Reasonable Expectations

Thanks for the interesting discussion on the “Cowards and Pokers” thread. When I read Judie Brown’s essay, I thought it illustrated a point I’ve made before. Simply that Catholics of all breeds would do well to temper their expectations when it comes to what others can or will do for them.

On one level, this is simple common sense. As we go through life, we know we can count on some people to back us up, and others to let us down. If our alcoholic parent promises for the umpteenth time to have an experience with us (go to a ballgame, see a movie, take a drive in the country, or whatever) and then doesn’t show, we eventually learn to discount any such promises. For a child, this is hard. A child is naive, hopeful, and innocent and dearly wants the connection. When people (or institutions) we love are involved, our minds will conjure any possible excuse to keep the dream alive.

Disappointment also happens in the adult experience. I had a good friend in college. He was always late. If he was driving and we were going to a concert, I could count on missing most of the warm-up act. If I wanted to catch the whole show, I’d get there myself and look him up later. He was a loyal, devoted friend, and a good listener. But I knew his limits. They ticked me off sometimes, but I knew where I stood.

Brown’s essay struck me in much the same way as these examples. How much can we rely on our bishops? Is it reasonable to expect Cardinal McCarrick to alter his policy and do as Archbishop Burke does? No. Would some Catholic still be hopeful he would? Certainly. Would I hope my friend would learn to be on time? Sure I would. Would it a reasonable expectation? Heck, no. The guy is still late.

Brown and others are looking for a certain kind of leadership from bishops. Apart from the issue that questions such practices, is it likely that men in their 50’s and older will change their modus operandi? You tell me the likely answer.

The point of this morning’s essay was reasonable expectation. I hope and expect every US bishop to found an institute for liturgy and sacred music. Would this be a good thing? Undoubtedly. Is it likely to happen? Snowball’s chance, my friends.

Will every bishop adhere to a single policy on distributing Communion to supporters of pro-choice legislation? I would say the chances are nearly the same: next to nil.

The internet has spawned a new Catholic phenomenon: a community without diocesan borders. What a bishop does in another see has never been of interest to the average Catholic. The Church was never designed for bishop-watching from around the world. Leaving aside the particulars of individual bishops’ policies, it is wholly unreasonable to expect a monolithic stance on a matter outside the core of Catholic values.

It seems to me that the only reason people are scandalized by who receives Communion is because they are looking for scandal. Unless the politician (or other public sinner) is a parishioner, why would a person seek such knowledge or pass it on to others?

It is unrealistic to expect an ultramontanist or a US corporate approach in church matters. The pope is not a CEO. The Catholic Church isn’t designed for business. To expect the hierarchy to adapt and conform to new expectations isn’t reasonable, in my opinion. It would take nothing less than another council to make such a change. And it would have the weight of two millennia of tradition weighing in against it..

For the moment, we live with bishops of different approaches to the pro-choice politician dilemma. To base one’s sense of unity, clarity, and lack of scandal on an unreasonable expectation seems to me to be folly. Looking around on the internet or in the print media to be scandalized knowing full well we will find something to get angry about strikes me as akin to a person attending X-rated movies or chumming around with people who do drugs. It would be nice if the theatre switched to Looney Tunes cartoons or the drug addicts broke out into a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. More likely, neither would happen.

If you want to talk about the particulars of whether or not the Burke or McCarrick approaches are good or right or potentially effective or within the bounds of orthodoxy, try another post. I’ll get to it later.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to Reasonable Expectations

  1. Liam says:

    I dread wading into this, but here goes a toe in the cold ocean:

    I do often wonder how consistent the views of the sides are: that is, how far people are willing to take their principles against their preferred worldviews.

    I’ve certainly known people who would object to the denial of communion to some folks who appear to be less troubled by it for other folks (be such latter folks abusers, fascists, torturers, warmongers, et cet.)

    The problem is that there is clear Scriptural warrant for excluding people from Communion. Communion was never seen by the early Church as healing of everything in all contexts. Which means the principle of never denying Communion under any context is very hard to square with the Catholic way. What Would Jesus Do is rarely as clear as people citing it would like, because Jesus made sure to prevent that from being a formula; instead, we are left with what his Body of Earth has come up with. At best, the arguments are prudential rather than principled.

    If one tends to espouse the practices of the early Church as a guide, then we’d be headed for very public exclusions and very severe public penances. The current Church model is extraordinarily lenient compared to the early Church’s practice. Remember that before crying legalism.

    On the other hand, the baying of the hounds of exclusion is likewise often a grisly sound that should be tempered a lot more than it tends to be on the Internet and elsewhere.

    Anyone talking about reviving the order of penitents? The virtue of that approach is that the denial of Communion is no longer the benchmark standard, but a medicinal tool in a larger ordered context.

  2. Todd says:

    Good points as always, Liam.

    Not only did the early Church exclude people from Communion, but they could enforce such a decision when the person resisted. When the penitent agreed, it was a public sacrament, as you attest. Clearly, we’re not talking about politicians presenting themselves as penitents. At least not today.

    The hierarchy wields significantly less power these days. How best to use what it has? There would be a significant loss of face if bishops were to appear to be listening to lay people on this topic.

