Sunday, January 24, 2021

Virtue Signaling Into a Wrong Turn?

Warning signs are flashing ev'ry where, but we pay no heed

'Stead of slowing down the place, we keep a pickin' up speed

Disaster's getting closer ev'ry time we meet

Going ninety miles an hour down a dead end street

Yeah, ninety miles an hour down a dead end street

Well, ninety miles an hour down a dead end street.


—Hank Snow, Ninety Miles an Hour


As a confession, I used to be a bishop basher. That showed up in the (thankfully no longer available) earliest days of my blogging. My perspective changed due to two things. First, I studied the Vatican II document Christus Dominus, which brought home to me the fact that these men were successors of the Apostles and my behavior was wounding Christ’s Body, completely at odds with my professing to be a faithful Catholic.


The second reason was when Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008. I do not know what he said to the bishops in the closed meeting, but I could see they certainly came out fired up and speaking out. During the next twelve years, they did speak out on wrongdoing that we frequently tolerated.


Let me stress that WE. It made a lot of people angry when they spoke out against policies favored by our side. People angrily demanded to know why the bishops didn’t speak out against the evils of the other side. Democrats accused them of being in the pockets of the Republicans and vice versa. Leading a prayer service one night, an angry participant asked why the Church didn’t speak out against homosexuality or abortion.


I was tempted to ask, “Why? Are you a homosexual abortionist?” Thankfully, the Holy Spirit gave me a swift kick of prudence, and I avoided destroying a friendship. But behind the snark, there was a purpose to my unasked question: We should be looking to the Church to teach us how to live in accord with God’s will, not for them to tear our enemies “a new one.” If they teach on an issue, and we think they are on the wrong side, that should be a major red flag that we are going in the wrong direction.


Now that does not mean that bishops are infallible. They are sinners like us and can choose to do wrong. They can have dubious opinions and make bad administrative decisions. The sex abuse scandal proved that. But, as canon law reminds us, it does mean that when they teach in communion with the Pope, we are to give religious submission of the mind:


can. 753: Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.


We certainly need this reminder today. After a bitter election season, we see partisan Catholics from both sides of our dualistic political system accuse the bishops of openly supporting the other side. Catholic supporters of Biden accused the bishops of supporting Trump. Catholic supporters of Trump accused the bishops of supporting Biden. As with all contraries, it is impossible for them to both be right. But it is quite possible that both sides can be wrong*.


And the critics were. The bishops staunchly opposed policies at odds with Church teaching during both Democratic and Republican administrations. Anybody who paid attention would know they opposed the evils on both sides. But, tragically, people only notice the criticism of their own side and think that the criticism of their political foes is never enough. The problem is, what the partisans want is for the bishops to say, “your side is scum and you must vote my way.#” But the bishops cannot do this. Cardinal emeritus Arinze mentioned this in his interview/biography, God’s Invisible Hand:


Bishops, therefore, should not come producing political formulae for solutions of inter-ethnic and national questions. As individuals they have every right to have opinions, but if they voice that opinion it would be regarded as that of the Catholic Church, and that’s serious. The bishop has to be aware that he is spiritual father for many, and the Catholic Church does not impose a political pattern on all her children. The bishop should be able to speak on Sunday to people who have different political affiliations. The people should be able to recognize in him their common father. This explains also why the Church would not like the bishop, or the priest, to engage in party politics—because it becomes difficult for that priest or bishop to be spiritual father to those who disagree politically with him. (Page 81).

Canon law #287 also tells us:

can. 287 §1. Most especially, clerics are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people.


§2. They are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.

Telling Catholics to vote for a specific party is a violation. This is why the Bishops put out voting guides that tell us the moral obligations we must keep in mind. If we use them dishonestly or fail to have a good reason (that God will accept at the Final Judgment) to justify support of a candidate or party who will inflict evil, we will answer for it.

Of course, the demand for justice is real. We see a government do evil and, especially when a Catholic is involved, we want the Church to speak out. The problem is, we only want them to do that with our enemies. Faced with the risk of four years of the other party in power, we want them to be quiet about our own faults lest we lose elections. So we want them to become as partisan as us, but only if it works in our favor.


In other words, we want the bishops to play hardball with our enemies but we refuse to be disciplined ourselves. Instead, when the bishops say “you are also wrong,” we accuse them of heresy and dredge up falsehoods or facts irrelevant to the issue at hand as an excuse to disobey. We portray our disobedience and hypocrisy as a “higher obedience.”


We are virtue signaling, but our signal shows we are headed in the wrong direction at a high rate of speed, ignoring the warning signs that the bishops put up.





(*) Contraries can both be wrong. Contradictories mean one must be right and one must be wrong. So “All A is B” and “No A is B” are contraries. If only some A is B, then both are wrong. However, if I respond to “All A is B” with “some A is not B,” I have contradicted the statement and one of us must be right and the other wrong.


(#) A couple of bishops did effectively do this and the result was that partisans pointed to them as “proof” that the whole Church did it.

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