|The before-and-after photos used by Rorate Caeli.
After the Soviet Union had Nikolai Yezhov executed,
his image was carefully purged from official photographs.
A few weeks ago, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote a blog post on his blog (which is on the Archdiocese of Washington’s website). It quickly disappeared, leading the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli to decry “the Catholic Samizdat.” If you don’t get the reference, they were comparing the Archdiocese’s decisions about what goes on its own blog to totalitarian Soviet censorship. To drive the point home, they ran these before-and-after photos, showing how the Soviet Union removed Nikolai Yezhov from official photos after they executed him. That analogy’s not just hyperbolic, it’s unhinged.
Using Msgr. Pope as a pawn to slur the bishops is particularly ironic, given Pope’s own views on the matter, and his “concerns about disunity in the Church”:
In particular my concerns center around the dismissive attitudes many have developed toward the bishops. While this attitude was once the domain, largely, of dissenters on the theological left, it has now become quite a common attitude among many theological and ecclesial conservatives as well.I am well aware of the (often legitimate) frustrations by some Catholics that the Bishops, either individually or collectively have not always shepherded in a clearer way; a way that both disciplined dissenters and corrected liturgical abuses and also encouraged those who tried to remain faithful. I get that. These have been difficult decades for the Church and for our culture.But frustrations should not be permitted to draw us, even subtly, toward a posture that practically speaking severs our union with the bishops. Some of the comments that routinely come in to the blog here are quite shocking in their sweeping dismissal of the bishops, even the Pope. Some of them are so strong that I cannot post them. What makes them particularly shocking is that, these days, most of the comments of this sort come from those who would define themselves as conservative Catholics. That reflects somewhat the readership of this blog (i.e. more conservative), but it is shocking to hear conservative Catholics use the language that I had always associated with dissenters back in the 1970s and 80s.
Msgr. Pope wrote that back in 2012, during Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. Things have only gotten worse since then. Offhand, I can point to specific instances in which I’ve read or heard Catholics (and again, apparently orthodox Catholics) refer to the bishops as “useful idiots” of the Obama Administration for their long-standing support of universal health (it’s another Stalin reference, but at least the bishops aren’t Stalin this time?); derisively refer to Cardinals by first name (e.g., mockingly referring to Cardinal Dolan as “Timmy”); and openly advocate that we just ignore Pope Francis (who gets derisively referred to as “Jorge”).
This problem is particularly acute on the Internet, where people are more prone to being both outraged and rude. The Internet Counter-Magisterium spends an incredible amount of time seeking out things by which to be scandalized and outraged (often, after only hearing one half of the story). But by no means is this just an online problem, nor is it just Traditional Catholics, nor am I myself innocent in this regard.
To put the matter bluntly, Catholics of all stripes have taken to being downright venomous towards the Magisterium when they don’t like the bishops’ position on an issue, even a prudential one. My concern is that this is becoming the norm: people speak about their spiritual fathers, the successors of the Apostles, like they would speak about politicians with which they disagreed. And while the acidic tone of politics is lamentable, it’s many times more lamentable when it’s brought into the Church.
Make no mistake: this is a moral issue.
Your opinions about (for example) Cardinal Dolan’s participation in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, or about what office Cardinal Burke should hold, and the like, make no difference [unless you happen to be Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Burke, or Pope Francis… in which case, welcome to the blog!]. What does matter, and what you’ll be accountable for at the Final Judgment, is how you voice those opinions. So let’s recall the major moral principles at play here.
|St. James the Just, traditionally believed to be the author
of the Epistle of James
James 3:1-10 has a lot to say about the sins of the tongue:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.
So if you go about rudely opining about how the bishops ought to do things, and how the Church ought to be run, you’re setting yourself up for harsh judgment for two reasons. First, because you’re making yourself out to be some sort of Christian teacher, despite having not been called to such a position by the Church. You’re asking to be judged more strictly.
But more importantly, you’re unleashing some of that hellfire that James warns against. His analogies are great: the small rudder guides the giant ship, and the small bit in the mouth can be used to guide a huge horse. So the devil can lead us astray by unholy speech, like cursing “men, who are made in the likeness of God.”
Jesus Christ has an even more stark warning to us in Matthew 12:36-37, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” What else is there to say? The way that you talk trash, even if you’re just carelessly blowing off steam, could well lead to your eternal damnation. So says the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
|Guernico, Saul Attacking David (1646)|
Everything in the last point applies generally to how we speak about our neighbors, but this is particularly acute when we’re talking about the pope or the bishops. That’s because, as Exodus 22:28 says, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.”