    I think some bishops already feel used by some politicians. Given the likelihood that neither party seems willing to move much on the abortion issue, and the one that would appear to be moving more has pretty much marginalized its current crop of anti-abortion prez candidates, I can see how the bishops inclined to speak out might be gun-shy, not out of cowardice, but because they are genuinely unsure of the best way to pursue pro-life ideals by influencing lay people in the political sphere.

    Top it off with the tendency of the grisly to alienate other pro-lifers who entertain doubts on current methods, and you have a church in disarray, unable to plumb the possibilities we do have.

  3. John Heavrin says:

    Some illuminating and relevant comments from Cardinal Biffi:

    There is a fine line between prudence and timidity. I fear that many of our bishops are often on the wrong side of it.

  4. Liam says:

    But fine lines are precisely an area one should be shy of hectoring about.

    And understand that the Roman prelatial tradition is to err on the side of timidity when dealing with public officials. Emperor Henry IV at Canossa, and Emperor Theodosius I after Thessalonika, et cet., are relative exceptions to the normal Roman way.

    Which is simply to say that any timidity in character of bishops is also supported by the long-cultivated culture of the episcopacy in the Roman church. Included how they are chosen.

    To be surprised that the result is different than would reasonably be expected is to say more about oneself than the object of the criticisms.

    Remember, these are bishops who cannot even call each other out on something as more obviously egregious as how many in their ranks shuffled and protected child rapists. (Invoke any corollary of Godwin’s Law one wants now. I rarely raise this issue as a convenient club – as Todd I believe can attest – but it is quite pertinant here in terms of being realistic about ones expectations of what is likely to arise from our current prelatial culture.)

  5. John Heavrin says:

    “To be surprised that the result is different than would reasonably be expected is to say more about oneself than the object of the criticisms.”

    I’m not surprised at the timidity, just disgusted by it. Rather than indulging in world-weary resignation, I think exhortation to boldness and clarity from our bishops is in order. Are they listening? Maybe not. But that’s no reason to shut up.

    Your view sounds like despair, Liam. Is that what you’re counseling?

    “Reasonable expectations” Is that what we’re called to? What we’re to settle for? No.

  6. Todd says:

    John, you yourself conceded the fine line in print. Was it just a play on words?

    I agree there is much in the episcopacy that invokes disgust: careerism, pandering, secrecy, and even a lack of boldness and clarity.

    Liam’s view strikes me as pragmatic. To some, it might look like despair at first glance, and if he had ever been a hyper-apologist for episcopal power, his friends indeed might wonder.

    Complaining itself is not a problem in my view. When it begins to consume one’s energies and drags down one’s life, then we can ask why our unrepentant and criticized heroes and leaders have become too much our obsession.

    I complain a lot more than many of my colleagues. Sometimes I chafe at what I see as passivity. But I strive to respect people who otherwise walk the walk, but just don’t get as excited about it in the same way I do.

  7. Marilyn says:

    It’s surprising to me and unusual that, of all the people and positions she would highlight to fight abortion that could inspire and further pro-life work, Ms. Brown has put so much weight to the words of a retired Cardinal…really legitimizing his maybe more pastoral approach. How futile to blame the church! …we didn’t “vote” for our bishops and do not share in their ministry in the same way that we share in the work of a public politician…I’m in part accountable for the decisions of the ones I vote into office so it’s a personal matter in how they represent me. Bishops and pastors have their own work to do that first includes accounting for (not to) a whole range of public sinners who are also baptized Catholics and other Christians; their concern is pastoral and for the ultimate good of souls in preaching the Gospel! If clergymen break the law, civil and canon lawyers are rightly involved but their sins, weaknesses, shortcomings don’t incriminate me like those of the people on my election ballot…

    For Archbishop Burke to claim that every communion minister ought to “be prepared” to deny communinion… is not the same as saying “every communion minister ought to deny communion…” with regard to Catholic politicians who publicly support abortion. In a diocese, channels of pastoral activity are taken, conversations, formal letters and direction that preclude the burden of lay-discernment at communion time…and in the press. Since we don’t hear confessions…is it really possible to take on the role of pastor and judicial vicar?

    Not only is this role-playing a type of guesswork on the part of laity, but it’s also a very time-consuming avoidance of the very influential role that we as parents, neighbors, and parishioners have in our church and community. My daughter has a couple of peers from Catholic school who admittedly had an abortion…I wonder more what I need to do as a parent-peer to widen my circle of influence in favor of supporting pre-born life. I wouldn’t accomplish much by closing myself off to people or shutting doors, blaming the church or getting angry. I have to find out how I can help those around me make life-giving choices. Ms. Brown, I think, has regressed from her agenda is this rant.

  8. Liam says:


    My perspective is from a historian’s perspective: the outrage and disgust of others at St Blog’s appears selective – it is very much tied to news and election cycles. It is narrow (for example, I have almost despaired of convincing many of my fellow pro-lifers that the ESCR has deserved even more attention than abortion – due to its potential scale, the fact that it is even more wrong than abortion in CAtholic moral terms, and most importantly because public and political opinion was much more in formation and therefore malleable than on abortion). There is also a serious problem of calling forth boldness and clarity from bishops on an individual basis without critically and fearlessly addressing the Roman culture they are operating from. Catholics of different flavors prefer to divide and conquer on that score. Of that I am world-weary.

  9. Liam says:

    Looks like a comment of mine went missing – was it counted as spam?

  10. Liam says:

    OK – sorry

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