Married Presbyterian Pastors

Protestants do not receive nearly the credit they should for seeing 500 years ago what George Weigel recently observed (and it took Hillary Clinton — a Methodist).

First, marriage can be a good thing:

The Church’s unique, Christ-given structure invests great authority in bishops. And that, in turn, puts a high premium on the ability of the bishop to know his weaknesses and learn from his mistakes. But to know and learn from his weaknesses and mistakes, the bishop has to recognize them – or be invited to recognize them, if one of a number of vices prevents him from seeing himself making mistakes. Wives and children do this charitable correction for husbands and fathers. But Catholic bishops don’t get that form of correction because they don’t have wives and children. So it has to come from somewhere else.

Second, regular assemblies of clergy (think presbyteries or classes) also have their advantages:

“Fraternal correction” among bishops is an ancient and honorable tradition in the Church. Patristic-era bishops practiced it with some vigor, the most famous case being the controversy between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen, Bishop of Rome. Today, bishops’ respect for each other’s autonomy tends to mitigate against the practice of fraternal correction. Still, if “affective collegiality” means anything, it ought to mean having enough care for a brother-bishop, no matter his position in the episcopal college, to suggest to him that he is off-course, if that is one’s conscientious judgment, tempered by prayer.

Fraternal correction is a delicate instrument, to be used with care. If its use completely atrophies, however, the Church risks becoming an ecclesiastical version of Clintonworld.

Hello! The conciliarists of the 15th century knew this. But when you hold on to “venerable” institutions, it’s hard to change (or admit when you do).


Today's Lesson in Ecclesiology

From the far right:

After Pope Benedict XVI resigned, there was a near-universal agreement among Church leaders that his successor should make it a top priority to bring the Roman Curia under more effective control: that is, to govern the Vatican well. In the daily conferences leading up to the 2013 conclave, one cardinal after another spoke out in favor of administrative reforms. Not surprisingly, after his election Pope Francis soon pledged himself to the cause of Vatican reform. It is not an easy task, and to date we have not seen the fruit of his efforts (except in Vatican financial affairs, where the reforms driven by Cardinal Pell are taking effect), but it will be fair to judge this pontificate on the Pope’s success or failure in streamlining and taming his own bureaucracy.

But the problems of Church governance do not stop at the Vatican walls. Especially because Pope Francis has indicated a desire for decentralized leadership, the Church will need bishops who govern effectively.

How often have you heard complaints about a bishop’s prayer life? Not often; very few people are presumptuous enough to judge the quality of another man’s prayers.

Have you heard complaints about a bishop’s teaching? Yes, occasionally. Frustrated Catholics will sometimes say that a bishop’s public statements on doctrinal issues have been confusing or misleading. Far more frequently there will be laments that the bishop remains silent when a clear teaching statement is necessary.

Still, by far the greatest source about a bishop’s performance will involve his governance. The appointment of pastors, the decisions to close parishes or schools, and the diocesan budget priorities will always be easy targets for critics. But even beyond that, the most common complaints involve not the bishop’s acts of governance, but his inaction: his failure to respond to complaints about liturgical abuse or parish mismanagement; his unwillingness to rebuke prominent Catholics who flout the teachings of the Church; his acceptance of religious-education programs that mislead young people and leave them ignorant; his tolerance for priests who have lapsed into complacency or worse.

Granted, lay Catholics should spend less time complaining about their bishops, and more time praying for them. Nevertheless it is instructive to see the nature of their complaints. We certainly need bishops who pray fervently and preach effectively. But we also need bishops who govern well. Above all, we need bishops who want to govern.

From the Protestant left:

You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church by discipling other church members.

Remember Ephesians 4:15–16. The church builds itself up in love as each part does its work. You have work to do to build up the church. And part of that includes the ministry of words. A few verses later, Paul says, “Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another” (v. 25). Speak truth to them, and help them to grow. Our words should be “good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Also, make yourself available to be spoken to. Are you willing to listen?

Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. It is a part of fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples. Speaking of . . .

If through union with the second Adam God has reinstated you as a priest-king, your whole life should reflect the gospel in word and deed. You are an ambassador. Paul’s charge and example is worth repeating here:

He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:19b–20)

Every Christian has been reconciled, and thus every Christian has received this message of reconciliation. Therefore, we plead and we pray for sinners to be reconciled to God.

This, too, is a part of your job. The command to “Go and make disciples” belongs to you (Matt. 28:19).

From the moderate Calvinist middle:

1. Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders.

2. Those who fill this office should be sound in the faith and of exemplary Christian life, men of wisdom and discretion, worthy of the esteem of the congregation as spiritual fathers.

3. Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session. They should visit the people, especially the sick, instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the covenant. They should pray with and for the people. They should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.

As always, the one, the many, or the few.

The Answer

James Fitzpatrick has doubts and James Martin’s advice about discernment are not resolving them. The source of these doubts and advice is the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Martin appears to be optimistic about the direction of the Roman Catholic Church:

“Discernment,” Martin continues, “is the term used by Jesuits and their colleagues to describe the way that decisions are made in a prayerful way. St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, lays out many of these methods in his classic text The Spiritual Exercises. At heart, the process begins with the belief that God wants a person, or a group, to make good, healthy and life-giving decisions; and through the ‘discernment of spirits’ sort out what is coming from God and what is not.”

What does “discernment” look like in practice? Martin writes, “At the heart of every group discernment is the idea that everyone should be…radically free to follow God’s will wherever it may lead.” This means that the participants in the group should free themselves from “disordered attachments,” including “fealty to things, ideas and people” — including previously accepted beliefs and figures in authority — “that prevent one from thinking, speaking and acting freely. The most essential element of group discernment is this absolutely radical freedom.”

