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A modern lamentation, or jeremiad, on Church governance

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 13, 2018 | In Scripture Series

When I am not lamenting how tough it is to raise funds for (which is all too frequent this time of year), I’m lamenting the governance of the Catholic Church. As Hilaire Belloc told the Anglican bishop William Temple, it is a sign of the Church’s divine character that “no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

Certainly the governance of our Church has been very bad for a very long time. In purely human terms, it was already pretty sloppy even in its nascent form when Our Lord Himself was instructing His followers daily in the flesh. There is probably a lesson there, but even the lesson of the wheat and the weeds does not make it wrong to lament knavish imbecility and attempt improvement.

I mention this for two reasons—the first of which is the decision made in Rome to prevent the American bishops from adopting any decisive plans for the investigation and correction of bishops in the matter of sexual abuse. At first glance, this appears to continue the old endemic pattern, at the highest levels, just as the Church in the United States was prepared to strike a blow against knavishness.

Sadly, as is so often the case in Vatican affairs, it will be impossible to judge Rome’s intentions at least until the Pope meets with representatives of the world’s episcopal conferences in February. After all, there could be any number of reasons—good and bad—for a modest delay: Good if an unswerving, unified, and universal approach is implemented; bad if the Pope simply refuses to go down Cardinal Cupich’s proverbial rabbit hole. In Rome, as with God, “One day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pt 3:8). But surely we have cause to lament, we to whom only half the adage applies, we to whom one more day really does seem like a thousand years.


The second reason is the jeremiad, which is “a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.” As Biblical books go, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are not all that long, just five chapters, but for those who are already upset, they certainly qualify. Presumably written as poetic prayers for the liturgical services that continued to be held on the site of the temple in Jerusalem during the Babylonian Captivity, these lamentations show a keen awareness on Israel’s part which too many bishops and Vatican officials appear to lack: That the Jews have been faithless and idolatrous, consistently ignoring or resisting God’s will, obdurately pursuing their own highly sinful agendas, and so suffering justly for their stiff-necked rebellion.

The Jews, of course, thought Jeremiah was stiff-necked for telling the truth. In today’s Church it is frequently the same: Only those who call decisive attention to God’s will are thought guilty of that rigid spinality which merits outrage and punishment. It has been otherwise only on those widely-spaced occasions when the backbone of the Church’s hierarchy has been present and accounted for, or at least in better alignment with a body designed to rise. But it is not otherwise now.

Instead, the reflexive denunciation of those who speak the truth enables us to grasp exactly what Jeremiah and his followers found to be the deepest reason for lamentation. This is expressed in chapter 3, which first explains how serious was the suffering:

For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater
 than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
 no hand being laid on it.

The LORD gave full vent to his wrath,
 he poured out his hot anger;
and he kindled a fire in Zion,
 which consumed its foundations. [Lam 4:6,11]

And then this jeremiad explains exactly why the suffering was so severe, the punishment so great. If you do not understand, read Phil Lawler’s commentary, Beware a false diagnosis of the crisis in the Catholic hierarchy. Then read the reason Jeremiah gives for the immensity of God’s chastisement:

This was for the sins of her prophets
 and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed in the midst of her
 the blood of the righteous. [4:13]

How many must be lost to “knavish imbecility” or worse? Jeremiah lived the answer, and remained faithful. Such is our lot today. So let the last stanza of Lamentations be our prayer, capturing as it so surely does both our faith and our fear:

But you, O LORD, reign for ever;
 your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us for ever,
 why do you so long forsake us?
Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored!
 Renew our days as of old!
Or have you utterly rejected us?
 Are you exceedingly angry with us? [5:19-22]

Might not there be even now, for each of us, some suffering not yet completed, some penance not yet done? Jeremiah wants to know.

Scripture Series
Previous: Jeremiah had nothing on us.
Next: Baruch: Jeremiah’s scribe, against hopelessness and idolatry

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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