In the past couple of weeks, I've seen some of the bishops (sometimes even the Pope) attacked on the internet—some by blogs, some by commentators in Facebook or on the blogs themselves. It's not a matter of "I disagree with the bishop's tactics." It's more of a case of "Anyone who does not enforce Catholic teaching the way I think it ought to be enforced is a secret heretic modernist." That's a view that frustrates me because the bishops being attacked are not lax bishops turning a blind eye to real problems. The bishops being attacked are the ones leading the fight to defend the faith.
As I see it, there are certain problems with the assumptions of these people who are attacking the bishops. They seem to assume:
- That they have correctly understood what the bishop in question intended by his statement.
- That their view on what should be done is actually compatible with the Catholic teaching.
- That their preferred response is the only response a bishop can choose to use.
The problem is, if the person is wrong on #1, he or she is wrongly judging the words or actions of the bishop in question. If the person is wrong on #2, he or she cannot be considered a legitimate judge on what is authentically Catholic. If the person is wrong on #3, he or she is basically quibbling over ways and means when there is more than one possible solution to a problem. Let's look at each of these.
Does the Person Objecting Correctly Understand What Was Said/Done?
Personally I think this is the case where many Catholics run into trouble. With a Church where the members speak many different languages and come from many different situations, it is easy to apply a meaning which was never intended by the speaker based on one's personal experiences. Words can be ambiguous and there is no way that even the most precise individual can express himself without someone misunderstanding. And that's not considering the possibility that a mainstream media source hasn't misinterpreted the speaker or deliberately twisted words to support one's own position or demonize an opponent. Add in the possibility that a person is a less than precise in his speech and there is a large chance that, when the words spoken by a bishop or the Pope sounds funny, the cause is really a misunderstanding on the part of the reader or the listener.
Some might say, "Well he has the obligation to be clear." True. But we also have the obligation to understand what the speaker intended before judging him. Sometimes the bishop in question might think he's being clearer than he is. I've certainly been in situations where I've been misinterpreted because I thought I was clearly expressing myself, but was using a bit of jargon or ambiguity that could be interpreted with a meaning I did not intend.
Does the Person Objecting Accurately Understand What the Faith Requires?
Sometimes individual Catholics do misunderstand what the Church teaches. Some err by thinking the Church mandates or forbids something she does not. Others think that a teaching is merely optional and can be ignored. When this turns out to be the case, it is the individual Catholic that is in the wrong—not the bishop he or she feels offended by.
This isn't a fault exclusive to one side of the political spectrum. I've seen the fuzzy thinking Catholic who is upset when the bishop insists that people in his diocese follow Church teaching. I've also seen the vindictive Catholic who expects a harsh response—like excommunicating people where excommunication is not considered an appropriate penalty.
I think that political ideology can sometimes interfere. Some people judge the Church by their political preferences . . . if the Church goes against the political preference, it is considered in error. But the fact is, politics must be governed by the teaching of the Church. When the political party supports something incompatible with Catholic teaching, it is the political party which is in error.
Are There More Options than the Person Objecting Realizes?
Sometimes neither the offended Catholic nor the bishop is acting against Church teaching. Instead, they have different views on how to handle an issue—both of which might be options depending on the circumstances. In such a case, objecting to the bishop's tactics are more a case of quibbling over what way is better. To accuse the bishop of being "weak" in such a case lacks charity, and fails to recognize that the responsibility falls with the bishop to act as the successor of the Apostles. We might not sin in thinking another way might be more effective, but if our response to the bishop is disrespectful, that's basically a tantrum: "No! I don't wanna be merciful to those dissenters! I want them booted out you big dummy!"
(Speaking personally, when the early days of this blog were anti-USCCB, this was the error I fell into).
What Has to Be Asked
Basically, to avoid these three areas of needless conflict with the bishop, each Catholic has to ask him or herself the following:
- Do I properly understand what the speaker intends to say? Or is there a possibility that I have misinterpreted what was said?
- Do I fully understand the Catholic teaching on the subject? Or am I getting my information from a source which is in dispute with the Magisterium?
- Do I fully understand the range of acceptable responses that the bishop has? Is it possible that he is not abusing his authority by being more lenient than I would like?
Unless we can answer these questions, we cannot accurately judge the situation as being against the teaching of the Church.
OK, But What If I have Done All That and Still Think the Bishop is in the Wrong?
Well, if it is established beyond any doubt that an individual bishop is teaching error, then fraternal correction may be required. But the point to remember here is, we are not acting in the position of a superior correcting an inferior guilty of wrongdoing. We simply don't have that authority. This is where we need to remember St. Thomas Aquinas, when he wrote on this topic in the Summa Theologica:
Now an act which proceeds from a habit or power extends to whatever is contained under the object of that power or habit: thus vision extends to all things comprised in the object of sight. Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 5:1): "An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father." Wherefore Dionysius finds fault with the monk Demophilus (Ep. viii), for rebuking a priest with insolence, by striking and turning him out of the church. (II-IIa Q. 33 A.4)
That gentleness and respect called for is something I don't see on the internet. I see people calling a bishop an idiot, incompetent and/or a heretic whenever he acts in a way the individual doesn't like his stand . . . which is wrong even if the bishop is in error.
But the problem is, more often than not, the fault is in the perception of the person who objects. That's what frustrates me the most. When I read a blog article from a Catholic bashing Cardinal Dolan because his feeling bound by the Congregation of Saints, the wishes of Fulton J. Sheen and his surviving family is seen as bad will; when I read an article where Catholic commentators bash a bishop who says Ted Cruz ought not to have brought up a partisan support for Israel to a group which has members that haven't fared well with that nation . . . I see people who are failing in regards to one or more of these three principles.
Maybe that's why I feel compelled to repeat the Catechism of the Catholic Church so frequently on the subject of Rash Judgment:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
I think this is what my frustration boils down to: Where is the attempt at the favorable interpretation? Where is the asking how the bishop understands his words? Where is the correction with love? Yes, some things are wrong and when someone teaches it is OK to violate Church teaching, that is one of them. But is there any attempt made any more on deciding if the bishop is guilty before condemning him?
Lately, the answer increasingly seems to be, "Not very often."