Sheep without Shepherds?
I just read a very interesting article by George Weigel assessing the “damage” that remains “After Notre Dame” in the dicesan newspaper of Fort Wayne-South Bend. In it, Weigel argues that the main problem with the whole debacle was the blurring of lines between the political and the ecclesial character of the church.
First, he suggests that the political points scored by Notre Dame and Obama were in successfully creating and selling the story line “that the Notre Dame controversy was about openness and dialogue, on the one hand, versus narrow-mindedness and fanaticism, on the other.” This is something I have also heard from some faculty at Notre Dame. The word on some streets is that the administration played the either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us game just as ferociously as some of the most ardent pro-lifers, to the point that camps were only set up on the extremes, and peaceful, reasonable, conscientious objectors to Obama receiving an honorary degree (like Bishop D’Arcy) were made invisible to the media mostly because they were not engaged by the administration. Hence, many see the situation as having been an absolute failure of dialogue.
Weigel, however, raises a broader and deeper question about the character of the Catholic Church itself. He writes: “[T]he question remains: What is the embodiment, the instantiation, the living reality of the Catholic Church to which they [the administration and trustees of Notre Dame] profess loyalty? Where is it? Who speaks for it? What difference does it make what he says?” These should be important questions for any member of a Church that has so often staked its theological claim on its ecclesial character. Just what exactly is our responsibility as Catholics to heed and be obedient to the dictates not just of the Pope, but also of our local Bishops?
To be fair (which is no small feat for him), Weigel blames the Bishops as much if not more than the faithful for, what he sees as, the failure of ecclesiology that was at the heart of the Notre Dame situation. He writes:
As for the bishops, they must now face the ecclesiological facts of life caused by four decades of ineffective catechesis compounded by the afterburn of the Long Lent of 2002 and its revelations of episcopal irresponsibility. One of the primary purposes of Vatican II was to lift up the local bishop as a genuine shepherd and father of the local church, not simply a branch manager assigned by the Roman corporate GHQ. Very few Catholics in the United States understand this, however. They may revere the pope; they may love their pastor; but they have little sense of ecclesial connection to the local bishop or understanding of his responsibilities. So when crunch time comes and bishops try to defend the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions (medical, charitable or educational), the default response of too many Catholics in the U.S. is that “this is just politics.”
I think Weigel is right to point to poor catechesis and the abuse scandals as the main reasons why many Catholics and non-Catholics have lost any sense of reverence for the ecclesial structure of the Church, but there are other reasons that Weigel passes over too quickly.
First, despite what Vatican II intended to do, too often Rome has elevated bureaucrats rather than “genuine shepherds”, and once elevated, bishops seem to spend more time running the Catholic corporation than engaged in pastoral ministry. Secondly, it seems disingenuous (a pretty easy feat for him) for Weigel to bracket the political from the ecclesial so neatly. Of course, the authority of bishops is not “just political,” but it is also not “non-political.”
If bishops are truly interested in rehabilitating their authority in the face of scarce catechetical resources and a severely discredited episcopate, they are going to have to be sensitive to both their pastoral presence and their political presence. In this “year of our priests,” perhaps it’s a good time for bishops to spend more time talking and serving with local pastors and interacting with local congregations on more than a purely ceremonial level. It may also be time for bishops to be truly radical witnesses in the public/political sphere on more issues than just the scarlet one.
Finally, it is true, as Catholic lay persons, it may be time for us to return some deference to those bishops who seek to live the call to be shepherds and admit that part of what we affirm as Catholics, as part of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” is that we are primarily a people in need of shepherds.