When everybody else 'gets it'—the bishops' blind spot

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 12, 2016

My column yesterday, on how bishops “don’t get it,” has prompted some revealing responses. Without a single exception, the lay people who have taken the time to respond to me have agreed with my basic point: that our bishops are unaware of the extent to which they are the problem. Many of the priests who have responded also agree with me. But all of the disagreements have come from priests. This, I suggest, is a bit more evidence to support my thesis. There is a class of clerics who cannot imagine the possibility that we are suffering from a crisis of clerical corruption. They cannot see what is wrong, because they are what’s wrong. Unfortunately, their failure to recognize the problem does not prevent their rise through the clerical ranks—quite the contrary.

Perhaps I’m a bit obsessed with this thesis—which wouldn’t be surprising, since I’ve been shouting it out from the rooftops for 20 years or so. But I thought I saw the same clerical phenomenon on display in this interesting post by my favorite canon-law expert, Ed Peters. He is writing on a different topic: the failure of American bishops to enforce Canon 915, which requires withholding Communion from those who are in flagrant public defiance of Church teachings on key moral issues. (The latest example is Vice President Joe Biden, who recently presided at a homosexual ‘marriage’ ceremony.)

Peters points out that a Protestant commentator, Carl Trueman, writing in First Things, shows a clear understanding of the need for Catholic bishops to take disciplinary action. “Gracious,” writes Peters, “even some Protestants think it’s time!”

There it is again: that pattern blindness! The canon lawyers see the need for disciplinary action. The loyal lay Catholics see the need. Even the Protestants recognize the need. The only people who don’t see the urgency of the situation (aside from those confused people who don’t object to legal abortion) are the bishops—who are, unfortunately, the only people in a position to enforce the discipline that is so very necessary.

Peters sees the possibility that the American bishops might begin “the long-awaited, major pushback” that is needed. My colleague Jeff Mirus also sees more bishops prepared to take personal responsibility for their flocks. If that trend really has begun, it must be nurtured; if it hasn’t yet started, it must be encouraged.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Aug. 30, 2016 5:01 PM ET USA

    The reason we don't hear about it from the bishops is mainly two-fold: 1. Lack of faith. Many simply don't believe and are "in it" for the power/prestige, loving their authority "to lord it over all." 2. Fear. of losing priests, parishes, popularity, people leaving, empty churches, empty pews, all of which is also part of loss of faith or never having had faith in the first place.

  • Posted by: VICTORIA01 - Aug. 17, 2016 5:08 AM ET USA

    The bishops in my little corner of Australia presided over the implosion of authentic Catholic teaching in the Faith and I could count on the fingers of both hands the Faithful priests in my capital city. Nothing appears to be changing except of course the number of people coming to Mass is declining as the ones who used to come die.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 15, 2016 8:59 AM ET USA

    The Bishops have always leaned toward social governmental programs than addressing the problem of poverty themselves. This has made them trust more in man than in God. So their collective problem is whom they serve. As we have all been told, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon."

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 14, 2016 8:03 PM ET USA

    I became aware of this problem when I was finally old enough to pay attention, i.e., in my late 20s. First there was the auxiliary bishop of Detroit who declared that he would match Reagan dollar for dollar in his support for the communists in Nicaragua. Then there was the prelate of Seattle, the prelate of Chicago, the prelate of Milwaukee, only to name a few. All opposed to right reason in matters of discipline, prudence, and even faith. The laity were the only ones standing against them.

  • Posted by: wcbeckman51 - Aug. 14, 2016 10:11 AM ET USA

    Clericalism is corruption, and it is epidemic.

  • Posted by: rmdkbo8284 - Aug. 13, 2016 1:12 PM ET USA

    Not to ignore the clergy abuse problem in the Church, but has anyone been as forthright on sexual abuse in society as a whole? The problem isn't just in the Church. Sad to say, but the Church may be the least of our problems as a culture. Abuse, porn, rape. As two comic radio personalities used to say "It's every wherewhere, it's everywhere!" Recalling St. Faustina's vision of hell, the vision is frightening.

  • Posted by: rmdkbo8284 - Aug. 13, 2016 12:58 PM ET USA

    Your article, Phil, engaged me so much that I actually signed up for "Catholic Culture" (donated!) so I could enter into the dialogue. To the point: Corrupt clergy, no (some maybe). Dumb, culpable ignorance, they don't get it? Yes. What I find maddening is that you don't really give an answer. So what are your recommendations other than to say, with Bishop Sheen, the layity are at the heart of the solution. Can't you be more specific than that.