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Not Just Teaching, but Change

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 24, 2011

There was a time—and it has extended through most of my adult life—when deeply committed Catholics could cling only to those aspects of the Church which are divinely guaranteed. If Catholic publications strayed into dissidence, at least we could reassure ourselves that the Magisterium did not agree with them. If a local priest preached heresy, at least we could find a Church document which contradicted him. If Catholic education broke down all around us, at least we could found our own schools rooted in sacred Tradition.

But during this period, our lament was always that of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?”

During the extended pontificate of John Paul II, we witnessed a protracted intellectual battle over the meaning of the Second Vatican Council and even over the nature of the Catholic Faith itself. Perhaps the greatest victory of this campaign was the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which immediately gave the lie to so much preaching, so much religious education, and so many Catholic textbooks. But although the battle for Catholic institutions was waged intellectually (one thinks, for example, of John Paul’s prescription for Catholic universities in Ex Corde Ecclesiae), we saw very little effort to actually take disciplinary control over wayward dioceses, Catholic agencies or Catholic schools.

The Vatican’s hands-off response to the widespread loss of an authentic Catholic identity set the pattern for most bishops. Although the episcopacy improved through the appointments of John Paul II, few bishops did more than teach. Discipline was rare; public confrontation rarer still. But roughly four to five years into the pontificate of Benedict XVI, this finally started to change. More and more bishops developed plans to rebuild their dioceses from within, to challenge the universities within their jurisdiction, and to publicly confront wayward politicians. Recently some bishops have begun even to remove irresponsible priests from ministry (in the United States, for example, this has been done by Bishop Robert Finn and Cardinal Francis George). Such shifts strongly suggest that Rome has been sending a more aggressive message for some time.

And now, in the sixth year of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, the Pope himself has finally begun to set an example by removing at least some notoriously bad bishops from office, which he has done three times in the past year (see The surprising outcome of Bishop Lahey’s trial). It is true that other initiatives were already in progress, such as the Apostolic Visitation of American women religious and the Visitation of the Diocese of Toowoomba, Australia, but an investigation is not always a harbinger of punishment. So the actual removal of several bishops from office in a short time is a sea change.

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, and so we are gratified (but, thankfully, no longer totally shocked) to see the Vatican also begin to put pressure on Catholic social agencies. The keynote speaker for the assembly of Caritas International has just been vetoed, a fact rendered even more significant in that he was a very prominent Dominican priest. Moreover, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone has now rather thoroughly lectured Caritas International on what it means for a social agency to have a Catholic identity. The significance of this escalation of what is at last a pragmatic disciplinary battle cannot be overestimated.

Some would argue that the horrors of the sex abuse scandal have played a major role in bringing churchmen to their senses. Absent the invigorating pontificate of John Paul II and the steady assurance of Benedict XVI, that scandal could just as easily have caused things to spiral further out of control, but it is in the very nature of Divine Providence to use the very timing of earthly events to bring good out of evil. I have no wish to minimize the importance of the frightful mirror that has been held up before the ecclesiastical establishment over the past ten years.

Regardless of the exact combination of causes, which God alone knows, the vital point is that we can point to more than just Catholic teaching as an indicator of the importance of Catholic identity. We can point to specific contemporary disciplinary cases. We can look at each other and nod and say that at last the hierarchy is beginning to “get it”. It is very clear that the current Pope is slowly learning how to choose disciplinary battles he can win, and encouraging his bishops to do the same.

We must of course remember what every good parent already knows, that there is a great deal of the art of the possible in discipline. Therefore, we have no warrant to expect a landslide, or even a controlled torrent of discipline, at least not yet. But being actually able to point to any track record at all of internal discipline is a huge gain and a significant comfort. It seems to me certain that it is also a hopeful foreshadowing of real and concrete changes yet to come.

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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