Thursday, March 20, 2014

On criticizing Church leadership

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.
—Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953)
In 1963 Bl. John XXIII created a commission of six non-theologians to study questions of birth control and population. In 1965, Paul VI expanded the commission to fifty-eight members, including bishops, theologians and married couples; at its final meeting, an executive committee of sixteen bishops was also present. As you may not have guessed, the majority concluded that the pope could use his authority to approve at least some form of contraception for married couples.

After two further years of study and reflection, Papa Montini rejected the majority position, explaining in Humanae Vitae, “… [T]he conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church” (op. cit., 6).

I bring this up because Pat Archbold posits a hypothetical case:

Say … [that] the outcome of the Synod on the Family on the question of admission of divorced and remarried to communion follows the suggestions of Papal advisers Cardinals [Reinhard] Marx and [Walter] Kasper. That the remarried are admitted to communion after some pastoral counseling and the annulment process is moved from tribunal to pastor. In this case, the Church does not change its immutable teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but the newly implemented pastoral praxis dramatically alters the landscape.

Leaving aside the predictable cheering from progressives, Archbold asks, what should the orthodox do: go along, remain silent, or speak out?


About a month ago, my Catholic Stand co-writer Gary Zimak wrote a piece that expressed a growing frustration with the attacks on Pope Francis coming from the extreme right of the Church. Shortly thereafter, Michael Voris and ChurchMilitant.tv issued a statement declaring flat-out, “ChurchMilitant.TV will not engage in public criticism of the Pope. Period.” In the statement, Voris deliberately contrasted ChurchMilitant’s position with that of The Remnant and Catholic Family News (I don’t know if he’s aware of Rorate Coeli). To Voris’ position The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named yelled a big “Bravo,” an interesting reaction considering that The Blogger is by no means Voris’ biggest fan. But if The Blogger is no devoté of CMTV, he has less tolerance for “the Perfecti”:

Ever ready to eat their own, the Reactionaries are — I am not making this up — seriously calling a Catholic’s failure to hate on the Pope “Vorisgate”. Insane. (Amusingly, a number of Reactionaries in the comboxes and around the web fixate on one figure as the archetypal demon with whom to compare Michael Voris’ betrayal of Truly True Purely Pure Catholicism: Yr. Obdt. Svt. …
It’s no secret that Mr. Voris and I have some real differences. But I have no hesitation at all about commending him when he does the right thing. Here, he is doing the right thing (and paying a real price for it as Reactionaries do their best to punish him socially and financially for not knuckling under to their poisonous and foolish hatred for the Holy Father. My hope is that this will be a time for CMTV to move forward with positive coverage of this fine man and not lose heart in the face these nasty people.

Archbold, on the other hand, feels himself in a moral quandary:

On the one hand, such criticism can easily fall outside the bounds of constructiveness and respectfulness. On the other hand, I firmly believe that sometimes reasonable and vocal public critique is sometimes necessary to preserve unity and orthodoxy. History is replete with instances where the Church would have greatly benefited from greater outcry from the faithful.
While I reject the notion that all papal critique is divisive, I must acknowledge that its fire can be both illuminating and destructive and thus used with appropriate caution. As a result, I have already re-evaluated the nature of what I will comment upon and the speed in which I will do it, saving any criticism for those times it is truly necessary, reasoned, and respectful. I will try not to publicly air any general frustration I feel in my writing.

Where am I? I’ve stated before that, in the end, it comes down to a matter of whether we trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit to prevent our church leadership from teaching error. Discipline isn’t all necessarily fixed in amber, destined never to change; my most quoted example is that of clerical celibacy — if at some future point the Church decided that priests and such could marry, it wouldn’t be a confession of error, and would merely be a matter of prudential judgment.

By no means does this put our leadership beyond all criticism. For instance, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers’ handling of the case of suspended priest Michael Fugee deserves strong condemnation, as does his decision to use diocesan funds to build a three-story addition to his already-luxurious retirement home. While I’ve denied that Bp. Michael Olson’s rescission of Fisher More College’s permission to hold Latin Masses was an attack on the Extraordinary Form, I can readily concede that it may not have been very prudent, especially in view of FMC’s mounting financial pressures and imminent collapse.

When it comes to marriage annulments, I can’t say I have no dog in the hunt; my uncle recently received positive signals from his local marriage tribunal after many long months of waiting. While I appreciate that the tribunals should make these determinations with cautious deliberation, in the age of emails and internet document transfers “cautious deliberation” should not require someone else’s life be put on interminable hold while the tribunal dithers. I’m not asking for a rubber stamp on civil divorces; I’m saying the petitioner ought to have a speedier resolution even if the answer is ultimately “no”.

So why did I bring up Bl. John XXIII’s commission? My first point is that Pope Francis doesn’t have to sign off on all the Extraordinary Synod’s recommendations. My second point is that the commission belonged to another time, when there was no devastating sexual revolution to reflect upon; unlike Archbold, I’m pretty confident that the Synod won’t completely gut the current praxis.

But I also bring up the commission because every year makes it clearer that Humanae Vitae, so roundly criticized for many years after its promulgation, was in fact a prophetic document. I urge caution when critiquing any decision of Pope or Synod because time can prove critics either wise or foolish, visionary or delusional. It certainly doesn’t pay to criticize decisions that haven’t been made yet.

In the end, it still comes down to this: We trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not because our leaders are all wise and good, but because they’re often dunderheads and miscreants. If Matthew 16:18 means anything, it means the bishops will never succeed in completely wrecking the Church. No matter how hard they try.