There is reason to be ambivalent about Michael Voris’ resolution not to publically criticize the Holy Father. Mark Shea has shown good example for having been quick and firm in his commendation of Voris. I certainly could have been more gracious in the matter, especially considering that Voris has refused to back down in the face of the reactionary backlash. But even Mark Shea, as gracious as he is, acknowledges the same defect that I have found necessary to emphasize, namely, that Voris’ “gospel of anger” has created the reactionary “Frankenstein” that now wishes to eat him. In my estimation this is because his argument for his silence about the Holy Father is on shaky ground.
Voris has worked hard to distinguish between his jihad against the bishops and his reverent silence concerning the Pope. He says the Pope is different, but to my mind does not really show how. And his reactionary friends along side of whom he used to fight have now pointed their weapons at him. Still, I do commend him sincerely for having drawn this line, and I do not want this post to be perceived as fundamentally polemical. Voris is sincerely trying to work his way through the quagmire of modern Church life and it is not easy.
Why It Matters
Why does this matter at all? Or who cares what Michael Voris is talking about? It matters, not because Voris is all that important, but because the whole question about how faithful Catholics ought to respond to the bishops and the Holy Father in public is important generally, and particularly pertinent to the present moment.
It is well known, for example, that a wedge is being driven between the pontificates of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. This is acknowledged even by the likes of the very mainstream and astute John Allen, Jr. Furthermore, it is becoming more and more fashionable for those along the orthodox/traditional spectrum, professional journalists and the pajama pundits alike, to pronounce sentence on everything the pope and the bishops have to say. The common argument is this is what good, faithful members of the Church Militant do. It is not something they may do. It is something they ought to do and if they don’t, they are either unfaithful or just lack the necessary intestinal fortitude.
Voris’ situation is noteworthy because of his influence among Traditional Catholics who frequent the internet, and because he now finds himself in the curious position of having to defend why he finds himself perfectly justified to blast the bishops and at the same time obligated to remain mum about the Holy Father. His arguments bring to the fore some important issues. Voris clearly is unhappy with Pope Francis. His disclaimer is a clever public acknowledgment of this fact, but now under pressure from his reactionary friends he has drawn a line in the sand. Why? All of this is worth caring about. It does matter, because this issue is in the minds of many and it is an important issue.
Voris’ purpose (here and here) is not simply to distinguish between ordinary bishops and the Supreme Pontiff, but to show why it is that the heads of dioceses can be openly attacked and the head of the universal Church cannot. He says it is precisely because the pope is head of the Church and by attacking him one is attacking the Church. The obvious inference here is that since an ordinary bishop is not the head of the Church, he does not represent the Church. Obviously there is a difference. Only the pope is the Supreme Head of the Universal Church. But does the bishop really not represent the Church? By attacking him does the attacker really manage not to attack the Church?
Voris thinks the answer to this question is simply a matter of perception. People perceive that attacking the pope is to attack the Church and they do not feel that way about ordinary bishops. In fact, Voris suggests that the reason we ought to be careful about how we publically treat the pope is because the vast majority of people are not “historians or philosophers or authors or theologians.” No, Joe and Jane Catholic in the pew have a more “tender” faith. They are “little ones” that need protecting. So I suppose Voris is suggesting that to attack the Holy Father is bad pastoral practice, which is interesting coming from him. It seems that for him it really is not a matter of doctrine but of the sensitivities of the faithful.
Notice the argument he does not make. He does not argue that to attack the Pope is to attack the Church. He argues only that those who are less enlightened than historians, philosophers and theologians perceive it that way. He also says that unless one is a saint, one ought to refrain from castigating the pope, and even then, he admits “no saints ever took to the airwaves and Facebook and the Internet to attack him.” But is the only reason the saints took this tack, because the weak in faith would perceive it as attacking the Church, when if fact, it really is not?
