The Role of a Bishop: Politician
The history of the Church is filled with politics. The bishops who condemned Joan of Arc, the reign of the anti-popes and the Avignon exile, the clerics who endorsed the invalid marriage of Henry VIII to Ann Boleyn are just a few examples. Serving the kingdom of this world rather than the kingdom of God tempts those in positions of power including clerics. Because they hobnob with the rich and powerful, bishops and cardinals face serious temptations to act more like politicians than shepherds. In our rampantly secular culture many bishops seem more worried about offending the world than offending God.
Consider this scenario. You are attending the installation of a prominent archbishop who is taking over an important See in the U.S. He has a reputation for being a competent administrator who successfully navigated his previous diocese through a serious financial crisis that involved closing many churches. As he enters the huge basilica for the processional of the Mass, the crowded church breaks into spontaneous loud applause. Making his way down the center aisle behind a seminarian with folded hands, the archbishop waves in greeting and stops to shake hands with those near the aisle, among them two prominent pro-abortion Catholic senators. At the end of the Mass the archbishop leaves as he arrived waving and greeting well- wishers from one side to the other of the massive cathedral. In between he delivers a sermon praising his predecessor, expressing gratitude to all, recognizing various groups in the diocese, and promising to do his best. He also talks about pastoral care and teaching, but the action of greeting the pro-abortion politicians (and treating a sacred event like a political rally) already taught more than his words. The installation of Archbishop Donald Wuerl as Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Washington looked like church politics as usual, another major teaching opportunity missed.
Is it unreasonable to expect more from a bishop at his opening Mass? Remember 1993 when Pope John Paul II attended World Youth Day in Denver. Who can forget his opening address with pro-abortion President Bill Clinton seated on the podium. “America...The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones…If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life!” It was not an unusual message for the pope; in fact it was a quote from his previous 1987 American visit. Pope John Paul II took every possible opportunity to defend the weak.
The following year Mother Teresa challenged those attending the National Prayer Breakfast saying, “It is not enough for us to say: ‘I love God,’ but I also have to love my neighbor… Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.” She also spoke against contraception, divorce, and co-habitation. While many rose in applause the Clintons and Gores sat stony-faced
University’s 2003 commencement, some faculty members and students walked
out in anger when Cardinal Francis Arinze described the family as “under
siege” from the “anti-life mentality” of the world as seen in “contraception,
abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.” He told graduates the family is
“scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery,
mocked by homosexuality
These three pro-life giants, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Cardinal Arinze, spoke the truth with courage and simplicity. Compare their words with those of Cardinal McCarrick at the 2005 Red Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Calling for civility, the Cardinal advised the legislators and jurists to “dialogue more gently, more positively, more careful to
set the conversation within a forum of mutual respect by being willing to listen for the good points that are usually present in every reasonable discourse.” Fine words, but what kind of “reasonable discourse” can take place between a person fighting for the lives of the unborn and helpless against someone who champions in utero mass murder, killing the sick by dehydration, and cannibalizing human embryos?
Archbishop Wuerl and Cardinal McCarrick exhibit a style common in the United States from the early days of the republic when some clerics made assimilation in the Protestant culture their main goal. They pay lip service to the truth, sometimes eloquently in their diocesan papers, but when presented with a teaching opportunity with a broad secular audience that may be offended, no controversial word escape them. And in their relations with brother bishops, collegiality is promoted as the first commandment.
When a handful of bishops broke ranks during the 2004 presidential campaign to say they would not give Communion to John Kerry and other pro-abortion politicians, most of the bishops were silent. Cardinal McCarrick,, who received a letter on the issue from then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (Now Pope Benedict XVI), actively misled his brother bishops about its contents at their annual June meeting. He summarized Ratzinger’s message saying, “It is up to us as bishops in the United States to discern and act on our responsibilities as teachers, pastors and leaders in our nation." That is true. Individual bishops have the ultimate authority in their dioceses and are responsible to teach and govern according to the mind of Holy Mother Church. However, one would think input from CDF is helpful to say the least. McCarrick’s deliberate distortion of the memo deprived the conference of crucial information.
What Cardinal Ratzinger actually said, what McCarrick censored before it was publicly leaked, was strong and unambiguous. “Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist. When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.’” Note the word “must.”
A year later Bishop Wuerl published an article on “Episcopal Pastoral Decisions and Ecclesial Communion.” While referring to the bishop’s “responsibility within his own diocese,” Wuerl encouraged collegiality. He called for a “commitment on the part of all the bishops to discuss beforehand, through some conference structure, decisions that will impact all of the bishops and the church as a whole.” He went on to suggest that the conference develop a “mechanism” to “review” candidates “of national prominence” who might be “barred” from Communion.
