On Criticizing the Clergy

 

WE are living in super-charged times. The ability to exchange thoughts and ideas, to differ and debate, is nearly a bygone era. [1]see Surviving Our Toxic Culture and Going to Extremes It’s part of the Great Storm and Diabolical Disorientation that is sweeping over the world like an intensifying hurricane. The Church is no exception as anger and frustration against the clergy continues to mount. Healthy discourse and debate have their place. But all too often, especially on social media, it is anything but healthy. 

 

TALK THE WALK 

If we must Walk With the Churchthen we ought to be careful, too, how we talk about the Church. The world is watching, plain and simple. They read our comments; they note our tone; they watch to see if we are Christians in name only. They wait to see if we will forgive or if we will judge; if we are merciful or if we are wrathful. In other words, to see if we are like Jesus.

It’s often not what we say, but how we say it. But what we say counts too. 

By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:5-6)

In the face of the sexual scandals that have surfaced in the Church, the inaction or coverups by some bishops, and the various controversies surrounding the papacy of Pope Francis, the temptation is to take to social media, or in discussion with others, and use the opportunity to “vent.” But should we?

 

CORRECTING ANOTHER

The “correction” of a brother or sister in Christ is not only moral but considered one of the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. St. Paul wrote:

Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)

But there are, of course, all kinds of caveats to that. For one:

Judge not, that you be not judged… Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matt 7:1-5)

A “rule of thumb,” born from the wisdom of the saints, is to consider one’s own faults first before dwelling on those of others. In the presence of one’s own truth, wrath has a funny way of sputtering out. Sometimes, especially regarding another’s personal faults and weaknesses, it is better to simply “cover their nakedness,”[2]cf. Striking God’s Anointed One or as St. Paul said, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” [3]Galatians 6:2

Correcting someone else has to be done in such a way that it respects the dignity and reputation of that person. When it is a serious sin causing scandal, Jesus gave instructions in Matt 18:15-18 on how to deal with it. Even then, the “correction” begins in private, face to face. 

 

CLERICAL CORRECTION

What about correcting priests, bishops, or even the pope?

They are, foremost, our brothers in Christ. All the rules above apply insofar as charity and proper protocol are maintained. Remember, the Church is not a secular organization; it is the family of God, and we ought to treat each other as such. As Cardinal Sarah said:

We must help the Pope. We must stand with him just as we would stand with our own father. —Cardinal Sarah, May 16th, 2016, Letters from the Journal of Robert Moynihan

Consider this: if your own father or your parish priest made an error in judgment or taught something incorrectly, would you go onto Facebook in front of all your “friends”, which might include fellow parishioners and people in your community, and call him all kinds of names? Probably not, because you have to face him that Sunday, and that would be pretty uncomfortable. And yet, this is precisely what people are doing online with the present shepherds of our Church today. Why?  Because it’s easy to cast stones at people you’ll never meet. It’s not only cowardice, but it’s also sinful if the criticisms are unjust or uncharitable. How do know if that’s the case?

 

THE GUIDELINES 

These imperatives from the Catechism ought to guide our speech when it comes to the clergy or anyone whom we are tempted to disparage online or through gossip:

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.

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. 

Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n 2477-2478

 

ALTER CHRISTUS

There is something even more delicate here regarding our clergy. They are not mere adminstrators (though some may indeed act so). Theologically speaking, their ordination makes then an alter Christus—”another Christ”—and during the Mass, they are there “in the person of Christ the head.”

From [Christ], bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty (“the sacred power”) to act in persona Christi Capitis.Catechism of the Catholic Church, n 875

As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2: 5-11). The priest is a servant of Christ, in the sense that his existence, configured to Christ ontologically, acquires an essentially relational character: he is in Christ, for Christ and with Christ, at the service of humankind. —POPE BENEDICT XVI,  General Audience, June 24th, 2009; vatican.va

But some priests, bishops and even popes fail to live up to this great responsibility—and sometimes fail miserably. This is a cause of sorrow and scandal and potentially the loss of salvation for some who proceed to reject the Church altogether. So how do we respond in situations like these? Speaking about the “sins” of our shepherds may be just and even necessary when it involves scandal or correcting a false teaching. [4]Recently, for example, I commented on the Abu Dhabi statement that the Pope signed and which stated that “God willed” a diversity of religions, etc.. On its face, the wording is misleading, and in fact, the Pope did correct this understanding when Bishop Athanasius Schneider saw him in person, saying it was God’s “permissive” will. [March 7th, 2019; lifesitenews.com] Without entering into “rash judgment,” one can simply bring clarity without attacking the character or dignity of a cleric or impugning their motives (unless you can read their mind). 

But what a delicate thing this is. In the words of Jesus to St. Catherine of Siena:

[It] is My intention that Priests be held in due reverence, not for what they are in themselves, but for My sake, because of the authority I have given them. Therefore the virtuous must not lessen their reverence, even should these Priests fall short in virtue. And, as far as the virtues of my Priests are concerned, I have described them for you by setting them before you as stewards of… My Son’s Body and Blood and of the other Sacraments. This dignity belongs to all who are appointed as such stewards, to the bad as well as to the good… [Because] of their virtue and because of their sacramental dignity you ought to love them. And you ought to hate the sins of those who live evil lives. But you may not for all that set ourselves up as their judges; this is not My Will because they are My Christs, and you ought to love and reverence the authority I have given them.

