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Discord among Catholic bishops: a healthy sign

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 20, 2022

Browsing today’s online commentary, I notice that two veteran Catholic journalists have made related observations:

Up until recently, our bishops have apparently deemed it very important to avoid any public discord. But the façade of unity is disintegrating. And that, I suggest, is cause for celebration.

There have always been disagreements among Catholic bishops. Intelligent men will always have different perspectives. Seeing things differently, they can discuss and debate and iron out their differences—or they can pretend that the differences do not exist, and let the unacknowledged tensions build. After several decades of the latter approach, we are finally seeing signs of the former. And none too soon.

Can the radical proposals of the Synodal Path be reconciled with Catholic traditions? That question must be addressed. Bishop Bätzing, the president of the German episcopal conference, evidently prefers not to address it, so he makes a transparent attempt to divert the conversation by hinting that bishops who signed that open letter are ignoring the sex-abuse scandal.

All Catholic bishops share in the responsibility to protect and defend the orthodox teachings of the Church. The Roman Pontiff has the ultimate say in settling disputes, but if he chooses to remain silent in the face of theological novelties—or if he advances novelties himself—then his brother bishops have an obligation to speak. Remember that St. Paul challenged St. Peter at the Council of Jerusalem, and earned the thanks of Christ’s chosen Vicar for that fraternal correction.

Just over a month ago, Pope Francis removed Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torres from the leadership of the Diocese of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The Vatican offered no explanation for this unusual action, but the ousted bishop said that he had been accused of “insufficient communion with brother bishops.” He had refused to sign a statement advocating Covid vaccination, and resisted sending his seminarians to an interdiocesan seminary. In short he had disagreed with his episcopal colleagues on matters that they considered important. But St. John Fisher disagreed with his colleagues about the rightful authority of King Henry VIII: a subject of crucial importance to English Catholics of his day. Should the Bishop of Rochester have been deposed? (King Henry evidently thought so.)

  1. In Catholic World Report, George Weigel notes that fraternal correction—a practice that the Church has always recognized as importance to spiritual growth—has been practiced sparingly, if at all, among Catholic bishops in recent years. This is odd, he remarks, because theological arguments were common among the leaders of the early Church, and should flourish all the more in our era of instant worldwide communications.

    Somehow, though, the practice of episcopal “collegiality” came to resemble the unwritten etiquette within Evelyn Waugh’s fictitious London club, Bellamy’s, where one simply didn’t criticize another member, no matter how disturbing, even bizarre, his behavior.

    So Weigel sees it as particularly significant that more than 70 prelates signed an open letter to the German bishops, released last week, warning about the schismatic tendencies of the German “Synodal Path.”

  2. Over at The Catholic Thing, meanwhile, Russell Shaw observes that the differences of opinion among American bishops are growing more pronounced—as evidenced recently by an invitation-only meeting in Chicago, at which liberal prelates and theologians discussed how best to answer the critics of Pope Francis. Shaw reports:

    While decrying divisiveness, and—according to reports “naming names” of donors, journalists, and publications allegedly “opposed to Pope Francis”—the gathering seems to have served to advertise and even heighten the divisions in the hierarchy.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rfr46 - Apr. 22, 2022 12:24 PM ET USA

    More mischief from his Exalted Sycophancy Cupich.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Apr. 22, 2022 5:28 AM ET USA

    Paul's correction of Peter is in Scripture for a (divine) reason: to mitigate the tendency towards blind authoritarianism (or sycophancy) in a monarchic Church. Would that more Bishops took the meaning of that incident as an example of episcopal spine and true loyalty to Christ more seriously.

  • Posted by: dcnmthompson7484 - Apr. 21, 2022 9:04 PM ET USA

    The smoke of progressivism has entered the church.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 21, 2022 1:46 AM ET USA

    It is significant that the liberal prelates in Chicago did not meet to defend papal primacy per se, but the blunders of Francis. They would be singing a completely different tune under a different pope. The head of German bishops used a dirty trick to divert attention from the many heresies of the "synodal way" by suggesting that support for celibacy promotes abuse of minors. The fringe opinion that the abuse of altar boys was caused by priestly celibacy has been discredited by historical data.