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Waiting for Death? Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 29 January 2012

John Paul II hoped to hold a synod on the roles of bishops during the 2000 Jubilee Year. But it didn’t take place until 2001. In his opening homily to the bishops, he said:  “With the Apostle we will say:  ‘Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort – be unfailing in patience and in teaching’ (II Tm 4:2).”

The decline of the U.S. Church (it has given up on more Catholics divorcing, using contraception, supporting abortion, and, of course, the horror that some priests have abused children accompanied by a tragic blindness to the massive amount of child abuse in the culture already) has left Catholics somewhat whipped. Where is the sense of urgency, the convincing, rebuking, and exhorting? Or is the American culture so benign that such instruments are simply not needed?

Now put this dilemma up against John Paul II’s teaching in the exhortation Pastores Gregis, issued after the synod:  “the bishop is not only called to bear witness to the faith, but also to evaluate and discipline its outward expression by the believers entrusted to his pastoral care.”

 The disciplining of the outward expression of the faith rarely happens, to judge by appearances. Imagine the effect of, for example, excommunicating the appropriate Kennedy or Pelosi? Then John Paul went on: “In carrying out this task he will do everything possible to win the consent of his faithful, but in the end he will have to take personal responsibility for decisions which he as their pastor considers in conscience to be necessary, concerned as he is above all for the future judgment of God.”

Two points here: Is everything possible being done to make prominent but nominal Catholics act more consistently with their professed faith? Waiting for prominent but renegade Catholics to die is a pretty pallid expression of concern for them and for the rest of us who have to put up with a divided Church, a Church whose public presence is so weak.

Actuarial leadership is not leadership at all. It is waiting for natural events to occur. Waiting for renegade clergy to die is just as bad. Waiting for poor bishops to resign is even worse. Are bishops really concerned about the “future judgment of God”?

Moving on with JPII: “Ecclesial communion in its organic structure calls for personal responsibility on the part of the bishop, but it also presupposes the participation of every category of the faithful, inasmuch as they share responsibility for the good of the particular Church which they themselves form.”


            John Paul II in 2003, the year of Pastores Gregis

This is the concept that baffles me the most. Realistically, where are the efforts to lead Catholics to unity? That would take more than leading Catholics at the liturgy. Common worship is only one dimension of leadership and by far the easiest one. The toughest leadership is bringing the community together in the one truth. Or are we just supposed to wait until the extremists die?

Just one example of the gap in leadership: The decline of the Church pointed out above has involved a surprising – one can say sinful – lack of national penance. Saint John Vianney used to do penance for his parishioners. He was profoundly conscious of his responsibility before God for his parish.

In his exhortation to bishops, Pope John Paul II, said: “It is [the bishop’s] duty to proclaim with evangelical freedom the sad and destructive presence of sin in the lives of individuals and in the history of communities.” But there has been almost no proclaimed need for penance. Guilt does not go away on its own. Denial is not just a river in Egypt!

The teaching of Pastores Gregis is based on the Incarnation itself. In fact, as the pope argued there, the “rooting of the Church in time and space mirrors the movement of the Incarnation itself.” The mention of time and space here is very important. As Henri de Lubac S.J. explained about the Church:

the fact that she is mystery lived by faith does not make her any the less a reality of this world; she walks it in broad daylight, making her presence known to all and claiming her rights. She is everywhere interwoven with the social fabric as one of the determinants of its texture.

The dynamic of the Incarnation means that there is a concrete public standing and unbounded spiritual power to the Church. Catholicism is a noble public presence that is simply not on the same plane with other public institutions. Catholicism is the presence of Jesus Christ on earth.

Catholicism does not buy the myths that others make regarding the “equivalence” of churches, about how Catholicism should operate in America, or the alleged limits to what Catholics may ask about or challenge.

So Catholicism aggressively faces the surrounding culture with the message of “repent and believe” – no matter how perfect American culture imagines herself to be.