Voris goes as far as to say that those on the right are just as disobedient as those on the left, because
they each have their own understanding of the Church and they are attempting to draw people to that alternate Church and they are using the pope as their weapon – just in opposite ways.
So what I understand Voris to be saying is that historians, philosophers and theologians might disagree with the Holy Father and tell him so, but they ought not scandalize the simple faithful by publically excoriating the pope, because simple people see this as an attack on the Church and it might lead them to loose their faith, or opt for some extra-ecclesial arrangement like the SSPX.
But in Voris’ mind none of this seems to apply in any way at all to the bishops, even though it really only comes down to a matter of perception. One might ask if it is really true that Catholics do not perceive the bishops as representing the Church. If the simple faithful did perceive it that way and Voris was convinced that this was so, would he act differently? Would he be careful about what he said about individual bishops? I am not so sure.
I would submit that a sound solution to this problem cannot be simply a matter of perception or of pastoral sensibility, but it must be a doctrinal solution. It is not primarily because anyone perceives the Holy Father as representing the Church that to attack him seems to be attacking the Church, thus causing scandal in the little ones. On the contrary, it is because to attack the Holy Father is to attack the Church, regardless of what anyone perceives, that one must not do it. And for the same reason that this is true about the Holy Father, it is also true about other bishops, though in a subordinate way.
Voris supplies the ground for the argument without utilizing its full force: Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia. “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” This phrase from St. Ambrose is not simply a matter of what one perceives, but of what it is. It is the presence of Peter in his office as Supreme Pontiff that guarantees the presence of the Church. This is a reality, not merely a matter of perception. Of course, I am sure that Voris knows and believes this. But that is not what he argued.
The Church is present in Peter not only when he exercises his infallible charism as pope, but also in the exercise of the full power of the sacrament of Holy Orders in its triple office (tria munera Christi) to sanctify, teach and govern. It is not just a matter of the special charism attached to his office as pope. It is also of particular importance that the special papal charism is given to the bishop of Rome, who possesses the sacramental character of Holy Orders in its fullness.
It is by virtue of the sacramental character of Holy Orders that all bishops, including the pope, are conformed to Christ the Head and thus have the power to sanctify, teach and govern the Church. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council, basing itself on the teaching of the Council of Trent, declares the following:
For the discharging of such great duties, the apostles were enriched by Christ with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, and they passed on this spiritual gift to their helpers by the imposition of hands, and it has been transmitted down to us in Episcopal consecration. And the Sacred Council teaches that by Episcopal consecration the fullness of the sacrament of Orders is conferred, that fullness of power, namely, which both in the Church’s liturgical practice and in the language of the Fathers of the Church is called the high priesthood, the supreme power of the sacred ministry. But Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college (21).
By virtue of his episcopal consecration, which imparts a sacramental character, the bishop has the power to sanctify, teach and govern. By virtue of the sacrament alone he has the power to sanctify, but in addition to the sacrament, in order to teach and govern he must be also in communion with the Successor of St. Peter. Thus, the authority to teach and govern, not only to sanctify, is a sacramental reality, bestowed in its fullness on bishops, and only on them. That is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. And for this reason, the bishop of the primal See of Rome, and no one else, receives the papal charism.
Thus, there is and can be no substitute for the bishop, who alone has an apostolic mandate from Christ Himself to sanctify, teach and govern in His person. Only the bishops are successors of the apostles. Only they by Holy Orders are conformed to Christ the Head according to which they have an apostolic mandate to govern the Church in communion with the successor of St. Peter. This is the order, which Christ Himself established, and there is no other.