Martin acknowledges that this freedom may “create tension among those who feel that any movement away from the status quo is in opposition to fidelity to the church or that change itself would cause confusion.” This fear, Martin claims, must be rejected: “Group discernment calls for a willingness to be open with one’s thoughts and feelings, and also to be open to another person’s thoughts and feelings, no matter how threatening they may seem,” since “in group discernment it may be the least likely person or group through whom the Spirit moves most strongly.” It well may be, he continues, that the Spirit is moving in opposition to “those who feel that those with the most authority, learning, or experience naturally have the correct ‘answer’.”

It is for this reason, Martin asserts, that we should not overreact when we hear leaks about things said at the synod. Many of these early positions taken by participants will be rejected before the synod ends; they will not be part of the final report. We must have patience: “The Spirit blows where it will. It takes its time for people to offer their reflections, for questions, for discussion, for clarifications, for prayer and discernment. The Holy Spirit cannot be rushed.”

It is amazing to see a Jesuit appeal to the Holy Spirit as freely as Gilbert Tennent.

But Fitzpatrick, a conservative I suppose by virtue of his writing for The Wanderer, is not so reassured by Martin’s advice:

How can we feel confident that the participants at the synod are proceeding with a “prior commitment and fidelity” to the teachings of the Church, when recent years have given us so many examples of members of the clergy who have demonstrated their opposition to what the Church teaches?

We have seen Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee retire in 2004 after it was revealed that he had used $450,000 in archdiocesan funds to settle a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment of a male lover.

We remember how Pope John Paul II in 2003 found it necessary to remove Hans Hermann Cardinal Gröer from office because of allegations of sexual misconduct with young students in his care. In September 2005, Juan Carlos Maccarone, the bishop of Santiago del Estero in Argentina, was forced to resign after pictures were released of him engaged in sexual activity with another man.

More recently, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Keith Cardinal O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, because of allegations from three priests and one former priest that O’Brien had engaged in improper sexual conduct with them during the 1980s.

And just a few weeks ago, Fr. Krzysztof Charamsa, a Polish priest and Vatican official, came out publicly as an active homosexual with a male partner. Charamsa condemned what he called the “institutionalized homophobia in the church,” calling for a change in the Church’s teaching on homosexual sex.

And just this past week, according to, Archbishop Basil Cupich of Chicago said, concerning Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, that there are some ideas surfacing in the synod hall about “penitential paths” in order to integrate people back into the life of the Church.
“[Archbishop Cupich] pointed to the so-called Kasper Proposal, an idea floated by German Cardinal Walter Kasper that would create a pathway to Communion for the divorced and remarried, and he expressed support for the theology behind the idea, published in a book last year,” reported

LifeSiteNews reported: “When asked by LifeSiteNews if the notion of accompanying people to ‘the Sacrament’ who had a clear indication of conscience to do so also applied to gay couples in the Church, Cupich indicated an affirmative answer.

“‘I think that gay people are human beings too and they have a conscience. And my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point. It’s for everybody….”

So, I ask this question sincerely, without an axe to grind: How can we feel confident, given the above history and with some of the statements that have come from certain synod fathers?

Is the cure for such worries two multi-syllabic words — wait for it — papal infallibility?

You Know What Would Really Be Audacious?

So the papal visit to the United States has even more people reaching above their pay grades, trying to interpret that the chief interpreter is really up to. Is Pope Francis a lefty, is he a traditionalist, will anything change on marriage? So far Bryan and the Jasons are stuck.

What I’m curious about is whether Pope Francis is a pastor who ministers the good news of Jesus Christ. Think about this. Yesterday in the Wall St. Journal William McGurn opined that the pope is mistaken in his understanding of poverty, that capitalism is far better for raising the prospects of the poor than other schemes. That seems sensible enough.

In on of the comments on McGurn’s piece, a defender of Pope Francis tried to explain for the infallible explainer:

William misses the whole point. The Pope isn’t saying capitalism is wrong, he is saying the greed of executives and stockholders is wrong. It isn’t enough to make a good salary, they have to make more than the executives at their competition. They have the attitude, what is the minimum we must pay to get someone to do the job competently and that is what we will pay. The attitude of sharing the wealth is foreign to most executives and stockholders. Stockholders are not satisfied with the return they get, they insist the returns must increase or I will take my money elsewhere. It is when greed takes over that capitalism fails.

Maybe this person also has a point. Capitalism isn’t evil. It’s people who abuse capitalism. Got it.

Here’s the thing, Pope Francis actually has the remedy for the greed of executives and stockholders. He has at his disposal the truth of the gospel (as he understands it), a Petrine ministry, and a sacramental system that could actually change the hearts and minds of New York City financiers. Imagine if instead of visiting political figures, the pope went to Wall St. and preached. Short of a Cornelius Van Til moment, imagine if he had Cardinal Dolan set up a bunch of meetings in the board rooms of corporate New York and he explained the sinfulness of the human condition and the possibility of grace in the sacraments (not to mention the assistance of the Blessed Virgin). Wouldn’t that be something a pastor would do?

Imagine this as well, not only could he point the world’s capitalists to a life of virtue, he also has the remedy for these folks should an insufficient number of them convert and follow Jesus. If the world continues to warm and catastrophe happens, Pope Francis is actually sitting on the goods for a good life in the world to come.

Not too shabby.

