Blaming the Bishops

The Connecticut legislature, over relentless objection from the Connecticut bishops, passes a law that requires all hospitals in the state, including Catholic hospitals, to administer “emergency contraception” without first administering an ovulation test. Members of the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” where else but in San Francisco, as part of their mockery of the Catholic faith, receive Communion from an unsuspecting archbishop. A public school in Maine now makes contraceptives available—without parental consent—to preteen children, with the local bishop leading the opposition to the measure.

A common thread running through these recent stories, and many other similar stories in recent decades, is that many “veteran” Catholics have placed principal blame for these untoward events upon “the bishops,” and not the legislatures, gay activists, and “progressive” public schools that would seem at first glance to be the source of the respective problems.

I’m still waiting for somebody to blame the tragic fires in Southern California on Cardinal Mahony, perhaps asserting that the blazes are divine retribution for his annual CCD Congress.

Surely the annual CCD Congress has become through the years a “who’s who” of dissenting Catholic celebrities, and Archbishop Niederauer has graciously and humbly apologized for not being more on the ball when the “sisters” came up for Communion. But why does it seem as though Catholics are all-too-ready to pounce on their shepherds when things go wrong? 

In a recent article in This Rock (, I use the term “veteran” Catholics. Who are veteran Catholics?

Veteran Catholics have been in the Church awhile, perhaps all their life, and their orthodox antennae are fully functional. In addition, they are often “veterans” in the sense of having weathered some controversy on the parish or even diocesan level. Their myriad questions and complaints typically boil down to this: What can be done to address perceived problems in my parish or diocese?

They often have a heightened awareness of what’s really going on in the Church. For them, the problem didn’t begin with the much-publicized sex scandals of recent years, as they have long endured the corrosive effects of dissent, classroom sex education, liturgical abuse, and an overall failure to effectively teach the faith in its fullness. Many are engaged on a very personal level, as they’ve seen their Catholic school-educated children and grandchildren leave the Church, in a sense inoculated against all things Catholic.

When veteran Catholics try to speak up about the problems they see in their parishes and dioceses, one of two things usually happens. Some simply vent out of anger or frustration, completely out of tune with the “nuance” of Church bureaucrats. Their style gets in the way of their substance, and their concerns are typically dismissed out of hand. Others, though, present their concerns respectfully and well, but often even then nobody seems to listen or to do anything to correct the problem. In both cases, merely speaking up will often result in the veteran Catholic being ostracized from the local Church, being made to believe that he is the problem, not Fr. Feelgood or Sr. Mary Wicca-Reiki.

For most veteran Catholics, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (and their predecessors) are not the problem—indeed, the popes are routinely spoken of in appropriately favorable, if not saintly, terms. Veteran Catholics recognize the role of the pope as the vicar of Christ and legitimate successor of St. Peter. They appreciate the courageous witness of contemporary popes amidst the challenges of today’s world.

The local bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t typically fare so well. To some extent this state of affairs is understandable: The buck has to stop somewhere. The local bishop in essence is president, Congress, and Supreme Court in his diocese. If a politician has a bad record, we can vote him out of office. If a football coach fields a lousy, undisciplined team, he doesn’t come back next season. The bishop, though, not only seems to be ultimately responsible for the spiritual malaise in his diocese, but he also seems to be immune from any repercussions for a “poor performance.”

Not surprisingly, then, veteran Catholics often have an edge to them. Wounds are fresh, and the frustration level is palpable.

Where do we go from here? Catholics United for the Faith for nearly 40 years has effectively addressed issues and controversies in the Church, often under the radar and without fanfare, as we strive to “think with the Church.” We understand the intense frustration that the faithful experience when the faith isn’t celebrated, taught, or lived appropriately, and we understand how this has disastrous, real-life consequences, such as having our loved ones leave the Church. This anger we feel has to “go” somewhere, and “the bishops,” sometimes deserved but most times not, are its most frequent recipients.

In other posts, as well as at, readers will find more on addressing concerns in the Church in appropriate, godly ways, as we try to move beyond anger (righteous or otherwise, probably a combination) to redemptive suffering and constructive, joy-filled action. This is what CUF has always been about.