The Old and New Testament are filled with examples illustrating this teaching. We see several in the First Book of Samuel, while King Saul is trying to hunt down and kill David. Without a doubt, David and his men are the ones who are morally in the right. Yet David still orders his men to show restraint, because God anointed Saul as King over the nation of Israel (1 Sam. 9:15-17).
For example, King Saul unwittingly wandered into the cave in which David and his men were hiding, yet David refused to kill him, reasoning: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:6). On a separate occasion, when they find Saul sleeping, David forbids his men from killing him in these words: “Do not destroy him; for who can put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Sam. 26:9).
In speaking with or about King Saul, David is unceasingly respectful, even as Saul tries to have him killed. The second time around, David goes so far as to chastise Abner, Saul’s commander, for failing to protect his king (1 Sam. 26:15-16):
Are you not a man? Who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king? For one of the people came in to destroy the king your lord. This thing that you have done is not good. As the Lord lives, you deserve to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, the Lord’s anointed.
Eventually, Saul is wounded in battle against the Philistines, and decides to take his own life (1 Sam. 31:3-4). He falls on his sword, but doesn’t die right away, and convinces one of his soldiers to finish the job (2 Sam. 1:9-10). When that soldier recounted this afterwards, David asks, “How is it you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” and has the man killed (2 Sam. 1:14-16).
|Edouard Moyse, The Grand Sanhedrin (1868)|
What David is illustrating is the need for respect for the office, even if the man occupying the office isn’t living a holy life. It’s this principle that makes the Reformation unthinkable, no matter how rotten or wicked some members of the clergy were at the time. And we find this principle in the New Testament as well as the Old. Yesterday, I mentioned Matthew 23:1-3, but it’s worth recalling:
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
That’s respect for the office. And even though Christ, who was above the Pharisees, condemned them as “whitewashed tombs” in Matthew 23:27, we shouldn’t forget what happened in Acts 23:1-5,
And Paul, looking intently at the council, said, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Anani′as commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
So Paul, upon learning that the man he insulted was the high priest, takes back his harsh words — not because they were false, but because he was out of place speaking evil of the high priest in that way. If such a debt of honor is owed to the Jewish high priest, how much more to a Catholic bishop or the Vicar of Christ himself?
Beyond the Old and New Testament, we can find a bottomless well of illustrations of this principle with the Saints. Sometimes, this takes the form of their express teachings: witness, for example, St. Ignatius of Antioch or Pope Clement calling the people to greater respect and obedience of their bishops. But more often, we find this principle illustrated in the Saints’ very lives. Consider how Padre Pio was forbidden by the Holy See from publicly saying Mass or hearing confessions when they suspected (wrongly) that he faked his stigmata, or how both St. Joan of Arc and St. Mary MacKillop were invalidly excommunicated by their bishops. Indeed, not infrequently does Our Lord call the Saints to greater holiness by letting them be scourged by their own superiors. Yet how often did these Saints turn to invective, name-calling, and publicly smearing their superiors?
In other words, it’s not enough that you’re convinced that you’re right, and the bishop is wrong. Even if you are right, you don’t have permission to treat the bishops disdainfully, and more than your children have the right to treat you disrespectfully anytime you sin or make a mistake.
Given everything that I’ve said above, I should mention what I’m not saying. I’m not suggesting that we’re never able to criticize the bishops, or that we have to agree with everything that they say or do. Not so: David treated King Saul with respect, but he didn’t turn himself in to be unjustly killed; St. Paul treated the Jewish high priest with respect, but still defended Christianity against him. That’s an instructive model for us to follow today. I’d cite as a positive example the recent article by Edward Peters, which manages to decisively answer all of Bishop Tobin’s arguments for permitting adulterers to receive Communion, while being unceasingly respectful.
What I’m describing here is a tall order, and it’s counter-cultural. We live in a rude age in which people tear each other apart over religious and (especially) political differences. To comment on religious and political affairs in such a culture without sinning is not easy. But what I’m describing is the clear teaching of Scripture and the Church (it may be helpful to recall the Catechism’s definitions of rash judgment, detraction, and calumny), and the witness of the lives of the Saints.
After all, whoever said that sanctity was easy? Besides that, we have an alternative. If you hear something troubling, something over which you have no control, pray for those involved. Pray especially for the pope and the bishops, because they will be held to a higher standard than the rest of us (James 3:1; Hebrews 13:17). The vast majority of the time, such heartfelt prayers will accomplish a world of good more than will badmouthing those involved.