But popes don’t do this and this is one of the greatest problems of episcopacy — it removes ministers from their flocks, or makes the pastors of flocks that are beyond their capacities. If Tim Keller has trouble visiting all the people who belong to Redeemer PCA, imagine the pope’s challenge of visiting 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, in addition to evangelizing Wall Street’s financial tycoons.

Peter Steinfels, by the way, as a liberal Roman Catholic is not pleased by all the attention on Pope Francis since Steinfels believes that Roman Catholicism “is bigger than one man.” Well, Protestants have been saying that about Christianity for some time, though they have also said Christianity is all about the God-man, Jesus Christ. Even so, Steinfels is pointing in the direction of the serious flaws that come with episcopacy and especially one whose universal jurisdiction makes the ordinary efforts of priests look irrelevant. Talk about subsidiarity.

Even so, if as J. Gresham Machen said, ministers have something that the world can never give, isn’t that even more true (on Roman Catholic grounds) of the papacy? He has it all — truth, ministry, sacraments. And what do popes do? To the untrained Protestant eye, it looks like a modern encyclical merely becomes a conversation starter. It’s a jumping off point for the faithful (now much better educated than the immigrant church that paid, prayed, and obeyed) to show off their expertise.

And to answer his critics, Pope Francis says that he could affirm the Nicene Creed. Yes, he could do that. But why not teach it? Why not explain it? Why not take it to the executives of Wall Street, Berlin, London, Rome even?

This is one reason why I think the church has become modernist. Sure, you can say the Nicene Creed. But do you believe it? Even more, does it inform your ministry? But if you think you are a moral life coach for the world’s population, a source for thinking virtuously about human flourishing, the leader who will point the world’s systems to a better and more just way — if you think of this world as home rather than as a foreign land — then you very well might engage in all sorts of pious thoughts about the world system of finance and technology and not consider that if you saved more people from their sins and put them on a path to holiness, maybe this world would be a better place.

When you are accustomed to mixing it up with emperors, monarchs, and presidents, mixing with the ordinary laity — even the ones making guhzillion figures — looks, well, shabby.

You Can't Spell Presbyterian with "Me"

My personal advice to any American Protestant is never to interrupt a debate between two English dissenting Protestants about celebrity pastors, but when one of them, Paul Helm, calls the other, Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian perfectionist, afflicted with “Bannerman’s Disease,” and “the zeal of a convert,” I can’t resist.

There are books of Church Order to be read, the contents of which are mastered by the lawyer-types of the church, and I confess that I do not find these a very satisfying genre. But besides this, I know without looking, that presbyterianism, like any such human system, leaks all the way. It leaks through nods and winks, through unattributable comments, through what is said and what is not said. Human society cannot be otherwise. We all know of poor people who have to protest their innocence all the way up, in courts of law and in Christian denominations, and that have been ruined by the attendant exposure, quite apart from the weeks and months of strain while documents are prepared and friendly counsel advised and the day of judgement awaited…. I say, in such circumstances thank God for religious consumerism. At least the aggrieved party can walk away, find another place of worship, and still earn a living.

I fancy that Carl goes on about this because he suffers from a sort of presbyterian perfectionism. Call it Bannerman’s Disease. A cynic might say that he has the zeal of a convert. When he bids us all to think with him of the church of Christ as a remnant, as living its life as if in exile, I’m with him all the way. And as I said in the post, I agree with critiques of the Big Men such as his. But not with the cure-all of Presbyterianism. The Black Book does not solve the bugbear of accountability. And the point is, if there’s nothing better in the Church of Christ that presbyterianism, let’s at least acknowledge its flaws. Carl recognizes the imperfections of the human natures of those that thumb the Black Book, and this is welcome. And this was my point. A perfect system administered by those with imperfections is de facto imperfect. Spurgeon famously said (from memory) ‘For me “lead me not into temptation” means “keep me off the committee”’.

Helm is right in a general Protestant church-is-imperfect sort of way that Presbyterianism leaks. But the system of church government that Calvin developed has real assets that Helm too readily ignores. Imagine, for instance, a faculty meeting where provost, department head, senior professor, and lecturer are all equal and you have some sense of the dynamics of session or presbytery. Or imagine a meeting of politicians where queen, prime minister, and back benchers are all equal, with the same authority, same access to debate, the same number of votes — 1. Presbyterianism is the great leveler and is no respecter of celebrity, age, fame, or Facebook friends. And because the meetings of elders are regular and absences must be excused by the wider body, to be Presbyterian is to be involved in a regular pattern of attendance where you are just one more member with no more rank or privilege than the guy sitting next to you. You have 12 books. He doesn’t have a Masters degree. You have journalists from national publications seeking an interview. The guy next to you fixes leaking toilets. In Presbyterianism, if you both are ordained you are both equal.

For the sake of the temptations that had to accompany his fame, Spurgeon should have said, “committees, put me on more of them.”

And even in those odd circumstances where a single officer has broad power thanks to the consolidation of finances and administration — say in a denominational committee — in Presbyterianism that rule of one becomes a secretary of a committee. The head of the foreign missions committee, does he have powers of the purse and can he influence votes? Maybe. But he’s merely a “general secretary” in Presbyterian church government. That means he is doing the bidding of the committee on foreign missions, which is a sub-committee of the whole assembly.

You want to knock the pride out of celebrity pastors? Make them Presbyterian.

If Presbyterianism checks the sort of privilege to which bishops are prone, it also beats congregationalism. To be sure, the democratic nature of congregational polity could also restrain the kind of egotism that afflicts celebrity pastors. But more often than not, the politics of local congregations witness large clans or members with large wallets having more sway than other members or families. And pastors of independent churches often resemble bishops since they function in a capacity above the rest of the church and have no formal peers in ministry.