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, January 29, 2012
Am I alone in finding an eerie similarity between the “Truce of 1968,” as George Weigel calls it, when, in 1971, the Vatican Congregation of the Clergy required Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington DC to lift the canonical penalties he had imposed on 19 priests, who had publicly expressed dissent from Humanae Vitae ” and the “Peace of Clement IX” during the Jansenist controversy?

In both cases, after the Church had been riven by a decade-long dispute, a papal document was issued that was intended to be definitive.

In both cases, the original quarrel was immediately forgotten and argument raged over the scope of papal authority to decide the question. In The Jansenist case, peace, of a sort, was achieved, when Pope Clement IX brokered an agreement that neither side would argue the question, at least, from the pulpit.

The “Peace of Clement IX” lasted for about 35 years and ended in 1705 when Clement XI declared the clergy could no longer hide behind “respectful silence.” Eventually, in 1713, he issued Unigenitus and demanded the subscription of the clergy to it. There was enormous resistance, with bishops and priests appealing to a future Council (and being excommunicated for their pains, in 1718). As late as 1756, dissenters were still being denied the Last Rites.

Will the “Truce of 1968” end in a similar fashion?
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written by Sue, January 29, 2012
" Two points here: Is everything possible being done to make prominent but nominal Catholics act more consistently with their professed faith?"

In this respect I think of my congressman, who I spoke with this past Monday before the March-for-Life. Though wanting to be considered a "prolife" congressman, he claimed that he and virtually all of the "prolife" Congressman he knew, had rape and incest exceptions. This cognitive rape of the meaning of "prolife" is the vile legacy of the Hyde amendment, which got rolled into the Stupak amendment, which catapulted us into Obamacare, the title for the eugenics plantation which we US citizens are held in thrall to, and which unfolding mandates currently has our USCCB bishops in high dudgeon.

Now her bishop _could_ excommunicate Sebelius and make an example. But it would be extremely discontinuous with the weak, incrementalist positions the USCCB bishops have shown on US policy ever since 1973. It would run emphatically counter to the "we need healthcare now" hype they had shown in the run up to Obamacare. The excommunication of an Obama girl would amount to a reversal of their decades of praising the growing socialist hegemony with faint damns.

But it would teach everyone that the Catholic Church means what it says. An excommunication of an Obama Catholic is worth a thousand words of hot air.
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written by Tony Esolen, January 29, 2012
The madness of the bishops' waffling position -- or worse, deliberate disobedience -- can be seen all around us. It makes it even more reprehensible than the theological intransigence of the Jansenists. That is, we all now see quite clearly the fruits of the sexual revolution. Divorce is common, cohabitation is common, perversions are celebrated, polygamy is actually being seriously reconsidered, children grow up not knowing what they are supposed to be as men and women, they grow up without two married parents, the culture is a sewer of sleaze -- and Humanae Vitae predicted this. Or rather predicted half of it; things have turned out EVEN WORSE than Pope Paul VI foresaw.

What do you call a flightless creature with its head in the sand? A liberal bishop.
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written by Daithe de Paore, January 30, 2012
This is funny to use Pope John Paul as an example of discipline.Law ,Maciel,Mahoney ,Groer all testify to a clericalism that is intent only on chastising laity.The obstruction of Justice in the Maciel case was enough to disqualify him as a prophetic voice.Prophetic when it suits ain't prophetic
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written by Ben Horvath, January 30, 2012
The need for penance in the church is overdue. The bishops need to take the lead - humbling themselves, setting an example for the rest of us to follow and despising honors given by the world.
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written by Alecto, January 30, 2012
The very people we look to for spiritual leadership so often demoralize us. As a Catholic striving for spiritual improvement, I'm actually looking to do penance: real, honest to goodness penance and sacrifice. How can we grow in holiness when those whose job it is to provide spiritual direction don't take their own faith seriously?

