Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book review: The American hierarchy as empty miters

The Broken Path: How Catholic Bishops Got Lost in the Weeds of American Politics, by Judie Brown (American Life League, 2011)

I have never met Judie Brown of the American Life League.  After reading this book, though, I have a pretty good idea of what she's like.  In Yiddish, she would be called a bren, a real no-nonsense, take-charge person, the kind of woman who always walks with a sense of purpose, who runs both home and office with efficiency and energy.

This reflects even with her Introduction, which not only sets the parameters of the book but also its tone.  Although Ms. Brown doesn't say so, her target reader is not the "cafeteria Catholic" or the non-Catholic interested onlooker; if you're not convinced the Church in America has been on the wrong path for over four decades, she's not going to waste time persuading you.

To a certain degree, the subtitle is misleading.  Ms. Brown actually spends little more than a chapter on tracing the historical path the American hierarchy has taken, and doesn't go into a lot of depth.  A full chapter could conceivably have been spent detailing the growth and flowering of Americanism just by itself, or looking in-depth at the "Land O' Lakes Declaration" that was the 95 Theses of American Catholic theologians.

What Ms. Brown does give us is a lot of contemporary (i.e., within the last 5-10 years) examples of bishops failing us.

Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit: He who is silent, when he was able and ought to have spoken, is taken to agree.  The true answer to the question, "How did the Church in America come to this sorry pass?", must eventually include many different strains of influence.  It's certain, though, that the answer must include two or three generations — if that's the word I want — of "empty suits" in bishops' chairs ... men who failed to speak up and speak out against dissidence and false teachings, who let Catholic institutions become corrupted and pseudo-Catholic organizations to spring up uncontested.

It's precisely these bishops that Ms. Brown targets for a tongue-lashing, and you can almost see her shaking her finger at such men as Cdl. Francis George of Chicago, Abp. Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Abp. George Niederauer of San Francisco — men who have missed countless opportunities to speak, and thus (under the ancient legal maxim above) can be taken to agree with the dissidents they didn't contradict.  So they deserve.  The unanimity of the bishops in condemning the HHS contraceptive mandate is a marvelous sign, but one all too infrequent.

Saying the hard things, appearing to be the "bad guy" — this is part and parcel of any leadership role worth talking about. This is especially true for an institution configured by Christ to be a sign of contradiction against many things the world holds to be true. If the path leads through treacherous jungle terrain, the leader not only has to point the way but be the first to step into the jungle.

Most of the examples, as I said before, are easily recalled.  For instance, Ms. Brown gives a blow-by-blow account of the maneuverings prior to Notre Dame awarding Pres. Obama his honorary degree, and names who did — and who did not — speak out against this event.  (One incident I wasn't aware of was a time when Abp. Niederauer gave communion to the San Francisco gay community's infamous Sisters of Perpetual Motion ... what the hell was he thinking?)  She also forcefully points out the woeful dearth of support Bp. Thomas Olmsted enjoyed from his brothers when he declared Sr. Margaret McBride excommunicated for having participated in a direct abortion, despite the fact that he was well within his rights; in this case, the silence is shameful, as if the other bishops were afraid to be considered hard-hearted.

Because of The Broken Path's limited target audience, one aspect of the book isn't as much of a hindrance as it would be had Ms. Brown aimed for converting the fence-sitters and the CINOs ... namely, the sources she cites.  In a blog such as I write, or in a work like hers which has the tone of speaking within the family bosom (as it were), quoting Life Site News or the irrepressable Father Z's blog What Does the Prayer Really Say and other non-mainstream sources works fairly well because we who read these outlets have a better-than-average idea of their reliability.  (It's also possible that, because bishop-watching is a rather recherch├ę hobby, much of the information sought wasn't available elsewhere.)  Were Ms. Brown targeting a larger, less insular audience, however, I would suggest more citations from MSM outlets — even granting their biases — such as local papers, Reuters, TIME and Newsweek.

But even given these sources, the big weakness of the book is that it never really lives up to the promise of the subtitle.  Ms. Brown shows the Church at the top of the slope with Leo XIII's In Amplissimo, and at the bottom of the slope with the Obamacare fight, and throws out the diagnoses "Americanism" and "Gnosticism" ... but doesn't spend any effort detailing the slide.  How did Americanism come to infect the ranks of the hierarchy? Dunno, it just did.  Why couldn't the bishops stand firm against the theologians of the Land O' Lakes conference? Dunno, they just couldn't.

In this respect, The Broken Path reminds me quite a bit of Bill Donohue's Secular Sabotage: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America (which I reviewed in October '09).  Ms. Brown is a very engaging writer, and the book is great for getting your Catholic mad on.  However, the real scholarship on the decline and fall of Roman Catholicism in America has yet to be written.