The peasants of Autun

By Diogenes (articles ) | May 04, 2004

Priests, C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere, are those men whom we set apart to minister to us as people who will live forever -- forever, that is, in heaven or in hell. The sole reason for the existence of the clergy is to aid us in avoiding damnation and in attaining heaven. Often priestly work will include temporal remedies -- Jesus was surely acting as a priest in healing the blind and sick -- but temporal hardships are of themselves not impediments to salvation, and authentic pastoral work begins where temporal remedies leave off.

In the past fifty years, the possibility of damnation has all but disappeared from the clerical vocabulary, leaving behind a vacuum in which few bishops can explain to themselves -- much less to others -- why the Faith is important. A gathering of bishops calls to mind (for most of us) the picture of fleshy men in a conference room at the Omni Shoreham, with plastic name-tags pinned to their lapels, peering apprehensively over their half-glasses at their programs while Sister Sharon Euart leads them in morning prayer. Managers by training, socialists by conviction, they are clearly ill at ease with the "spiritual side" of the job, and it was pathetically typical that Bishop Gregory, when obliged to defend the existence of the Church, could find nothing more persuasive than her role as a provider of social services and community-building initiatives.

In broad terms, at this moment in history, those of us who believe in hell are governed by bishops who don't. This is analogous to being treated by a doctor who thinks death is a fable and disease an illusion of the patient. If we pester him long enough for penicillin, he'll give it to us as a placebo, but his heart's not in it. By the same token, bishops can get quite animated about battered women or water quality or even Bolivian debt relief, but when the conversation turns to sanctifying grace their eyes glaze over, their lips part, and they start blowing bubbles with their spit. With very few exceptions, they're just not interested in religion.

Let's be fair. Why should a bishop -- I mean a bishop who thinks there's no such thing as damnation -- be interested in religion any more than an employee of Disney's Magic Kingdom is interested in magic? If heaven is assured for everyone, if all trains are ultimately headed to the same station, your aim is to make the journey as comfortable as possible, working to keep doctrines as fuzzy and as few as the passengers will let you get by with. And when bad things occur en route, such as ministers' misbehaving with children, you don't worry about souls being lost; the name of the game is reconciliation: "Now, now, my little man, let's see that smile again!"

The Church has passed this way before, many times, and unbelieving bishops wax and wane like locusts. We've had it worse. I comfort myself with thoughts of 18th century France, when Talleyrand, the atheist Bishop of Autun, only bothered to visit his diocese once in his tenure, spending the rest of his time in Paris in a life of Clintonesque dissoluteness. Today, as then, faithful and devoted bishops are scarce but not lacking entirely, and our job is to make of the others the best use that we can, remembering that "the unworthiness of the minister hindereth not the effect of the sacrament."

Did God love the peasants of Autun less than other Catholics, such that He wanted to imperil their salvation? No -- but upright, devout, truth-telling bishops were not a gift He chose to give them. This gift has been withheld from us also, and as a consequence we have a difficult path to walk, neither giving in to discouragement nor becoming party to the lie that the rot is less serious than it appears. We have the promise, not that we'll succeed, but that we won't walk alone.

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  • Posted by: - May. 06, 2004 7:45 AM ET USA

    Thanks for saying it just like it is, Diogenes. I truly hope and expect that Pope John Paul II will read your piece. Meanwhile, we in the trenches, uhhh, the pews (?), must pray fervently and lead lives as pure as the driven snow -- and THAT is a lot of penance.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 05, 2004 8:42 PM ET USA

    You hit the nail right on the head, Diosgenes; But particularly as an "American " Catholic I am deeply scandalized by this situation. An evil King is a disgusting disgrace. Many of these men are like dying animals on the road. I would have them drink deep of the wine of repentance and recover..., or I would pray to God that there would be some reasonable way that God-fearing American Catholic men could move them out of sight so that they (those bishops) would not continue to offend and confuse.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - May. 05, 2004 7:25 PM ET USA

    Jim E- I agree that Abp. Myers' statement is a good one. But he does stop short of telling priests to deny the Sacrament to the personally-opposed-but politicians.

