriage and the family the recognition and confidence it deserves.”

So, it’s not entirely true that there is no leadership from our hierarchy. There is, we see reported here, at least one voice speaking out in words not vetted and emasculated by Eccleston Square. But it’s not enough: we need them all to speak out, we need an episcopal cacophony. So, anyone else? Well yes: again, guess who: “The Rt Rev Philip Egan, Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth,” reports the Bicester Advertiser, “has said the plans to extend the right to marry would have catastrophic consequences… Such a change is of immense significance. By this change, [the Prime Minister] is luring the people of England away from their common Christian values and Christian patrimony, and forcing upon us a brave new world, artificially engineered.”

That’s what we need now: bishops who will speak out, in and to their dioceses and therefore directly to the wider world; and we need many more of them.

Archbishop Mennini, please note.

This column first appeared December 11, 2012 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

  • Many are “gearing up” for the collapse of cordiality between the US government and the Church. I, for one, am ready to extinguish our relationship which is based on charitable tax breaks. When our priests and bishops can stand proudly and name the representative from the pulpit for whom we should vote, then true Catholic teaching will prevail. We now have only mealy mouthed proclamations about voting “one’s conscience” which can mean just about anything these days.
    Let the persecutions begin.

    • Tout

      CARPENTER Sorry, but I am afraid, that is not the best solution.The Church must be careful to lead in religion. People must choose according to what may be best for the Church. The Church must firmly teach our Faith, Christians must firmly live their Faith. Show politicians, they better see to it that they merit our vote in order to win. The Pope teaches us how to live in service to God and neighbors. Let Catholics show they want to live in God’s Love, & practice that love to all people. If we don’t vote, politicians may realize, if they want to win, they must work for our vote. Christians can only win if we act as Christians. It’s up to us to show that Christians are the best for the people, for the country. Christianity must not be lived within 4 walls. Show it for all to see. Atheists can’t stand that. Let every church have a cross or saint’s statue outside where every parishioner says a prayer at least once a year. Or at least a crucifix against the church-wall, 2 m. above ground. Regretfully, our own church build 3 times in the last 25 years. Never replaced the communion-rail for us to kneel on. When I remarked this to a woman, she laughed and said “That is not done anymore”. She never knew about ‘Federation Sacerdotale St.Peter’ (FSSP), Those priests got the right 25 years ago, to do only the Tridentine(Latin)Mass as before 1963, provide communion-rail, give on tongue. German & American bishops didn’t want them as pastors. Finally in great need of good priests, accepted them. Now they even have their own seminary in America because many young men join them. The German mother-house(we were there long ago) just added a new wing. They always dress as priests. Here,drove 40 km to their Sunday Mass, and 40 km back. Have no more car. Learn what some parishioners did to have the Latin Mass back. Please, all serious Catholics, begin with receiving on tongue. God wants to come in you, not in your un-blessed hands. Love your Church, and country.

      • Ib

        Tout, it sounds like you’re in tough financial straits. I will be praying for you!

        • Tout

          LB Thanks for your prayers, did pray for you before typing. I don’t understand what gave you such idea about my finances.

        • musicacre

          The car thing; I think Tout is in his 80 s. My Dad stopped driving recently for the same reason.

          • Tout

            MUSICARE I am well over 92, in ‘old people’ home; the only one here to make sign of cross before any meal, between 80 people. For many years wear a wooden 3cm cross over my sweater, for all to see, no matter where I go. Years ago, had sign across top of our car “Is God calling you ?” I didn’t talk much about religion, I propagated it. My beloved wife and I went to see the ongoing miracle in Mexico city; to Italy to see what must be Jesus’ burial cloth; to Israel, Lourdes. The Popes prefer kneeling & receiving on tongue. Every Christian should know the wonderful story about Antonie Radler in Wigratzbad(Bavaria, Germany) born 15/12/1899.The Nazi’s tried to kill her. Please, have the courage to receive the H.Host on tongue !.

