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Black Humor And Bishops

Essayist: Bishop Robert Barron is a good guy who does fine work, but he's not the answer to the US Catholic Church's crisis (Word on Fire)

Some of the Catholic folks I follow on Twitter are excited because the conservative Anglican (breakaway from the Church of England) bishop Gavin Ashenden has announced his conversion to Catholicism. From Catholic News Agency’s report:

Ashenden wrote in the Catholic Herald that “I watched as Anglicanism suffered a collapse of inner integrity as it swallowed wholesale secular society’s descent into a post-Christian culture.”

“I came to realise (too long after both Newman and Chesterton had already explained why) that only the Catholic Church, with the weight of the Magisterium, had the ecclesial integrity, theological maturity and spiritual potency to defend the Faith, renew society and save souls in the fullness of faith,” he said.

May God help him. I mean that sincerely. I am sure the Catholics will have received a very fine and courageous Christian man. The orthodox Catholics will certainly need men (and women) like him in their ongoing struggle against an episcopacy and a papacy that seems determined to take the whole thing along the same doomed path that the Church of England has followed.

But then, we all need people like Gavin Ashenden in our churches. I need to be more like Gavin Ashenden. Forgive me, but I find it hard to be a church enthusiast these days. Please don’t misunderstand me: I believe in the church (and, the Church), do not at all hold with those Christians who think they can go solo, et cetera. Lately I have been following a devotion to two holy priests, St. Alexey Mechev and his son, St. Sergey, the latter of whom was martyred by the Bolsheviks. What I’ve been asking them to do — sometimes with tears in my eyes — is to pray for me, so that I can walk the straight path with something more impelling at my back than duty. When I lost my ability to believe as a Catholic, I told friends that I never imagined that I would have more to suffer from the Catholic Church than for the Catholic Church.

I suppose a spiritually mature response would have been, “but in suffering from the Church, you are suffering for the Church, which is Christ’s Body.” Maybe. A body that attacks itself is cancerous. I couldn’t live with it. As longtime readers know, I became Orthodox, and am so grateful to God for rescuing me for Himself in the Orthodox barque. I live Orthodox, and by God’s grace I will die Orthodox. The wound I received in losing my Catholicism — and in foolishly involving myself in the Metropolitan Jonah mess in the OCA, in which neither I nor anybody, least of all certain bishops, came off looking good — was that I would henceforth be unable to stride confidently with the pilgrim flock, of any kind. I limp behind, and always will. Maybe that’s good, because if they go off a cliff, I’ll see it happening, and can alter course. Want to protect your spiritual health? Don’t get involved with bishops any more than you have to. That’s what I have learned. I wish I weren’t so cynical, but by God, I have come by it honestly.

They say a liberal is the kind of person who loves people but hates individuals, and conservative is precisely the opposite. Well, then I’m a conservative. And that’s the kind of conservative I am in my attitude toward bishops of mine or any other church. A long time ago, not too long after I had become Catholic, I became friends with a very conservative, very funny parish priest who used to joke about how much distance he wished to keep between himself and bishops. Once he made a gift to me (or did I to him?) of Stinking Bishop cheese (seriously, it’s a thing). I used to think his lines about bishops were a charming … well, not affectation, but I didn’t take him all that seriously. But he was serious, though he disguised his seriousness with humor. And in time, I would learn that he had been all too right.

I write this with an icon of two bishop-martyrs of the Bolshevik yoke, St. Tikhon of Moscow and St. Hilarion Troitsky — whose feast day, in fact, is today. In Moscow last month, I prostrated myself at the tomb of St. Hilarion, and asked for his prayers. I know there are holy bishops, and I thank God for them. Don’t misread me here. I am aware, though, from my recent reading in the history of the Russian Revolution, that the evil that overtook Russia, and savaged the Church, came about in part because there were not enough St. Tikhons and St. Hilarions among the hierarchy. At dinner one night with a faithful Russian Orthodox layman, I said naively, “How could anybody have believed what the Bolsheviks were offering?” He went back in history to the 17th century, and recounted for his American guest a history that included a lot of Church corruption and persecution of the peasantry, in alliance with the state. This layman and his wife are not remotely anticlerical, but neither are they clericalists.

Last week, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, took a medical leave of absence to deal with mental health issues, including, he disclosed, a diagnosis of depression. May God give him strength. Bishop Conley has been struggling with revelations of sexual abuse and corruption in his own diocese since this blog broke news in the summer of 2018, in an essay by former Lincoln diocese priest Peter Mitchell, about the late Monsignor Leonard Kalin (d. 2008), the longtime vocations director there. That piece brought forth a number of revelations about sex abuse, and allegations of protective clerical homosexual networks in the diocese.

