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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Join the College of Athanasius

I know a director of religious education (DRE), in a reputedly orthodox diocese, who taught adults movingly and repeatedly about the problems with contraception. In fact, parishioners were actually acknowledging and repenting of the sin. With the arrival of a new pastor, that all stopped. The new pastor, reputed to be a man of deep prayer, didn’t want to deal with the angry phone calls from wealthy, unconverted parishioners. The DRE was ordered to be silent on the issue. Three silent months later, the DRE was fired.

I know of a priest who had a problem. One of the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist (EME) in his parish worked as a counselor for Planned Parenthood. When he found out, the priest removed the person from ministry. That didn’t last long. The individual who had been dismissed appealed to the bishop. The bishop ordered the priest to rescind the decision. The priest did not want to be crucified by his bishop. The EME was re-instated.

I know of an extremely well-known and orthodox Catholic author and speaker who was asked at the podium why certain public heretics, who pretended to be Catholic but publicly supported abortion, were not formally excommunicated. The speaker replied that excommunication was not the answer. The existence of these public officials was really the fault of the lay faithful who voted the heretics into public office. When a follow-up question asked why the bishops put a supporter of partial-birth abortion on its national lay review board, the startled speaker simply said, “I can’t explain that, I don’t know.” The questioner pointed out that badly informed Catholics could use the American bishops’ action to justify their own vote for heretical politicians. The speaker began repeating over and over, “I can’t explain that, I don’t know.” The question-and-answer period was immediately closed.

Many years ago, when a certain English king declared himself head of the Church in England, all the Catholic bishops and public officials agreed that he was. All but one bishop and one public official. St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More were murdered for not agreeing, and hundreds of lay people followed them to the scaffolds. None of the Catholic bishops or public officials did. The Catholic Church was stripped from England like living flesh stripped from the bone.

In America, in the year 2003, Henry VIII should call his office. Opportunities abound here for men of his energy and vision. Opportunities for his kind abound for a simple reason: we are cowards.

I include myself in this. A decade ago, when I was freshly energized in the faith, I saw a teenage boy, no more than sixteen, looking through the condom section at the pharmacy with his girlfriend. He picked a package up and purchased it. I watched. I said nothing.

A few months later, I saw a couple of young adults from the local university walking hand-in-hand to the Planned Parenthood clinic a block away. I knew where they were going. I let them walk by me. I watched. I said nothing.

I am a coward. The priests described above are cowards. The bishops described above are cowards.

We are cowards. Spineless, craven, lily-livered, yellow cowards, too afraid of our own shadow and public perceptions to accept the crucifixion we are consecrated to live out. When I read of Christ’s betrayal, I don’t have to wonder what Judas was thinking. I look in the mirror, I look at most of our bishops and priests, and I see Judas rationalizing it all away. I have a lot of empathy for Judas when I am playing his part. I am disgusted beyond measure when I see my priests and bishops play the part.

Peter and Judas both betrayed Christ. Scripture explicitly says Judas repented (Matt 27:3), but of Peter, Scripture says only that he wept bitterly (Luke 22:62). We do neither.

The American priests and bishops who do not fight for the Faith have a name for their course of action. It is “collegiality.” They argue that public unity is of the utmost importance, one bishop should not shame another bishop by acting in a way that implies laxity on the part of the other bishop.

This argument would be a remarkable discovery to most of the saints. Take Saint Athanasius, for instance. During the Arian heresy, there were only two bishops in all of Christendom who were not heretics: Athanasius and the Pope. The Arians said Christ was not really God. Athanasius disagreed.


In fact, the man was a public embarrassment. The emperor found him most troublesome. So did all the heretics who occupied various Catholic bishoprics. At their urging, he exiled Athanasius. The people demanded their beloved truth-teller back. The emperor relented. Athanasius came back. He took up where he left off. The emperor exiled him again. The cycle repeated. In fact, the cycle repeated and repeated and repeated. Three different emperors exiled Athanasius a total of five different times, all because the man refused to SHUT UP.

Funny thing, that. The emperors didn’t realize Athanasius was just being collegial.

You see, collegiality means unity, and it is only possible to have unity in the truth. Athanasius was speaking the truth. Thus, although virtually every bishop and every public official unanimously agreed that Athanasius should shut the heaven up, all of these bishops were breaking Catholic collegiality. It was Athanasius, the Truth-Teller, who was being collegial. Why does this situation resonate so strongly today?

You could look at Athanasius alone against the world and get the mistaken impression that he was alone in the college of bishops. He wasn’t. He had in company with him all the bishops who had ever or would ever keep Faith. Remember, the Catholic Church and Chicago have one thing in common: the dead always get a vote. Athanasius had a voting majority according to the rules of the Church. With the democracy of the dead on his side, he swept the election.

Remember Athanasius. Compare his condition to ours. Ours is not the first or the worst the Church has seen. It is not even the first set of heresies that the United States bishops have indulged in.

Remember the recent column on slavery? Remember how the Church railed against slavery throughout her long life? The Church taught against it, but some individual Catholics didn’t. Among the many individual Catholics in Church history, both lay and consecrated, priest and bishop, who personally failed to proclaim the Church’s eternal teaching, among these men who owned slaves or defended slavery, stands a large number of American bishops. The bishops of the United States, in the years prior to the American Civil War, taught nearly continuous error on the issue of slavery. With a few exceptions, they kept insisting that only trade in slaves was un-Christian, that owning them was perfectly acceptable. The American bishops were, on this point, material heretics. As the vehement anti-Catholic, Abraham Lincoln, pointed out, America would pay for every drop of blood spilled because of that most pernicious heresy. We did.

The Spirit blows where He will. Anti-Catholics frequently demonstrate this simply by being publicly right on some issue that the local Catholic community studiously ignores. Here’s another example. Anti-Catholics often get upset with the fact that Catholics call priests “Father”. Now, we have good Scriptural reason to do this, and if this were another column, we might demonstrate those reasons in compelling detail, but let’s leave that for another day. Today, let’s just focus on the word “father” and all that the word implies.

My brother-in-law, a good Catholic father with eight children (seven outside, one inside), recently made a penetrating observation. Every day, every one of his children cry. Every child cries every day until the age of at least seven or eight. Every child. Every day.

Tears, weeping, moaning, gnashing of teeth (whoever has children that do not grind their teeth in the night is blessed beyond measure), the piteous wailing against the rank injustices perpetrated by parents upon innocent waifs who DON’T want to eat their vegetables, who DON’T want to share, who DON’T want to go to bed now, and who MUST have that cookie lest death overtake them and they die un-indulged: these cries permeate the life of a father, the life of a mother, the life of a parent. Every child cries every day. If there are no tears, the father isn’t doing his job.

But, our father stops teaching the truth because he doesn’t want to listen to the angry, wailing phone calls. Our father reinstates the material heretic because his father, the bishop, throws a tantrum. We children, the laity, are reduced to chastising each other because we follow our fathers’ example, the example of bishops who lament Leon Panetta’s public politics while simultaneously honoring him with the authority to officially review their actions.

We should chastise each other for following the example of bishops like this, of “fathers” like this. Sometimes, our priests, our bishops are heretics. And sometimes, they are cowards.

I am the occasional father to three. I am not always a father. Why not? Because you can’t be a father and be a coward. As long as fathers are cowards, children are orphans. And, God forgive me, I am too often a coward.

St. Athanasius, pray for us fathers.

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