In an earlier post, I related an awesome speech by Bishop Robert F. Vasa, D.D. (diocese of Baker, Oregon). He explained how authority in the Church belongs to bishops, not episcopenal conferences. Bishops need to step up and assume their role.
The good Bishop also warned that over-sized episcopal conferences can lead to conformism of bishops to the views of the majority, even if the majority is wrong. According to Bishop Vasa, over-sized conference are also often a reflection of episcopal cowardice. The conference provides cover for the weak-kneed. I’m afraid we’re witnessing this in Canada. For example, how else can you explain the 19 months of dithering about the Development and Peace scandal when the evidence is so blatant?
The episcopal conference has become a parallel magisterium. In the words of the good Bishop:
It is quite possible that the faithful, and perhaps our national government, see in the conference a type of intermediate magisterium to which each bishop owes obedience and respect, and which is always empowered to speak for the bishops. This is not the case at all. In fact, quite the opposite has been strongly confirmed in Apostolos Suos. While recognizing the legitimate aims of episcopal conferences, Pope John Paul II wrote:
Such aims, however, require that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions be avoided. The essential fact must be kept in mind that the Episcopal Conferences with their commissions and offices exist to be of help to the bishops and not to substitute for them. (Apostolos Suos, 18)
I’m afraid many Canadian bishops have been absorbed into the conference as if by osmosis. There’s barely any trace of the individual save his driver’s license. This leads to dilution of the Gospel message, according to Bishop Vasa:
Sadly, since sound teaching is often rejected out of hand, the teachers who advocate a popular, ear tickling message are more likely to be admired and warmly received and accepted by our secular age. This contributes to an even further flattening of the message. St. Gregory the Great warns that a failure to be bold in speech can be caused by a fear of reproach. This is a very real danger in our present times. It may well be that a reliance on pastoral documents may stem from a two-fold fear: A fear of reproaching others and a fear of being reproached for having done so. It is sadly forgotten that such an approach may lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. There is prudent silence, but there is also imprudent silence. There is indiscreet speech, but there is also discreet and bold speech.
Too many Canadian bishops have fallen into imprudent silence rather than correct the brethren in the charitable spirit of St. Paul. The marshmallow crowd in the Church, who vehemently criticize any criticism as if it was the worst mortal sin, have got it all wrong according to the good Bishop:
To the more secular-minded, the teachings of the Church can seem to be behind the times, harsh, judgmental, or insensitive. As a result, some teachings of the Church have been allowed to fall by the wayside through what could be called, charitably, a kind of benign pastoral neglect. For many, in our politically correct world, this is identified with compassion. In truth, it often entails a complicity or a compromise with evil. The harder and less popular teachings are left largely unspoken, thereby implicitly giving tacit approval to erroneous or misleading theological opinions. Gregory, in his Pastoral Guide, writes about this pastoral approach:
A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who take refuge in silence when the wolf appears. The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: They are like dumb dogs that cannot bark. On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord. To advance against the foe involves bold resistance to the powers of the world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right. When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel.
That last quote, in case you missed it, is from St. Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church. Those sacred principles that he taught have not changed. Courage should not have gone out of style.
That being said, there is an obvious need for tact and diplomacy. Most situations do not call for fire and brimstone. But some do. There may be diverse strategic approaches to a given situation, as Bishop Vasa explains, but never at the expense of preaching the Truth:
Some bishops perhaps lean more strongly by temperament to reproving and correcting, while others favor the kinder, gentler approach of appealing. In my view, appealing has its place, but when constant appeal produces absolutely no movement toward self-correction, reform or conversion, then reproving and correcting, become necessary. At some point, there needs to be a bold resistance to the powers of the world in defense of the flock.
This isn’t rocket science, folks. Any parent understands this. Why do so few bishops get it? He continues:
The fear of offending one contemptuously dissident member of the flock often redounds to a failure to defend the flock. It can redound to a failure to teach the truth. In Saint Gregory’s words: “They hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men but the men and women whose favor may be in jeopardy are often not nearly as favorable as they imagine.”
Dear bishops, ask yourselves honestly: who are you afraid of offending?
Bishop Vasa goes on to explain how the failure of bishops to speak the truth not only leads people astray, but alienates the most devout of the faithful (folks like you, dear reader):
I mentioned above Saint Gregory’s acknowledgment of this reality. He chastised those who were afraid to reproach men for their faults, and thereby lulled the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Not only the evildoer but all the members of the flock who see the evildoers carry on with impunity begin to doubt and question their own moral assessments. I hear from many laity that their perception of a lack of courage on the part of episcopal leaders redounds to a discouragement of the faithful.
And some extremely pertinent words about the media:
In the evaluation of a secular media, any strong speech against moral evil is most often labeled as indiscreet; while imprudent silence, even in the face of very serious moral evils, is praised as the epitome of Christ-like compassion. Appealing is praised, while correcting or reproving is deemed to be too harsh.
That quote applies perfectly to many Catholic media in North America. Remember the Kennedy funeral debacle and how the Catholic media lambasted pro-life Catholics for publicly teaching the very Truth that cowardly bishops were ashamed of? That’s exactly what Bishop Vasa is describing.
My friends, we need to pray for our bishops. They need to free themselves from the shackles of the episcopal conference and start acting like Apostles. Not abolish the conference, but put it in its proper place. As I’ve said before, some bishops are not suited for this line of work. They should do the humble and honourable thing and resign. Let the torch be carried by someone who isn’t afraid of the heat.