What Helm fails to see is that Presbyterianism, if all officers go to meetings and submit to their fellow presbyters (if they don’t, they’re not Presbyterian), by its very nature humbles the proud. And face it, famous preachers are prone to pride as much as any other celebrity. But among those churches where Presbyterian government is most evident and Roberts Rules most consulted, celebrity is hardest to discern in the deliberations of assemblies.

Presbyterianism is not a perfect solution to either the parachurch (Gospel Coalition) or helicopter church (Rome), but it has its moments.

Should Biography Be So Important?

Ross Douthat’s article on Pope Francis reflects the smarts, insights, and courage that characterizes almost everything the columnist writes. His conclusion about a potential disruption of the church by the current pope is again refreshing, especially coming from a conservative, since most converts and apologists hum merrily the tune of “nothing changes, we have the magisterium.” Douthat recognizes that this ecclesiology makes it almost impossible for conservatives to stop a progressive-led disruption:

In the age of Francis, this progressive faith seems to rest on two assumptions. The first is that the changes conservatives are resisting are, in fact, necessary for missionary work in the post-sexual-revolution age, and that once they’re accomplished, the subsequent renewal will justify the means. The second is that because conservative Catholics are so invested in papal authority, a revolution from above can carry all before it: the conservatives’ very theology makes it impossible for them to effectively resist a liberalizing pope, and anyway they have no other place to go.

But the first assumption now has a certain amount of evidence against it, given how many of the Protestant churches that have already liberalized on sexual issues—again, often dividing in the process—are presently aging toward a comfortable extinction. (As is, of course, the Catholic Church in Germany, ground zero for Walter Kasper’s vision of reform.)

Contemporary progressive Catholicism has been stamped by the experience of the Second Vatican Council, when what was then a vital American Catholicism could be invoked as evidence that the Church should make its peace with liberalism as it was understood in 1960. But liberalism in 2015 means something rather different, and attempts to accommodate Christianity to its tenets have rarely produced the expected flourishing and growth. Instead, liberal Christianity’s recent victories have very often been associated with the decline or dissolution of its institutional expressions.

Which leaves the second assumption for liberals to fall back on—a kind of progressive ultramontanism, which assumes that papal power can remake the Church without dividing it, and that when Rome speaks, even disappointed conservatives will ultimately concede that the case is closed.

Aside from Douthat’s insights into the dynamics of the Francis papacy, his article also reveals the fundamental problem with episcopal church government. Most of the article is a review of three biographies in which Douthat tries to discern from the tea leaves of Francis’ life the direction of his papacy:

Yet several crucial issues—some raised explicitly by Ivereigh, some implicit in all three biographies—set Francis’s background and worldview apart. They help explain why his pontificate looks much more friendly to progressive strands within Catholicism than anyone expected from the successor to the previous two popes.

First, Jorge Bergoglio had a very different experience of globalization than Karol Wojtyła (who would become Pope John Paul II) and Joseph Ratzinger did in Europe, one shaped by disappointments particular to his country. For most of his life, his native Argentina was an economic loser, persistently underperforming and corruption-wracked. During the 1980s, inequality and the poverty rate increased in tandem; in the late ’90s and early 2000s, while Bergoglio was archbishop, Argentina endured a downturn and a depression. Where his predecessors’ skepticism of capitalism and consumerism was mainly intellectual and theoretical, for Bergoglio the critique became something more visceral and personal.

Second, in the course of his political experience in Argentina, he encountered very different balances of power—between the left and the right, between Church and state, and within global Catholicism—than either of the previous two popes confronted. As much as Bergoglio clashed with Marxist-influenced Jesuits, the Marxists in Argentina weren’t running the state (as they were in John Paul’s Poland, and in the eastern bloc of Benedict’s native Germany). They were being murdered by it. Likewise, the fact that the Church in Argentina was compromised during the Dirty War had theological implications: it meant that for Bergoglio, more-intense forms of traditionalist Catholicism were associated with fascism in a very specific, immediate way. And coming from the Church’s geographical periphery himself, Bergoglio had reasons to sympathize with the progressive argument that John Paul had centralized too much power in the Vatican, and that local churches needed more freedom to evolve.

Third, while highly intellectual in his own distinctive way, Francis is clearly a less systematic thinker than either of his predecessors, and especially than the academic-minded Benedict.

Douthat may not mean it this way, but why is it unfair to surmise that in the case of a bishop (even the one in Rome), the personal is truly political. Was this the way it was supposed to be, especially when the bishops were supposed to follow apostolic teaching? Where are the teaching of Scripture, the dogma of the church, or sacramental observance as decisive for Francis’ ministry? Why would his own personal experience be more important for setting the papacy’s agenda than the received traditions of the church?

The advantage of Presbyterianism, aside from its commitment to the antiquity of the prophets and the apostles, is that the rule by committee prevents any single bishop (read overseer or presbyter) from having his biography determine the assemblies or ministry of the church (unless you’re in the PCA in NYC). That may not be enough to crack the logic of Bryan’s noggin or turn Loser Ken’s head from all those trophies, but it’s something.

Even Michael Sean Winters thinks the bishops need more accountability (and who can blame him after what’s happened in Kansas City, but don’t forget about Pope Francis’ approval of what’s happening in Chile):

There are structural changes the Church can make that would serve to provide greater accountability. For much of the Church’s history, the decisions of a bishop could be appealed to his metropolitan archbishop, and the decisions of the metropolitans could be appealed to another metropolitan or to a national or regional body of metropolitans. The system was undone not by any decision the Church made but by the disruption in the Church’s life caused by Napoleon. In those tumultuous years, appeals to Rome became the norm. Today, the only vestige of the earlier system is that a bishop’s judicial decisions can be appealed to the metropolitan, and the decisions of a marriage tribunal are automatically reviewed by the metropolitan tribunal. But, only about ten percent of any bishop’s decisions are judicial. The other 90% are administrative, and if any appeal is sought from those, the appeal must be sent to Rome.

