Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Has the Pope "Let Us Down"?

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed piece by National Review columnist Rod Dreher titled "The Pope Let Us Down". In it Mr. Dreher criticizes Pope John Paul II for his decision (so far) to leave bishops like Cardinal Law, who have made the the Church's repsonse to The Situation such a cock-up, in office. He asserts that nothing less than swift action by the Pope will restore the moral credibility of the Papacy and the Church.

Quite a discussion has erupted about this article on Mark Shea's blog. Mark has posted a letter by Tom Hoopes of the National Catholic Register taking Dreher to task. I'll let you go to commnets section of Mark's post to read the debate, but it seems to me that Hoopes makes a telling point, unanswered by Dreher, which illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic ecclesiology.

Hoopes writes:

The Church has never functioned in the way he wishes JPII would run it. Not in the times of the Cristological heresies, when the Church lived in another practical schism. Not before the Reformation. Not after Trent. Not at Vatican I, either, Lord knows (dissenting bishops stayed in place even as they renounced Papal infallibility). Lord knows it wasn't that way in the 1950s. It's incredibly naive to expect JPII to be able to do the impossible. The Pope isn't the police chief, he's the Vicar of Christ.

Hoopes is right when he points out that there is no precedent or tradition in the church for governance along the lines that Dreher seems to prefer: Tradition-minded Catholics have wondered and lamented for years now "why does the Pope leave [insert name(s) of bad bishop(s) here] in office? Why doesn't he remove him [them]? The short answer is that such an approach is not Catholic. The longer answer is that the episcopacy is not a job, it is a vocation and charism, and it is a cross. I fear that Mr. Dreher, and those who agree with him, are falling under the spell of the Church-as-Corporation model. The bishops are not mid-level executives carrying out the directives of headquarters (Rome). They are not replaceable in the sense that a CEO would replace one of his managers who was performing poorly. The Church is a communion, and just as we are in communion with the bishops, so they are in communion with us. The bishop is configured to Christ as the Head of the Church, and we must be vivdly aware that we are not speaking metaphorically here. We really are Christ's Body, and our bishops really stand in persona Christi as our head. Bishops are rarely deposed because to do so is to cut off the head of the local Church. To cut off a man's head, no matter how enfeebled or diseased, is to kill the man. I realize that the analogy limps here, because deposing a bishop does not "kill" the local Church. But it is an act of violence, and it does damage not only to the local, but to the universal Church. The only justification for doing so is the judgment that the damage done by the removal of the bishop is less than that done by keeping him. And that is a prudential jugdment.

Mr. Dreher said, in his remarks in Mark Shea's comments section, that his complaint is with the way our church is being governed. I hope not, because if that is the case he has aligned himself with VOTF, We Are Church, and the rest of the AmChurch agitators who wish to make the Catholic Church into something it is not. I imagine, and I hope, that what Mr. Dreher means is that he disagrees with some of the decisions made by JPII in responding to The Situation. It is erroneous to look at the Pope's actions and diagnose them as a "failure" to govern. The Pope, in this situation, has made a particular prudential judgment. The fact that we do not like that judgment does not mean that the Church isn't being governed. The Pope has apparently decided (up till now) to leave bishops like Cardinal Law in place to clean up the messes they have made. Dreher is right in saying that he has a right, and even a duty, to voice his misgivings about that (or any other) judgment. But before he does so, he has a duty to try to examine the situation in the light of the Tradition. And it seems to me that he still has to do some homework there.

I have often been one of those people who wondered "why does the Pope leave so-and-so in office? Why doesn't he remove him?" The answer, often, was " I don't know." But my understanding of the mystical nature of the Church, and the subjection of all things to the Cross of Christ, makes me leery of bloodlettings and purges as solutions to problems. Christ always invites people into communion: he never compels or drives away. It seems to me likely, as Mark Shea suggested in a blog of a couple months ago, that the Pope is looking at this from the spiritual perspective of the Cross, and not from the perspective of "what will people think?"

It may be the case that, if Mr. Dreher were Pope, he would can Law, Mahony, et al. It is certainly the case that if I were Pope, I would have dealt with things differently. I probably would have gratefully accepted Cardinal Law's resignation and demanded those of others. But that may be reason number 6,485 that I am not the Pope, nor ever will be. I hope Mr. Dreher and those who agree with him have the humility to admit the same.

The Situation has brought up from every quarter calls to reform the Church's governance. Those on the "progressive" side demand we scrap Catholic ecclesiology in favor of something more Anglican or Presbyterian. The "conservatives" demand a sort of purge of less-than-faithful elements, with the proverbial cry "let heads roll". Both extremes are wrong: neither is Catholic. I confess that I find it difficult to listen to cries for "reform" coming from complacent upper-middle-class suburbanites who have embraced the World and found it good. I also confess that I find it difficult to listen to demands for purity and holiness coming from other comfortable middle-class Catholics without any concomitant call for personal penance and reparation. I have been quite critical of bishops in my blog and in homilies, etc. That has caused me to have to examine the complacency and accomodation to sin in my own life, and recommit myself to penance and reparation. I had to recognize that if I was going to point the finger of blame, I'd better go to a mirror and do it to myself before I did to the bishops. And I dare say that principle applies to the vast majority of Catholics in the US. As I have said before, we have the bishops and priests we do because that's what most of us wanted. If you are engaging in personal acts of renunciation and penance in reparation for the sins of priest-abusers and knucklehead bishops, then you probably have something to say by way of criticism and suggestion. But if you're not, then go off and say a few rosaries, make a couple of novenas, and fast for couple of days over the next couple of weeks. Then come back and tell us what you think.

In his WSJ article, Dreher writes "John Paul must bear partial responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen us." I hope that Mr. Dreher does not think that Pope John Paul is not profoundly aware of that fact. The Holy Father is a mystic in the spirit of John of the Cross, and anyone who has read his spiritual writings or has even witnessed him in prayer will recognize that he has shouldered the burden of the Cross, in some sense, for the whole Church. Indeed, his whole pontificate has been an exemplification of the Way of the Cross.

Our obsession with the "governance" of the Church is almost certainly a sign that we are not yet thinking with the mind of Christ in the heart of the Church. We will not govern our way out of The Situation. We will only find the way out through Christ and His way of the Cross.