This kind of regard for the episcopacy is of apostolic origin, rooted in Christ’s institution of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and in the emergence of the college of bishops from the communion of the twelve apostles under Peter by apostolic succession. The authority of the bishop to sanctify, teach and govern has been acknowledged from the beginning to proceed from the Sacrament of Holy Orders and for that reason, even in the lowliest of bishops, to have a supernatural character. Every priest, sharing in the priesthood of Christ, acts in the person of Christ (in persona Christi capitis ecclesia), especially in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But it is the bishop who in a particular way is conformed by the sacrament to Christ the Head, “authorized and empowered” by Him to act in His name (cf. CCC 874-878, esp. 875)
St. Ignatius of Antioch
Father Ryan Erlenbush at The New Theological Movement some time ago wrote an excellent exposé on the teaching of St. Ignatius of Antioch concerning the authority of bishops. I highly recommend a prayerful reading of his text, especially by those who are inclined to minimize the force of my argument.
The Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch lived in the first and second century. He was the third bishop of Antioch and a disciple of St. John the Apostle. He is the earliest and probably the most important patristic witness to emergence of bishops in succession to the apostles and to episcopal authority. The following is from his Letter to the Magnesians:
It is becoming, therefore, that you also should be obedient to your bishop, and contradict him in nothing; for it is a fearful thing to contradict any such person. For no one does [by such conduct] deceive him that is visible, but does [in reality] seek to mock Him that is invisible, who, however, cannot be mocked by any one. And every such act has respect not to man, but to God. . . .
Some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.
And St. Ignatius offers no out for those who believe that they have a higher obedience owed to God that allows them to circumvent bishop’s authority to sanctify, teach and govern the Church. In fact, Ignatius says nothing of the bishop’s worthiness or virtue. On the contrary, he says that without the bishop, with his priest and deacon helpers under him, there is no Church:
It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all […] let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church […] he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience (Letter to the Trallians).
There is no Church without the hierarchy comprised of those in Holy Orders, who by sacramental grace are conformed in a particular way to Christ, the Head of the Church. Attack the head and you attack the Church. As St. Ignatius says, this is not a matter of the respect of men, but of God, because such an attack is mockery not of the one who visibly represents Christ, but of Christ Himself.
Head of the Church
For all these reasons it ought to be clear that not only the pope represents the Church but also the other bishops. Perhaps Voris is right in saying that within a certain segment of the Church the pope is perceived as representing the whole Church and the bishops are not. But it is really not a matter of what is perceived but of what is.
Aside from being the heads of the local churches, bishops are the successors of the apostles and belong by virtue of both their sacramental consecration and their communion with the Vicar of Christ to the college of bishops. So reads the Catechism, quoting Lumen Gentium:
When Christ instituted the Twelve, “he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.” Just as “by the Lord’s institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another” (880).
By being conformed to Christ the Head of the Church by means of their sacramental consecration and through their communion with the Bishop of Rome, the bishops are the successors of the apostles, and are empowered by Christ through the sacramental grace of Holy Orders and by charisms proper to their office to sanctify teach and govern the Church. Without them there is no Church. Where they are present, the Church is present. Thus, to attack them is to attack the Church.
So Voris’ argument is problematic on two points: 1) he makes his refusal to publically criticize the pope simply a matter of not scandalizing the little ones, and not a matter of doctrine; 2) he fails to recognize that to attack any bishop, not just the pope, is to attack the Church.
John Allen, Jr. gave a noteworthy speech recently, in which he observed, as does Michael Voris, that the left and the right, the enthusiastic and ambivalent, are both using the “Francis Effect” to their advantage. The enthusiasts on the left are using it as a club against more traditional Catholics and the ambivalent on the right are pressing all the alarms and drumming up a resistance.
I am not going to spend anytime rehearsing the excesses of the enthusiasts on the left who are pushing for same-sex marriage, abortion and communion for the divorced and remarried—many of whom are still trapped in the 70’s and 80’s ecclesiastical and liturgical euphoria. Those people are not reading my blog, though frequently my commenters find it necessary to remind me, as though I had forgotten, what Catholic life is “really” like.