Just as the Holy Father has introduced a new body, the Council of Cardinals, to advise him, the Church could bring back the earlier system of appeal to metropolitans for all administrative decisions. How would that change things? If a bishop knew his decisions were open to expedited review by someone nearby, he might be more inclined to try and work things out amicably within his own diocese, or to consult with the other bishops about an especially problematic situation, in advance. It would not guarantee there would be no mistakes, but it would start to put flesh on the idea of episcopal collegiality articulated at Vatican II.

Hey, Mike, this is the kind of review that happens every single month when a consistory or session meets, or every four months when classis or presbytery meets, or every year when Synod or General Assembly meets. Face it, Reformed Protestantism put the reform in Reformation.

In the Same Boat?

Do Jason and the Callers concede what George Weigel admits, namely, that despite all the authority that they boast for their communion it turns out they have no episcopal oversight unless they are ordained. In comments about the media’s coverage of the sex abuse scandal, Weigel says:

Another fact that was missed is that reducing a man, an abuser, to the lay state persistently and, if you will permit me, mindlessly dubbed “defrocking,” a word which has absolutely no meaning in any known Catholic vocabulary, is often worse for both the Church and society. It’s worse for the Church because the Church has no way to control the man who has been laicized or reduced to the lay state, and it’s worse for society because that man cut loose from any possibility of institutional control by the institution in which he had spent some considerable part of his life might, therefore, pose a future risk because of what we know to be a high rate of recidivism in some of these cases.

How is this any different from a Protestant denomination or congregation except that Protestant apologists don’t go around boasting about the authority of their pastors and bishops?

In the same setting, Weigel raised yet another question about the gap between Jason and the Callers theory and Roman Catholic practice — in this case, whether the charism of apostolic succession can make up for ineptitude:

The second point that I would make is that if you are interested in doing real reporting among serious Catholics throughout the world, I think you will find something quite striking, and that is while there remains enormous, strong, emotional, and affective and personal support for priests, there are real questions about the competence of bishops throughout the Church.

No matter where I go in the world Church, North America, Europe, Latin America, the single biggest complaint I hear from engaged and intelligent Catholics is about the competence of the local bishop. Some of that is unfair, but a lot of it isn’t, and it speaks to a serious problem that the abuse crisis has brought to the fore.

Let me put that problem in historical terms. In the early 19th Century when the first Catholic bishops were being appointed in the then nascent United States of America, Pope Pius VII had a free right of appointment in perhaps 50 of the then some 600 dioceses in the world. The rest were controlled by governments, by cathedral chapters or other ecclesiastical organizations, but the Church did not have — the Church as embodied by its leadership in Rome — simply did not have control over the most crucial appointments in its ordained leadership.

One of the great untold stories of the success of Vatican diplomacy over the past 200 years has been to change that situation such that now with what is it, more than 5,000 bishops in the world —

. . . Five thousand and twelve bishops in the world, and with the sole exceptions of Vietnam and China, the Church has essentially a free right of appointment. So the Church has gathered back to itself after what some of us would consider this period of Babylonian captivity to state power in the appointment of bishops. It has regained the capacity to order its own house according to its own criteria.

And, in fact, this has been imbedded in the new code of cannon law, which says that no rights of appointment are to be given in the future to state authorities.

However, if you were going to claim the right to appoint, then you must also in my view own the right to dismiss, and this is perhaps the single biggest management problem in the Catholic Church today, is that we do not have a mechanism in place for dealing with instances of manifest incompetence or worse in the exercise of the local Episcopal office, and that problem in turn explains a large amount, I think, of the dissatisfaction of not marginal Catholics, but serious Catholics, regular Church-going Catholics, major donor Catholics, with local bishops, with the quality of the Episcopate throughout the world Church.

So here is another huge problem that has got to be addressed presumably in the next pontificate. How does the Church get the quality of leadership that the people of the Church deserve, and how does the Church deal with the problem of, frankly, failed appointments? When we get it wrong, how do we deal with this?

This has got to be addressed. I addressed it actually a bit in The Courage to be Catholic, and it’s perhaps a shining example of how little influence I have over things that none of this has had the slightest dent that I can tell on the way things are done.

But it’s a big, big problem, and it’s perhaps in the abuse crisis, if one is thinking about this over the long term, it’s the biggest problem that has come to the surface that will have real effect on the life of the Church and the life of the people of the Church for the next 50 to 100 years.

Do Jason and the Callers listen to other voices in their own communion — “we do not have a mechanism in place for dealing with instances of manifest incompetence or worse in the exercise of the local Episcopal office, and that problem in turn explains a large amount, I think, of the dissatisfaction of not marginal Catholics, but serious Catholics, regular Church-going Catholics, major donor Catholics, with local bishops, with the quality of the Episcopate throughout the world Church.”

They keep telling us they have a mechanism in place and regular Roman Catholics like Weigel say the mechanism doesn’t exist.

The fine print of Jason and the Callers’ call is that they raise the stakes of conversion. If you convert to mother church, they argue, you get so much more than a possibly subjectivized relationship with Jesus. But what happens if you don’t get all that? What happens if the church isn’t all that your theory says it is? What happens if the church isn’t the mechanism you say it is? Doesn’t that make conversion to Jesus in a setting where the church tells you that having Jesus is all you need — not worrying about whether the church’s claims for itself are audaciously true — a call that is much more compelling?