  • Posted by: Jim E - May. 05, 2004 3:42 PM ET USA

    To All, Yes, Diogenes points are well directed. However, we all need to be selective in characterizing all bishops as being almost non catholic or even anti catholic. Read the Pastoral letter by Archbishop Myers of Newark regarding abortion and the proper place of conscience. It is extremely well written and leaves no loopholes for the cafeteria style catholics. ( The letter can be accessed via the daily news secton of CWNEWS.)

  • Posted by: - May. 05, 2004 2:50 PM ET USA

    Once again, Diogenes, you have crystallized my thoughts, exactly.

  • Posted by: MM - May. 05, 2004 7:56 AM ET USA

    just brilliant. this is a piece i find myself re-reading and re-reading...

  • Posted by: Fr. William - May. 05, 2004 12:54 AM ET USA

    Thank you DIogenes. Awesome piece of work. Sometimes I wonder: is the gift being withheld, this gift of upright-devout-Truth-telling-willing-to-die-for-the-Truth bishops... or is the gift being blocked by self-serving-political-sinful-traitor bishops who unfortunately have often given a terna (list of potential bishops) to the Papal nuncio for an open See....

  • Posted by: murph - May. 04, 2004 10:35 PM ET USA

    I too must add my BRAVO!! This was brilliant. How can we get the Bishops to read it?!

  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2004 9:11 PM ET USA

    One of the best things that I have seen written about the situation and it explains the question I keep asking as to why in our Diocese we feel as if we are not being shepherded at all or we are doing it ourselves and even shepherding and caring for them which I thought was their job. It is not only bishops, but many priests, also. This Sunday at masses even the eucharistic ministers were giving communion and the priest and deacons giving the wine. How is that for messing with out minds?

  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2004 8:16 PM ET USA

    Send this one to all the Cardinals in Rome!

  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2004 7:41 PM ET USA

    Thanks Diogenes. Flanner O'Connor wrote in a letter that "sometimes you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it." So, true. I'm a convert and I'm in for the duration but they don't make it easy. It seems there is room for everyone in the Catholic Church today except for those who actually want to be Catholic. We perservere. I hope.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - May. 04, 2004 6:51 PM ET USA

    You're much too hard on Bishop Gregory, Diogenes. After all, didn't he say, "We have screening processes?" That's kind of like many are called but few are chosen, isn't it? And: "We have workshops." That's the same as Jesus gathering the crowd around himself on the Mount, isn't it? Wasn't that a workshop? Wouldn't He have used PowerPoint if he'd had it? Seriously: this was one of your best!

  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2004 6:42 PM ET USA

    BRAVO!!!! I can say nothing more for I feel my thoughts would only detract. Again, I state BRAVO!!!!

  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2004 11:44 AM ET USA

    But where do these cynical shepherds come from? They are no longer elected by the populations they serve, as was Ambrose by the Milanese. Moved about like chess pieces they are strangers among strangers with staffs of high ranking clerics always more or less resentful of the imposition of an outsider and their own de facto exclusion of eligibility to pastor at the top, the people they understand the best. Let's not leave Rome's agenda out of this equation for prelate delinquency.

  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2004 11:16 AM ET USA

    This telling summation of christologic history does remind of Tolkien's phrase "a long, slow decline" or F.C. Copleston's line in his biography "where did Our Lord promise us a triumphal march through history?". Well done, Diogenes -- surely adequate penance for any rhetorical sins of the pen that you may have committed in the past.

  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2004 10:43 AM ET USA

    What a summation of the current situation! I am almost grateful that the Church went through so many trials by fire, especially from her own children. We will survive our bishops whether or not they are true shepherds. And the past holds hope for our future. Perhaps God has seen that we grew soft and successful, more interested in building our new parish centers for the diminishing numbers at Sunday mass. Jesus said that the road to heaven was narrow and difficult.