The procedure would take into account “(1) A reflection on the seriousness of the offense and thus the justification for the action of the bishop; (2) Whether this action would be pastorally effective or possibly cause more harm than good; and (3) The level of support of brother bishops who will have to deal with the ramifications of such a decision in their own diocese.” The obvious result of Wuerl’s strategy would be to neutralize any pastoral action against a pro-abortion politician who would have completed his campaign, taken office, and served most of his term before the bishops reached a consensus (if ever). Such action supports the cowardly bishop who will never take a politically incorrect step and effectively criticizes the bishop who acts like a shepherd by following canon law. (Can. 915: Those…who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”)
A particularly troubling aspect of Wuerl’s article is his interpretation of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Apostolos Suos (On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences). The papal document emphasizes that bishops be in conformity with the deposit of the faith and the Holy See. It promotes local collegiality for more effective transmission of the faith, i.e. developing catechisms, translations of Scripture, etc. as well as joint approaches to issues facing the Church in the area. The pope also warns against the “bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions.” They are “to be of help to the Bishops and not to substitute for them.” The document says a Conference may not release a doctrinal declaration unless it is approved unanimously. “If this unanimity is lacking, a majority alone of the Bishops of a Conference cannot issue a declaration as authentic teaching of the Conference…unless it obtains the recognitio of the Apostolic See, which will not give it if the majority requesting it is not substantial.”
Interestingly, Pope John Paul II issued the exhortation in May 1998 just a few months after the major controversy over the Conference’s committee-written document, Always Our Children (October 1997) on homosexuality which seriously distorted Church teaching. In fact, the Vatican required changes to the document. Apostolos Suos appears to be, at least in part, a correction of abusive practices in Episcopal Conferences. So Bishop Wuerl’s use of it to tie the hands of bishops defending the faith looks like a distortion of the document’s intent.
Wuerl’s article was clearly aimed at the bishops who, during the Kerry-Bush presidential campaign, said they would refuse Communion to nominally Catholic John Kerry. Arguably the most prominent among them was Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis who took action against pro-abortion politicians in LaCrosse, WI in November 2003. His notification read, “In accord with the norm of can. 915, Catholic legislators…who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.”
During the 2004 presidential campaign Archbishop Burke defended his policy (continued after he moved to St. Louis). In an article in America magazine in June 2004 he wrote, “Some have accused me and other bishops of introducing division within the church and between the church and the political order of our country by our public declaration regarding the moral duty of Catholic politicians and their exclusion from Communion, in the case of their serious failure in carrying out their moral duty. Others have questioned the prudence of such declarations because of the attack they bring upon the church or their adverse political effect….
“Having considered the matter carefully, I respond that the division is already present both in the conscience of Catholics who dissent from a most fundamental Church teaching and in the ‘intolerant secularism’ prevalent in our nation….. In our habit of ‘political correctness,’ we do not like to acknowledge these divisions, but they must be recognized for the sake of our consciences and for the good of the nation.
“For a bishop or any pastor to exclude someone from Communion is always a source of great sorrow…caused by the care that a pastor naturally has for a soul who rejects the teaching of Christ and his church. What would be profoundly more sorrowful would be the failure of a bishop to call a soul to conversion, the failure to protect the flock from scandal and the failure to safeguard the worthy reception of Communion.”
Is it just a coincidence that Pope Benedict recently named this bold bishop to the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest administrative court? Not likely.
St. Jean Vianney, the patron of parish priests, once described in a homily the “first temptation” the devil uses against those trying to serve God. “It is human respect.” Isn’t that what we see among bishops who appear to fear the press more than God? Think of the bishops launching their project to end the death penalty at the very time Terri Schindler was dying of thirst, legally killed for the “crime” of being disabled. It was macabre, but not surprising. Abolishing capitol punishment won praise from the press. Defending Terri was controversial and earned condemnation. It was a tragic illustration.
Fulton Sheen addressed the laity in 1972 asking, “Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people…. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops like bishops and your religious like religious.” It was a politically incorrect statement that no doubt offended his brother clerics, but it was a call to arms to the laity. Exhorting our bishops to be shepherds rather than politicians is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus who rebuked the politically-motivated religious leaders of His day as “whited sepulchers…full of dead men’s bones.” It is time to end politics as usual in the Church. A good place to start is refusing Communion to pro-abortion politicians. May the Lord remove bishop-politicians and raise up more good shepherds to defend the unborn and the Eucharist by implementing Canon 915.