If you didn’t see this blog over the weekend, you missed “When The Magic Goes,”a rambling post about what happens to the moral authority of religious institutions when people lose faith in the leadership class of that institution. Here are a couple of Catholic responses to that post. First, something written by the Catholic lay activist Kevin O’Brien, from his blog. Second, something my old friend John Zmirak, a traditionalist Catholic, wrote on his Facebook page. What John refers to in the first sentence is a Catholic bishop’s once telling me that if I didn’t trust the bishops to fix the sex abuse problem, he didn’t understand why I was still a Catholic:
I’d like to respond to Rod: If the only way you can remain a Catholic is to trust the bishops to handle sex abuse, or trust your kids’ safety to the Church as an institution, then you had BETTER leave the Church. To remain a faithful Catholic today requires vigilance, skepticism, and a strong sense of the rights of the laity–not to meddle with doctrine or improvise the liturgy, but to protect their children from harm, their country from stupid policies, and their paychecks from confiscation by the State (as so many bishops happily advocate).
I know that the opposite of clericalism isn’t anti-clericalism. I wish there were a good word for what I’m talking about. The closest thing I can think of is Ghibellinism–the view held by Dante (among others) that insisted on the rights of the temporal power and the Christian lay community against overreaching by the clergy.
Over the weekend, I had a couple of brief conversations with friends about this kind of thing. One of my friends is Orthodox, the other is Catholic. Both have been involved in different ways in advocating for and building up their churches — one in his parish, the other on a far more public level. Both men are feeling deeply discouraged by the bishops of their churches.
For my Orthodox friend, the fact that his church’s bishops have been unable to deal with spiritual and temporal corruption in their ranks for over a decade, and still cannot deal with it, has left him spent and disgusted (his parish has suffered directly from the fecklessness of episcopal leadership). He told me that five years ago, he would have done anything a bishop asked him to do for the church. Now, that’s gone.
My Catholic friend, like Zmirak and O’Brien, is hit hard by the Bishop Finn mess, and the fact that there really isn’t anything a sitting Catholic bishop can do to render his office forfeit in the eyes of the Vatican. My friend says that it’s damned difficult to be on the front lines in an increasingly hostile culture, fighting for the Church and its teachings, and to find oneself shot at from behind by one’s own generals, so to speak.
I know the feeling well. It’s the same sense that caused my wife to confront the primate of our church face to face about his own spinelessness in the face of sexually corrupt clergy. I told that story in this blog post. Excerpt:
But you know, here’s what I wish bishops — Orthodox, Catholic, and otherwise — would get through their thick mitres.
Many of us parents are trying to raise children to be faithful to our churches in a secular, pluralistic age. As these children grow up, they will be able to entertain the thoughts of believing in other churches, in other faiths, or in no faith at all. If we’re serious about our Orthodoxy, or Catholicism, or Anglicanism, what have you, we will want our children to stay loyal to the faith. There are so many forces pushing and pulling them away from it. We’re living with it daily, and doing our best to build our kids (and ourselves) up in the faith: to know what we believe, and to be joyful in it. We need to be able to look to our church leadership with trust and respect. We don’t have a right to expect every bishop or priest to be a saint; we do have a right to expect them all to have basic integrity. And God knows we have a right to expect that if a clergyman has committed serious sins that compromise his ability to serve as a spiritual father, that the bishop will find something else for that man to do. Everybody who is repentant can be forgiven, thank God — but that doesn’t mean that every forgiven sinner has a right to serve as a priest or deacon.
When our kids get old enough to start questioning their faith, as most of them naturally will do, what will they think when they see bishops like Finn of Kansas City, who covered for a priest who possessed child pornography? What will they think when they see all kinds of lesser but still significant failures by church leadership? We will tell them that the failures of men do not obviate the truth of Church teaching, and we will tell them that the Church is made of fallen men, and we will tell them that they too are sinners. And we will hope that that will work. But we will know too that they are part of a generation that feels no loyalty to a particular church or tradition. Maybe the groundwork we will have laid in their childhood will stand them in good stead once they start to question everything they were taught. We have to hope so. What we could use, though, is strength, integrity, and consistency in the priesthood.
The bottom line: We should be able to tell our kids that Bishop N. and Father J. are reasons for them to remain in the Church, not to leave it.
Read the whole thing, if you like. Here’s a question I’m thinking about right now: Is it possible that the Roman Catholic system and the Orthodox system cannot produce the leaders that these churches need at this moment in history? That is, do the bishop-making systems in each church — and they are different — serve to weed out men who have the capability to meet the challenges of our time and place? To what extent is this crisis in leadership in both churches a problem of individuals, and to what extent is it a problem inherent to the system(s)?
Granted, I doubt many people ever convert to a faith because of the bishops. Nor do most Catholics or Orthodox have any real contact with their bishops. Still, when the perception people have is that the leadership of a church is corrupt and interested only in maintaining its own privileges, that will grind people down over time. Protestants have their own challenges with church leadership, of course, but as non-sacramental, non-hierarchical churches (as most, but not all, of them are), they aren’t as deeply affected by this kind of thing as Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans are.
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I sure am thinking about them a lot, and I throw it out there for you readers to discuss. One gets the sense that Catholic and Orthodox bishops think that what they have will go on forever. It’s true that Christians believe the promise of Jesus that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. But Jesus didn’t say that the gates of Hell wouldn’t prevail against the Church in Europe and North America.