Nor am I going to recite a litany of damnation against all the bishops who have taught heresy, butchered the liturgy, or otherwise undermined Catholic life. Again, the people who need (if there is such a need) to know more about this do not read my blog, and besides, there are any number of persons, blogs and organizations dedicated to this purpose, such as Michael Voris and CMTV (which, unfortunately, I cannot recommend). I will say however, that I fully acknowledge that in the Church, just as in the natural human family, fatherhood has not been held in high esteem for quite awhile, particularly by fathers themselves. Fatherlessness is an epidemic of the modern world and it has affected all facets of human life, including the Church. I am not, nor have I ever ignored this problem. In fact, it is one of the principle reasons why MaryVictrix.com exists.
The context here is bishop bashing and Francis bashing among those who profess to adhere to Catholic orthodoxy and for whom the unadulterated deposit of the faith is essential. So it is here that I focus my attention. I just ask that commenters do not provide the long litanies of all their ecclesiastical woes in the comment section, if by so doing their purpose is to enlighten me of what I seem to show myself ignorant of. I am not ignorant of what goes on out there.
So John Allen says that Francis has an “older son problem,” referring to the parable of the prodigal son and the reaction of the older son to the father’s indulgence of the prodigal son at his return. Allen is referring specifically and by name to pro-life Catholics, liturgical traditionalists, doctrinal purists, political conservatives, and Church personal in Vatican. That is quite a group of people for the pope to alarm, and/or alienate. But Francis’s attention, like it or not, is turned largely toward those on the frontier, along the lines of the New Evangelization.
In spite of the fact that the new pontificate was Pope Benedict’s idea, that Francis’ program was largely mandated by the cardinals who elected him, and that Francis and Benedict reportedly are in frequent contact, the ambivalent on the right seem hell bent on emphasizing every contrast and minimizing every complementarity between the two popes. Some of the ambivalent believe that Francis is driving Traditional Catholics right out the door—that an exodus is immanent if he does not make some grandiose gesture of good will, such as regularizing the SSPX without requiring them to sign an agreement.
In this context “ultramontanism,” “papolotry” and “magisterialism” are the new buzzwords of the ambivalent right. “The pope is infallible only in very narrow circumstances.” “Vatican II was a pastoral council, not dogmatic.” “We must judge the present magisterium in the light of the perennial teaching of the Church.” Of course, all of these statements are true as they stand. But what has happened is that the bishops generally and even the pope more specifically have come to be treated merely as functionaries, CEO’s, politicians and bureaucrats instead of men who have been sacramentally conformed by Holy Orders to Christ, the Head of the Church. There are probably many reasons for this, but not the least of them is the fact that many bishops have behaved very much like functionaries, CEO’s, politicians and bureaucrats, or at least they have been perceived by many to have behaved so.
So now, unless the pope speaks infallibly, which rarely ever happens, he can openly be criticized without restriction as long at Catholic in question thinks he is defending the faith. And likewise, bishops who never on their own speak infallibly are subject to the policing of every good orthodox Catholic. Anything else would be “magisterialism.”
The naturalism that has affected the whole world and the Church for the last fifty years has also influenced the beleaguered Catholics who are desperately trying to find a refuge from the wickedness of this world in the Church. Because the Church seems to have failed them, and as far as they see it, largely because clergymen have treated them like lepers, they find it nearly impossible to have a supernatural regard for the divinely willed episcopacy or to see divine providence working in the midst of the postconciliar Church. I don’t mean this as a judgment, and I understand that the statement could use a bit more nuance and that there are plenty of exceptions to its application. But as a general statement, with all its limitations, I believe it reflects reality.
The Cross is a mystery of divine providence. This central mystery of our faith, which is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the gentiles (1 Cor 1:23), is the working out of grace in the midst of the contingent circumstances of history, over much of which we have no control. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the nature of divine providence, far from excluding the possibility of evil, allows evil because, while good but imperfect things sometimes produce evil, they also produce good. Only God sees the entirety of history and sees how each part fits into the whole, and the express manner in which all things work for the good of those who love God (cf. Rom 8:28). According to St. Thomas, God allows evil in a part so that “there may an increase of goodness in the whole.” But all this implies an overarching purpose and a Governor who directs the working out of history to its final end.
