Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Sensitive Topics, Myself, Bishops, and Removing All Doubt

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 28, 2014

After several years of self-restraint, I finally gave voice to misgivings about what I regard as abuses in the otherwise legitimate celebration of patriotic holidays. In each previous year, I had decided not to borrow trouble. This year, on the US holiday of Memorial Day, I thought I could avoid most of the pitfalls. In this I deceived myself.

It is not that I disavow what I wrote; on the contrary, I continue to think my concerns ought at least to be discussed. But I did underestimate the strong feelings involved, which very much color the interpretation of what I wrote and why. The discussion has been revealing, both in Sound Off and on Facebook. While many agreed with what I wrote, it is clear that a significant number of thoughtful Catholics regard my comments as a classic illustration of the principle that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

If I may be permitted to be a weasel for a moment, I am not alone! I think something similar happened a few days ago to the bishops of England and Wales, when they spoke out to defend same-sex civil unions against pending legislation which would convert all of them to marriages. Read our news story and you will immediately see what I mean. The bishops tried to say something good, but did so clumsily, and in an almost impossible context.

Perhaps an even more egregious case is provided by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, who decried the remarkable rise of “euroskeptics” in Monday’s elections for the parliament of the European Union. This would appear to be a classic instance of misplaced clerical meddling in legitimate differences among Catholics and others as to how best to organize their political affairs. But it is also part of our issue here: Bishops must avoid being partisan, if only to maintain the ability to offer credible spiritual service to all.

The Role of the Bishop

Let me continue for a moment to keep the focus off of my own shortcomings. It is one thing for Jeff Mirus, with no authority whatsoever to speak for the Church, to be perceived (however inaccurately!) as just another commentator, puffed up by his own pride and prejudice. But it is quite another thing for any bishop to fuel the misperception that he belongs in the same category. For in the Catholic universe, bishops are and ought to be perceived as something very different.

Bishops are placed in office to teach, rule and sanctify. It is my job to be a “commentator”, and I’d like to keep the competition to a minimum. Bishops need not apply; bishops should not apply. Insofar as bishops speak, it should be to teach the certain spiritual and moral principles of Jesus Christ, to spiritually encourage the souls in their care, and to rebuke those who use their positions to undermine the credibility of the Church. The prudent bishop offers his opinions as little as humanly possible on those questions about which good people can disagree. To take our last example as symbolic, the prudent bishop’s foundation for interacting with Europhiles should, apart from questions of faith and morals, be as strong as his foundation for interacting with Euroskeptics.

In an organization of which I was once a part, we had an intensely partisan chaplain. He was always obviously on one side in any internal dispute about the best way to proceed, even though all were agreed on fundamental Catholic values. The result was a widening of staff divisions and an absolute inability for that chaplain to promote unity in a common Christian cause. Always ascribing factiousness to only one side, he was powerless to reduce it anywhere, and in fact made it far worse.

Such divisions are very common among strong-minded people engaged together in apostolic work, and they very frequently result in the ultimate destruction of the work. A chaplain—or a bishop—who can transcend human differences involving perceptions and preferences in order to keep everybody charitably focused on fundamental principles and common ends can foster a community in which the participants can properly handle the elation of winning one point and the disappointment of losing another.

All Things to All Men

In all this, St. Paul’s example is the essential guide:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. [1 Cor 9:19-23]

Now, how much more effective might my own essay on a sensitive topic have been if I had begun by according a full legitimate appreciation to love of country, the American emphasis on political liberty, military service, and death on the battlefield—before talking about the abuses, exaggerations and misconceptions in our celebration of these things that I find troubling. My failure to do this has almost certainly led some to perceive me as standing haughtily above those who deeply honor these values.

This is part of what it means to be all things to all men. It is not a question of deception. The very first responsibility is to engage others seriously by recognizing the legitimate goods with which they are concerned. Happily, my readers can rejoice that I am not a bishop. For if this is a responsibility of all Christians by virtue of love and truth, it is a specific occupational responsibility for bishops, who are called not only to exemplify ordinary Christian virtues in the highest degree but to exercise a specific ministerial responsibility for all.

Perhaps I should admit to the trick of expanding the guilt. But may my readers forgive my lapses, and may Our Lord preserve all of us from those self-centered ways of speaking which really do remove all doubt.

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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Show 16 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 16, 2016 3:18 PM ET USA

    A fine essay. It reminded me of the doctrine that Christian Hope--a theological virtue— is predicated upon the infinite power of God's grace to achieve in us what our own finite powers must view as mere Ideals.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 16, 2016 7:19 AM ET USA

    Excellent hermeneutic. I would like to see a Vatican response.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Jun. 14, 2016 7:57 PM ET USA

    Spot on!

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Jun. 14, 2016 5:41 PM ET USA

    Super! I'd like to print it out and frame it on the wall for the pleasure of reading it every day! I remember 50 years ago as a Protestant I was trying to say this to my fellow Protestants, and they couldn't see what I was getting at. I thank God I found my way to the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jun. 13, 2016 6:09 PM ET USA

    Whom are you arguing with? Who referred to Christian teachings as an ideal? Oh, yes. I remember.