Called to Answer

Jason and the Callers don’t include the fine print in their call. We know. But I can’t imagine even the Callers have enough time to fill out all the surveys the bishops (and others) are sending.

Here’s one in preparation for the next Synod on the family:

The Socio-Cultural Context (ns. 5 – 8)

1. What initiatives are taking place and what are those planned in relation to the challenges these cultural changes pose to the family (cf. ns. 6 – 7): which initiatives are geared to reawaken an awareness of God’s presence in family life; to teaching and establishing sound interpersonal relationships; to fostering social and economic policies useful to the family; to alleviating difficulties associated with attention given to children, the elderly and family members who are ill; and to addressing more specific cultural factors present in the local Church?

2. What analytical tools are currently being used in these times of anthropological and cultural changes; what are the more significant positive or negative results? (cf. n. 5)

3. Beyond proclaiming God’s Word and pointing out extreme situations, how does the Church choose to be present “as Church” and to draw near families in extreme situations? (cf. n. 8). How does the Church seek to prevent these situations? What can be done to support and strengthen families of believers and those faithful to the bonds of marriage?

4. How does the Church respond, in her pastoral activity, to the diffusion of cultural relativism in secularized society and to the consequent rejection, on the part of many, of the model of family formed by a man and woman united in the marriage and open to life?

The Importance of Affectivity in Life (ns. 9 – 10)

5. How do Christian families bear witness, for succeeding generations, to the development and growth of a life of sentiment? (cf. ns. 9 – 10). In this regard, how might the formation of ordained ministers be improved? What qualified persons are urgently needed in this pastoral activity?

Pastoral Challenges (n. 11)

6. To what extent and by what means is the ordinary pastoral care of families addressed to those on the periphery? (cf. n. 11). What are the operational guidelines available to foster and appreciate the “desire to form a family” planted by the Creator in the heart of every person, especially among young people, including those in family situations which do not correspond to the Christian vision? How do they respond to the Church’s efforts in her mission to them? How prevalent is natural marriage among the non-baptized, also in relation to the desire to form a family among the young?

Part II
Looking at Christ: The Gospel of the Family . . .

7. A fixed gaze on Christ opens up new possibilities. “Indeed, every time we return to the source of the Christian experience, new paths and undreamed of possibilities open up” (n. 12). How is the teaching from Sacred Scripture utilized in pastoral activity on behalf of families. To what extent does “fixing our gaze on Christ” nourish a pastoral care of the family which is courageous and faithful?

8. What marriage and family values can be seen to be realized in the life of young people and married couples? What form do they take? Are there values which can be highlighted? (cf. n. 13) What sinful aspects are to be avoided and overcome?

9. What human pedagogy needs to be taken into account — in keeping with divine pedagogy — so as better to understand what is required in the Church’s pastoral activity in light of the maturation of a couple’s life together which would lead to marriage in the future? (cf. n. 13)

10. What is being done to demonstrate the greatness and beauty of the gift of indissolubility so as to prompt a desire to live it and strengthen it more and more? (cf. n. 14)

11. How can people be helped to understand that a relationship with God can assist couples in overcoming the inherent weaknesses in marital relations? (cf. n. 14) How do people bear witness to the fact that divine blessings accompany every true marriage? How do people manifest that the grace of the Sacrament sustains married couples throughout their life together?

That is only the first eleven of FORTY-SIX!!!! sets of questions.

And then we have a survey on Pope Francis:

1. My view of Pope Francis is:
Mostly Favorable
Mostly Unfavorable
2. Since Pope Francis was elected, I am more interested in the Catholic faith.

3. Since Pope Francis was elected, I have attended Mass more often.

4. Pope Francis represents a major change in the direction of the church.

5. By now, I expected that Pope Francis would have made more concrete changes in the church.

6. The widespread media coverage of Pope Francis has been:
A big help in reforming the image of the Catholic Church.
Irrelevant to the life of the church.
Harmful because the media often misrepresents what Francis says.

7. The comments Pope Francis has made on controversial topics often distort church teaching.

8. The area where I would most like to see more action from Pope Francis is:
Holding bishops accountable for not dealing properly with abusers in their dioceses.
Creating more leadership roles for women in the church.
Reforming the Curia.
Cleaning up the Vatican Bank.
Stopping the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Enforcing better global standards for dealing with priest sexual abuse.

9. I think Pope Francis’ frequent off-the-cuff interviews and informal approach have:
Made the papacy much more appealing to the average Catholic.
Robbed the papacy of much of its grandeur.
Not made much difference to how the pope is viewed.

10. I have found myself paying closer attention to Catholic news since Pope Francis was elected.

11. I have been inspired by Pope Francis’ humble and simple lifestyle.

12. Laypeople are getting more of a role and voice in the church under Pope Francis.

13. I believe that Francis will make major reforms in the Vatican during his papacy.

14. Pope Francis doesn’t speak enough about abortion.
Don’t have an opinion

15. I find Pope Francis’ comments on homosexuality and same-sex relationships troubling.

16. I think Pope Francis is causing too much division within the church.

17. The best pope in the last 50 years has been:
Benedict XVI
John Paul II
John Paul I
Paul VI

18. The most memorable thing Francis has done so far in his papacy is…

19. One thing about Pope Francis that has been a disappointment to me is…

20. If I could meet Pope Francis, I’d tell him…

21. If I had to grade Francis as pope so far, I’d give him a _____, because…

22. The quality that I like most about Pope Francis is…

23. The biggest surprise from Pope Francis has been…

24. One area in which Pope Francis is challenging me to become a better Catholic is…

25. My greatest hope for the remainder of Pope Francis’ papacy is…

Did ever a hierarchical church look more Babdist?