            • musicacre

              I’ve been trying to tell you; we DO take communion on the tongue! Kneeling. If a person believes it is truly God they are receiving I don’t know how they could do less..There are no NEW devout positions, it always will be kneeling, reserved only for our Lord!

              • Tout

                You must have a communion-bank in your church ? To my knowledge we can not kneel in any of the 5 churches here. Some have a bank but is never used. You are lucky. Usually only in a Latin Mass can one kneel.

      • Ford Oxaal

        FSSP is growing very nicely indeed. I highly recommend charitable giving to the FSSP. You get a huge bang for the buck.

  • Bob

    Church leaders don’t address sexual morality issues because they don’t know how to do so. In the past the culture did the teaching about the immorality of same sex sex. Since the culture no longer does so, and because so many of our clerics are themselves active homosexuals, the best they can do is a very weak objection to gay marriage. One might hear a petition about the sanctity of marriage which misses the point in that it’s homosexual sex acts which are the issue of the moment. Real marriage in our culture, and maybe even in our Church, is for practical purposes nearly dead anyway. Gay marriage will have the effect of drawing many young people into experimenting with gay sex, and possibly making a career out of it. Clerics need to speak up articulately about this danger.

    • Edward Peitler

      I have now made it a point when reading the Prayer of the Faithful at Sunday Masses to always say: “That married Catholics will embrace the Church’s teachings regarding the procreation of children…we pray to the Lord.” It gets people thinking: “What’s he referring to?”

    • Tout

      Bob, absolutely. If all Christians were truly Christians, we probably would not have to worry about the homosexuals. Homosexuals fear that good schools warns students about the homo’s sickening life-style. Youth organizations must warn our children about the dangers. Homos show, they have no respect for others, the way they present themselves in public demonstrations. Let parents clearly teach their children the dangers of such life-style. Show their children the courage of the Scouts and other people. Let parents teach youngsters to protect their body, allow their body to develop in good health and strength; ready for a successful lifelong marriage. So that they earn God’s blessing.

  • Bill Russell

    Upon his election as President of the USCCB in 2010, Timothy Dolan said: ” It’s not like, thanks be to God, we’re in crisis. Things are going well.”

    Great. Don’t worry. Be happy.

    • Tout

      RUSSELL I feel that it is really necessary for Catholics to truly be Catholics, having little leadership from our bishops.

    • Jaymike

      I was very happy when Abshp Dolan was elected as President of the USCCB. Unfortunately, his actions have proven to be profoundly disappointing if one is a faithful Catholic. So far we have seen Dolan the politician rather than Dolan the shepherd. Not to be unkind or disrespectful but some of my friends have started to refer to him as “Dolan the Dolt”. It’s becoming harder and harder to argue with them. I pray and hope that a massive “Jolt” will not be necessary to wake up the good Abshp Dolan.

      • djpala

        True, but, where would we be if ‘kicanas’ had become president of the USCCB ?

  • woodhead20

    Obama “refuses to negotiate”??? I thought negotiation was a two-way street – and the Republicans, after being told rather clearly of the wishes of the electorate, are AT LEAST equally failing us. And besides – the lack of leadership of the Bishops is well-recognized – and not only in the political arena! What are they doing about RELIGION???

    • ChristianinNewEngland

      Apparently you are unaware of the way 0bama has ignored, rebuffed and ridiculed every attempt by the Republicans to ‘negotiate’ over the past 4 years and that continue to date – the name you chose to identify yourself by is appropriate.

    • msmischief

      It wasn’t the Republicans who invited Obama over to tell them “I won.”

    • Ib

      The wishes of the electorate re-elected most of the Republican candidates to the House. Oh and the electorate did retain the incumbent in the presidency. But one thing is clear: the wishes of the electorate are for a mixed government. Read Jay Cost’s recent column in the online Weekly Standard to find out …

    • Tout

      WOODHEAD20 Indeed, the lack of leadership by the bishops. They come together to find out what to say. I wonder if any bishop dares to teach true religion personally. That is why I feel, Catholics carry a big weight, presenting our religion to the world. To start, I ask Catholics to receive the H.Host on tongue. God wants to come in us, not in our un-blessed hand. Many others and I never received in hand, tho some priests tried. Please, receive on tongue. Let priests tell their bishop “Most of my parishioners receive on tongue”. It could be a wake-up call for our bishops. The Popes said they prefer that we receive on tongue. They give on tongue.

