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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Wedge

George Weigel is now insisting that Obama's speech is intended to separate Catholics from their bishops, driving a wedge between them. Weigel's concept is so popular, it has even hit the secular blogs. There's only one problem.

George Weigel is wrong.

Obama is not driving a wedge between Catholics and their bishops, rather, he's taking advantage of a pre-existing wedge between Catholics and their bishops, a wedge the bishops themselves created. Much as it pains me to agree with anyone from America magazine, Fr. Reese hit the nail on the head: no one is listening to the Catholic bishops, and they haven't been listening for a very long time.

But, Reese is also wrong - the bishops didn't lose their credibility during the sex abuse crisis. They lost it long before that crisis began. Indeed, part of the reason the bishops covered over the sex abuse crisis is precisely because most Catholics paid no attention to them as it was, and they couldn't afford to look like even greater idiots than they already had done.

As Joseph Bottum pointed out in his First Things article last week, the bishops stopped leading over 40 years ago. Today, as in the time of the Arian heresy, the faithful lead and the bishops follow as best they can. I go into much greater detail (if only because I have more space to explain it), in my book Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America, but here's the thumbnail of the problem: when chemical contraception became possible, the American bishops became docile. They agreed to Lyndon Baines Johnson's suggestion that they shut the hell up on contraception in exchange for him conducting a war on poverty. So, while they were allowed to be in opposition to abortion, they would not speak a public word against the root cause of abortion, contraception. As I pointed out in 2004, they have kept that promise for over forty years, and still adhere to it today.

In fact, they liked LBJ's deal so much, many of them are still in the political tank. Out of over 200 bishops in the United States, less than 80 publicly made statements that were clearly in opposition to Obama's election. A different group of less than 80 bishops publicly made statements that were clearly in opposition to his speaking at Notre Dame. As points out, at least one bishop publicly came out in favor of Obama's Notre Dame speech.

Weigel could just as easily have argued that Obama is trying to drive a wedge between two groups of Catholic bishops, and he would have been just as right (or, in this case, just as wrong).

In fact, there is already a divide in this country, and it is due precisely to the American bishops themselves. The American Catholic bishops caved back in 1968. They stopped teaching the Faith in order to satisfy American politicians. When they stopped teaching Catholic doctrine in exchange for political favors, Catholics stopped listening to them.

Today, nobody really cares what America's Catholic bishops think. After all, how many Catholics in your parish have read any doctrinal encyclical from their own bishop within the last five years, apart from perhaps an instruction on how to avoid the swine flu? How many even know that their bishops produce doctrinal encyclicals?

And of those few faithful who have read those encyclicals, the writing generally hasn't improved their view of the bishops. What orthodox Catholic was not entirely ashamed of the USCCB's Always Our Children instruction on how to affirm homosexual identity? What of the frankly diosbedient attitude displayed in their instructions concerning Holy Thursday's liturgy? Or the most recent embarrassment, their attempt to instruct married couples in how to put spice back into their marriage? I literally know only a half-dozen people who have even visited the USCCB-sponsored website on marriage. Of those who have, everyone has been embarrassed by the juvenile attitude of some aspect of it.

The "Obama at Notre Dame" event will not drive a wedge between Catholics and their bishops, because the separations are already there, but it does highlight the problem bishops have in communicating with their flock. For instance, at least one Catholic friend of mine is of the opinion that some of the bishops who spoke against Obama at Notre Dame weren't really opposed, they were just jumping on the bandwagon because (a) they knew it would make no difference anyway - Obama and Jenkins would do what they wanted, and (b) it made them look good to the orthodox crowd in the diocese, the only ones who actually feel an obligation to pay any attention to the bishop. A bishop using this cynical ploy could then continue to allow abuses of the liturgy or silence on points of Catholic doctrine, while gaining points for orthodoxy in reference to Barack Obama's murderous attitude and legacy.

Is this really what is happening in certain dioceses?
I don't know.
But I will bet my whole bank account that if it is, you'll never hear George Weigel say it.