You know well enough that if someone filthy or poorly dressed were to offer you a great treasure that would give you life, you would not disdain the bearer for love of the treasure, and the lord who had sent it, even though the bearer was ragged and filthy… You ought to despise and hate the Priests’ sins and try to dress them in the clothes of charity and holy prayer and wash away their filth with your tears. Indeed, I have appointed them and given them to you to be angels on earth and suns, as I have told you. When they are less than that you ought to pray for them. But you are not to judge them. Leave the judging to Me, and I, because of your prayers and my own desire, will be merciful to them. —Catherine of Siena; The Dialogue, translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P., New York: Paulist Press, 1980, pp. 229-231 

Once, St. Francis of Assissi was challenged on his unshakeable reverence for priests when someone pointed out that the local pastor was living in sin. The question was put to Francis: “Must we believe in his teaching and respect the sacraments he performs?” In response, the saint went to the priest’s home and knelt before him saying,

I don’t know whether these hands are stained as the other man says they are. [But] I do know that even if they are, that in no way lessens the power and effectiveness of the sacraments of God… That is why I kiss these hands out of respect for what they perform and out of respect for Him who gave His authority to them. — “The Danger of Criticizing Bishops and Priests” by Rev. Thomas G. Morrow, hprweb.com

 

CRITICIZING CLERGY

It’s common to hear those who accuse Pope Francis of this or that saying, “We can’t be silent. It is just to criticize the bishop and even the pope!” But it is vanity to think that lambasting a cleric who lives in Rome is sitting there reading your comments. What good, then, does unleashing vitriol do? It’s one thing to be confused and even angry about some of the truly puzzling things coming out of the Vatican these days. It’s another to vent this online. Who are we trying to impress? How is that helping the Body of Christ? How is that healing the division? Or is it not making more wounds, creating more confusion, or possibly further weakening the faith of those who are already shaken? How do you know who is reading your comments, and whether you are pushing them out the Church by rash statements? How do you know someone who might be considering becoming a Catholic is not suddenly frightened by your words if your tongue paints the hierarchy with a monstrous broad brush? I’m not exaggerating when I say I read these kinds of comments nearly every day.

You sit and speak against your brother, slandering your mother’s son. When you do these things should I be silent? (Psalm 50:20-21)

On the other hand, if one speaks to those struggling, reminding them that no crisis, no matter how grave, is bigger than the Founder of our Church, then you are doing two things. You are affirming the power of Christ in every trial and tribulation. Second, you are acknowledging the problems without impugning the character of another. 

Of course, it’s ironic that I write this on the day that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Pope Francis have entered into a painful public exchange accusing one another of lying over former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.[5]cf. cruxnow.com These are indeed the kinds of trials that are only going to increase in the days ahead. Still…

 

A CRISIS OF FAITH

…I think what Maria Voce, President of Focolare said a while ago, is so very wise and true:

Christians should bear in mind that it is Christ who guides the history of the Church. Therefore, it is not the Pope’s approach that destroys the Church. This is not possible: Christ does not allow the Church to be destroyed, not even by a Pope. If Christ guides the Church, the Pope of our day will take the necessary steps to move forward. If we are Christians, we should reason like this… Yes, I think this is the main cause, not being rooted in faith, not being sure that God sent Christ to found the Church and that he will fulfil his plan through history through people who make themselves available to him. This is the faith we must have in order to be able to judge anyone and anything that happens, not only the Pope. Vatican InsiderDec. 23rd, 2017

I agree. At the very root of some uncharitable discourse is a fear that Jesus really isn’t in charge of His Church. That after 2000 years, the Master has fallen asleep. 

Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” (Matt 4:38-40)

I love the priesthood. There is no Catholic Church without the priesthood. In fact, I hope to write shortly how the priesthood is at the very heart of Our Lady’s plans for her Triumph. If one turns against the priesthood, if one raises their voice in unjust and uncharitable criticism, they are helping to sink the ship, not save it. In that regard, I think many of the cardinals and bishops, even those more critical of Pope Francis, are giving a good example to the rest of us. 

Absolutely not. I will never leave the Catholic Church. No matter what happens I intend to die a Roman Catholic. I will never be part of a schism. I’ll just keep the faith as I know it and respond in the best way possible. That’s what the Lord expects of me. But I can assure you this: You won’t find me as part of any schismatic movement or, God forbid, leading people to break away from the Catholic Church. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the church of our Lord Jesus Christ and the pope is his vicar on earth and I’m not going to be separated from that. —Cardinal Raymond Burke, LifeSiteNews, August 22nd, 2016

There is a front of traditionalist groups, just as there is with the progressivists, that would like to see me as head of a movement against the Pope. But I will never do this…. I believe in the unity of the Church and I will not allow anyone to exploit my negative experiences of these last few months. Church authorities, on the other hand, need to listen to those who have serious questions or justified complaints; not ignoring them, or worse, humiliating them. Otherwise, without desiring it, there can be an increase of the risk of a slow separation that might result in the schism of a part of the Catholic world, disorientated and disillusioned. —Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Corriere della Sera, Nov. 26, 2017; quote from the Moynihan Letters, #64, Nov. 27th, 2017

My prayer is that the Church may find a way in this present Storm to become a witness of dignified communication. That means listening to one another—from the top down—so that the world may see us and come to believe that there is something greater here than rhetoric. 

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

 

RELATED READING

Surviving Our Toxic Culture

Going to the Extremes

Striking God’s Anointed One

So, You Saw Him Too?

 

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1. see Surviving Our Toxic Culture and Going to Extremes
2. cf. Striking God’s Anointed One
3. Galatians 6:2
4. Recently, for example, I commented on the Abu Dhabi statement that the Pope signed and which stated that “God willed” a diversity of religions, etc.. On its face, the wording is misleading, and in fact, the Pope did correct this understanding when Bishop Athanasius Schneider saw him in person, saying it was God’s “permissive” will. [March 7th, 2019; lifesitenews.com]
5. cf. cruxnow.com
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