Msgr. Charles Pope: The 6 Habits of Highly Ineffective Church People

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Painting:  Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” 1633

We are suffering from a leadership that has increasingly become aloof, cautious and operates more in maintenance mode even as the number of Catholics in Church continues to drop dramatically.

By Msgr. Charles Pope, National Catholic Register, 8/26/18

(Note: I wrote this before the news of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony broke last night. Thus, I do not speak directly to that issue here. See this column therefore as a kind of deeper analysis of how and why many of our bishops are so quiet in the wake of this crisis or unwilling to speak to specifics of what grows increasingly grave.)

This most recent storm — which began even before the Grand Jury Report — and the strong reaction among Catholics has caught many bishops off guard. It has served to highlight many structural problems in the Church which have given rise to the justifiable anger of so many. This cauldron did not suddenly boil over. It has been simmering for years — decades, really. Too many Catholics have suffered too long under bishops who have become increasingly distant and out of touch, speaking to issues that are of lesser interest and ignoring concerns about liturgical abuse, dissent and misbehavior by priests.

In this essay I want to focus on a list of contributing factors to the current crisis. My list is incomplete and will require a follow-up article to list other factors. These observations are of a general nature and do not apply to every bishop or diocese, priest or lay person. I submit them with the humility that I do not run a perfect parish, and to some degree I too am caught up in the critique offered here. Have mercy Lord.

And thus we proceed to ponder some of the unhealthy and excessive trends that underlie the current summer of our discontent.

1. Unhealthy deference. Bishops often joke that when a man is ordained a bishop, two things are certain — he will never again have a bad meal, and he will never again hear the truth. The fact is, people are uncomfortable in the presence of authority and there is a sort of unhealthy deference that many use to manage the tensions. Rare indeed is the person who can look the bishop in the eye and respectfully disagree with him, or even suggest that his policy or viewpoint needs adjustment. And if a person does this he will often be scolded by others for overstepping.

Unhealthy deference is not the fault of the bishop alone. There is a cultural dimension that results in too much fawning and flattery in the presence of authority, and of resentment and derision when they are not present. A healthy Christian attitude is to recall that authority is exercised among equals. Whatever our role, we are equal in dignity before God. A second healthy attitude is that one has authority in order to serve those in his care, not simply to get his way.

All of this excessive deference leads to a kind of insularity, which we discuss next.

2. Insularity. One of the most common complaints I get from lay people is that they have no way to communicate with their bishop. When troubles arise with a priest or a parish, the suggestion that the lay faithful write to the bishop is risible to most of them. In fact they have tried countless times to alert the bishop or the pastoral leadership at the diocese. If they get a response at all it is formulaic, full of promises to “look into the matter.” But nothing is done and nothing changes.

Priests too complain that it is almost impossible to request a meeting with their own bishop. This is especially the case in larger dioceses. Instead the priest is instructed to meet with a staff member, a vicar or auxiliary bishop.

The fact is that many bishops live behind ranks of staff and gatekeepers. They live in a kind of magic circle where unpleasant news is often kept from them. The staff at the diocesan centers insulate the bishop — not only for his sake, but for theirs. They have the job of helping to keep the diocese ship-shape, and, sure enough, they are usually glad to report to the bishop that everything is ship-shape. And when there are serious problems that arise, the staff manage the problem and the bishop is seldom required to deal with it directly. Instead he is fed a lot of filtered information, assurances and plans.

All of this means that many bishops are almost never directly engaged with their priests or people. Rare is the bishop of a larger diocese who answers his own calls, shares his cellphone number with his priests, reads any of his own email, or even opens much of his mail. It will be granted that bishops of certain larger diocese may not be reasonably able to do all this, but insularity is the trade-off. (One suggested solution is to break large dioceses into smaller dioceses.)

