It has now been more than half a year since the revelations of the “Summer of Shame” came to light, and since that time two things have become abundantly clear. One, the dysfunction in the Church that we thought had been dealt with back in 2002 when the Boston Globe first revealed decades of clerical abuse was really only scratching the surface. And two, the lack of will to follow through on dealing with that dysfunction by following it to its root causes has highlighted the fact that there is a large and ever-increasing gap between the laity and the Church hierarchy.
The Clergy Versus the Laity
This was recently on display on when the students from the Convington Catholic high school were not only castigated by Catholic leaders around the country but by their own bishop, Roger Foys—before he backtracked and apologized. Or when Cardinal Dolan, who perennially seems to have a hard time with the whole shepherding thing, both condemned New York's new abortion legislation while at the same time dithered about whether Cuomo's publicly celebrating the law was the last straw which warranted his excommunication. When the unwillingness of certain bishops to commit to their role as both father to other priests and shepherd to the faithful becomes an issue of public scandal, it does not seem unfair to want to ask these men whether they really believe they are on the right side of the Tiber.
Moreover, when you have priests like James Martin or archbishops like Bernard Hebda in the Saint Paul/Minneapolis archdiocese who has always taken a soft stance on a local parish that was recently in the news when a “gay couple came up to the pulpit before Mass and gave a seven-minute speech about their decision to baptize the boy they are raising who was conceived by in vitro fertilization”, it might be more accurate to ask whether they are on the right side of the Jordan—or whether they have gone “native” and are “whoring” after the strange gods of “the nations.”
Interestingly enough, this divide mirrors the same divisions that existed in the voting patterns of the 2016 presidential election. Just as we saw that there was an ideological and cultural divide between coastal elites and a few progressive enclaves and the amber waves of middle America (a.k.a. deplorable country), there currently exists in America what Fr. Dwight Longenecker calls “Two Catholic Churches.” On one side is what he calls the “American Liberal Catholic Elite” who are essentially “the establishment” that “run things pretty much like a corporation or government bureaucracy”, and opt for a “politically correct, essentially humanistic and rationalistic agenda using the usual mass media channels where they have friends and allies. Their religion is the acceptable moralistic, therapeutic Deism.”
On the other side is the “grass roots” Catholicism that is “lean, energetic and entrepreneurial” that has its own “publishing houses, papers, website and journals...seeking to renew the culture and engage in the public square in a positive and creative way. This is the Catholic Church of March for Life, EWTN and self-organized Eucharistic conferences, Marian retreats and personal pilgrimages.” According to Fr. Longenecker, these two churches rarely meet.
Clerical Snobbery and Options Left to the Faithful
This is evident in the fact that we have priests and bishops who (spiritually speaking) spend most of their time in the Ben-Hinnom section of town (where else are you gonna “encounter” people?). And who have in their pockets receipts from fancy restaurants with names such as “Topheth Table” (good place to open up a “dialogue”) and perhaps, in some cases, little pinch-sized packets of “Caesars' Own” brand of lavender-scented incense (which, of course, are only there to aid in “accompanying” people). All the while those same “establishment” clerics will occasionally condescend to speak to the rest of us when we get too noisy, question their motives, or challenge their knowledge of Church teachings. Then, like the servant girl in Caiaphas's courtyard was able to identify Peter by his accent, they too will point to us when we use words like “mortal sin”, “repentance”, or “holiness” and say, “Oh you're one of them. You're a Deplora-rean!”
Is there a way out of this predicament? There is, but first we must look to the past, for if there is one thing where the Church excels, it's that it has a long memory, so there is not a problem that the Church has not handled before in some way or another. And in regards to the clericalism present in the Church today, St. Gregory the Great, who became Pope in 590 A.D., had much to say on the subject.
In a famous homily he gave to pastors, he laments that, “we are bishops in name, and have the title but not the virtue that befits that dignity. For the people committed to our care abandon God, and we are silent. They live in sin, and we do not stretch out a hand to correct them. Every day they are being lost on account of the multitude of their sins; while they go down to hell we look on with negligence.”
He attributes this to paying too much attention to “worldly cares” by which “our mind becomes callous to heavenly desires, and hardened by the business of the world, it cannot be softened to take an interest in what relates to the love of God.”
His prescription is the same things that has been handed down to us today, “Let us every day take thought about the forgiveness of our sins... Let us unceasingly keep in mind what we are, and weigh well our office and the burden we have undertaken. Let us daily examine how stand our accounts with our Judge...Let us exhort the holy to advance in holiness, and the wicked to correct his vices, so that every man who comes in contact with the priest may go away seasoned with the salt of his discourse.”
It is that kind of mindfulness (no, not the New Age “mindfulness” that today’s hip companies have adopted) that we must demand and exhort from our priests and bishops, and we must never cease reminding them of that fact nor praying for them as well. More to the point, we must live out Gregory's admonitions ourselves, because if these wayward bishops continue in their pastoral negligence and refuse to lead by example, then we must be willing to do so. At least for the sake of setting a good example for the rest of the faithful, and for the time being, it seems that this will have to suffice.