Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What shall we do with the bishops?


What’s the point in having a “church”?

Well, part of it is to enable community worship of God. But only part. The other part is fully expressed in Jesus’ words to the Eleven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20) ….

That’s “teaching them”, not “telling them to figure it out for themselves”. Jesus taught one gospel message, not six or seven billion.

Right from the Pentecost, the followers of “the Way” split into two separate groups: disciples and apostles. “Disciple” comes from the Latin for “student”; the student’s role is to learn. To execute that role faithfully, the disciple learns what is taught … not what he wants to learn, not what he thinks the teaching ought to be.

“Apostle” comes from the Greek for “one who is sent forth as a messenger”; the messenger’s role is to pass on the message. To execute that role faithfully, the messenger must transmit the message sent … not what he thinks it ought to be, not what suits the audience’s preferences.

I put it in such basic terms because, in any discussion of the needs of the Catholic Church today, we must remember that the integrity of the gospel message comes first. Declines in headcounts are legitimate sources of concern, but those concerns can’t be allowed to dictate changes which compromise the integrity of the message.

The teaching role of the Church, given the primacy of the evangelium, demands we retain the distinction between “apostle” and “disciple” regardless of the social context. By implication, this means we must retain the doctrine of apostolic succession, conceding dogmatic and doctrinal authority to the bishops.

But this also means that we must concede the temporal authority necessary for bishops to ensure consistency of what is taught. Ay, there’s the rub. For there are many lay people who want to run roughshod over the bishops and institute the changes they think the Church needs—people who believe in what one wag called the “ME-gisterium”.

Case in point: Sr. Christine Schenk, of the Cleveland group FutureChurch.

“It is clear that change is happening,” [Sr. Schenk] said in a recent phone interview, “and that it is bigger than any of us. We only see different parts of it at any one time. Usually there are bigger energies at work that weave together the future. But one very important thing that I see is that ‘pay, pray and obey’ Catholics are part of the past. If you want the future you have to be part of creating it[;] it has to be one where the voices of all the people of God, not just bishops and priests, have a say.”
The extreme positions taken by some bishops in the last decade and a half may hasten change, she said. Such actions, she said, “have led to more Catholics saying we have to resist this and be about a different kind of church because that’s not working anymore.”[1]

It all depends on what you mean by “not working”. Is Church membership declining? In absolute numbers, no; however, it isn’t growing as fast as the general population. Are there fewer weekly communicants than there were in 1967? Again, by absolute numbers, no; as a percentage of all members, yes. But if you think throwing away priestly celibacy and ordaining women will solve the numbers problem, I suggest you take a look at the implosion of the Anglican/Episcopal communion and tell me how well it worked for them.

But just as it’s not working for the Anglicans, it’s not working for any of our Protestant brothers and sisters, most of which have never had a sacrificial priesthood let alone a celibate priesthood, and almost all of which now have ordained women and openly gay ministers. The only two denominational communions which have shown an increase (net of general population growth) over the last twenty years — the LDS and JWs — barely qualify as Christian; the real growth is in the non-denoms and in the “nones”.

More to the point, though, the “Magisterium of Me” isn’t catholic. The point of being catholic isn’t to be “inclusive”. Rather, it’s that this wide diversity of worship styles among people of different lands are all pointed to professing and acting on the same set of beliefs. Such a standard excludes even as it includes.

By contrast, the “Magisterium of Me” is local, even when it isn’t idiosyncratic. It may want homosexuals to marry and women to perform the Sacraments, but it excludes not only the Pope and bishops, but all the Catholics from ages past who remained true to the historic, traditional evangelium: not only the Church Militant, but also the Church Suffering and Church Triumphant. It makes the Protestant mistake without even the bad doctrinal excuse of sola scriptura. Protestant Christianity is fragmenting into ever-smaller chunks even as it loses adherents in the West, and you think ignoring the bishops is going to save Catholicism?

There are many problems which must be overcome in order to put butts back into pews. But the solutions proposed by Sr. Schenk, the German theologians and gosh-knows-how-many “Spirit of Vatican II” types can be classified as “New Coke thinking”: tampering with the classic formula to win taste tests.

One suggestion I’d make is that the process of forming and selecting bishops could be improved. The episcopate can assist the Holy Spirit by designating a set of core competencies that priests must develop before being considered for a spot on a terna with some empirical measures. I’d need another post just to give a clearer outline, and doing more than that would take me beyond my pay grade.

Whatever we do, though, we must do in communion with the bishops. “Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”[2]


[1] Tom Roberts, “Outline of new life”, Emerging Church, National Catholic Reporter, 12/7/10.
[2] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:2.