Is This 2018 or 1517?

As Yogi Berra said, “this is déjà vu all over again.”

Christendom is dead. The Church is reeling from grave scandal, and Christians are crying out to heaven for reform and purification. It is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.

After the gospel triumphed in the Roman Empire, the Church gradually acquired forms of life borrowed from imperial organization. Many of those forms still serve us well. But over time some of those forms have ceased to make sense and have become impediments to the evangelical freedom of the Church. I believe this is evident in significant aspects of how bishops now live and exercise their Catholic ministry.

Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms, for example, tend to distance bishops from their priests and people, and also subtly nudge them toward self-important and self-referential ways of thinking and acting. As the recent catastrophic scandals demonstrate, too many bishops have proven unable to act as pastors and evangelists and have instead behaved as managers and bureaucrats. The current crisis in the Catholic Church reveals that the clerical culture in which bishops and priests live is in many ways diseased and deformed, requiring renewal through the fire of divine love and the revealed truth of the Word of God.

Grotesque unchastity is an obvious symptom, but perhaps even more dangerous to the priesthood is the habit of mendacity that hides unchastity and other sinful habits. Superficial flattery and fawning over the person of the bishop can deprive him—unless he has an uncommonly strong and healthy personality—of the evangelical simplicity and candor he needs to fulfill his duties. While deference to the bishop may begin with true reverence for his office, it too often leads to the growth of vanity, ambition, and clerical careerism. And so it is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.

But wait. The Imperial Episcopate is dead. Long live the Imperial Episcopate:

Deep reform will, of course, depend primarily on the bishops themselves. . .

Wait, there’s more:

We should encourage bishops to abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black. . . . How does that pageantry serve the gospel now, if it ever did? For the purification of the priesthood and the authentic reform of the Church, everything that is of Imperium rather than Evangelium needs to go.

Every diocesan bishop is known by the title of his See city because it is the place of his cathedra, the apostolic chair from which he teaches the gospel. For this reason, every diocesan bishop should celebrate at least the principal Sunday Mass in his cathedral church every week. . . .if the bishop is actually in his cathedral on the Lord’s Day, then not only can he celebrate Mass there, he can also lead the singing of Vespers each Sunday evening and show his priests and people how and why to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the salvation of the world.

Every diocesan bishop should look at each employee in his chancery and ask this question: If this person’s job disappeared, would anyone in our parishes ever know the difference? If not, then why does this job exist? Chancery bureaucracies generally do not serve the mission of our parishes in which most of the Church’s vital work takes place; . . .

Every diocesan bishop’s most important task is to be pastor of the pastors, and each bishop should know all of his priests personally and intimately. Why is each man a Christian? How and why did he become a priest? What are his joys and sorrows? What are the main obstacles in his life to greater holiness? Is he happy and effective in his ministry? The business of getting to know priests in this way cannot be delegated to vicars. . . .

As for the auxiliaries, who are by far by the most numerous of the titular bishops, these exist primarily for one reason: to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation in the parishes of large dioceses. I submit that this is a deformation of the episcopate. If a diocese is too large for its proper pastor to serve, perhaps that diocese should be broken into smaller local churches. And even if the bishop cannot personally celebrate Confirmation in each parish, he can teach his people that he is the original minister of that sacrament and is present to the people in the sacred Chrism he consecrates every Holy Week in his cathedral. Then the bishop can delegate to priests the duty of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation without in any way diminishing the essential role of the episcopate in the sacramental life of the Church.

You’d have thunk this fellow was reading Luther and Calvin. You’d be wrong. Roman Catholics don’t listen to Protestants.

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Why Reform Won't Ever Happen

Old institutions are hard to change. They have their own culture. Big administrations are even harder to change. They have their own culture. Which is why I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church will ever become reformed. It’s too big, too top-heavy (and that’s why this announcement is important). But it’s also clear that the laity and the bishops don’t really want church life to change.