Deists treat the universe like a giant clock and God the clockmaker. He made the world and set it in motion and now everything is reducible to natural causes. We identify the causes and learn to control them we control the clock. The causes that we do not learn to control or which we cannot control leave open the possibility for things to go wrong. Men, who are free agents and cannot be completely controlled, are the biggest problem the deists have to contend with. If deists believe in divine providence at all, it is only insofar as in the end God will bring history to some kind of favorable resolution.
But this, of course, is not Catholic doctrine. Divine providence is the presence of God in history, even in the natural causes of the universe, not only at the beginning of creation and the end of time, but in all of the particulars in between. He is present even in the free actions of men. We are truly free, but we can do nothing without Him. This is the mystery of divine providence.
He is present and exercising His providence even when we sin. And sin is a horrible thing that we must detest and rather than commit it we must be prepared to die. The problem of evil is something that philosophers and theologians have always grappled with, but fundamentally it is the privation of the good that is proper to any being, and God is not responsible for it. But in some mysterious way He is the Governor over all the particulars so that each of them, even each sin—which He does not will or participate in—contributes to the working out of His plan. In such a manner we regard, for example, the sins of Judas and the Sanhedrin during the Easter Triduum.
If this is true about divine providence in respect to the divine nature and its relation to purely natural causes, it is even more relevant to the God-Man Jesus Christ and His Mystical Body, the Church, to which He has attached the promise that against it the gates of Hell will not prevail.
Christ yesterday and today
The beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
All time belongs to him,
And all ages;
To him be glory and power,
every age and for ever. Amen.
From faith in the order that He has established proceeds unyielding hope and by extension trust in His divine providence. Our faith is in Christ not in man.
But Still . . .
I know how many readers will respond to this. “What you are saying is ‘pray and obey.’ Just do nothing in the face of all the evils of modernity. Go along with the sins and abuses that so many, including those in authority, are committing. Stand by and watch, trusting that God will work it all out.”
But this is a false dichotomy: bash the bishops or do nothing. Many times I have read in the comments on my blog the implication that only those who openly oppose the modern magisterium are doing anything about abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage. This is simply and utterly false. For example, the two groups in America that perhaps do more work against the homosexual agenda (directly or indirectly) than any other organizations, one Catholic, the other directed and supported largely by Catholics, do so without engaging in public criticism of either the Holy Father or bishops: Courage and the National Organization for Marriage. The notion that heresy is not being combatted except by those who are constantly harping on the magisterium gives short shrift to the tremendous work being done by many priests and religious and laypeople who preach, teach, catechize, engage in formation and write on behalf of the one true faith, without attacking the bishops or the Holy Father. The notion that those who do not disrespect the bishops and the Holy Father are simply standing by and condoning sin, doing nothing to save souls from hell, or otherwise neglecting their duty, betrays an ecclesiology and an ecclesiality that is not Catholic.
The fact is that for Catholics there are always limits to what we may and may not do in the interests of the true and the good. Our Church is the last bastion set around principled morality, and it forbids us to do evil for a good end under any circumstance. If I am right and it is an evil thing to openly attack bishops, then not even to save the Church from the gates of hell would be a legitimate pretext to do so.
This being the case, the ongoing debate about the morality of “Catholic lying,” that is, the deliberate use of deception in the fight against immorality touches upon something essential to the faith and pertinent to our times. We desperately trying to hang on the last shards of morality and religious sanity, and the difficulty of the times challenge us to find creative and tenacious ways of doing so. But there are limits. That is what makes us different than the enemies of the Church.
We are supposed to be friends of the Cross. The character of our faith, as not merely human, but supernatural, must direct our attention to the mysterious workings of divine providence, in which as followers of Jesus we know that we conquer not by conforming to human philosophy, but to the wisdom of the Cross. This is the meaning of the Book of the Apocalypse. It is the victory of the Lamb who is slain and of the martyrs who have washed their garments clean in the blood of the Lamb. The Apocalypse is about the presence of divine providence in the very difficult particulars of history.
