Criticism, Cynicism, Skepticism

I’ve been following the discussions on various sites about the possibility of lay people criticizing bishops. Is it good? Is it helpful? Is it a scandal? Is it needed? Is it even relevant?

One blogger counts it as “useful evidence against the caricatures of ‘conservative’ Catholics being compliant, silent sheep.” Funny, I have a hard time imaging Mahony-bashers as being compliant. Aside from having a correct-spell rate of about sixty percent, the amount of bile that gets spilled these days toward the episcopacy isn’t capable of being produced by a sheep’s liver.

Deal Hudson engages in a bit of bait and switch. His headline centers on faithful Catholics. When you get into the meat of his essay, it’s about Catholic journalists. The moniker “faithful” is often a synonym for “orthodox,” which in turn usually means “conservative.” The problem of Catholic journalism is much bigger than lobbing a few at the local prelate. Is there a way for diocesan publications to graduate from being cheerleaders-in-print to adult journalism? If the model is the secular media, then the way must be torturous.

So is Hudson feeling a bit guilty for his foray into critical journalism? Or is he grasping at some justifications?

Francis Maier, Denver archdiocesan chancellor, takes something of a moderate view. So this debate really is about Catholic journalism, it seems. If we’re going to be honest, that has to include all internet media and not just periodicals imitating blogs, but real blogs and commentariats all.

I think Maier gives too much credence to what the harsh criticism does:

The trouble is that when the shepherd is struck, the sheep scatter.

I think the sheep stand fairly firm. The truth is that Catholics benefit from many shepherds, not just one. We have leaders in the domestic church, in the parish, in Rome and and in our diocese, yes. Some of us have shepherds in schools, in spiritual direction, in various ministries or groups in which we associate. We lose a bishop, and unless we’re looking for an excuse to scatter, we have plenty of others, most of whom have real relationships with us. If a bishop of twelve souls were to be struck, that would indeed be devastating.

The bishops have been struck a lot lately. They do it to each other. They get it from clergy and laity, and even Rome. Bishops are important, yes. Their failings do great harm to the Church. I’d admit that criticism, in itself, doesn’t do much to heal what has been harmed. The bishops will need to sit down with clergy and laity if they’re serious about restoring trust. Maier is a little off-target if he thinks keeping silence will help the bishops restore leadership and credibility. It will not. It will deepen the hole.

When we undermine trust in our bishops, we undermine the Church herself; in fact, we engage in a kind of anti-evangelization.

I wouldn’t expect less from a diocesan bureaucrat. The bishops have undermined our trust in them quite handily on their own. Their critics have pointed out errors. And yes, some have piled on more deeply, tacking on their own issues ranging from far right to far left. And that doesn’t do anything to heal the situation either.

So here’s what I think about it all:

Maier is right when he writes about bishops under great pressure. Maier says he knows what good guys they are, and I have no reason not to believe him. The problem is that US bishops have persisted these past few years in running business as usual. Some choose red hats and committee memberships–and those aren’t bad things to accept. But their first role is as a bishop and shepherd. It may well mean even less privacy and personal time, but the need for restoring trust in the episcopacy is serious. We need serious leaders who prefer retreat houses to Washington hotels, who prefer young adults to other prelates, who prefer a country parish fish fry to elegant dining in Rome.

Most internet critics don’t do the Church much good. I don’t know that we have the “right,” but we more or less have the “freedom” to criticize the bishops, and believe me we do and we’ll keeping doing it. But let’s harbor no illusions that most of what the critics are doing is at all helpful to building up the Body of Christ. My own criticisms of bishops have been grounded in my anger and frustration at what I feel are their blunders. They are what they are.

The real work of building up the Church happens not where we put pen to paper, but where we put faith into action. Parish ministry is still alive and enlivening for me twenty years in because of the people, the shared faith, and the common concerns of striving for holiness. That’s the locus of growth: in parishes, in small groups, with my family.

As a side note, I applaud Archbishop Burke for his walks with seminarians. He’s on the right track and others would do well to imitate him with their seminarians and non-seminarians as well.

At some point the Church will need to come to grips with the lack of seriousness they took reform in Holy Orders at Vatican II. Big archdioceses seem to be taking their share of hits these days. It would seem to be counterintuitive to the lack of viable candidates for bishops, but maybe we need more and much smaller dioceses. I’ll float the notions that a diocese should be big or small enough for a bishop to visit every parish in a significant way once a year, that the office of auxiliary bishop should be done away with, that a bishop should as a rule only ever serve one see.

When the bishops start discussing real issues like this, then we’ll know they’re serious about being true shepherds. Criticism of any person should be respectful. That the person is a bishop should be irrelevant. We should be as concerned about the most insignificant child being criticized as we are of the bishop.

The Church has too many cynics. What we need is a cautious dose of skepticism when we believe something is wrong. Prudence might indicate whether or not we should open our mouths. Or loose the power of the blog. But let’s not kid ourselves our public criticism is at all helpful.

Meanwhile, I respect both Hudson and Maier for bringing a couple of conservative opinions out into the open. But I’ll take a pass on the scary bedtime story of critics undermining the Church.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Ministry, The Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Criticism, Cynicism, Skepticism

  1. Dustin says:

    When Amy speaks of the caricature of the “compliant conservative,” I know that it seems undermined by the state of online commentary. But when I read that, I thought immediately of organs like the National Catholic Register, who are as docile and compliant ring-kissers as I’ve ever witnessed.

    The stereotype is a real one, and, though exaggerated to some degree, there are some hard and damaging examples of it, like the article in Commonweal a few days ago by a young-ish priest, who laments accusations that his generation of clerics are “arrogant” and “blindly loyal” to their superiors.

    I saw more examples during a recent, fairly civil, “blog war” between Mark Shea and Rod Dreher, with Mark’s repeated insistences that bishops, and I’m paraphrasing from Rod’s criticism, “exist in some special mystical state that means they shouldn’t be stripped of authority even when they fail spectacularly as shepherds.” In some sense that was a mischaracterization of Mark’s views, but he didn’t help things by never bothering to rebut it.

    In the hub of Catholic commentary that focuses on liturgy from the reform2 or traditionalist perspective, the knives are definitely going to be drawn, and this is where Card. Mahoney is so famously besieged. But outside of that circle, I don’t encounter much of it in my reading. Maybe I should lengthen my blogroll, then.

    On another note, I largely agree with your comments on careerism in the episcopacy, especially the idea of a bishop’s “matrimonial bond” to a single diocese. At fist, the comment on abolishing auxiliaries puzzled me, but I assume it has to do with reducing the size and complexity of diocesan administration to the point where they become irrelevant. These are good ideas. What do you think of taking it further than that, and returning episcopal appointments entirely to the local level? That should, I think, solve a good many of the problems you’ve bemoaned, though some unique and unanticipated ones might emerge.

  2. FrMichael says:

    Without criticism of bishops, there would be no reform whatsoever by the American bishops. There have been some notable successes by critics. I look to my own metropolitan in SF as an example: after his ill-advised Communion to transvestites in San Francisco and the ensuing outrage, he’s been more cautious with his dealings with the GLBT movement. An excellent change of practice for a bishop who has been notoriously lax on gay issues throughout his episcopate in Salt Lake City and as archbishop.

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