Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The "complexities" of the episcopacy

I am currently watching the drama unfold around the alleged comments made by Cardinal Schönborn yesterday on the need of the Church to grant lasting gay relationships "more respect", to "reconsider" its position on re-married divorcees and on his uncertainty as to whether celibacy leads to sexual deviance in the priesthood. I am not going to comment on Schönborn's remarks now, since I am allowing some time to elapse for the possibility that he may have been misquoted, or wants to clarify his statements. I will get back to this in a few days when everything has had time to come to the surface and when we can verify that the Cardinal did in fact say these things (see here).

In the meantime I do want to address a certain attitude I see pop up occasionally when any bishop or high ranking ecclesiastic, who otherwise has a conservative reputation, says something stupid. Whenever a Cardinal, like Schönborn (who seems to be the gaffe-prone Joe Biden of the hierarchy), says something incomprehensible, reckless, offensive to the faith or just plain dumb, many Catholics will step forward and say, "Now, now, we can't be too hasty in judging these comments by bishop so-and-so; after all, we don't know what its like shouldering the weight of the magnitude and complexity of the office of our Bishops. We ought to just trust them and assume they didn't mean exactly what they seem to be saying." According to this excuse, the episcopacy is such a complex, delicate and elaborate office that a degree of tact and spin is always required when bishops speak; this has the downside of sometimes making their words unintelligible to us. Nevertheless, because we can't imagine the "strain" they must be under, we should just trust that they know what they are talking about even when it is obvious nonsense.

Well, I agree that I have no idea what it is like to be a bishop. I don't know the strain they are under, nor do I grasp the subtleties necessary in formulating episcopal statements.

But just because I have no personally experienced the "strain" of the episcopacy doesn't mean that a Catholic has no right to be puzzled or have an opinion when a bishop says something stupid. Are we to be blamed if we connect the obvious dots? If Bishop X says something completely wacky, liberal or outlandish, are we going out a limb for assuming that Bishop X must be a wacky, liberal or outlandish bishop? "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" says our Lord (Luke 6:45). But some would have us believe that there is no connection between what the mouth speaks and what the heart believes - that if  an ecclesiastic says something liberal or incompetent, we should not therefore question their competence or their orthodoxy but should rather assume the opposite.

To make this more clear, let us draw a parallel to the way people once viewed the United States government. When the Iraq War broke out, President Bush said that he had incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This "evidence" was not presented to the American public. Nevertheless, patriotic Americans were called upon to support their president and their country. Many Americans did just that, reasoning that although they didn't have the evidence in front of them, the president and the military must know what they are doing. Americans were asked to go along with the war on the assumption that the intelligence was really there and that the information was so complex, delicate and sensitive that it could not be revealed to the public. We were asked to go along in blind faith, and many did.

Of course, what actually happened was the opposite of what we were told: instead of the information being so complex and secretive that it couldn't be revealed, it was found to be so flawed, scanty and obtuse so as to be unreliable. The men we trusted because they "knew what was going on" were revealed to actually have no clue what was going on. The alleged "evidence" that we were supposed to have faith in never materialized, and many Americans realized only too late that the whole thing was sham, but a sham that they went along with under the pretext that the intelligence was too sensitive to  be revealed and we just had to trust the powers that be in making the big decisions.

Is this not how some would have us respond to questionable comments from cardinals and bishops? "Don't worry; I'm sure he's orthodox. If he wasn't, he wouldn't have become a cardinal! We can trust him, even if what he is saying makes absolutely no sense." We grant the same measure of trust to these ecclesiastics on the premise that they are inherently trustworthy, that they are looking out for orthodoxy and want to preserve tradition. And if their words fly in the face of all those assumptions, or if by their actions they show that they don't mind flagrantly discarding Catholic tradition - then instead of calling it like it is, we convince ourselves that their office is so complex and their responsibilities so weighty that we, the ignorant laity, cannot possibly understand where they are coming from. Therefore, the best thing we can do is just passively sit back and watch bishops and cardinals run amok in their dioceses all while singing their praises and lamenting about the great strain they must be under.

I don't deny that bishops are under strain, but let's be perfectly clear about one thing: while the bureaucracies and structures of the modern episcopate may be complex, the office of a bishop is very simple. Preach the Gospel! Be a sign of unity for the local church. If someone asks you if celibacy leads to sexual perversion, you don't huff and puff and say psychiatrists are debating the issue; you give a firm and resounding "NO." If someone asks how one gets to heaven, you don't speculate about "elements of truth" in other religions and "invincible ignorance" and the theories of von Balthasar; you say, "Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone is the way to heaven." If somebody asks you if homosexual relations are sinful, you say "YES"; what you don't do is amend your answer with dozens of qualifications about a committed relationship being better than promiscuity, about how homosexuals can love each other too, etc. These sorts of qualifications and distinctions, even though they may have some validity to them, only serve to confuse the faithful, especially after the media gets through picking out their select soundbites.

I think the real problem here isn't with orthodoxy (especially among the otherwise "conservative" bishops) but rather with fortitude; i.e., spinelessness and duplicity when it comes to speaking the plain truth. Bishops and cardinals, among all people, should speak the most plainly and unreservedly. How will the flock learn the faith if it is not preached to them? "Woe to me if I do not preach!" says St. Paul of the bishop's duty to preach the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:16); thus he lays a malediction upon bishops who fail in this fundamental duty of preaching.  Failing to communicate the Gospel is a serious thing for a bishop. If so, then why do they sometimes fail to preach? We have been told that it is because they are under a lot of strain, but could it be because many are spineless?

Like the case with the Iraq War, Catholics need to realize that a lot of bishops who we thought were so intellectual and complex could really just be cowards who have no clue what they are doing or what they ought to be doing. If they repeatedly say or do incompetent things, could we infer they may be incompetent?  You know the old saying about "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..." We ought to face up to this possibility. I'm not calling out anybody by name, nor am I standing in judgment here. I'm condemning nobody; but I am making the simple observation that any bishop who refuses to state the plain truth when he has the opportunity and the duty is a coward and I don't think there is anything wrong with pointing this out.

Do I believe this about Cardinal Schönborn? As I said in the beginning, I am not making any statement on Cardinal Schönborn's words until more information comes out, and nothing I have said in this post is with reference to any specific bishop or cardinal. But I do believe there are quite a few cardinals and bishops who fit this mold; men who would abandon the clear teaching of the Faith as soon as it becomes socially unacceptable to profess it anymore, as soon as the "strain" gets to them. But if they are the type of people who do indeed buckle or disseminate under strain, why are they in the episcopacy? And why do we make excuses for them?

I truly hope that Cardinal Schönborn was misquoted, taken out of context, or that this whole thing is a lie. We'll see, but judging from what I've seen of the Cardinal in the past few years, I would not be surprised if this whole thing is completely true.

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