What is the use of bishops? This has been a question in the minds of many Catholic faithful, through my adult life, as I have learnt from conversation. Often the question itself, or something like it, is asked sarcastically, about one bishop or another who has failed, signally, to uphold Catholic teaching when he was called upon “by events.” The cock crows thrice and then – the possibility fades.
The faithful are told, by this silence or (more often) incoherent mumbling, that when it comes to the witnessing of Christ and Christ’s teaching, they are on their own. They may have the Catechism of the Catholic Church before them, to remind them what’s what in our faith, but if they make a stand they cannot expect their leaders to support them.
Rather, more likely, they are quietly disowned, as “fanatics,” and left to stew in that reputation. For they are now taken to be speaking only for themselves, in a time when anything said with clarity and precision can be dismissed as the outpouring of mere “feelings,” then slandered as “hate speech.”
In a dark time, when speech codes are advancing on every academic, legal, social and political front, the lawless Dictatorship of Relativism is being consolidated. Anything you say may be, potentially, prosecuted on the argument that it might, potentially, hurt the feelings of unknown members of some vaguely defined, politically favored group. The dissident loses his livelihood, or if he hopes to keep it, must submit to public humiliation and some course of “counseling,” or “sensitivity training,” or “re-education.”
Maoism is thus alive and well on the college campuses; and spreading beyond them. Or Stalinism, or Hitlerism, if gentle reader prefers. Or “McCarthyism,” insofar as it was conceived to involve show trials.
McCarthyism was defeated, fairly quickly – inside three months – when several prominent establishment figures stood up to the late Wisconsin senator, and said they had had enough. Joe McCarthy was himself labeled a pariah, and his case made a warning to any who might wish to emulate him.
Indeed, a more formidable McCarthyism of the Left was planted in the corpse of that politician, and his name made into a propaganda slogan. But to begin with, I think, there was genuine outrage at the recklessness of McCarthy’s senate hearings, and for the first who stood up, some nerve was required.
As courage will always be required – in all times, in all nations – for those who will oppose an injustice.
We have by now, in the Catholic Church, a legacy of bishops who were brave and worthy, written into the annals of our Saints and Martyrs. Conducted chiefly through the liturgy, they amount in practice to a Third Testament – an exemplary chronicle through twenty centuries in which, by the lives of great men and women, the Life of Christ persisted in this world.
By no means can we say that bishops always fail us; nor even when they fall silent are we necessarily left to fend for ourselves. God finds others who step forward to give the example. Too, it should be said that we ourselves are entitled, by the grace of our baptism, to step forward – to vindicate the good and the true; to condemn their opposites. But such acts are uncommon.
That they are uncommon is part of the teaching, about sinful man. We are so attached to our worldly comforts, by our worldly imaginations, that in the clearest opposition between right and wrong we will seek the quiet life. And as we could know if only from the Gospels, the man well fed and well housed, well friended and conspicuously decorated (such as a bishop), has more to lose than most. Why risk it all in exchange for public persecution, and the risk of abandonment by his own supporters? For rewards not of this world, invisible except to the eyes of Faith?
Last night, I attended the launching of a fine book at the Toronto Oratory. It is by Father Daniel Utrecht: the best biography we now have in English of The Lion of Münster : The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis. His name was Clemens August Count von Galen, and an eloquent column  on him was published in this Catholic Thing, a few months ago.
Against the Nazi regime, and especially against its policies of extermination (“euthanasia”) he railed, in just the way every German bishop was obliged to do through the period 1933-45, when most chose a discreet silence, or at best some discreet mumbling.
Von Galen did not wait for the authority to speak, because he had the authority. And it was so apparent to his flock of the Münster diocese, and by word-of-mouth across Germany, that the Nazis did not dare kill him: saving that delicious prospect, as Hitler confided to his inner circle, until after the war was won. That it wasn’t won was at least partly due to this bishop’s brashness.
I like to imagine historical counterfactuals. What if? What if every German bishop had stood as von Galen? Then, perhaps, the regime would have persecuted Catholics across Germany in a repetition of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, or worse. They would have absorbed what the Allies did, in finally taking the Nazis down. In the course of which, quite possibly, they might have reclaimed all Germany from its lapsed Christian allegiance.
Or a like counterfactual. What if rather than just one (Saint John Fisher), all the British bishops had stood up to Henry VIII? What if all had been willing to be martyred – all clergy following their lead, and the Catholic people rising everywhere and not just in isolated regional revolts? Not in violence but in holy stubbornness to say, “This will not pass!”
Such things are finally imponderable, but I entertain the thoughts for the insight they offer into the extraordinary worldly power the Church would have, were it governed by lions.