Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Ecclesiastical Culture: Walking the Walk

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 22, 2010

In addition to raising questions about Church-State relations with respect to ecclesiastical persons who have committed crimes (see When Should a Bishop Expose a Priest to Civil Authority), the Castrillon Hoyos affair demonstrates the degree to which the episcopal culture around the world reflects the curial culture in Rome. One step down, the same principle—that the rest of the Church largely reflects the episcopal culture—is demonstrated by Bishop Lawrence Brandt’s exceptional refusal to allow dissident nuns to advertise for vocations in his diocesan media. The sad truth is that, over the past generation or so, ecclesiastical culture from the very top down has been strong on talking the talk. But as for walking the walk, well, not so much.

When I refer to “walking the walk” I am talking about effective administrative discipline, which is the primary means any organization uses to ensure that it properly reflects its mission at every level. In my past commentaries on the need for discipline in the Church, I have frequently mentioned that Pope John Paul was not an effective administrative disciplinarian. I don’t expect great men—even saintly great men—to be good at everything, and it does seem clear that John Paul II left Benedict XVI with a considerably larger number of bishops around the world who are likely to respond properly to disciplinary instructions in the future. God alone can judge whether John Paul II did all he could have done. But the fact remains that administrative discipline was seldom effectively utilized during his pontificate.

Going further back, and skipping over John Paul I (whose pontificate was only a month long), we come to Paul VI, who frankly admitted that he was incapable of dealing with the crisis of Faith within the Church. Before him, John XXIII was clearly not yet aware of the extent of the crisis. The upshot is that for the past fifty years, the curial culture in Rome has not been a culture that sent strong administrative disciplinary signals. Clear administrative directives were seldom issued and even more rarely enforced, whether by pontifical wrath, careful control of ecclesiastical honors, timely promotion or timely demotion. While Magisterial teaching at the level of principle was generally very clear, there was little or no administrative plain-speaking to guide the handling of specific cases.

The Gap between Teaching and Administration

The point I am making is that while concerned laity were on their knees begging their bishops to govern their local churches according to what the papal Magisterium taught, these same bishops knew that there was a substantial difference between what Rome taught and what Rome effectively insisted they do. It would be more accurate to state this even more harshly: What Rome taught was often actively undermined by the administrative example and administrative signals which routinely emanated from both the pope and the curia as to how local bishops should actually behave with respect to the many challenges the Church faced, especially those from within her own ranks.

In this light, the 2001 Castrillon Hoyos letter (praising a bishop who refused to turn a pedophile priest over to civil authorities) is very likely a perfect example of curial business as usual at the time. Fortunately, it represents a curial culture which Benedict XVI immediately made it a high priority to change, but it is further evidence of the problem that while still a Cardinal his efforts to change things were often unsuccessful because he simply did not have the necessary clout. It is also important to recognize that the flaws in this prevailing curial culture went far deeper than covering up sexual abuse. This was a culture which consistently permitted, and perhaps sometimes encouraged, the abuse of the rights of the faithful with regard to such things as the proper celebration of the liturgy, the teaching of sound Catholic doctrine, and the supervision of those organizations claiming to be Catholic (diocesan offices, parishes, Catholic schools, religious communities, retreat houses, Catholic charities, Catholic media, Catholic lay groups, and so on).

I don’t mean to imply that the pope or most cardinals favored everything that went on. In fact they frequently made clear that they did not favor it. But even among the spiritually healthiest prelates in Rome, there was no effective culture of correction. Improvement was sought through the enunciation of principles and the exhortation to follow them. Intervention in concrete cases was exceedingly rare and always very quiet. Heads never rolled. What was acceptable to Rome was taught more forcefully by administrative inaction than by the positive expression of what, in the face of such inaction, could easily be interpreted as mere ideals.