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  • Ford Oxaal

    I wonder if this somehow explains “church speak” — the weird bureaucratic language you see in the parish newspaper. Examples: (1) no article: “Called to be Church” — where is the ‘the’. (2) new verbs: “I was dialoging with…” — an odd usage. (3) meaningless phrases: “in a special way” — I hear this all the time, not all that special I guess. Etc. And who came up with “our thoughts go out to you at this time…” — really? do they? or are you just saying that so you can move on. Maybe the funniest “speak” is “intellectual speak.” You have to find ways to use the “I’m an intellectual” codewords: gravamen, conflate, etc. (I used to keep a list for fun but it got lost). Here is an online academic sentence generator:

    • Jaymike

      This is fantastic. What a hoot. How this for your reading pleasure. I just constructed this. Would someone please tell me what it means?

      “The reification of post-capitalist hegemony is always already participating in the systemization of the specular economy”

      • Ford Oxaal

        In the modern world, meaning is in the eye of the beholder. (But you need a pair of those magic eyeglasses that are too small for your visual field to find true meaning :).

      • John200

        Hmmmm, if you treat me right, I might just write a 25-page academic article explaining it to you. Or mayhaps, a book is in order here.

        Can you get me a contract with a publisher?

  • Tout

    I have the impression that our bishops don’t speak personally, but come together to find out how they can come up with a GENERAL statement, avoiding a clear cut leadership to their parishes. A bishop should listen to the Pope, dare to lead his Catholics to God. I feel like listening to the Pope, but can not always follow his advise, because of the bishop. Remember the Pope stating that the Tridentine Mass always would be a proper Mass.Later, that we had the right to receive the H.Host on tongue,but must obtain the permission of our bishop. Finally gave priests the right to give on tongue, without having to ask permission from the bishop.How many bishops advise us to receive on tongue ? Which bishop asks priests to have a communion-rail in their church ? Luckily all priests of the ‘Federation Sacerdotale St.Peter'(FSSP, since about 1985) provide a communion-rail, give on tongue. In other Masses, people receive as if they receive a cookie.I never received in hand, tho 2 priest tried to open my hands. Please, receive on tongue.God wants to come in us, not in our hands.

    • musicacre

      Yes JG and Tout, something has to change, and since there IS now a crises mode, the Bishops will have to actually be the shepherds or soldiers for Christ that they are supposed to be. The GENERAL statement stuff is the evil conference mode where they are all manipulated and steered to soothing each others’ feelings, (Delphi method being used on them) instead of stirring the pot and saying something Catholic and moral. So now that they have had the wake up call, what will they DO, to prove to the waiting world that they are TRULY awake!!! They don’t want to have on their tombstones….WAS ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL, WITH PREDICTABLE RESULTS.

      • Tout

        I ask everyone: don’t wait for others, or bishops, or whoever. I have to act. Dare to act. When I wanted a procession, I started alone, walking, praying, rosary in hand, around 4 streets. The 7th time(2005) a mother and son came along.In 2008 (I was 88) a lady took over. Did beautiful job, 50 people praying, singing, carrying Mary-statue to church for Mary-crowning. In 2004 in Turnhout(Belgium) prayed at Sacred Heart statue on the marketplace. It was in terrible shape, held together with 5 metal bands.Back in Canada,wrote to 100+people and the Mayor there, that statue needed repairs. Was fully repaired in 2006. Catholics, come alive, show yourself. Atheist try hard to shut you inside. Show your belief. Start with Communion on tongue. That God may give you strength to act.