Audacious indeed.

Episcopacy Envy

Bishops are easier to control and follow, which is the consolation to us Presbyterians who sometimes give into the temptation to wish for a church with more visibility and influence. But if you read the articles in First Things about the Ukranian and Russian churches, you understand that presbyters are much harder to master (just ask James VI) than bishops and so have their own influence even if it comes without visibility:

. . . from a Russian Orthodox point of view, all the other large churches in Ukraine have violated church unity. At best, their existence is tragic; at worst, schismatic. The creation of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the sixteenth century took Orthodox believers away from Moscow and subjected them to Rome. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Church came into being only because the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church by dividing it and therefore destroying it from within. The Kyivan Patriarchate exploited Ukrainian nationalism, and therefore anti-Russian sentiment, in order to break from Moscow.

The experience of persecution under communism has taught the Moscow Patriarchate to value visible unity at almost any price. After the death of Patriarch Tikhon in 1925, Metropolitan Sergi (Stragorodski) illegitimately assumed patriarchal powers. The man who should have succeeded Tikhon, Metropolitan Kirill (Smirnov), was outraged by Sergi’s willingness to subject the Church to a godless state in a futile effort to save the Church as a public institution. In protest, Kirill denied the validity of the Eucharist celebrated by Sergi and his supporters. Another Tikhon loyalist, Metropolitan Agafangel (Preobrazhenski), ordered his priests to disobey mandates of Sergi that violated Christian conscience. Sergi responded by denouncing both men, thereby encouraging the secret police to arrest them, send them into exile, and subject them to physical and psychological torture.

Nevertheless, neither Kirill nor Agafangel broke the unity of the Church or organized a movement to remove Sergi from office. Moreover, Kirill later repented of breaking Eucharistic fellowship. In short, Kirill and Agafangel expressed their opposition within the bounds of what they understood to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized not Sergi, but rather Kirill and Agafangel. The message is clear: The Church must remain one, and divisions only weaken it and the people and nation whom it serves.
To the other Ukrainian churches, the question of church unity looks different. The Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church argue that Orthodox believers have always been allowed to organize themselves along national lines. An autocephalous Ukrainian Church does not violate church unity; on the contrary, the autocephalous Orthodox churches cultivate an intensive fellowship among themselves.

From this perspective, the Moscow Patriarchate is not interested in saving Ukrainians from a nationalistic agenda, but rather is seeking to subject them to Russian imperialistic pretensions. An independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy can help the Ukrainian people reclaim their unique language and national traditions over and against a Russia that has often tried to eliminate Ukrainian identity or reduce it to a variety of Russian identity (as when Russians commonly assert that “the Ukrainian language is just a Russian village dialect”). For this kind of nationalistic Orthodoxy, to be Ukrainian means not to be Russian.

When you have only one person to control, as opposed to a committee (read assembly), making deals and peddling influence for national purposes becomes much easier. The one exception to this is a bishop with a universal, as opposed to a geographically defined, jurisdiction. And this is what makes the papacy different from other bishops — sort of. The pope is not defined by any nation — consider the opposition that the Vatican exhibited during events leading up to Italian unification. That doesn’t mean the pope was entirely independent of political authority or place. The Bishop of Rome needed various European monarchs to make that long trek over the Alps to put things right in Rome — such as ridding the city of the Lombards and restore the pope to his position. The papacy has also been bound up with the West (and one of the draws for converts to Rome is Roman Catholicism’s identification with the civilization of Western Europe). It’s not as if when we think of Roman Catholicism Vancouver or Seoul immediately come to mind.

Michael Sean Winters recently described in the context of Bishop Cupich’s recent installation in Chicago how, aside from politics, technology contributed to the centralization of papacy’s authority (and what Pope Francis may be doing to change that):

In contemplating the +Cupich appointment and what it might mean, I am reminded of an earlier predecessor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch. In the 1950s, at a dinner with Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., Murray was explaining the stance taken by the late Cardinal James Gibbons on the issue of church-state relations. In the 1950s, you will recall, Murray’s theories on the subject were under a cloud at the Holy Office. Cardinal Stritch listened to Murray and then opined, “Well, of course, none of us can go as far as Cardinal Gibbons went.” Murray, in a letter to his friends Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, said he wanted to blurt out, “Why not?” +Gibbons had been the preeminent American churchman for half a century, starting with his appointment to Baltimore in 1877, until his death in 1921. It was during that time that the Romanization of the American hierarchy began in earnest, with the appointment of William Henry O’Connell to Portland, Maine in 1901 and to Boston as coadjutor archbishop in 1906. By the time +Stritch and Murray were dining together, long gone were the days when priests in a vacant diocese and bishops within the province submitted their ternas to Rome for episcopal appointments.

The centralization of ecclesiastical authority in Rome was not driven exclusively by ideological ultramonstanism. It was also a function of emerging technologies. With the telegraph, then the telephone, then the fax and now the internet, the sayings and doings of popes reached people worldwide. No longer did Rome issue a papal bull in Latin, which was sent to the bishops of the world who would then translate the text into the vernacular and issue their own pastoral letter to their clergy, who would, in turn, apply the teaching in the pulpit and the confessional. There were layers of pastoral application that vanished in the course of the twentieth century. By 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the New York Times had the headline “Pope Bans Pill” before any bishop anywhere had a chance to read the encyclical and make some sense of it. I am not sure we, as a Church, have adapted to that kind of difference in how the teachings of the Church are communicated or received.

