My dear brothers and sisters in Christ who blog about the Catholic faith.
During Lent of this year, I wrote a post about the problems with attitudes in Catholic blogging. It was one I was afraid to post because I did not like the idea of being confrontational. It turned out to be one of the farthest reaching posts I made. However, since I am seeing certain blogs that I once admired slip into a nasty mindset, perhaps it is time to write again on the topic. I do not write this article with the intent of singling out a particular article or blogger. Rather, I write this to alert my fellow Catholic bloggers to an attitude we should watch out for and, if necessary, correct.
I’ve seen the posts shared on Facebook. Some have impressed me enough that I follow the Facebook page, Twitter, or RSS feed. So long as one defends the Catholic faith and show love for the Church established by Our Lord, all is well. Sometimes that defense of the faith involves speaking about misrepresentations of the faith from members of the Church. That is understandable. That is permissible—provided the correction is done in love and with the due respect for the office the person holds and gives obedience to those in persons of authority.
But some of these blogs have gone from showing love and charity for our fellow Catholics to the old and wearisome sport of “Bishop bashing.” Such blogs have gone from showing love for the Church as the Bride of Christ to showing bitterness towards the Church and treating bishops with contempt and scorn if they do not speak effectively about an issue we are concerned with or fail to openly champion a political platform which we prefer.
My brothers and sisters, when one reads the lives of the saints and the histories of the Church, we see that weak bishops and even bad bishops are not something that is present only in this present age. They have existed in all ages of the Church. Moreover, some bishops which are derided in this age actually are speaking the Catholic moral teaching but the critics seem to be unaware of it.
Now I do not speak to you as a moral authority who says “Be like me, for I am without flaw!” I’m quite aware of the log in my eye. The fact is, my blog (in the early Xanga days of 2007 through mid 2008) did take part in the sport of “bishop bashing.” Back then, I saw the crisis of the faith in America with the dissenters openly scorning the teaching of the Church, I saw the bishops speaking ineffectually on a topic or even focussing on a different topic. I bought into the belief that we had bad Catholics because we had bad bishops.
I was wrong. I used bad reasoning (the affirming the consequent fallacy) which failed to consider other possibilities. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I can attest to that. I believed (committing an argument from ignorance fallacy) that because I did not hear of the bishops defending the faith, it meant that they did not defend the faith. Yes, there were some bad decisions made and some members of the clergy expressed themselves poorly, or even had a wrong conception of the faith. But what it took me time to learn was that these things did not prove the existence of a willfully heretical bishops’ conference.
Bishops are human. They can make bad administrative decisions. They can speak poorly on a subject. They can do these things because, like us, they are sinful human beings in name of salvation. They need our prayers that they can successfully carry out their task of shepherding us. Again, that’s not solely a modern problem. We’ve had this in every age of the Church.
Now, some may ask about the actual faithless bishops in Church history. Does this mean that we are to accept whatever someone says because he is a bishop of the Church, even though this goes against what the Church has taught? No, I do not say that. After all, Pope Francis has said, “Inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church’s credibility.” So sometimes we are right to be concerned. However, we do have to keep perspective and recognize where the authority to judge exists and what we must do when a member of the Church teaches wrongly.
Yes, Canon Law does recognize that the faithful have the right to manifest their opinion on the good of the Church, but that canon needs to be read in full:
CAN. 212 §1.† Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.
§2.† The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.
§3.† According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
So, yes, when the faithful have concerns about the direction the Church is going in, when they have concerns that the statement of a bishop sounds strange, they can certainly express that concern—but only in the context of obedience to those entrusted with the mission of shepherding us. If such a shepherd creates a confused message, we can ask for clarification and we can appeal to a higher source. But we cannot do so in a disrespectful manner. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote well in his Summa Theologica on the subject.
I answer that, A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.
Now an act which proceeds from a habit or power extends to whatever is contained under the object of that power or habit: thus vision extends to all things comprised in the object of sight. Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Tim. 5:1): An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father. Wherefore Dionysius finds fault with the monk Demophilus (Ep. viii.), for rebuking a priest with insolence, by striking and turning him out of the church. (II-II q.33 a.4 resp.)
I would ask any person, who criticizes a bishop openly, whether they take this approach. If they do not, they are not behaving according to our moral obligation.
Now, some have asked whether I think this should apply to a heretical bishop like the Arians. My answer is twofold. First, if they have formally broken away from the Church, they are not in communion with the Pope and bishops in communion with them and by that fact have no authority over us. Second, the modern bishops today are certainly not in the same class as those bishops who fell into heresy.
For example (to cite the most recent example of bishop bashing), when Archbishop Cupich brought up several topics of moral concern after the Planned Parenthood videos went public, he spoke no heresy or material error. The Catholic Church does require us to be concerned about the issues he brought up. One may (respectfully) believe that this was not the time to speak about those issues. One may respectfully believe that in doing this, he gave the wrong impression that these issues are the moral equivalent of abortion and disagree with him. But, he is not a heretic nor betraying the Church in mentioning these things.
But, by insinuating that bishops like this are heretical, when they say these things, we are causing scandal by undermining the faith of our readers in the Church. We cause people to stop trusting the leaders of the Church and use one’s personal views to stand in judgment over whether the Church can be trusted. But in doing so, we are playing into the hands of the enemy who wants to attack and destroy the Church—and sees destroying the faith in the leaders as a good tactic. It’s remarkably similar to the 1943 Walt Disney Cartoon, Chicken Little:
We need to ask ourselves who benefits from our bishop bashing. It’s not the Church and it’s not the faithful. It’s not even ourselves. So, let us always remember to act in love and charity, even when we find ourselves needing to voice our concerns. Otherwise, we are the ones causing harm to the Church and we will have to answer for it.