Consider the following:

“It’s an outrage,” Peter Saunders told the National Catholic Reporter, that Pope Francis appointed Juan Barros–a man accused of covering up and witnessing a priest’s acts of sexual abuse–bishop of Osorno, Chile. (Barros denies both allegations.) “That man should be removed as a bishop because he has a very, very dubious history–corroborated by more than one person,” according to Saunders, a member of the pope’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors, and a clergy-abuse victim. Saunders went so far as to say that he would consider resigning if he doesn’t get an explanation. He wasn’t the only commission member who was shocked by the pope’s decision. “As a survivor, I’m very surprised at the appointment in Chile because it seems to go against…what the Holy Father has been saying about not wanting anyone in positions of trust in the church who don’t have an absolutely 100 percent record of child protection,” said Marie Collins. On March 31 the Holy See announced that the Congregation for Bishops had found no “objective reasons to preclude the appointment.”

That did not sit well with Saunders, Collins, and two other members of the commission (there are seventeen in total). So they flew to Rome last weekend for an unscheduled meeting with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the body. What a difference a day makes. “The meeting went very well and the cardinal is going to take our concerns to the Holy Father,” Collins told NCR on Sunday. . . . Cardinal O’Malley agreed to present the concerns of the subcommittee to the Holy Father.” That’s quite a bit different from decrying the appointment as an outrage. Did Cardinal O’Malley bring them back from the brink simply by listening? What’s going to happen after he shares their concerns with Pope Francis?

Tough to say. It’s not as though the pope is left with any good options. Leave Barros in, watch the Diocese of Osorno burn, and risk blowing up the sex-abuse commission. Remove him and earn the ire of the world’s bishops for giving in to the mob. (I wouldn’t downplay that worry; it would be widely viewed as a dangerous precedent.) Should the appointment have been made in the first place? I don’t think so. But it’s been made. And now that the Congregation for Bishops has announced that there is no objective reason not to have appointed Barros, the pope’s hands are pretty well tied. Do commission members appreciate that bind? I hope so. Because this already confounding case won’t be clarified any time soon. This may not be the hill they want to die on.

All that power, all that scandal, all that public outrage, and the liberal editors at Commonweal shrug? The pope’s in a hard place? Who said being vicar of Christ was easy?

But sure, condemn the Turks.

Update: since writing the above David Mills tries to cut through the seemingly endless defense of the papacy. Like a lot of former Protestants who have doctrine on their minds, he distinguishes between the popes’ offhand comments (and perhaps even weightier statements) and the catechism, which may help with the spiritual gas that attends the bloating that follows episcopal overreach:

The pope didn’t say that even atheists get to heaven by doing good deeds. Catholic Vote has a good explanation with links to others. He only said, quoting Brian Kelly, “there can be, and is, goodness, or natural virtue, outside the Church. And that Christ’s death on the Cross redeemed all men. He paid the price so that every man could come to God and be saved.”

And if he had said something like what my friend thought he’d said, he would have been saying only what the Church teaches in sections 846-848 of the Catechism. More to the point, given my friend’s allegiances, he would only have been saying what C. S. Lewis, a writer my friend admires, said at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan explains why a warrior who had worshipped a false god was found in heaven (the passage is found here ). That’s not dumb, even if one disagrees with it. The Catholic wouldn’t need to twist himself into a pretzel to explain that idea, had the pope said it.

The Catholic Church isn’t that hard to understand. The Church herself has created a huge paper trail of authoritative documents designed to declare and to teach.

But this view of the church doesn’t take into account all those gestures and even instances where acts say more than words. What does it say that Francis appoints Juan Barros in Chile? What does it say that the pope is willing to condemn the Turks but not homosexuals? What does it say that worries about mortal sin don’t seem to come from the bishops’ lips while they are willing to pontificate (see what I did there?) on the environment, immigration, or Indiana? Does bloated come to mind?

And to top it off, David says that any political conservative should have a certain admiration for papal authority:

Of course, the Catholic will feel hesitant to criticize the Holy Father in public, as one would hesitate to criticize one’s own father in public. The Catholic will also first ask himself what the pope has to say to us that we need to hear, even if he said it badly. He will give the pope the benefit of the doubt. He will generally say, with regard to the Holy Father’s statements, “Who am I to judge?”

This is a disposition to authority my friend, a political and cultural conservative, would admire. And I think that if he weren’t talking about the Catholic Church he’d recognize it as such. Respect and deference are very different from being forced to twist yourself into knots trying to rewrite the pope’s statements. The people who might do that (were it needed) might do it from a natural sense of filial protectiveness, of the Church and her pope. That also my friend should admire.