No good will come from disrespecting the order set up by Christ Himself. Our trust in the Church is trust in Christ, not in man. It is His job to govern the contingencies of history in which the wheat and the chaff grow together. We are to work tirelessly for His Kingdom, but within the parameters that He has set up.
All of this is not to say that fraternal correction of our superiors is never in order, or that we are never justified in having recourse to higher superiors in the Church, or in publically correcting scandal, even when bishops commit it. You can read St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject here. I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the complex situations of our age, but I do know that matter is not as simple as some Internet pundits make it.
Not only are the alleged faults of bishops paraded in front of the whole world on a daily basis by every Tom, Dick and Harry, but it is done in the most vicious and scandalous ways. Certain regions of the internet, especially blogs and comment sections, are sometimes truly despicable depositories of malicious, morose, bitter and poisonous sins against the honor of Christ and His ministers, and this is done not by the presumed reprobate enemies of Our Lord, but by those who profess to love Him and His Holy Church.
Again, I acknowledge in principle that it is legitimate to correct public scandals against faith and morals, even when bishops commit them, but it is unlikely that St. Thomas foresaw what is taking place in the information age, and certainly much of what goes on in the media and on the internet, including the work of Michael Voris, does not measure up to his standards. St. Thomas compares attacks on prelates to the deed for which Uzzah was struck dead (cf. 1 Chr 13:10). He says that touching one’s prelate “inordinately,” upbraiding him “insolently” and speaking “ill of him” is equivalent to touching “the mount and the ark.” For the same reason, David spared the life of Saul, whom he had in his grasp. The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord (1 Sam 24:6).
This is not about style or mere form. It is about doctrine. The sacred ministers, especially bishops, are conformed to Christ the Head, and do represent the Church. Indeed, they represent Christ Himself, regardless of their personal worthiness of that dignity.
He Who Hears You. . .
Either Michael Voris is right about the Pope and is inconsistent in his refusal to apply his principle to the bishops, or his friends at The Remnant and Catholic Family News are right and he has unjustifiably attacked them.
I believe Voris is on the right track, but that he has not gone far enough. The question is not about perception, but doctrine and the very argument he uses to defend silence about the pope applies fully, though subordinately, to the bishops. His own words can be used against him. He said:
We will not pursue a path that has the great potential to either prevent souls from coming to the Church or so weaken the faith of some souls that they leave the Church.
If you want to cancel subscriptions or send spiteful emails or cease your support—so bit it. But we will never do anything that can cause doubt in the minds of the faithful or those looking at the Church.
But he does not follow his own resolution and he does not go far enough with it. He does not follow it because he goes on to say that none of this applies to bishops, even claiming that no one leaves the Church because of something a cardinal says or does. But in fact, every priest knows that all kinds of people leave the Church because of scandal caused by priests and bishops. Voris is one of the prime enablers of this scandal by broadcasting it day in and day out to as many in the pews who will listen.
And Voris does not go far enough because in the end for him it is only about whether anyone is adversely affected by the scandal. He simply does not acknowledge that this behavior contradicts faith in the Catholic doctrine concerning the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the nature of the Church.
Adoration and reverence are necessary consequences of faith in the Eucharist. A analogous kind of holy fear in regard to the sacred priesthood is necessary consequence of faith in the true nature of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. It has nothing to do with respect for human persons on their own merits, or is it about people’s perceptions. It has only to do with respect for Christ and His Holy Church.
Voris’ reactionary friends have lost this sense in a profound way and so they rightly do not understand why Voris applies himself to unequally to his principle of not attacking the Church. Mark Shea is right. Voris has helped to create a monster that now has come back to eat him. And it is eating others as well, because it lessens the faithful’s attachment to the true Mystical Body of Christ. The Church is not some abstraction concerning Eternal Rome, and concrete membership in it cannot be qualified by all kinds of erudite caveats. Our Lord said to the Apostles: He who hears you hears me (Lk 10:16). Our first response to this should not be to qualified it, but to follow it.