This centralization has been a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, the Catholic Church stands alone among the world’s religions in having a central focus of our identity and mission. On the other hand, Roman minutanti may not always know the local situation of the various churches as well as the pastors on the ground. And, many, though not all, bishops seem emasculated, which is different from being obedient, more like branch managers of Vatican Inc than bishops in their own right. +Cupich is many things, but emasculated is not one of them.

Now, for the first time in a long time, we have a pope who seems committed to some degree of decentralization of authority away from Rome. So, in thinking about the impact of +Cupich’s tenure, perhaps we should not be looking to the +Bernardin years but to the +Gibbons years. Will he become a model for a new kind of bishop, one who is not always looking over his shoulder to make sure the CDF isn’t listening? Will leadership in the USCCB have a different character, and different outcomes, as the body increasingly becomes the focus for any devolved authority from Roman curial congregations? If, as Pope Francis clearly wants, bishops are now being encouraged to speak frankly, even to disagree in public, will +Cupich be the kind of national leader who can keep the bishops unified even while they search for consensus? The smart money says he will.

And what goes for political authorities also applies to journalists. Imagine a religion reporter needing to find out what the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America thinks about immigration reform. First, the Assembly doesn’t exist beyond its stated times of meeting and, second, with the exception of David Robertson, moderator of the Free Church of Scotland who gives Pope Francis a run for his money in comments to the press about various and sundry temporal affairs, a moderator of an assembly also ceases to hold office once the commissioners vote to adjourn. If you want to know the mind of the Presbyterian Church on matters other than its doctrinal statements, rules for worship, and form of government (all available on-line and hardly pertinent for thinking about, say, fracking), imagine trying to round up the neighborhood cats for a game of kickball.

Of course, the temptation for us real biblical overseers looking on at the world of episcopacy is to become jealous over the attention that rulers and reporters give to bishops. At the same time, the consolation is having a job that let’s you do what you really think to be important without always having to position yourself before the public or negotiate with rulers. After all, it is one thing to be a favorite professor of the college president. But with that favoritism comes a lot of potential scrutiny and back room conversations that no amount of wining and dining can make pleasant.


Somewhere during the past few weeks I recall reading something about the origins of the episcopate and Ambrose’s contention that obedience to the bishop was of the essence of episcopacy. (That may generate titters from those in the Episcopal Church or the Reformed Episcopal Church, but it still goes with the territory of a universal bishop who has access to the relics of Peter.) Here is one account of the obedience that bishops require (though it might carry more weight actually coming from a bishop):

. . . most of us encounter bishops not only by instruction in the faith, but in practical judgments that have no assurance of divine guidance: appointment or removal of a priest, refusal of a legitimate request, closing of a church or school. Here obedience – along with charity and patience – is truly tested. This instance requires two further clarifications.

On the one hand, according the will of Christ the apostles and their successors the bishops have legitimate authority in all ecclesial matters down to the most mundane dealings. By virtue of the duties incurred by the great gift of our baptisms, we must obey the juridical decisions of bishops, even if we disagree.

On the other hand, our duty of obedience does not mean we cannot communicate our opinions, ideas, and reservations to our bishops, in private or public. But because of bishops’ ecclesial dignity, we must do so charitably and with deference. We can seek recourse to the Apostolic See if we believe a bishop has decided contrary to canon law, but we must never seek to embarrass or insult him in the process – doing so only further disturbs the whole flock.

“A bishop is bound to belong to all, to bear the burden of all,” writes Chrysostom. As members of the same Body of Christ, we must help our bishops bear the burden of souls by bearing our burden of obedience to them. Obedience never has been easy, and it never will be. But like all things truly Catholic, obedience is worth the sacrifice.

So far, so good (if you’re not a presbyterian or congregationalist).

Then along comes this diatribe that might have given Luther pause:

America’s bishops are confusing Catholics by using doublespeak, being indecisive, and being politically correct. Their posturing has, and is, causing great harm to the Church in America.

A case in point: In June 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) unanimously stated that the contraception-sterilization-abortifacients regulation of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act was an “unjust and illegal mandate and a violation of personal civil rights.” Following the National Prayer Breakfast in May, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, OFM Cap., the archbishop of Boston and chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, was asked if this regulation violates God’s law. He responded, “The regulation that imposes abortion and sterilization, this is a violation of God’s law.”

So far, so good; here is the rest of the story. In a letter to Congress, the American bishops wrote, “Those who help provide health care, and those who need such care for themselves and their families, should not be forced to choose between preserving their religious and moral integrity and participating in our health-care system.”

However, when Cardinal O’Malley was asked whether American Catholics should obey laws that violate God’s law, he responded, “The question is complicated.” He went on to further confuse the issue: “This is a very complicated issue, and it’s something the Church is struggling with right now, and trying to come up with a moral analysis in order to be able to allow people to form their consciences and to go forward.”

As I Catholic, I do not wish to engage in calumny, particularly involving a cardinal or bishop of the Church I love. I do not believe my comments are such. I believe that the Catholic hierarchy is obligated to be clear and concise when it comes to defining God’s law. I believe that the hierarchy has a duty, as difficult as it may be, to “uncomplicate” the issues that Catholics face when it comes to their faith and how we should live as Catholics in our secular society. Cardinal O’Malley has failed to meet this obligation.

This is the sort of blast that might have actually led to excommunication and the start of a new church if bishops still expected obedience — enforcing it might be another matter. But episcopacy is not what it used to be and I don’t think Jason and the Callers have noticed.