Building a Catholic Action Plan for Reform
Among the concerns of many Catholics across the world is how to faithfully deal with a bishop who manages his diocese in a manner that undermines or offers little support to the teachings of the Church or its disciplines and norms. Many Catholics feel called to action, but nearly as many feel that they are without an action plan.
I’m one of those tortured souls who have been—especially at times—frustrated into immobility. However, I’m also one of the lucky ones who live in a community with many faithful Catholics. In the absence of this support, it is easy to feel like you are on an island, and the sheer agony of this aloneness has driven many to the point of despair. I’m keenly aware of the pain suffered by many of our readers, whose impassioned letters detailing their untenable situations have given me a window into their plight.
So what to do? Ask your parish priest how one may morally show disagreement with one’s bishop without exhibiting disobedience? Even with a good priest, this would be a very awkward discussion—and many people are without a sound spiritual director to turn to for consultation.
These are some of the frustrations that have been shared with me in person, over the phone, and through email. And yet no matter how incapacitated each one believes himself to be, almost every writer has in some way made a suggestion as to how we can begin the reformation of our episcopacy. There is much wisdom in our readership, and the following list of suggestions is as much a product of their reflection and authorship as it is my own.
The Problem of Anger, the Primacy of Prayer
The first step toward mobility is to free ourselves from that which binds us. To state it simply, we cannot allow anger to immobilize us. For both spiritual and strategic reasons, this is conflict that will not be resolved through angry actions or expressions.
St. Francis de Sales wrote:
Most emphatically I say it…on no pretext whatever suffer your heart to admit anger and passion. St James says, plainly and unreservedly, that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” Of course it is a duty to resist evil and to repress the faults of those for whom we are responsible, steadily and firmly, but gently and quietly…. Correction given in anger, however tempered by reason, never has so much effect as that which is given altogether without anger.
It is unfortunate when anger robs one of his ability to pray. Certainly, if you feel that a bishop or priest does more of the devil’s work than God’s, you are indeed allowing the devil to work if you are so angry that you cannot sustain the interior life that is so vital to the life of the soul. As you have a greater responsibility for your own soul than for the soul of your bishop or priest, it is advisable to refuse to give in to anger, as you would to any other passion that can prevent you from having an unfettered relationship with God.
It might assist Catholics who struggle with this particular matter to reduce things to their essentials. The battle for sanctity and holy leadership in our clergy, particularly among the episcopacy, is a battle between good and evil. In other words, it is a war waged against God by the devil, in which we are merely instruments of God (to the extent that we are cooperative). Therefore, inasmuch as prayer, particularly of a contemplative nature is important to calming our passions and gaining perspective through reason, so it is also our most important weapon in the battle against evil. If we desire to do good in this conflict, it behooves us to try to find out in what way we will be of most use.
The Letter and the Boycott
The two most mentioned measures (after prayer, prayer, and more prayer) revolve around the power of the pen: as in, the pen that writes letters and writes checks.
In both the letter and the boycott there are strategic elements that must be included to produce the maximum effect. For a relatable example, I’ll talk about the much discussed issue of boycotting certain production and distribution companies in the movie industry. Let’s assume that a company has released some movies that are morally objectionable but also others that are good. If you boycott all films released (which I call a “blind boycott”), you have half the impact that you would have if you follow the strategy of boycotting the bad films and attending the good ones.
A case study: if Christians had decided to boycott all films distributed or produced by Newmarket Films because of past movies with “graphic sexuality”, we would have missed out on The Passion of the Christ. But the fact that many Christians went to see this film has raised the likelihood that major production companies will be willing to participate in such projects in the future. In the latest issue of Crisis, film critic William Baur writes that the authenticity of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is likely due in part to the success of The Passion.
But Walden [Media] managed to persuade the always politically correct Disney to come in primarily as a marketer and distributor—only after Disney had promised to respect Walden’s faithful approach. Certainly, the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which grossed more than $400 million worldwide, encouraged Disney’s involvement.
When it comes to both letter and check writing, I would encourage a similar mentality. Discourage what is bad, encourage what is good.
In terms of financial contributions, this strategy might entail refusing to contribute to general fundraising appeals where you are unsure where your money is going. Examine the different diocesan programs to see which ones are deserving of your support and which are not. Some parishioners have opted to make contributions to a very select group of diocesan, parish, and outside charities in order to provide approximately the same support to essential ministries and services without compromising the commitment to fidelity.
You might even donate to another diocese’s efforts. You can always send your financial support to seminarians in an African diocese in the hopes that they will someday be sending mission priests to your diocese. (Don’t laugh, it could happen.)
The letter writing process can be painful. In the reexamination of wrongs that you would like to express, emotions may surface that make it difficult to be calm, clear, and charitable. In keeping with the strategy of focusing both on the good and the bad, you need to hit both the highlights and the lowlights, without being personal. If you are having trouble thinking of something good to mention, you can always fall back on something relatively generic (like exhibiting concern for the poor) and go on to point out areas that require improvement (like faithfulness to liturgical norms and a commitment to orthodoxy in seminary training).
Freedom of Association
There is a lot of merit to the idea of forming or joining lay action groups that strive to bring reason to a disordered diocese. In one diocese that I know of, one such group put pressure on the bishop to prevent him from installing one of the recently ballyhooed sex-education plans that are emerging in many dioceses (“Talking About Touching” and the like). The bishop did not install such a program.
You have to be wary when joining such an organization to make sure that its goals are faithful to the Magisterium and that they plan to conduct their efforts with dignity and prudence. Many of the groups receiving the most attention have some sort of an axe to grind relating to one or more issues that are incompatible with Church teaching or discipline: women’s ordination, priestly celibacy, gay rights, a greater role for the democratic process in the selection and promotion of bishops, etc.
One of the beauties of our current age is that it is very easy to connect yourself to individuals and organizations that aren’t actually located in your particular area, but have experience that you lack. You can educate yourself and get good advice on all manner of issues. An example: research how to form a group that advocates the greater availability of Eucharistic Adoration. Another example: learn how to form a group that teaches the Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning. If you have the will to undertake these kinds of tasks, you can contact groups that will help you.
Conclusions and Reflections
I wonder what immeasurable amount of good might be done merely by praying for good bishops and priests daily, writing one letter to our pastors and bishops every month, being more discriminatory in our charitable giving, and finding at least one small way to be involved in a good organization that works inside dioceses to promote a more faithful Catholic culture.
Of course, each one must act according to his vocation—and this is another reason why prayer is the first and most essential task in approaching reform. We need divine Wisdom to show each one of us how to act. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” says St. James, “he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it.”
Whatever your mode of action, don’t deprive yourself of the mystical by focusing on the physical. Use your spiritual eyes. Just as you see our crucified Savior rather than just a piece of bread and cup of wine, see the Mystical Body of Christ rather than just a parish or a diocese.
We are never more active or more social than when we are united to the Mystical Body. The more deeply we trust in Christ, the more deeply we enter this community. If we act apart from it we are adrift at sea, but vertitatem autem facientes in caritate crescamus in illo per omnia qui est caput Christus — “doing the truth in charity, we may in all things grow up in him who is the head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)
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