        • musicacre

          Wonderful! I know you mention it a lot, and it is worth mentioning, communion on the tongue. My husband and I, and our 6 children wouldn’t think of receiving any other way, it is always communion in the tongue!

          • Tout

            MUSICACRE Fine. Realize, besides your adoration of God, you are teaching your children and evangelizing to all those around you. All that is so very important. Your acts are worth more than my writings. Best wishes for the coming feastdays

            • musicacre

              Thanks for the encouragement! I pray my children will always treasure the Mass enough to continue being reverent and humble in the presence of God. I don’t like it when at other parishes, the priest will sometimes encourage a type of casualness, or irreverence. The children see through it, but are scandalized just the same…

    • djpala

      ‘In the hand’ was promulgated by ‘bernardin’. He needed 75% of the Bishops to vote for it. It failed in 1975 & 1976. In 1977 he again failed to get a majority of those in attendance & reverted to collecting votes from retired & hospitalized Bishops, he counted the extra votes & claimed that it passed. Paul VI gave him this vote option & he lied to the Pope to get what he wanted. The option should never have been given period !

  • J G

    The HHS mandates were a bit of a wake up for the USCCB. But old habits die hard. I believe at some point things will tip and bishops will have to choose. They will be astonished when it happens, but enough are already prepared for it. The culture of death will brook no dissent. We are going to find that out the hard way.

  • Edward Peitler

    I, too, wonder about the bishops’ conferences. I happened to tune into one seesion of the USCCB’s Fall meeting. One of the bishops’ committees was asked to produce a document on the faithfuls’ use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One bishop (one who seemed to follow the magisterium and thus an oddball) got up to the microphone and requested that a mention be made of the Church’s requirement of Catholics to receive the sacrament at least once a year. From the obvious push-back he received, you’d think that he was suggesting that we should now ordain lesbians to the priesthood. Any wonder why we remain in the confusion we are in and Catholics are leaving the Church in droves?

    • Tout

      PIETLER With a few other men who received Communion from a bishop, I was the only one who knelt on the floor. What may the bishop have thought of that ?

    • musicacre

      It makes you wonder if their lives are being threatened if they say anything remotely Catholic….

      • Ford Oxaal

        They no longer have as much of the benefit of the prayer of consecrated virgins as they have enjoyed in the past. As I am sure you probably know, the laity needs to step up to the plate with the daily rosary — escape from the world for a few minutes — what a great vacation that is.

        • musicacre

          We do that, every night. Sometimes it can be heard to round up the kids from all corners, but we are always happy once we are gathered…

          • musicacre

            Actually, I know this sounds weird, but even the cat comes and sits at our feet as we pray the rosary.

    • djpala

      This has been the problem since the sodomite-collective took over under the guidance of ‘bernardin’. It will continue until they die because no one is going to kick them out.

  • Norm C

    I must say that respect for the teaching authority of the bishops is sadly lacking in Dr. Oddie’s piece, in the comments within, and in the editor’s decision to publish this piece in this Catholic journal.

    • givelifeachance2

      No, respect for the teaching authority of the bps *conference* is rightfully lacking. The teaching authority of the individual bishop, on the other hand, is being vigorously upheld.

      • Ib

        Good distinction.

      • Norm C

        How is it being vigorously upheld here?

        • Augustus

          Dr. Oddie is calling upon the bishops to exercise their authority to teach the faith. With a couple notable exception, he laments that the majority of bishops (in England at least) are not doing so consistently and speculates that the bishops’ conference is the culprit. Your blind obedience to episcopal administrative decisions (as opposed to doctrinal ones) appears to have prevented you from grasping the obvious point of the article.

      • djpala

        We are only required to obey the Bishop in our respective Diocese. The USCCB has no authority to enforce anything.

    • Micah

      I agree, Norm. This piece borders on heretical in its disrespect for the full spectrum of Church teaching.