The Administrative Obstacle to Reform

It is this deeply defective ecclesiastical culture which is thrown into stark relief by Bishop Brandt’s refusal to allow the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden to advertise for vocations in his diocesan media, because they failed to accept the judgment of the American Bishops that the recent American health care reform legislation must be opposed on moral grounds. In favoring the pro-abortion bill, the Sisters of St. Joseph were acting within the parameters of the curial and episcopal culture of the past 50 years. On that basis, they reasonably assumed that they could be as Catholic or as unCatholic as they chose to be in principle while still retaining both the approval of the hierarchy and the security of being officially, that is administratively, Catholic. But apparently the culture in the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania had already changed.

The consistent approval and the consistent official Catholic aura bestowed on all mainstream Catholic organizations, no matter how far they had strayed from their Catholic purposes since around 1965, has been the single most frustrating obstacle to those who have fought to convince people that there is far more to Catholicism than a name. Think about the impact of an ecclesiastical culture that never drew any hard-and-fast lines. How often have deeply committed laity been put in the nearly indefensible position of arguing that official Catholic status and episcopal approval are not enough to determine whether an organization is fully Catholic? How often have they had to say, “Yes, but…” when someone has insisted that some group must be a good Catholic group because it was “in good standing”, was approved by the Church, advertized in the local Diocesan paper, or had the Bishop on its board of advisors?

These questions illustrate how little incentive for change recent popes, cardinals and bishops have given to the millions of nominal Catholics in the many nominally Catholic organizations under their influence or control. It goes without saying that each of us has his own responsibility to live according to the authoritative teachings of the Church, but it also goes without saying that if you’re not yet self-consciously seeking perfection—which is perhaps inevitably the condition of most Catholics as it is of most persons generally—and you are part of the vast Catholic social universe, then you tend to do what everybody else does, following the prevailing patterns set, approved or permitted by your pastor and your bishop. Only very rare people try to refashion their Catholic commitments in a vacuum, seeking to follow seemingly distant and impractical principles enunciated in little-known public statements.

For most of us most of the time, local administrative pressure is the rule of faith. While all are called to deep commitment, few are naturally inclined to the task of deciphering Catholic theological, moral and social principles for themselves, and even fewer have both the courage and the ability to make a significant impact in the face of either the complacency or the active resistance of the “authorities”. This struggle is much like running through waist-deep water. Progress is nearly impossible, and everybody else wonders what the heck you’re trying to do. An effective administrative disciplinary culture changes the rules and patterns of Catholic life by aligning both authority and standard practice with Catholic principles. The result is extraordinarily rapid change for the better, and a dramatic increase in spiritual progress.

A Changing Ecclesiastical Culture

Slowly, ever so slowly, the culture of saying the right thing at the highest levels in the Church is being replaced by a culture of doing the right thing. This is evidenced most often now by the increasing number of positive disciplinary steps taken by various bishops in their own dioceses, steps which mirror the new culture higher up. Unfortunately, things are tougher outside the diocesan structure. Many religious orders are so far gone that it is uncertain whether they can be brought back or will have to be jettisoned. What Rome will do about women religious in the United States, or the Jesuits internationally, or any number of other religious groups which possess their own internal hierarchical authority, remains to be seen. But it is clear that the ecclesiastical culture is beginning to change.

It is unquestionable that the great achievements of John Paul II—his ability to project a remarkably attractive personality through the mass media, his tireless teaching on every subject imaginable, his generally superior episcopal appointments (compared with his predecessors), his inspiration of an increasingly militant laity as well as a new cadre of committed young priests—all established a firmer foundation for this transformation from talk to action. But for whatever combination of reasons, John Paul was not generally able to make the transition himself. It is somewhat ironic that the elderly and supremely professorial Joseph Ratzinger is now emerging as the first pope in fifty years to move beyond talking the talk and actually begin to walk the administrative walk. The two high profile areas in which this progress is most evident are the handling of sexual abuse and the liturgy.

There is, of course, a very long way to go. But doing trickles down faster than teaching, though it must be acknowledged that doing also has its own problems. The danger of effective administration is that it tends to breed mechanical followers (witness the Church that disintegrated in the 1960’s). Inspired teaching carries with it a better chance of effecting deep transformation though personal initiative. For this reason the Church can never substitute doing for teaching; nor will there ever be a Church in which everyone follows the good out of deep interior conviction. There can be no Catholic golden age this side of heaven. But for all that, the Church must not confine herself to teaching. She must also do. If she wishes to be institutionally on point so that she can sanctify on a far larger scale, the Church must not only teach but rule.

