Bishop Joseph Martino’s active episcopal ministry is now history. I still feel a certain unease at the sudden ending of it all. A person may dislike a neighbor, but they wouldn’t want to see the person evicted from their house in the middle of the night. I remember once in sixth grade when a classmate made a rude gesture to a friend. The friend was sent to the school office on some invented errand. The rest of us watched a humiliation that far outstripped the initial offense. My classmate had transgressed, certainly. But the punishment rendered was embarrassing to witness.
I’ve been following some of the internet commentary the past few days on Bishop Martino, Cardinal O’Malley, and their supporters and detractors. Deal Hudson concedes these “last few days have not been good ones for the Church,” though I think he means mainly gray skies for Republican or conservative Catholics. Frankly, I don’t see much to cheer in the abrupt downfall of a bishop. It weakens the fabric of the Church. The pope is not the only servant of unity in Christendom; it’s a role bishops share, too.
In pondering what went wrong for Bishop Martino, I went back to Christus Dominus, the Vatican Decree concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops. I blogged on it over four years back. (Has it really been that long ago?) The Scranton ordinary would seem to have failed CD 13:
Since it is the mission of the Church to converse with the human society in which it lives, it is especially the duty of bishops to seek out men (sic) and both request and promote dialogue with them. These conversations on salvation ought to be noted for clarity of speech as well as humility and mildness in order that at all times truth may be joined to charity and understanding with love. Likewise they should be noted for due prudence joined with trust, which fosters friendship and thus is capable of bringing about a union of minds.
I’m suggesting that some bishops have, at times, followed neither the spirit nor letter of Church teaching on this distillation of Pope Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam. Bishops have a duty not only to accept dialogue as an aspect of ministry, but to ask for it, and “promote” it. Liam sent this link in his most recent post this morning. I think the cardinal gets it. Note the qualities of the expected conversations: clarity, humility, and mildness. Why is this so? Because truth is not an absolute virtue. Truth must be linked to higher virtues. Charity reassures the partner of one’s best motives. Understanding implies a willingness to communicate within a substrate of larger truths, especially an ability to utter language so as the inner meaning is more clearly perceived, and not just the dictionary definitions of the words used.
When sent on a solo errand, Truth may well be rejected as an impostor. “We have our own Truth,” someone might retort. But when accompanied by affection, by understanding, by caritas, perhaps the credentials are strengthened for the doubters.
Even more, bishops are urged to make friends. I would assume the council document is trying to communicate the full spectrum of what friendship means–not just being friendly, not just making nice. But an engagement in all of it: being able to tell your friend when she or he is full of spit, but also being able to share a deeper communication of respect and genuine affection.
Let me also suggest that conservative cheerleaders may be contributing of late to a watering down of the role of the Catholic bishop. Martino is praised for his candor and forthrightness. But I wonder what the particular episcopal virtue in that might be? Internet denizens–including me, certainly–are often straight-talkers, often annoyingly so. Martino said he was only doing what he thought was right. It seems to me we believers should all be struggling to do what’s right. Doing the right thing is not the hallmark of a bishop. It’s the duty of a baptized person. Doing the right thing: that’s everybody’s job. The bishop doesn’t just do that role better, louder, or with a bigger audience. The bishop has much, much more on his plate.
Whether they realize it or not, the tone of the conservative conversation is one of reducing the bishop and his public role to that of the “ideal believer,” the paragon of orthopraxis, the dutiful son. In so doing, they have bypassed the particular qualities the bishop requires to serve in his ministry more effectively. They promote a certain ecclesiastical adolescence, encouraging our pastors to be less fathers, and more older, much-admired brothers.
The hype about bishops and public figures seems to underscore the cult of celebrity in the secular culture. Let Mother Teresa care for the dying. Let the pope shake his finger at a dictator. Let a bishop excommunicate a politician. It’s a cheerleading moment, but it is a twisted rendition of Christianity. It bypasses the required qualities of bishops. Instead of being shepherds, too many Catholics want their ordinaries to be a hero, a Super Believer, like us in all things except for having a bully pulpit and a PR machine.
Don’t misread my particular premise here. I still think the Church and the culture needs firebrands to whip up attention and stir consciences. I just don’t think bishops and parish pastors are the guys to do it. I even consider a person who is to me a sympathetic figure, Roy Bourgeois. I met the man once at a workshop and had an excellent conversation with him. I certainly endorse the effort to close the SOA. But does one have to be a priest to do that? I realize that in his day one had to be a priest or a religious perhaps to get involved deeply and get things done. And it might well be a passionate man like Joseph Martino has a God-given call to prick our complacent consciences. I just doubt that the office of bishop or priest is the best locus for the prophet.
Over the years, I’ve seen my own role change as I left the pews, as it were, and moved to the parish office. In the parish setting, it’s no longer appropriate for me to be the firebrand I once was. I have been given, and I accept, other responsibilities. In the same way, my life changed when I got married and adopted a child. My life is far different as a father than it was as a son. I embrace that with happiness. If bishops and priests are to realize their full potential, perhaps they need to realize it, too.
In his brilliant book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen reflects on his own transition from being the elder “good” son, to being the patient, waiting father. a father who was, by the way, a source of embarrassment in the way he conducted himself with the younger son. When he was called to pastor the L’Arche community in Ontario, Nouwen describes a change in his ministry. While his people encouraged him to continue to write, and travel, and so on, there was a shift in the essence of his self-image and how he conducted himself. Do pastors and bishops perceive that the role of the elder son is no longer appropriate for them?
From the beginning I was prepared to accept that not only the younger son, but also the elder son would reveal to me an important aspect of my spiritual journey. For a long time the father remained “the other,” the one who would receive me, forgive me, offer me a home, and give me peace and joy. The father was the place to return to, the goal of my journey, the final resting place. It was only gradually and often quite painfully that I came to realize that my spiritual journey would never be complete as long as the father remained an outsider.
Do we approach the parable of the two sons without considering the father not only as an image of God, but as a model for ourselves when we become parents or pastors? Like the younger Nouwen, have some otherwise faithful commentators failed to perceive the distinction between the obvious people of virtue in Luke 15: the elder son and the father? When a person is authentically called to be part of that “elder generation,” do they understand what must be left behind?