I’ll just leave you today with the gentle suggestion that rather than hasten to assign blame outside ourselves for societal problems, maybe we can take a fresh look within, and see that we too are “part of the problem” to the extent we’re sinners. Through prayer and fasting—and especially frequent Communion and Eucharistic adoration—let’s seek first our own personal purification and renewal in Christ as the first and most efficacious thing we can do to be of faithful service to our beloved Church.

8 responses

  1. Leon,

    You make some good points here. I believe that sometimes we “faithful Catholics” fail to see that we are sometimes part of the problem, especially when we begin by blaming others for problems in the Church. It seems all too often that we are quicker to blame bad catechists than to volunteer as catechists ourselves. We readily lament that our parish is going in the wrong direction but are slow to demonstare the kind of leadership in our parishes that would allow us to help drive the direction or our parish. More importantly, we are often quicker to react with words or actions than to stop and pray.

    Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have indicated that the answer to the crisis in the Church is the authentic implementation of Vatican II. Two fundamental teachings of Vatican II that the CUF apostolate rightly emphasizes are the universal call to holiness and the full and active participation of the laity in the mission of the Chuch.

    I certainly applaud all the veterans who have faithfully worked in the trenches to build up Mother Church. I know many who have laid down their lives for the unborn and other victims of injustice as well as many relentless prayer warriors. They are the giants who have gone before us.

    For myself, the temptation is often great to blame a bishop or other Church official who “doesn’t seem to be doing his job.” Thank you for reminding us of the challenge put before us by the Second Vatican Council. When we are all authentic witnesses to Christ, the crisis in the Church will disappear.

  2. As usual, Leon I agree with you. I’m tired of liturgical abuses, dissent, birthcontrol based sex ed, and contentless catechesis. But I really don’t know that we can do away with nuance though. The Vatican II documents after all are very nuanced carefully balancing traditional doctrines with newer developments–the Council fathers went out of their way to accomodate many different theological approaches all the while holding fast to the deposit of faith. JOhn XIII wanted both a return to the sources of Scripture and the early Church as well as “aggiornamiento” or “up to datedness” if you will. There is an inherent paradox in doing both these things of moving forward while moving back but I really think Vatican II did achieve this lovely synthesis.

    But the nuance is precisely the problem (or one big aspect of it) in the post Vatican II Church. I hate to use political terms but here they serve. “Liberals” have seized only on what is new as though nothing that came before Vatican II mattered at all. Their hermenuetics of discontinuity has been extremely unnuanced.

    On the other hand “conservatives” have only emphasized the continuity with the past to the extent that they fail to see (or do see but reject!) that the traditional approaches to theology, biblical interpretation, ecumenism and so forth have been balanced out by newer developments. This view seems very unnuanced as well.

    The lack of nuance on all sides has in my mind contributed to much of the division.

    A radical suggestion (actually not really that radical) Maybe if we all followed Paul VI, JP II, and Benedict’s advice and prayed and more deeply soaked ourselves in the true beauty and depth of Vatican II–and maybe becoming a little more nuanced rather than less :)– that many of these problems in our parishes would go away rather quickly!!!

  3. I agree with Pete Brown. I especially appreciate the nuance in his presentation as he invites us to see the nuance in the Vatican II documents. Spoken like a true disciple of Franciscan University’s Alan Schreck. Speaking of Alan Schreck, readers might enjoy his important book entitled, Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise. A review of this book can be found in the July/August 2007 issue of Lay Witness. It can also be found on the CUF website at

  4. Yes. I was not the most brilliant of Alan’s pupils by a longshot but I was probably the most nuanced!!! And that nuance has served me well since.

  5. Dear Leon,

    Has no one ever heard of bishops standing firm in defending and upholding the Catholic teachings? It happened years ago when the Legion of Decency was established in Hollywood! What happened with movies? They were made a bit less bawdy!

    What WOULD have happened in the 1970s IF we had good and holy bishops, who BELIEVED as ONE with the pope, when it came time to the subject of abortion and the U.S. Supreme Court? Would there EVER have been a Roe v Wade, which has done more damage to the hearts and lives of both the mothers and the unborn, as we now know? I seriously doubt that! Yet, we did NOT have good and holy and faithful Catholic bishops rallying around the teachings of Christ by protecting the very lives of those He loves most–the unborn.

