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Catholic Culture Overview

weak bishops, trying times

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 07, 2006

Cardinal Roger Mahony responds to questioners in his on-line chat session:

Joe: Hello Cardinal. With the growing interest in traditional worship of the Catholic Church are we going to see a more generous use of the Traditional Latin Mass?

Cardinal Mahony: It is not correct to say "traditional worship" in our Church. For a small slice of Church history, Latin was the language of Mass. But the Council moved us beyond that to a new Roman Missal. We must continue forward with the Church. However, it is important to bring with us our Latin hymns and other treasures from the past ages.

"For a small slice of Church history, Latin was the language of Mass." It's such a petty, pointless lie. And the mendacity reveals a moral shabbiness characteristic of so much that Mahony stands for.

Putting to one side the Latin Mass controversy, the Cardinal has to know he asserted a falsehood. Why would he do so? Probably because lying has served him so well in the past that it has become second nature to him, a reflex response to discomfort. Traditionally, Christians have believed that their ministers of religion put a premium on truthfulness and that these ministers would not knowingly lie to them. Think of what a formidable weapon this put into the hands of a bishop! Whatever pronouncement he made was taken by the great majority of the faithful to be true (or at the very least a sincere misstatement), and even those few who may have suspected a fib had to pretend the contrary. [Note: there is a profound theological truth behind (though not identical with) this presumption of honesty. Bishops are successors of the apostles, witnesses to the risen Christ. The belief we extend to their testimony is more than a pious compliment. It is indispensable to faith.]

But -- the power to be believed ex officio is the power to escape from any painful or vexing situation by telling a lie. Only a heroically good man could possess this power for most of his life and not be worsened by it. Like the Ring in Tolkein's trilogy, a bishop's reputation for solemn truthfulness "thins out" those who employ it to make matters easier for themselves. And once recourse to the tactically expedient lie is taken, it becomes addictive; like the Ring, it's too easy to use and too difficult to pass up. Those who get hooked on this magic mendacity get corrupted. Morally, they shrivel. Thus we're face to face with the pathetic example of Mahony casting into oblivion fourteen or fifteen centuries of history because it suits his (trivial, inconsequential) purpose of the moment: he's become a Gollum among ecclesiastical Ring-knockers.

And he's not the only one. Cardinal Law had the same addiction and used his ex officio privilege the same way (no, he doesn't recall Jackie Gauvreau; no, he'd never think of putting children at risk; no, he didn't read the letter he sent to Sodano). Both men, when they were young priests, may have been solid. Neither could handle the power of the Ring.

The problem is how to deal with the counter-reaction, when the inevitable counter-reaction kicks in. You see this reaction in children whose parents have exploited their juvenile credulity and told lies to get them to behave. You see it sometimes in former fundamentalists whose pastors didn't know the answers to their intelligent adolescent doubts and so made up bogus scholarly facts to satisfy or at least silence them. Once the adolescents become young adults, and read enough to see through the fraud, it's rare that they don't throw the baby out with the bathwater and acrimoniously reject all appeals to religious authority. So here we have Roger Mahony, a cardinal of the Catholic Church, telling a lie as stupid as that of the four-square gospeler who claims the Scriptures were first written in English. It won't have a happy ending.

As I've emphasized before, it has not pleased God to gift our generation with morally courageous clergy, and the composition of "this hapless bench of bishops" (the phrase is Bishop Bruskewitz's) is disheartening. Yet each generation works out its salvation or damnation endowed with a particular set of strengths and weaknesses, and often it's precisely in response to the weaknesses that God calls forth the reforming saints: they redeem the vices characteristic of their age through heroic exercise of the contrary virtues. The time will soon come when, for many, a statement will be judged false simply because a bishop claims it to be true. The task of Catholics will be to teach the world yet again the meaning of apostolic witness by our willingness to suffer for those utterances of bishops that are at once the truest and the least demonstrable: that is, when bishops repeat revealed teachings, especially the teachings that launch those who believe them into losing battles.

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