Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

As the Bishops Go . . .

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 27, 2009

Among the many reasons the pro-life movement has not been as effective as it needs to become, I assign first importance to the widespread confusion in the leadership of the Catholic Church in America. This confusion among the hierarchy, religious orders and universities has vastly reduced the possibility for both cohesiveness and militancy in the movement. Indeed, to address Phil Lawler’s important point that we must deal more decisively with the “spies, traitors, and informers” in our own ranks, the lack of clear leadership by American bishops, priests, religious and academicians has been the single most important reason such pro-life discipline has been all but impossible thus far.

It is extremely difficult to achieve a militant moral unanimity among Catholics when those in positions of ecclesiastical authority are sharply divided. For example, it is virtually impossible to move decisively against pro-choice Catholic politicians when weak Catholic voters can point to the honorary degrees these politicians have received from Catholic universities, the speaking engagements they’ve enjoyed at diocesan gatherings or Catholic conventions, and the favorable opinions of Fr. X and Bishop Y. It is also difficult to call a spade a spade—a prerequisite for decisive action—when higher spiritual authority tends to emphasize civility and tolerance no matter what.

For all their weakness, the American bishops as a group have been among the most important reasons there is a pro-life movement in America at all. At the same time, they have often been unable to speak with a unified voice, or to enforce discipline in their own ranks, or in the ranks of diocesan clergy, religious orders and Catholic universities. The result is that while everyone knows the Church is officially pro-life, those who are trying to build a larger, stronger and more decisive movement have been undercut more or less continually by Catholic leaders who speak and act as if it is sufficient to be nominally pro-life, as if it is laudable to honor (for other reasons, of course) those who are pro-abortion, and as if there should be no consequences for the support of public policies that favor abortion.

Insofar as this is a lost opportunity for the pro-life movement, it is part of the even larger lost opportunity for the Church as a whole. Because so many of her leaders have allowed themselves to become secularized along with the larger American culture, the Church’s ability to provide effective spiritual and moral leadership has all but disappeared. And when cohesive ecclesiastical moral and spiritual leadership is lacking, it is very hard for Catholic laymen to make the moral and spiritual arguments necessary to rally ever larger numbers to ever more decisive action.

Fortunately, this is changing.

The number of bishops in the United States who speak out loudly and decisively about both the immorality of abortion and the moral bankruptcy of pro-abortion Catholic politicians is growing rapidly. The number of bishops who have privately and publicly remonstrated with such politicians is also growing. So is the number of bishops willing to recognize and act on the breaches of discipline within their own dioceses. Also growing is the number of bishops who are willing to challenge the wayward Catholic intelligentsia so prominent in university life and old-line religious communities. A rising number of bishops are now clearly insisting that they, and they alone, are the teachers of faith and morals in their dioceses.

Granted, we have a long way to go before pro-abortion Catholic politicians are consistently denied the Eucharist (as required by Canon Law), before the old-line religious orders are reformed, and before Catholic universities are staffed by people who understand what a Catholic university ought to be. Moreover, too many dioceses still lack faithful and decisive bishops. But each passing day brings more news of such decisive leadership, and so each passing day makes it easier for pro-life laity to insist that a larger number of Catholics get on board, that the range of "respectable" initiatives be expanded, and especially that nominally Catholic judges and legislators pay a price for failing to uphold the sanctity of life in the public square.

Perhaps because of the consistent decline in Catholic vitality since 1960, the extent of the abuse scandal, the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the rise of a new generation of counter-cultural Catholics, episcopal leadership is getting markedly better in the United States. If this trend continues, a more effective pro-life movement will follow. Of course, the Catholic bishops should not manage the movement; that is the job of the laity. But when it comes to the success of the movement, the bishops are the single most important class of persons involved. On them depends our numbers, our cohesiveness and our militancy. For better or worse, as the bishops go, so goes the struggle to end abortion in America.

Discussion in order:

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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