Friday, January 31, 2003

There is a discussion at Mark Shea’s blog, as there has been off and on for many months, about the question of whether or not “bad” bishops should resign, should be asked to resign or should be pressured to resign, from the top or from the bottom, and how all of this reflects on the current papacy.

My observation is general, rather than specific.

I am always by puzzled by those who suggest that “good Catholics” shouldn’t criticize decisions made by church authorities, or shouldn’t voice disagreement. Certainly, Catholic life, as one conducted within a hierarchical structure, is a delicate balance. We know that our faith is mediated through human means, that God’s authority supports these means, and also that these human means are…well…human. There is a reason that the doctrine of infallibility is so narrowly defined.

So we are always walking this line – we don’t want to set out on a road to separate ourselves from the Church or presume to be wiser than the Church as a whole, yet we can’t be silent when we see the Gospel violated, especially by those who have a particular role in propagating it. They can mistaken, but so can we, and we know this all too well.

We see the disarray and multiplication of Protestant churches, and we don’t want that for ourselves, and we know, somehow, that the Papacy and the hierarchical structure of our church has protected us from a similar fate. Hate to tell you, but even Garry Wills admits as much.

But when I read these discussions, I can’t help but wonder at their abstract nature and their subsequent lack of engagement with either history or the reality of church. I don’t know if it’s willful or just ignorant, but the result is that the discussions just go round and round, unless, of course, Sandra interjects her usual very useful historical insight.

We like to think that the church works the same way our arguments do – in abstract. Fact is, they don’t. My own observation of these discussions over the past year has led me to the (perhaps faulty) conclusion that those who decry the airing of dirty laundry or those who tell us to just keep having faith and respecting what an apparently negligent bishop is all about are mostly people who have never worked in the Church - I mean who have never worked in chanceries, in rectories and in the bowels of Catholic institutions orwho have observed its workings close up. The impact that this has is profound – and know that while lay people who have engaged in this kind of work have insights that outsiders don’t, they still don’t have what priests have – for priests talk to each other and say things to each other that they do not say to the laity, even lay church employees.

It can be very hard on a person's faith. It's been said elsewhere that the easiest way to lose your faith is to work for the Church - and that applies to any denomination - it's not peculiar to Catholics.

Anyway, when you have worked in close quarters with a pastor or a bishop, you have seen this delicate balance writ large. You have witnessed the interaction of human strengths, weakness and flawed motives with the desire to serve Christ and His Church. And you’ve seen the pressures that go into decisions, and you’ve seen how crushingly prosaic matters like finances, ignorance and pride influence these decisions. You can no longer think of “Church leadership” as an abstract concept. It is as real as the bishop’s close acquaintances pressuring him not to be “too extreme” on that pesky abortion issue for fear of jeopardizing contributions or other aspects of the church’s legislative agenda this session. It is as real as the pastor refusing to give his associate real responsibility because he’s threatened by his popularity.

So, yeah…Wick Allison’s pressure may be extreme and notable because of its public nature – but it’s not unusual at all. Church leaders do not make their decisions in a vacuum. Most are making those decisions in the midst of a web of obligations to friends, concerns about contributions, the advice of whoever has had the savvy to finagle his ear, and, we can hope….attentiveness to the Holy


Can we take a look at history? Can we look at the many church councils convened and controlled by emperors? At the way in which the papacy was, for so many years, the tool of Roman nobility, except for a few decades in which it was the tool of the French crown? At the way in which the evangelizing efforts to the New World were intertwined with the ambitions of secular governments?

My point is not to justify these or present them as the ideal. The ideal, is, of course, for leaders – and for the rest of us – to root our decisions in the call of Jesus. But my point is to remind us all that the ideal is hardly ever met, and modern incidents of the laity – powerful or not – to influence church decisions – are not a novelty.

That said, I have decided that I am not comfortable with Allison’s move here. I can understand his frustration. He probably knows even more than he is saying publicly – that is usually the way it works – and it is clear that the appointment of an auxiliary indicates Rome’s expectation that Grahamm was on his way out.

But Allison’s arguments on his own behalf smack way too much of a sense of his – and the other founding Catholics of Dallas’s power. We made you – we can break you – is what I can’t help hearing.

People outside the church hierarchy can be, and very often are – powerful leaders. People look to outsiders, in fact, far more than they do to insiders for guidance. For every Charles Borromeo, I’ll raise you a Dorothy Day and a Catherine of Siena. But we honor and heed those people, not because of their position or their money, or their role in the founding of the community, but because of their holiness. Even the secular leaders – the kings and queens and lords – who are honored as saints – are honored because of their faith and their humble service to the Gospel.

So sure, while secular leaders and other figures have consistently tried and succeeded in influencing church policy, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they continue, we should be wary of giving them too much honor, as well.

Update: Oh, Fr. Wilson (Comment #7) is probably right. He always is, isn't he?

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