Waiting for Death? Print
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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