    Today, we see another dilemma for our Catholic bishops! Again, we do NOT see them remaining faithful to their duty in defending the teachings of Christ and His Church! Oh, where are the saintly? It would do us all well to know that our bishops DO love Christ and WILL stand firm and strong in His defense. Thus, my recommendation is to seriously take a stand to CLOSE ALL THE CATHOLIC HOSPITALS IN CONNECTICUT, unless they can continue to uphold the unbroken and traditional teachings.

    Knowing the “emasculation” of the hierarchy (and the priesthood in general) during the last 40-plus years, I’m sure this will not happen. Who will suffer from their lack of diligence, once again? ALL Catholics who genuinely love and cherish the Faith, but most especially those who KNOW what the Church has always taught!

  6. I agree with Nancy. Go ahead and close the “Catholic” hosptals. And while we’re at it, close “Catholic” Charities, etc…remove “Catholic” from most Jesuit universities, stop worrying about the Church’s tax exempt status and monies from the govt. Let’s stand for what we believe and take the consequences, the persecution. We may become much smaller, but we would be true to what we believe, putting our “money where our mouth is” so to speak. Let’s get out in the trenches and evangelize. Back to volunteers and less fat in the chanceries and at the parish level.

    Wasn’t it Fr. John Hardon, S.J., who, when asked why we are having so many problems in the Church, replied: “The bishops, the bishops, the bishops!”

    I pray for them and I long for stalwart and courageous bishops who are not afraid to speak truth and “walk the walk” too.

    In Christ,

    Jane Kosco
    Prescott, Arizona

  7. Some very interesting comments. I will try to use some Pete Brown-like “nuance” to address some of the issues that have been raised.

    Both Nancy and Jane raise some good points regarding the crucial role of bishops in turning back the tide of the “culture of death.” Much can be said about this–both in general and as it relates to particular controversies. For more on this topic, I edited a book several years ago entitled “Servants of the Gospel,” a collection of award-winning essays that sets forth the role of the bishop in the life of the Church. This book is available at

    In this particular post, however, I was simply noting how quick we are to blame the bishops for just about everything. Sometimes they are at least partially to blame, other times not, but regardless it seems clear that many of us are quick to play the “it’s the bishops’ fault” card.

    In just about any situation where things aren’t going well, it’s easier to look for problems outside of us. That’s certainly true when it comes to controversies in the Church. Yet, I still think, consistent with sound spiritual theology, that it’s better in the first instance to look inside, rather than outside. After all, the only person I can directly change is myself. What I’m talking about here is taking to heart Our Lord’s teaching that we concern ourselves first with the planks in our own eyes (cf. Lk. 6:42).

    Regarding the individual issues, certainly the Connecticut bishops could have decided, in light of the oppressive Connecticut law, to pull out of the hospital business as a prudential judgment. However, it’s an overstatement to imply a lack of fidelity to Church teaching on their part. See the prior discussion, including quotes from Bishop Lori’s blog, at our October 4th post entitled “Update on Connecticut Law,” which may be directly accessed at

    As for the bishops’ role in the Roe v. Wade decision, perhaps there’s something to be said for that, as the Church in this country in the late 60s and early 70s was going through significant internal turmoil and wasn’t the moral voice it might have been under different circumstances. Still, Roe v. Wade was brought about primarily by a handful of federal judges (including “Catholic” Justice William Brennan), not “the bishops.”

    Today, if the five Catholic justices voted in a manner consistent with the Catholic faith they profess, then they have the votes to overturn Roe v. Wade tomorrow.

    Heroic, saintly bishops can indeed to difference-makers in the cultural issues we face today. But so can saintly lay people. One day we will be judged. Our Lord will not ask us about what our bishop did or didn’t do, but He will want to know what we personally did or didn’t do to spread the Gospel with the gifts we have been given.

  8. Imagine you are a bishop. You’ve been proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ for thirty or forty years.
    In your diocese you are confronted with the culture of death mandating that Catholic hospitals offer Plan B, or the Catholic university is sponsoring the V Dialogs, or a law that even the Catholic charities must provide insurance coverage for contraception and sterilization, or even Catholic agencies must offer adoption to same-sex couples.
    What a God-sent opportunity to preach, teach, and sanctify the culture for Jesus! Defy the culture of death. Forbid the promulgation of lies as truth.

    Be willing to:
    Go to jail
    Close the doors of the hospitals and charities
    Direct dissident scoools from using the term “Catholic” in their name and identity.

    I am mystified why any bishop would see it any other way.

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