All this happened before Conley’s tenure, during the days when orthodox Catholics all around the US looked to Lincoln as a bastion of healthy Catholic orthodoxy. But Conley did not cover himself in glory with his handling of the crisis when it showed up on his doorstep. We know that the Nebraska Attorney General’s office is investigating abuse in the Lincoln diocese. We also know that in March, Bishop Conley commissioned an independent investigation of Monsignor Kalin’s history in the diocese. What is the status of that investigation? Does Bishop Conley have the report? If so, why hasn’t he released it? If not, when can the public expect it? Does the report have anything to do with his depression?

One thinks of Benedict XVI, confronted with overwhelming evidence of corruption, sexual and otherwise, in the Curia, and realizing that he lacked the inner strength to combat it. So he resigned. Based on everything I know about Bishop Conley and his past, I have every reason to believe that he is a good and honorable man, as is Pope Benedict (who I also believe is quite holy, even a saint). But goodness, honor, and even sanctity are not enough to cast this particular demon out of the Church, it seems.

A reader sends in this angry, funny essay from The American Mind, written by a conservative Catholic mother under the pseudonym “Peachy Keenan.” Peachy is not happy with the bishops of her church. At all. Here’s how it begins:

Wait, you mean you didn’t hear about the recent gathering (or as they say, “General Assembly”—LOL, OK boomer) of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops? Their annual meeting was held in Baltimore in November; Baltimore, you may recall, was recently newsworthy for being particularly rat-infested.

So many rats that no one paid much attention to a few hundred bishops scurrying around.

She goes on to connect “Crisis 1” (the abuse scandal) with “Crisis 2” (the abandonment of Catholicism by the young). The bishops at their conference did not do enough for Peachy:

But instead of rooting out the deviants who continue to pirouette through seminaries and rectories, they focus on installing the Francis political agenda and tap dance around the elephant behind the altar.

What we the parishioners want to see is action. I want to see a Zeal Team 6 made up of armed Carthusian monks and highly trained Belgian Malinois with headcams strapped to their snouts storming sacristies and chasing down degenerates until there’s not one of them left in a frock.

This would pretty much take care of Crisis #1.

Instead, the doughy dotards have decided they need…

Better websites. Some good tweets. You know, for kids!

She lays into media-savvy and orthodox Bishop Robert Barron, whom she seems to acknowledge really is one of the brightest lights in the American church, but whose ministry is not nearly enough to re-float the sinking US church, according to Peachy. The problem is not one needing better packaging for what’s on offer; the problem is that the Church is led by a bunch of management-focused mediocrities who cannot man up enough to deal with pederasts and deviants infesting the institution. She writes:

You want to save the church? Make sure not a single U.S. Bishop ever, ever, ever shows his face in public again. In fact, abolish the General Assembly. Hide, run, leave, quit. All of you. Today, if possible.

Because Bishop Barron can’t save you now.

Read it all. It’s an essay that contains the phrase “the pillowy manboobed bosom of the Church.” Whoever Peachy is, she’s being funny about this stuff to hide her deep rage over the betrayal. I hear in her voice the voice of my priest friend long ago. I hear the voice of firefighters, cops, doctors, nurses, journalists, and others who make the gruesomeness of their job easier to bear with black humor.

St. Hilarion Troitsky, Archbishop of Vereiya, pray for us wayfaring sinners.

UPDATE: James C. e-mails:

At the old-rite Benedictine monastery of Sainte Marie de la Garde, along with the monks I’ve also met and prayed with other retreatants from all over France: parish priests, Dominicans, Augustinians, doctors, fathers-of-six, and other laymen.

The other day, before the office of None was to begin in the chapel, I noticed an older fellow shuffle in and take the pew next to mine. He was wearing a black robe, a cross around his neck and a purple zucchetto on his head.

After praying the office, I noticed him up by the monastic gift shop. Having a key, I offered to let him in. “Who are you?” I asked in French. The Archbishop of Toulouse, that’s who. He drove himself up here (in a different diocese, and not one of his suffragan sees) to pray for a little while with the monks. He says he loves America.

The guest master at the monastery tells me that Bishop Glen Provost of Lake Charles, Louisiana made a retreat here recently. He seems like a good ‘un.

I think there is no place I like bishops more than when I meet them at a faithful monastery. It’s quite hard not to have hope for the Church when you are at these communities. Precious seed is being sown.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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