Update: A reader pointed out a very salient fact -
"I think the bishops' failure to teach goes a little further back that 1968. Try 1945. On March 10th of that year the 20th US Army Airforce attacked Tokyo with three hundred B-29's. The incendiaries they dropped started a fire storm that killed 100,000 people in six hours, the greatest loss of life in that time span in all of recorded history. Owing to the fact that all men of anything like military age were away, the victims were mostly women, children and the aged. The general who ordered the attack, Curtis E. Lemay admitted later that if Japan had won the war he would have been tried and executed as a war criminal. His candor was not reflected by a single American bishop. Granted, many historical elements contributed to this silence. Still, it's nothing to brag about."

I agree with the addendum. As I point out in the book, Catholic bishops in this country have had a long history of political collusion with the American (as opposed to the Catholic) concepts of various aspects of life, including ideas on how to handle:
  • slavery (American bishops were silent while the Vatican opposed it),
  • just war (see above),
  • voting issues (American bishops emphasized individual conscience instead of informing yourself on Catholic teaching),
  • contraception and abortion (see above and the book).


Anonymous said...

Right on Steve, this is how the Bishops can keep hiding. It happens in my diocese of Rochester, NY.
Kariann Lemark

Jordanes said...

On slavery, not only were the U.S. bishops silent, but I think one or two even tried to spin arguments undercutting the papal magisterium, sounding much the way our modern NCR-Call-to-Action McBrien/Kung/Reese types sound when talking about contraception, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, embryonic stem cell research, etc.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I read this sort of thing it reminds me that when Henry attacked the Church only one bishop opposed him, Henry Fisher and he paid for it with his head. The rest went along with Henry and we got the Anglican church and the all the nonsense that came with it, including the terrible persercutions and theft. It's taken 500 years but look at that pitiful institution now. Look also at the C church there now and the demographic invasion of Islam. Moral failure has practical consequences.

Fr Joseph Mack said...

To anonymous #1-that was St John Fisher, bishop of Rochester- and I think that's more than an apt description of what we face today - it's as if we're replaying the events of Tudor England under Henry VIII and successors here in the 21st century in the good ole U.S. of A.

PQHorn said...

Until bishops come down from their concrete towers and take a real look at the world, we will continue as usual. The laity stands at the foot of these towers throwing rotten tomatoes and looking up as the mess falls back in their face.

After hearing Dr. Peter Kreeft talk this past Saturday, I am convinced that morality and religion are what make cultures and societies thrive. But, with bishops in rudderless boats and a priesthood that is hogtied, we, the laity, must storm the gates of heaven with prayer for them all. In the alternative, we can sit back, watch and gasp as the rubble of our society collects at our feet while the doctrine of relativity tightens its stranglehold on our faith, our nation and our lives.

Is it any wonder that soul hungry Catholics run to the open arms of protestant churches only to find a different problem? The pastors so eager to retain their tax exempt status are listening to change agents who are twisting Romans 13. These pastors are ready to turn the whole congregation over to the change agents, while they desperately cling to their tax exempt status. Saints preserve us all.

Patrick said...

Our bishops are a complete failure, as we can see by average Catholics seeing no problem for voting for a pro-baby killing President and the general Catholic population using artificial birth control. I believe there are "enemy in the camp" agendas from many forces in the Catholic Church that started in earnest during Vatican II and see the confusion of the church members in an ever-changing world as the perfect opportunity for "reform". It's only been getting worse since then, especially with bishops themselves appearing to the outside world as to be divided on the issues.

However, the WWII situation with Tokyo isn't straightforward as many of those "children and aged" were given orders that if there were ever an invasion, every last man, woman and child would be required to defend the homeland. Military training was taking place in the equivalent to grade schools and retirement homes. Civilian households were being given weapons (though usually incredibly low-grade or seldom functioning). It's similar to some of our current military dilemmas in third world countries where the term "soldier" is seldom used when referring to battle situations anymore, as a woman with bombs strapped to her body can do more damage than most trained soldiers.