I often feel lost in the Catholic church and alone in a spiritual desert. Bishops accede to popular opinion on every issue, except those which make them look weak and foolish. They cram down their "moral authority" when its convenient and popular to do so, but skulk into the shadows when the fight is tough and unpopular. Witness the difference in the USCCB messaging on illegal alien amnesty, which God help any Catholic who disagrees with the bishops on that subject, and the blowing tumbleweeds on gay marriage. Governor Cuomo is still graciously welcomed at bishop Dolan's residence, isn't he? Nanny Pelosi still receives private audiences with the pope, doesn't she? Both regularly receive the Eucharist, don't they?

Is the Catholic leadership now so afraid of shrinking membership and loss of perceived power or authority that it is willing to abide any abomination from its own? The Catholic church should accept reality: the majority of those who describe themselves as "Catholic" are not actually conforming to the Catholic faith. These heretics influence many people who are now confused about their faith or worse, have adopted contrary views on abortion, homosexuality, contraception, or basic ideas on weekly attendance at mass, receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin, failing to go to confession at all, or taking the mandate to fast to heart on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. Those are very basic beliefs and practices for Catholics. Bishops and priests should not be afraid to "offend" those who require instruction on church doctrine.

This is not just bishops, for they answer to Rome. Ultimately, why doesn't the pope admonish people? I guess the Vatican is too busy focusing on the reasons for the global financial meltdown or arguing for "fairer distribution of the world's resources". Understanding the reasons for the global financial meltdown is NOT going to help any of us get to heaven. Better understanding the reasons we need to pray, confess, attend mass and practice penance will.
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written by Michael Gorman, January 31, 2012
A good article! Now here's a question. It's definitely right to say that the bishops need to lead more strongly. But it's a little too self-serving and self-pitying for us to just complain about their lack of leadership. What can we do to help them, encourage them, buck them up? It's a serious question, and it needs and answer--fast.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 02, 2012
A response to Daithe: I am not sure that the whole story of the Maciel case has come out. Maciel among many other things was a con artist. JPII did not have the power to read men's souls so he got taken in. That does not affect his ability to teach the truth! Then too we must not forget that the exhortation that I am using summarizes the bishops discussions. So they were on board with what appeared in the final document. So its content was not a surprise and given the nature of a synod, it was something that they were committing themselves to.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 02, 2012
Response to Michale. Thank you. Leaders lead. They do not wait for others to follow. They strike out in a particular direction and they get others moving in the same direction. It is the lack of such ability that I am complaining about.

Then helping them etc. I am not sure that I have ever seen a window for doing so. And I mean ever!
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 02, 2012
Response to Alecto: The head of the local Church is the bishop. Pushing admonishment onto the Vatican is to minimize the full stature of the episcopal office itself.
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written by Chris in Maryland, February 02, 2012
The Church must re-awaken to the reality that it is in a "Spiritual War."

In war, brave soldiers can and will fight and die, even if Generals will not fight and die. But victory takes more than an army. To win a war, you have to have an army of soldiers who are willing to fight and die to assure victory. In WW2, at the beginning of the war in the Pacific, historians can recount a true story that The Church can ponder. In the campaign to retake the Phillipine Islands from the Japanese, the army of American soldiers was paralyzed with fear when they first entered combat, and saw the murderous ferocity of the Japanese defense. The general leading the army was fired, and a one star general was promoted to lead the terrified US army. What did this man do to make his soldiers willing to die for victory? He lead them into battle standing in front of them, between them and the Japanese, on open ground, risking his own life, to arouse them to risk their lives. At long last, because of the heroics of a brave general, these soldiers, once paralyzed with fear, were aroused to action, and were willing to die, and once so willing, they were able to win.

It is no small thing that all 12 of the Apostles were willing to die for Christ, and it is sobering to rememember that 11 of the 12 did so die, and the only one one who was not martyred was the one that followed Him to the cross on Good Friday.

Perhaps we forget this, because we no longer call out to them in the Eucharistic Prayer, using the old Roman Canon, in the rollcall of the martyred Popes. Linus, Cletis, Clement, Sixtus...what are they telling us now?

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