3. Lack of ordinary pastoral experience. It is quite significant how many bishops have never actually been pastors of a parish. There seems to be a double track among the priests: the palace (i.e., administrative) priests, and the parish priests. Many, if not most, bishops are drawn from the clergy who have served as bishops’ secretaries, chancery officials, vicars, seminary rectors, etc. Far fewer are those drawn from the ranks of parish priests. As such, many of the bishops have had little real experience with ordinary parish life and ordinary Catholic people. They speak the language of policy and legalese. They are seen more as managers than shepherds who know how to call the sheep.

4. Secrecy and a lack of fraternal correction. Discretion is very important in Church matters. The confessional requires the absolute secrecy of the seal. And counseling, which is frequently given by the clergy and professional staff, requires a confidentiality expected of doctors, lawyers, counselors and the like. Thus, the demeanor of the Church is to be discreet. Rather exacting legal policies in our country currently regulate what must be confidential (e.g., health records) and what must be disclosed (e.g., child abuse). But as a norm there is an instinct in the Church to be reserved in sharing information. Of itself, this disposition is fine, but it can admit of excesses and becomes at some point an unhealthy secrecy. There are some things we know that ought to be shared.

Thus if a person (say a priest) is drinking excessively, or is seen in questionable settings or known to be engaging in sinful behaviors, we must, at some point, bring this to the attention of others. Jesus gives an order of fraternal correction that begins with speaking to the individual privately. But if the person does not accept or heed the correction, one or two witnesses should be summoned. If he refuses to listen or heed, it is time to “tell it to the Church.” Final impenitence should lead to canonical penalties, even to the point of excommunication — see Matthew 18:15-18.

Yet corrections and penalties are seldom meted out today; or, if they are, there is an uneven application. Indeed, one of the most significant problems we have in both the Church and in our culture is the collapse of fraternal correction. In our families, too many children are not reproved. In the Church, erring clergy are frequently left to wander about misleading the faithful or giving bad example or violating liturgical norms.

In the current scandal it is documented that several high-ranking Church officials were informed by letter of Archbishop McCarrick’s homosexual harassment of seminarians. Thus, there were some who were trying to “tell it to the Church.” But instead of a concerned response and an active investigation of the truth, the letters were ignored or passed on to others, and received no vigorous action. In two other cases individuals were paid sums of money in the form of a confidentiality agreement. This is a breakdown in fraternal correction, and an unhealthy secrecy. Both have caused great harm to the faithful.

Staying quiet and being overly discreet at this point is taken as a kind of consent, or a minimizing of the problem — qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent is seen to consent). Even secretly reproving a person may not be enough when their errors or transgressions are well-known. Frank, charitable and clear fraternal correction must be re-established in the Church and our culture. It may begin in secret, but at some point, in more serious matters, it must emerge to include others and involve public reprimand for the sake of the common good and to avoid scandalizing the faithful. If not, we are exhibiting an unhealthy discretion and secrecy.

Some of the reticence among the bishops to openly deal with problems is likely tied to the next observation.

5. Careful company men. Like any large institution, the Church tends to promote men who are careful, cautious and generally don’t rock the boat. They parse their words carefully and are keen to find ways to ingratiate and avoid any offense or controversy. None of this is wrong per se, but it is often excessive, valuing the institution over the truth, the Gospel and God’s people. Rare indeed among those who rise in the ranks are the zealous, prophetic types who show less restraint — who speak frankly of sin and summon the faithful to be less compromised with this world.

Bishops are generally cautious by nature. That’s often how they got to be where they are. But this means that, as a group, they are less likely to correct errors clearly, call sins by their proper names (instead of euphemisms) or unambiguously summon the faithful to holiness and truth.

All of that is a little too controversial, and company men in any institution are usually averse to controversy. Our bishops may issue policy statements as a conference about certain issues, but usually they are boldly worded only in those matters that are considered safe because they concur with the mainstream media.

In the current crisis, only a few of the bishops have been willing to speak clearly to the homosexual dimension of this sinful horror. There is indeed a great intimidation factor in our culture that excoriates those who speak to the biblical teaching about homosexual acts and all other forms of illicit sexual union. But that only a few bishops have been willing to preach and teach boldly about this and other controversial matters illustrates the serious problems caused by avoidance of controversy — seemingly, at all costs.

