Thursday, November 15, 2018

With Growing Concern

Preliminary Note: This article is written acknowledging the rights and responsibilities of the laity put forth in canon 212. No disrespect or rejection of the authority of bishops is intended. This is instead written to express my concern that some of the statements made by bishops at the USCCB conference might end up needlessly adding to the division in the Church today.

It is clear that since the release of the first Vigano letter, there has been a good deal of mistrust directed against the magisterium of the Church. Groups of the laity have openly accused Pope and bishops of corruption and even willful malfeasance. They declare that we cannot trust the clergy and we must have lay oversight over the bishops to ensure that justice is done.

I recognize that the mishandling of ex-cardinal McCarrick and his rise in the Church doesn’t inspire confidence. While the news of his being guilty of sexual abuse only came out this year, there were accounts of inappropriate behavior of seminarians. While I personally had not heard of those rumors prior to the sexual assault scandal breaking, apparently people in his diocese had heard about them. Such a man should not be in the position he was in, and if this behavior was known by his fellow bishops at the time but not reported to the proper authorities in Rome [§], that was a travesty.

Combining this with the fact that not all cases from the 1940s to 1980s (the vast majority of abuse cases in America) were revealed after the 2002 policy changes, it is understandable that a member of the laity might wonder about who else might be responsible for hiding things that should have been passed on. It is also understandable that, knowing some complaints were passed on to Rome at some level, that people want to know how far up this went before it was accidentally overlooked or deliberately hidden.

So let’s take it as a given that it’s not wrong for the laity to expect the Church to be governed justly and it’s not wrong to want reform where it was not. The problem is not in wanting reform. It’s in some of the reforms demanded. If a reform contradicts the nature of the Church as established by Christ, that reform must be rejected. If the lay oversight demanded interferes with the nature of the office of bishops as successors to the Apostles, we cannot implement it. If the office of Bishop is reduced to being an employee of the Church, we must reject it. If the clergy are reduced to vending machines of sacraments, we must reject it. Our Lord gave the authority/responsibility to govern the Church to the Apostles and their successors and they cannot abdicate that.

This means that, when the laity demand something that the Church cannot give, the bishops must defend the nature of the Church. That doesn’t mean we must passively accept corruption. But it does mean we must work within the nature of the Church in reforming it, giving the proper reverence and submission when due.

And that’s where I feel concerned regarding this meeting of the USCCB. They planned to vote on three measures regarding the scandal. However, the Vatican received those measures literally at the last minute, meaning there was no time to review them. Two of them are potentially at odds with Canon Law as it exists. So the Congregation of Bishops asked the USCCB not to vote on them and instead wait for the meeting of the heads of bishops conferences in Rome in February 2019. Keep in mind that this meeting was not just invented on the spot. The Pope announced it shortly after the scandal broke. Any national conference of bishops should see that as the place to reach decisions on policies.

But we actually saw a good deal of complaints about the decision by the Congregation of Bishops. We saw numerous articles about the bishops expressing disappointment. This struck me as providing soundbites that help animate the mob. The mob has been led by demagogues to believe that the Church under the Pope is “sweeping things under the rug.” Saying they are disappointed strikes me as passing the buck. The “Vatican” didn’t arbitrarily block a reasonable reform. The appropriate Congregation determined that the propositions being voted on needed more time to study than the time given between the USCCB sending the draft and the time of the vote. As the old saying goes, “Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.” In other words, the Church cannot rush into things—especially if the proposals might wind up contradicting canon law and potentially go against Church teaching. So it is not the fault of the Congregation of Bishops that the proposals were not delivered so they could be fully evaluated in a timely manner.

I believe that the USCCB has a responsibility to make the reasons known. It’s one thing to say, “we’re disappointed to see that we failed to deliver the proposals in a timely manner and missed the boat.” It’s quite another to say (or imply) “we’re disappointed that the Vatican wouldn’t let us vote on this.” The former admits the problem. The latter sounds like “it’s not our fault.” Let’s face it. Many Catholics don’t do nuance. They take (or make) soundbites from complex ideas. GK Chesterton described the phenomenon this way:

(All Things Considered, page 170)

What concerns me is that while the directive by the Congregation of Bishops doesn’t block productive work, a mob of Catholics are taking these quotes as “proof” of obstruction. Expressing “disappointment” in this climate feels close to yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater. I understand that the appearance of “doing nothing” is dangerous when people want justice. But so is haste. So is giving the impression that others are “covering up” when that is not the case.

Thus, my request—reverently given—is that the USCCB be careful and precise in expressing themselves to avoid inciting the mob of angry Catholics who misinterpret what they hear and then assume the worst from the Church. While I pray I am wrong, this situation reminds me of my studies of the anti-clericalism in the Church before the Protestant Reformation. Demagogues exploited this in rejecting the authority of the Church in the 16th century, resulting in the sundering of Christianity. Demagogues today could do the same thing.

Otherwise, we could wind up with another tragic schism where people wrongly believe untrue things and use those errors to reject the Church, winding up outside.


[§] If I understand it correctly, nobody knew of the sexual abuse of a minor until the victim came forward this year, and there was nothing about his beach house behavior that could be reported to law enforcement because it was not against the law in America.

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