  • Posted by: JimK01 - Jun. 03, 2014 5:19 PM ET USA

    My 1950's Catholic school taught me that I should be true to "God, Country & Self" in that order. Later, in the military, I learned that for a successful "brainwashing" to occur, the torturer need only get the subject to doubt or betray any ONE of those three to then gain control over him. Certainly you are not attempting to weaken our love of, or our duty to, our Country -- are you? I believe that we must become more patriotic and save our Country as well as our Church. Both need serious help!

  • Posted by: skall391825 - May. 31, 2014 3:57 AM ET USA

    My criticism was a reaction to your perceived partisan piling on: partisan politics by Bishops; six years of an anti-Catholic agenda by the Administration, the media, and many jurists; open murder of Catholics by Islamists; and Phil Lawler's recent article laying the Iraqi mess at the feet of Bush for not minding the "Vatican". Although the mess was caused by the Administration for political purposes after the peace had been won by Bush, comments contrary to Phil's view were not permitted.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - May. 30, 2014 8:50 PM ET USA

    I confess to having agreed with you previous post on the subject. However... I remember when I was a prospective convert to the Church, thinking with distaste on some of the cultural manifestations of Catholicism. Here in New Zealand it's ANZAC Day that is the day we sing the national anthem (after the dismissal, thank God). I have a couple of times played Last Post on the trumpet as well. I'd rather have straight Mass - but I have decided it's harmless.

  • Posted by: Defender - May. 30, 2014 8:38 AM ET USA

    Vietnam still remains, it seems. My dad was career Army, went to Vietnam twice and was on leave after returning the second time, while I was on leave going - yes, a very long war. It was also unique for me, we both had experienced it and we experienced something "additional" that most fathers and sons probably don't - I'm not sure I can even explain it. Having seen it, was this war "just?" I believe it was. This is not to excuse the excesses that occur in war, though.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 29, 2014 10:21 AM ET USA

    The heat of passion is only the reasonable price that is to be paid for honest Catholic dialogue… Ephesians admonishes us “to speak the truth in love…” but it is grossly understated on the emotional level… We are speaking of things that men will die for… “Intellectual detachment” is truly a commodity that waxes and wanes… and rely that in the effort God will protect us from ourselves…

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 29, 2014 10:20 AM ET USA

    “it is clear that a significant number of thoughtful Catholics regard my comments as a classic illustration of the principle that it is better to remain silent & be thought a fool than to speak & remove all doubt….” I do not believe that is so …, but “respect” works both ways…. We have been and continue to be “disrespected” by our bishops for so long it has been “normalized.” If you wish to “teach & discuss” fair enough, but unlike the “formal bishops” “your students” insist on dialogue.

  • Posted by: - May. 29, 2014 9:20 AM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, would that all non-Catholic Christian evangelists could read this post of yours and be enlightened about Romans 10:15, and the significance of being sent. Our own bishops should read this, too. Jesus is the way, truth and life, and politics is almost always, or even always always, completely outside His scope. The Church sends bishops approved "apostles" out to the world to bring us to Jesus, NOT to interfere with politics, & w/out the Church, evangelists end up merely commentators.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 29, 2014 8:23 AM ET USA

    I take exception to what you say: I don't think you slighted true patriotism but rather the quality of being what Spanish calls "patriotista" as opposed to "patriota". The difference is that the former is really saying "my country right or wrong" whereas the latter says simply "I love my country". We have far too much of the former in the US and things seem to have gotten worse since the prestige of the country overseas has declined (after the Vietnam debacle and in accelerated fashion recently)

  • Posted by: sacbaker - May. 29, 2014 8:20 AM ET USA

    I cannot agree more with your recent articles. My father served in the military for 28 years, hated war, but served. Awarded the Silver Star(rescuing two fellow soldiers), Bronze Star, 4 Purple Heart. Two years in Vietnam. He held his company commander in his arms as he died. He told me once that his main duty was to protect his young soldiers. Carried a Catholic bible a wore a cross. War is really hell. I prayed for him every day. Sad that we go to war and kill so easily and call it just.

  • Posted by: hurdlec4196 - May. 29, 2014 2:21 AM ET USA

    It's clear you're trying to put this to rest and I have no desire to stir up any further controversy. But I just read the article and actually liked it. I took no offense as an American. I do support my country and I like to think I am a reasonably good Catholic. Sometimes there are conflicts there. We have a moral responsibility to closely analyze America's motives for engaging in military action, but that is certainly not to devalue the service of our men and women in any way.

  • Posted by: jacobtoo - May. 28, 2014 6:10 PM ET USA

    Aw Jeff, I liked the first column much better than this one. I liked it better than any one you've ever written. It was clear, forceful, unique. I read it five times. I won't bother reading this one again.