Where does the careful, cautious nature of company men in institutions come from? This is explored in the next point.

6. Too much to lose. An old saying goes: “There is no freer man in the world than he who has nothing to lose.” Janis Joplin put it this way: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” But today in the Church there is an unspoken but palpable sense that we have far too much to lose.

The early Church was a time of heroic witness to the faith, often at the cost of death. Of the first 33 popes, 30 died as martyrs, two died in exile and only one died in his bed. We can hardly imagine that kind of sacrifice today. Our clergy today live very protected lives in large stately buildings, often surrounded by staff and overseeing significant physical assets and large budgets. Since A.D. 313 we have amassed a great deal of land, property, power and influence. In the Scriptures, Jesus said, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). It was his way of saying that he owed no one anything. He was free to preach without so many of the fears that assail the modern Church.

To a great degree we have lost the simplicity and poverty of the early Church. As we emerged from the persecutions we acquired much — so much that we now have too much to lose. I do not have a simple solution for this. There is a beautiful heritage of buildings and other assets to protect and cherish. But we cannot love them so much that we disgrace the very faith that built them.

Yet that is the danger — and that is where the “avoid all controversy and never offend” attitude of the company men and lukewarm Catholics sets up shop. For indeed, it isn’t just the bishops and higher-ranking priests that succumb to this. It is true that they fear losing not only the bigger assets of the diocese, but also position, power and upward access. And the faithful too, having largely “made it” here in America, fear to live and witness to the faith heroically. They too fear not only the loss of money and jobs, but also of prestige, approval and acceptance.

When we have too much to lose, we will tend to compromise, become lukewarm and avoid all controversy. Clear words and bold actions frighten Church officials and bring rebuke or isolation to those who take a stand.

But in the current crisis, we can see how — in seeking to maintain a rapprochement with the world, to smooth over controversy and avoid trouble — we simply end up more hated than ever. This world will never be satisfied with our compromises. When it sees us make them, it senses weakness and moves in for the kill. And the prince of this world is at the helm. In seeking to avoid loss, we end up losing everything. In the past 20 years there have been billions of dollars in payouts. Schools and churches have been sold to make such payments and an even mightier contraction seems upon us.

“Too much to lose.” It is such a terrible form of slavery and from it emerges a false prudence of caution, avoidance, compromise and secrecy. We must accept again that the Gospel is controversial. We must be willing again to die with Christ outside the city walls. (See Hebrews 13:13.)

Here then are some of the flawed structural dimensions that have contributed to this modern crisis. More could be said of other problems, such as our loss in the sense of sin. On this Bishop Morlino has written well. Dr. Ralph Martin writes well on the problem of false compassion, cheap mercy and bland universalism that has removed all sense of urgency in working for the salvation of souls. Fr. Peter Stravinskas writes well of how the seminary system overemphasizes a kind of bland conformity that forms men to “play it safe” rather than develop true leadership skills and become zealous soldiers in the army of the Lord. Indeed, gone from most of the Church is a sense of the drama of battling for souls. Fr. Jay ScottNewman ponders titles, trappings and traveling about that vex the modern episcopacy.

There are many layers. And in this essay I have tried to add a few. No Church with human beings in it will get everything right. But we are suffering from a leadership that has increasingly become aloof, cautious and operates more in maintenance mode even as the number of Catholics in Church continues to drop dramatically. This is true among a great many pastors as well. To use a military analogy, war generals have given way to staff generals and there is very little sense of the battle or the need for zeal and discipline among the troops. Please remember that these are general observations and most of the problems are not new. Not every bishop or pastor manifests all these traits, but they are pervasive enough to be properly labeled as structural problems.

Just as a final picture, there is something emblematic in the modern clothing of bishops. The priestly and shepherd-like cassock, with the cross prominently displayed, is a rarer sight. In recent decades, it has yielded to a black business suit, with the cross tucked away in a chest pocket. Just something to ponder.