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Episcopal renewal: The thin line, and our response

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 12, 2016

Two other questions were raised by the correspondent I mentioned yesterday, concerning whether or not the world’s bishops are likely, in the absence of effective papal leadership, to take a greater responsibility for furthering authentic Catholic renewal in their own dioceses. The first of these questions was framed as a lament:

I have seen many prominent [Catholic leaders] who seem reluctant to even acknowledge the major shift above. The sentiment is, “Well, you can’t be more Catholic than the Pope”, so all is interpreted through the rosiest glasses they can find, and the pink elephant goes unacknowledged.

My correspondent mentioned, as typical examples, remarks concerning Amoris Laetitia by Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Bishop Robert Barron, two prelates who are widely acknowledge to be quite sound.

In response to this concern, an important distinction must be made. Even when experiencing a certain measure of distrust, a bishop or priest will speak as positively as possible about what the Holy Father is saying and doing, but this does not mean he will not place greater emphasis on what he believes is lacking, in his own administration of Catholic affairs. Bishops and priests should, in fact, be extraordinarily cautious about direct disagreement and criticism of the Holy Father.

Public Criticism and Action for Renewal

To a significant degree this will even be true of responsible lay persons. In my own writing, for example, I have emphasized again and again that there is nothing heretical in the statements issued by Pope Francis, while admitting that he tends to be a bit careless in less formal interviews. I made a point of praising the excellent features of Amoris Laetitia, even though I thought it unfortunate that the exhortation was prudentially weakened by the famous (and decidedly unclear) footnote about the use of the sacraments in the pastoral counseling of the divorced. No responsible priest or bishop is going to risk encouraging others to hold the papacy in contempt; nor will he invite others to portray him as being in rebellion against his legitimate ecclesiastical superior.

We must understand that the issues are not so clear that anyone is forced to condemn the pope for a decisive failure in faith or morals which shakes our faith in the Church’s divine guarantees. In fact, the pope has considerable protection from the Holy Spirit against falling into such definitive errors. While a layman might speak more freely of his reservations, even a layman is morally obliged to exercise caution and restraint when it comes to criticism of the Holy Father (and of his bishop). And even a layman must avoid framing the issues in ways which are likely to undermine the faith of others. How much more is this true of priests and bishops!

The question, then, is not whether a priest or bishop or cardinal will make public statements describing the pope as essentially incorrect or consistently imprudent. The question is whether their recognition of the Pope’s shortcomings will induce in them a tendency to fill the breach, to be stronger and more proactive in their own dioceses than the example of the Holy Father would suggest. We know that some cardinals, bishops and priests are in fact responding in this way. The most obvious episcopal example in the United States is probably Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, but there are certainly many others.

Our Episcopal Moment

As far as bishops go, the point of my recent observations is that there is some reason to hope—and an unquestionable need—for them to respond to the uncertain directions of the current papacy by internalizing a greater personal responsibility for the spiritual and moral health of their dioceses. This does not mean that we cannot lament the continuing failures and shortcomings. I offered such a lament in the first half of my first installment of this discussion. Phil Lawler has taken this tack in his recent excoriation of a corrupt clerical culture.

Phil has been saying for years (and rightly) that the bishops need to recognize that they are a significant part of the reason authentic renewal is proceeding so slowly in the Church in the West. But I also see significant signs of readiness among increasing numbers of bishops to become true leaders of renewal. Strong Catholic families have been providing a disproportionate number of priests for some time. There was a whole generation of “JPII” priests ordained during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. Some of them have been made bishops over the past 25 years.

Recognizing the problem in past patterns of episcopal leadership—recognizing the corruption of the clerical culture, as Phil put it—is a large part of what it means for each bishop to take what I call personal responsibility for the spiritual health of his own diocese, going well beyond the emphases of the Pope or the directives of the episcopal conference. But if the weakness at the top causes significant numbers of bishops to react in this way, it will depend not only on prayer and grace but on the very real fact that—despite all the problems—there has already been a considerable improvement in the episcopate and the priesthood since the desolate years between about 1960 and 1990.

For example, while the sex abuse problem has been a more identifiable crisis since the early 2000s, the overall climate of the Church was in fact far worse in the earlier period when the majority of that abuse was actually taking place—and when the rights of the laity to sound doctrine and reverent liturgy were, in the West, routinely ignored. Another example: It may have taken 40-plus years to get an English translation of the Novus Ordo which was not inaccurate, secularized, impoverished and intentionally dumbed down, but in 2011 we did get what was categorically impossible to achieve between 1968 and 2000.

The Response of the Laity

The last question raised by my correspondent was, “What should the response of the faithful be to the current Vatican agenda?” That is an important question because today, at least in many places, both laity and priests actually have more than one positive choice. A generation ago, there was in nearly every case only one option for both lay people and priests who desired authentic renewal: Do everything on your own; avoid entanglement with your bishop, because the odds are overwhelming that, if you give him a chance, he will thwart your efforts. Start new organizations; teach, write, evangelize and recruit; but do so as independently of your bishop as possible, and usually without any support from your local pastor as well (whether you were a layman or an assistant pastor).

But in far more places now, the laity (and priests) are discovering that excellent opportunities for renewal exist within the parish and diocesan structures. We cannot presume this opportunity, but neither can we presume its lack. Moreover, we must be honest: One of the dangers of being on our own is a reluctance to work with priests and bishops—an insistence on total personal control of what belongs, in the last analysis, to God. When not strictly necessary, this can harden into self-righteousness. When that happens, it harms the Body of Christ.

So my advice for the laity (and strong-willed priests!) is to start looking harder in your own parish and in your own diocese. See if the time has come to pursue authentic renewal from within, so to speak—becoming a direct part of the more formal institutional renewal which we all now hope will gather steam. In a great many situations, “going it alone” is no longer the only option. So be open. If there are opportunities to bring in out of the cold the renewal spearheaded by lay persons and isolated priests, that should be a huge priority.

This will increase the likelihood that, in the absence of clear papal direction, the clerical culture will become healthier, which will indeed shift the center of gravity for authentic renewal to our bishops. In each diocese—without any diminishment of our own personal responsibility—that is precisely where our Faith teaches us the center of gravity should be.


Previous in series: Will Catholic bishops really lead an ongoing Catholic renewal?

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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