When Bishops Put Obedience Above Charity

The role of a bishop is not to be as obedient as possible; it is to sanctify his people as much as essential obedience allows.

Fifteen years ago, Bishop Michael Burbidge, then heading the Diocese of Raleigh, instituted one of the best plans for implementing Summorum Pontificum. Two months ago, he announced one of the worst policies for implementing Traditionis Custodes in his current Diocese of Arlington. Public understanding of this policy has been confused by half-truths from both the diocese and its critics. The reality is in some ways better and in some ways more disturbing than it seems.

Beginning on the positive side, the number of locations offering the Tridentine Mass every Sunday has only been reduced from ten to eight. Eleven parishes had the Tridentine Mass on a limited basis, often only on a handful of weekdays each month. Provision for the laity remains reasonable, though hardly “generous” as the diocese fatuously claims. A generous bishop would have dispensed all twenty-one parishes from Traditionis Custodes on his own authority. A great one would have encouraged eleven of them to begin weekly Sunday Masses. 

But limiting locations to a reasonable number is not the whole story. Three were transferred from parish churches to school cafeterias and gyms, another to a former church recently turned into a hall and stripped bare. Parishes have been told not to list Tridentine Mass times in their bulletins.

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These policies were not enacted because Bishop Burbidge decided to choose appeasement or because he was later hounded by Rome. They were enacted because Bishop Burbidge chose a path which he and his representatives are calling “faithfulness” but is more accurately termed “servility.”

I do not use the term lightly. I do not use it because Bishop Burbidge disagrees with those who believe current circumstances justify certain forms of disobedience or with what can and cannot be done during a grave crisis. I do not use it because of any disagreement I may have with Bishop Burbidge as to the bare minimum which Church law strictly requires.

I use the term because Bishop Burbidge is not interested in determining the bare minimum Church law strictly requires and then facilitating use of the Tridentine Mass as much as possible. His policy is to embrace Pope Francis’ decision to restrict the Tridentine Mass as much as he can while still providing reasonable access to it. The reason is that Bishop Burbidge misunderstands how obedience ordinarily works under normal conditions.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, perfection consists primarily in choosing God as the supreme good. Obeying Him as the supreme authority is an essential element of that—not the core of perfection. We most directly choose God as the supreme good in prayer. In necessary obedience we indirectly obey God as the supreme authority. The perfection of prayer is the perfection of choosing God and uniting ourselves to Him as the supreme good. Perfection of obedience through nonessential obedience is not an essential precondition for perfect prayer and is virtuous only insofar as it does not impede the higher good.

Later writers inverted St. Thomas’ principles. For them perfection does not consist primarily in choosing God as the supreme good but in obeying Him as the supreme authority. Perfecting obedience was then elevated above perfecting prayer. The natural but absurd conclusion is the belief that to pray less deeply but under perfect obedience pleases God more than to pray perfectly while being minimally obedient.

More simply, in the view of St. Thomas, we obey God as a necessary aspect of loving Him; in an anti-Thomist view, we love Him as a necessary aspect of obeying Him. But, ironically enough, acting on the Thomist view is more obedient to the hierarchy of goods which finds its origin in God Himself.

All other things are distinctly unequal when nonessential obedience impacts others. Charity is greater than obedience. When nonessential obedience negatively impacts others, minimal obedience becomes virtuous and sometimes necessary under pain of sin.

Bishop Burbidge has decided to make a strong effort to implement whatever the pope of the moment’s liturgical policy is—and argues that this is virtuous. Hence, on July 15, 2021, Bishop Burbidge was committed to promoting use of the Tridentine Mass in accordance with Summorum Pontificum, and on the following day he was committed to restricting its use in accordance with Traditionis Custodes

His abrupt change of course is due to the fact that his priority is not to foster his people’s spiritual lives as much as essential obedience allows. His priority is to be as obedient as he can be, provided his people’s spiritual lives are adequately fostered. He chose to be sufficiently charitable so he could be more obedient rather than sufficiently obedient so he could be more charitable.

Such prioritization of nonessential obedience over charity is ultimately rooted in the anti-Thomist view and culminated in nineteenth-century ultramontanism. Such excessive submissiveness to the pope is precisely the danger which St. John Henry Newman warned against. Newman ultimately welcomed the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic definition of papal infallibility because he always believed the doctrine and the definition made clear how limited the scope of infallibility is. His earlier reservations were motivated by the fact that some ultramontanes wanted a definition which would push infallibility beyond its traditional limits, or at least be vague enough to insist upon nonessential submission to Rome in practice.

Newman’s anti-ultramontane principle of minimalization—of examining what we are strictly required to submit to and beyond that considering ourselves free to act on our own judgement as to whether greater obedience or something else is more reasonable in particular circumstances—accords with the Thomistic position that perfection consists primarily in choosing God as good. Belief that perfection consists primarily in obeying God as the supreme authority leads to the nineteenth-century ultramontane uncharitable attempts to pummel Catholics into nonessential obedience to Rome, which caused Newman to call them “an insolent aggressive faction” and to describe their behavior as “tyrannousness and cruelty.”

From the perspective of the doctrines of both St. Thomas and of St. John Newman, Bishop Burbidge has been even more incoherent by thoroughly implementing papal policies based on opposite theologies. Summorum Pontificum, as the bishop himself once accurately articulated, was based in Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity.” Cardinal Roche has plainly stated he wants the Tridentine Mass restricted because he believes in the “hermeneutic of rupture.” 

Either Bishop Burbidge has not investigated the reasons for the law which led him to impose drastic restrictions or he knows those reasons are unorthodox and went ahead anyway. Saints Thomas and Newman would insist that the choice between maximum and minimum obedience must take into account the good or evil ends intended by the superior.

From this it is clear that Burbidge does not understand the role of a bishop. It is not his role to be as obedient as possible. It is to sanctify his people and as much as essential obedience allows. This is why bishops have broad powers to dispense from universal Church law, to make diocesan law, and even to replace elements of universal law with particular law. Within the limits of Catholic doctrine and of essential obedience, sanctifying his people requires taking them—rather than the pope—as the basic point of reference.

Other bishops have done their jobs and worked to sanctify their people by allowing the Tridentine Mass to continue as before. They understood that they are Successors of the Apostles, not regional managers. Bishop Burbidge has not even had the integrity to openly admit he freely chose to do more than strictly required, relying instead on platitudes about “faithfulness.”

Catholics in Arlington have overwhelmingly tried to be polite and deferential. But our bishop has chosen to act like a Quisling rather than like a Successor of the Apostles. So, within the bare minimum of absolutely strictly essential obedience, it is time to embrace the joyful defiance of Quisling’s eminent contemporary, who recognized that “without victory there is no survival” and declared We Shall Never Surrender.

[Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency]

  • James Baresel

    James Baresel is a freelance writer. Publications for which he has written include Tudor Life, Catholic World Report, American History, Fine Art Connoisseur, Military History, Catholic Herald, Claremont Review of Books, Adoremus Bulletin, New Eastern Europe and America’s Civil War.

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