Maybe for a Tory but not an American conservative. The founding was not about respect for monarchical kinds of authority — hello. It was about putting limits on government — checks and balances — and its instinct is a healthy distrust of people in power. Why? Because of sin and the tendency to abuse power. And this is why it is so baffling that Roman Catholics in the U.S. would become defenders of American government unless they want to go all 2k on us. Suspicion of government is something that so many Roman Catholics find difficult to fathom when it comes to the magisterium — which may also explain why so many of the Protestant converts are so little engaged in discussions about politics (except for the bits about sex) or why the Protestant converts who do do politics don’t seem to say much about the church.

David Mills may have an effective strategy for Protestants who don’t follow all the news that Roman Catholics create — just keep it to the doctrine and the worship the way good Protestants do. But the Roman Catholic church’s footprint is hardly doctrinal and liturgical. If that’s all it were, I might have more sympathy for David’s point. But has David ever wondered why the Vatican is about so much more than doctrine or worship or why Roman Catholics write so much in defense of every single thing the papacy does, such as:

Pope Francis’ comments on the extermination of Armenian Christians in early 20th-century Turkey prompted a strongly worded criticism from the Turkish Foreign Ministry and led to the withdrawal of Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See. But what’s the full story?

As the April 24 centenary commemoration of the Armenian genocide approaches, tensions between Turkey and Armenia run high. Despite this, Pope Francis remembered the martyrdom of the Armenian people during his April 12 Mass at the Vatican.

The Turkish government criticized the Pope and an Armenian representative in a Sunday statement, focusing on the use of the word “genocide.”

Most non-Turkish scholars consider the mass killings of 1915-1916 to be a genocide in which the Ottoman Empire systematically exterminated its minority Armenian population, who were predominantly Christian. Roughly 1.5 million Armenians — men, women and children — lost their lives in ways ranging from executions into mass graves to meticulous torture.

Turkey has repeatedly denied that the slaughter was a genocide, saying that the number of deaths was much smaller and came as a result of conflict surrounding World War I. The country holds that many ethnic Turks also lost their lives in the event.

Pope Francis’ comments on Sunday set off a firestorm of criticism among Turkish leaders, prompting the removal of the country’s Vatican ambassador.

What could be lesser known, however, is that the Pope’s introductory remarks included a precise quote of the joint text that St. John Paul II and Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos Karekin II of the Armenian Apostolic Church issued on Sept. 27, 2001, during a papal visit to Armenia.

Lots of words and gestures, so little time for interpretation. So let the paying, praying and obeying interpreters interpret. Let them do to the teaching and actions of the magisterium what Protestants allegedly do with the Bible. Spin and spin and spin and spin away.

Religious Life at Notre Dame

While Jason and the Callers are admiring the early church fathers, here is an observation on their contemporary brothers and sisters from Mark Noll in a review of George Weigel’s, Evangelical Catholicism:

It is mostly inconsequential, but perhaps also of some interest to record how I have read this book against the background of experience at Notre Dame. From that experience I would conclude that there are indeed some Catholics committed to deep church reform who already practice something like Weigel’s evangelical Catholicism. But it also seems obvious that such Catholics make up only one part of a church that in its U.S. expression includes many other Catholics eager to promote their respective visions of reform. This rainbow of reformers includes Garry Wills Catholics, G. K. Chesterton Catholics, Robert Barron Catholics, Joe Biden Catholics, Dorothy Day Catholics, Sandra Schneider Catholics, Opus Dei Catholics, Oscar Romero Catholics, and many more. As someone who has read several works by John Paul II and Benedict XVI with real appreciation, I hope very much that they have set the church on a path that it will follow, but then I wonder why in some conversations at Notre Dame, I as the non-Catholic seem to have the most positive things to say about these two popes.

One of the great privileges of being at Notre Dame has been to witness what can only be called Roman Catholic Christianity at its best, marked by profound understanding of fundamental Trinitarian theology, strong commitment to the Christology of Nicea and Chalcedon, expert deployment of philosophy in service to theology, deep personal piety, and dedicated Christian commitment to a wide range of social reforms. Examples of what to all appearances look like admirable personal religion supported by admirable family, parish, and social religion also abound.

Yet Notre Dame is also a place where a broad array of often incompatible ideals are proposed for Catholic reform, where cafeteria religion seems pervasive for what Catholics choose to do or believe, where students participate in dormitory masses and standard college dissipations with equal fervour, and where no one seems too concerned about vast stretches of nominal Catholic adherence.