      • Ford Oxaal

        Good one. But I doubt that the bishops will be conducting an investigation into Dr. Oddie’s heresies anytime soon, because in the modern world, there is no such thing. Although, how do you explain the bishops’ seeming paralysis? Perhaps, through them, God is giving us enough rope to hang ourselves. Perhaps the modern vision of death — a peaceful fading away under the influence of morphine — is too kind. Maybe you wake up in a permafrost where the slightest light feels like the blue hot sun.

      • rsmyth75

        what does “disrespect for the full spectrum of Church teaching” mean??? i find it funny that when desenting against true church teaching, liberals applaud! when pointing out the lack of courage of our leaders to protect the flock against the wolves, we r called heretics! u really got to be kidding us!!! what nonsense!!! I hope u r not serious?

      • djpala

        The heretics are the ones who corrupted the USCCB in the 60′ & 70’s !

    • Jaymike

      The problem with the Bishops (as a group and especially in the US) is that they have NOT/are NOT exercising their teaching authority when it comes to SIN. For sure they have essentially eliminated SIN from the pulpit and replaced it with “Social Justice” and the “Spirit of Vatican 2” Makes you feel warm and fuzzy in the “Church Nice” Wake up man. Where have you been the last 50 years?

      • djpala

        The entire blame can be traced to the ‘seamless-garment’ author & the prelates that belonged to his homosexual-collective !

    • Ford Oxaal

      The cause may have to do with modern communications and intelligence of some of the faithful. When you see what the Bishop of Rome says and does, and compare that with your local bishop, you often start to scratch your head.

  • Ib

    People like to quote that old 1985 interview that Ratzinger gave when he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I haven’t checked through all of his subsequent publications, letters, email, etc., but he can’t stll hold to this since John Paul II, in “Apostolos Suos” regularised the existence of Episcopal Conferences in canon law. Indeed, they can teach magisterially provided that their decisions are unanimous (AS 22). This means that “the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own Bishops” (AS 22).

    But if a Bishop is using the Episcopal Conference to cover for his own lack of spine (“wouldn’t want to do anything that the others haven’t done, you know”), that’s not the fault of the Episcopal Conference. Such Bishops would find some excuse to avoid having to endure the ridicule and spite of the chattering political classes, whether Episcopal Conferences existed or no.

    We need to pray for our Bishops that they be men of fortitude and joy. How else can they lead the new evangelization?

    • Tout

      LB Yes, we must pray for our bishops. I have the impression, they do not give proper leadership.

      • musicacre

        They need to start looking to the Pope! I think it is that simple!

  • b.

    One does feel sold downriver by the bishops.

    Do they have no sympathy for married people? Is this what celibacy has wrought? Do they wish they could have married their same-sex lovers when they were young?

    And so is it time to end celibacy, to grow a priesthood that values the faithful commitment of one man to one woman for the birth of one child?

    • Ford Oxaal

      The faithful need to pray the daily rosary, that’s all. Perhaps God is dividing the sheep from the goats.

  • b.

    I was impressed to read in the WSJ that gay marriage activists went door to door in Maine to before this last election, to convince voters to vote for redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.

    They evangelized.

    Article Excerpt
    Votes Test Gay-Marriage Support
    LEWISTON, Maine—Anthony Geroux recently told a door-to-door campaigner who approached his driveway not far from here that he was undecided about Question 1, a voter referendum to legalize gay marriage that will be on the state ballot Tuesday. Mr. Geroux, a 52-year-old financier, previously voted against gay marriage and said his Baptist church published a notice in its Sunday bulletin saying congregants shouldn’t “redefine traditional marriage.” But after talking with the canvasser about a close friend who is gay, he wasn’t so sure. “I’m probably going to vote for it now, because that’s what’s fair,” Mr. Geroux said.

    We didn’t.

    Why not?

    • Guest

      You’re right. They aren’t afraid to evangelize their religion from hell. Why are we afraid?

  • Some Guy

    Dear “Dr.” Oddie
    Do you really expect me to believe that you are not a regular consumer of the drivel from Fox
    News and Bill O’Reilly?

    • djpala

      Spoken like a true follower of the anti-Catholic, muslim-communist in the oval office !