The Bishops' Chickens Coming Home to Roost.

A condensed version of this article appeared as an Op. Ed. in the March 7, 2012, issue of the Morning Call.

3:37 PM 3/16/2012 — For thirty years the Catholic bishops of the United States have trivialized their moral authority by wasting their teaching authority within the Church by embracing every liberal social initiative that came along, from expressing concern for migrants and refugees to lecturing the government on the plight of illegal aliens. All the while, Catholics were ignoring the Church's teaching on a whole host of moral issues, like the infallibility of the Church's teaching on contraception, without so much as a word from the bishops. Catholics in public office, like Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, are not even falling back on the tired old “personally opposed but” argument, and are openly fighting what they still claim is their Church with angry indignation, while the local bishops who have authority over them continue to insist that there's nothing they can do in spite of the clear instructions contained in Canon Law regarding Catholics who publicly give scandal. As one archbishop put it when asked whether he would deny Holy Communion to a member of Congress who routinely speaks against Church teaching, “My style is more pastoral than that.”
     Now, all of a sudden, the Administration has forced Catholic institutions to provide services which violate what the Church regards as the teaching of Christ himself, choosing a rather selective view of the so-called Wall of Separation: the Church may not involve itself in politics, but the government has every right to control and command the Church in the name of public health. While some bishops have come forward to speak forcefully about it, their remarks are too little too late, as the groundwork for this defeat was laid by the generation of bishops that came before them, a generation more concerned with the image of the Church in the secular press than with the truth.
     Indeed, the problem is rooted in what the spiritual doctors of a previous age called “human respect,” and a lot of it has to do with the particular generation from which the bishop in question comes. Here’s how the scenario, more often than not, plays out:

  1. A prominent Catholic living or working in the diocese makes a public statement or publicly supports an action which is contrary to Divinely revealed Catholic teaching.

  2. The bishop begins to weigh in his mind the conflict between obfuscating scandal against the prospect of propelling his name and that of his diocese into the public eye. On the one hand, the bishop is mindful of his responsibility to "confirm the faith" of the souls entrusted to his care, conscious that failure to speak out in a forceful way could lead many of the faithful to conclude that the onerous opinion being expressed is acceptable or, at least, not that important; on the other hand, the bishop comes from a generation of priests who were taught that the cause of Christ is best served when the Church is not in the headlines, and that controversy of any kind is always bad.

  3. Unable to resolve the conflict in himself, the bishop decides that the best course is to find a way to make the whole situation someone else's responsibility; so, he regretfully laments that the individual in question is not really a subject of his diocese (even though the offense occurred there), and that he is powerless to do anything without clear instructions from the individual's "proper" bishop—knowing, of course, that his brother bishop is of the same generation and mind-set as he is, and that this reasoning process will be repeated "over there," hopefully drawn out long enough until the news cycle has run it's course and the matter is no longer "front page" material.

The hope is that the whole problem just fades away with time, and everyone can get back to pretending that all is sweetness and light—at least that's what the two bishops would like to believe, with an "off screen" nod and wink between them.
     To a priest of my generation, this is all perfectly horrific, and explains a whole host of things, including the sex abuse crisis and the poor response of the bishops in general to it. To a priest of the current "ruling" generation, it's priests like me and my generation which are the problem, because we don't understand the absolute necessity of playing the game of projecting the Home-on-the-Range image of the Catholic Church to the outside world: "...where never is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day."
     The problem really is generational; and, for proof of that, I invite you to visit my alma mater, St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York. It's one of the oldest in the country. As soon as you walk into the main corridor of the ancient building, take a left and walk to the end. Take another left, toward the room labeled "Large Theology." On the right hand wall begins the group portraits of the classes, beginning in 1902 (after the seminary moved from Troy) and stretching all along the wall down to the opposite end of the building. The portraits of those early classes—some with as few as five or six priests in them—are inspiring. There they all sit, in hopelessly wrinkled cassocks and unkempt hair, with fire in their eyes. These, after all, were the men who would have to "create" the Catholic Church in this country—a country which, for the most part, believed that Catholics were worshipers of Satan. They were trained to resist persecution, defend the faith against all manner of attack, work independently without contact with higher authority, and support an immigrant faithful which was mistrusted and persecuted themselves. They had to be men! They had to be fighters! They had to be individuals! They had to stand out from the crowd! And you can tell they were all that and more just by looking at their pictures.
     Now, stroll down to the other end of the building, where you'll find the portraits from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. The classes here are much larger, some with as many as thirty priests in them, but there is no fire in their eyes. Sometimes it's hard to even distinguish between the men in them: all the same hair cut; all the same style of perfectly pressed suit and collar; all the same dull, blank, expressionless stare. Here you have found the current ruling generation of Catholic clergy in the United States, all with spine neatly and surgically removed. They, after all, were not ordained to defend the faith, but to make it seem harmless to a well ordered Protestant society. They were not intended to help an immigrant community survive a vicious persecution, but rather to help the Catholic Church in America "blend in"; and, to that end, they were formed and trained to blend in themselves. If there were originally any individuals and strong personalities—any "characters"—among them, they were weeded out of the formation process by the new tool of psychological evaluation. Their lack of individuality and self-determination, it was thought, was necessary to ensure their obedience; their ability to blend in and not stand out from the crowd was thought necessary to ensure that the Catholic Church was not perceived by anyone as a threat.
     And the Church got exactly what she wanted. This latter generation, with their sexuality thoroughly repressed, their emotional development frozen somewhere in adolescence, their "fighting Irish" spirit boiled out of them, and their blind obedience to authority thoroughly ensured, were unleashed into a society which, within a few decades, would turn against the Church again—a Church which would look to her priests to fight for her—but there was no fight in them. Humanae Vitae came and went, and the number of priests and bishops willing and able to stand up and defend the doctrine could be counted on one hand. The repression of their psycho-sexual development exploded in a flurry of improper and horrific abuses of young boys, and the ones charged with protecting the young and restoring order had not the strength of character—or the ability to even see the need—to take the bull by the horns and deal with it. Instead they chose to try and "smooth it over" by cryptic transfers to other assignments, hoping it would all go away. Then, when the poop hit the fan, they placed the whole problem in the hands of a lay review board, to which they subordinated their Divine commission, inventing slogans like "Promise to Protect, Pledge to Heal," actually believing that marketing and image were part of the solution. They convinced a dazed and confused Holy See to sign off on a policy of "norms" that would allow them to rid themselves of any priest who embarrassed them, while protecting themselves from any liability.
     And when a Catholic politician openly supports policies which are abhorrent to fundamental Catholic dogma, they pass the buck. Is it any wonder why?
     Now, the very concept of a benevolent Church coexisting with a benevolent government, a concept which their paralysis was designed to protect, is under attack, and they have no idea what to do about it. Unfortunately for them, and the rest of us, it's too late. What should have been done needed to be done two generations ago.