The faithful have always intuited this. It is why generally, for better or worse, the priesthood has been held in high esteem even when the Church has been filled with scandals. St. Francis’ of Assisi’s refusal to criticize a priest was not expressed in the terms of academic theology, but this great mystic understood the doctrine. He was once asked about a scandalous priest by a Waldensian heretic, who did not believe that unworthy priests validly administered the sacraments: “Must we believe in his teaching and respect the sacraments he performs?” he asked.
In response, Francis went to the priest’s home and knelt before him saying:
I don’t know whether these hands are stained as the other man says they are. [But] I do know that even if they are, that in no way lessens the power and effectiveness of the sacraments of God… That is why I kiss these hands out of respect for what they perform and out of respect for Him who gave His authority to them.
St. Francis had nothing else to say on the matter. And let us not forget that he received a mandate directly from God, confirmed by pope, to rebuild the Church. It is St. Francis, who in a particular way has title to “rebuilder of the Church,” and his statue now stands in front of the pope’s Cathedral, because in a dream Innocent III saw St. Francis preventing it and what it represents from being destroyed.
By way of conclusion, it is fitting to admit that equilibrium within the Church is never an easy thing because it is always posited on getting the balance between grace and nature right. Everything we believe is related to the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. Every Christological heresy, and many Trinitarian heresies were condemned because they went too far in one direction or the other. Even legitimate theological schools in within the Church are in disagreement about where the balance is to be found. In practice, that is, when it comes to applying the doctrine in which we believe, there is a measure of prudence involved. And about things pertaining to prudence good men may disagree.
Bishops are human, but their conformity to Christ the Head by which they have authority to sanctify, teach and govern is divine. The providence of God is a divine thing, but we largely see it working itself out in the natural order where we are called to work as hard as we can for our own salvation and that of others.
I am fully aware that my argument could be misunderstood and used to advocate for the worst kind of clericalism, or to do what Pope Francis would has asked not to be done, namely, “to clericalize the laity.” It could also be misinterpreted to mean that we should just sit on our hands and wait for Our Lord to fix things. This is why I ask the reader to think about everything I have said, and not only part of it.
In the past the divine character of the priesthood led people to be completely silent about abuses that should have been taken to the police, and the abusers used the divine character of their office like the predators that they were. But it is also true that the depravity of these men’s lives have led people to stop believing in the priesthood and in the Church herself. One attitude was a regard for priests that was too “divine,” the other too “human.” The balance is not always easy.
Some will say times are much worse than they were in the days of St. Francis. Go back and read about the state of clerical life in the 13th century. Don’t kid yourself.
Priests bear a heavy responsibility of conforming themselves personally to the mystery that has been impressed on their souls. They are called to be shepherds after the heart of Christ, and they will be judged accordingly. I have emphasized here our responsibility towards the Church in respect to her ministers. My intent is not in any way to minimize the responsibility of bishops to live up to there calling. In connection with this I recommend reading Pope Benedict here and here, and Pope Francis here.
I am not arguing for an extreme. I am arguing against one. Christ is the via media, and He continues to be present in His Church through His grace and divine providence. The Church belongs to Him and He will protect it. We must do our part by following His plan and respecting what He Himself established.
I will be monitoring comments closely. Those that do not conform to the following standards will be deleted:
- Read the entire post before you comment. Any comment that indicates to me that you have not will be deleted.
- No ad hominems either opposing side.
- Do not take up space in the comments with litanies, links and videos of all the grievances you have with bishops and the postconciliar Church. No one disputes that there have been problems.
- Reasoned arguments are welcome. Rants and diatribes are not.
- Read the entire post before you comment. Really.