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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  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - May. 26, 2010 9:02 AM ET USA

    Excellent article! As much as I loved and admired Pope John Paul II, I do hold him partially responsible for the continued mess we're in as far as administrative and disciplinary matters go. Pope Benedict is moving things in the right direction, but it will take years to undo the damage of the past 50 years.

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2010 8:56 PM ET USA

    Wasn't it Pius X who gave us the Oath against Modernism? Seems that 50 years is not even close to how long we have had a significant problem. Modernism didn't just suddenly appear with the calling of Vatican 2 and the promulgation of Humanae Vitae. Seeds sown a century or more earlier were in full bloom before those hit; just out of view. Who was watching the teachers - the professors in seminaries and Catholic Universities? No one, apparently. Certainly not the Curia, nor the bishops.

  • Posted by: - May. 07, 2010 7:30 PM ET USA

    Thank You Dr. Mirus, Such a brilliant synopsis of where we are, why we are where we are, how we got to where we are, and the direction in which we are headed. All this must be accepted and accomplished with faith, and it is certainly far better to travel in faith when we know what you teach us here in this defining lesson. You breed faith in those who will be privileged to read this work of yours. With faith, all pain can be endured. With purpose, fear vanishes.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2010 3:49 PM ET USA

    The Church is like an arrow in flight towards a distant target. The slighest deviation in aim at the start - so slight it seems inconsequential at the time - produces an ever-widening deviance from a true trajectory. Small acts of de-sacralization in the Mass produce, in time, pervert priests and heretical Bishops.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 24, 2010 4:22 PM ET USA

    It is important to realize the indispensable role of grace in the actions of men. The focus of the Church over the past 50 years has been man-oriented, and social pursuits have been prioritized above the Church's fundamental mission of sanctification. The human rights and ecumenical efforts might make for great headlines, but for too long the clergy at multiple levels have exhibited signs of inadequate attention to spiritual matters both personally and professionally. They need our prayers.

  • Posted by: clinnickr49 - Apr. 24, 2010 2:12 PM ET USA

    As others have already stated: Excellent article. Thank you. I would add one further relevant comment: Vatican II and Paul VI provided a frame work for Bishops to step up and really be the authoritative pastor for their diocese. It called, and still calls for all Catholics to BE Catholic and take an adult personal responsibility for living the Faith day by day. Unfortunately, too many Bishops failed and so have many, if not most Catholics. Thank the all Holy Trinity indeed, for Pope Benedict!

  • Posted by: filioque - Apr. 24, 2010 12:17 AM ET USA

    The Left should honor Benedict XVI for leading an effective response to the abuse crisis, but they can't do that because part of his strategy is to strengthen doctrine, liturgy, and practice. So as reported in the 4/23 CWN eletter, he has become the Left's favorite target. Their hypocrisy reveals their true hatred for the Church.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Apr. 23, 2010 11:09 PM ET USA

    This article expresses, in brilliant and terse writing, a great insight into the significance of ecclesial culture to the direction of the Church: both 'doing " and "teaching".

  • Posted by: - Apr. 23, 2010 4:25 PM ET USA

    An excellent article. Thoughtful, insightful and well-crafted. Thank you. The substance is somewhat troubling but at the same time encouraging as the smoke is slowly lifting.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 22, 2010 6:35 PM ET USA

    Excellent article. The inaction is very understandable on a human level, but for this: were eternal souls being lost? Because, no mater how you felt on a personal level, if you believed that people had souls, and souls could be lost, how COULD you allow error to continue to be taught? They were either, more or less, universalists, or they were astoundingly heartless. I see no 3rd option.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Apr. 22, 2010 6:25 PM ET USA

    Excellent summary of the situation, but, alas, it is true only that the culture is, as you say, "beginning to change" Some sees, such as, just e.g., San Francisco, haven't yet begun. Unfortunately.