No Communion Without Communication

Russell Shaw’s astute treatment of clericalism in our day.

It is with some trepidation that I review Russell Shaw’s new book, Nothing to Hide. Shaw has been a stalwart defender of the truths of the Catholic faith, and as a journalist and communications director for the American bishops has long beheld the failures of those bishops to speak forthrightly to their flocks.

They have, as he points out, rebuffed honest attempts by the laity to learn what is going on in the chanceries and the bishops’ conferences, even in matters that are not sensitive. They have ignored pleas to investigate liturgical abuses, not to mention clerical apostasy, seduction of minors, and rape.

They have presided over a collapse of piety, but will say nothing about it, or will engage in what Shaw calls “happy talk,” an “ecclesiastical version of spin.” They have glaringly failed to preach about the most destructive revolution in our nation. “Unreality is probably most pronounced, and most studiously ignored,” Shaw writes, “on the subject of sex, especially contraception. With a few exceptions, when it comes to sex, priests do not speak the truth to the laity, laity do not speak the truth to priests, and bishops seldom speak the truth to either group or have the truth spoken to them.”

Shaw writes that a habit of secrecy has burdened the Church since the siege days of Vatican I. He contrasts those closed sessions called at the behest of the prisoner of the Vatican, Pius IX, with the remarkably open (and candid) sessions at the Council of Trent. But he does not condemn secrecy tout court. He knows that Pius IX faced European governments and materialist radicals, then called “liberals,” who wanted to sweep the ancient Church off the map.

He also concedes that sometimes both prudence and charity demand that we not say all that we could. For instance, he defends the priest-penitent privilege, and he admits, following the Catholic theologian Germain Grisez, that privacy is necessary for a variety of good things, from the intimate sharing of man and woman in marriage, to a committee’s early attempts to draft strategies or plans that require time to mature.

So Shaw is not a democratic ideologue, though he does assume that democracy is normative for civil government, at least for us. He understands, and often affirms, that the Church is not a democracy, either. He does not want it to become one. He does not want faith and morals to be determined by plebiscite. He does not believe, as do the Church’s most simplistic critics, that hierarchy is in itself an evil thing.

Instead, he cites Lumen Gentium on the harmony of equality and rank, in an order wherein authority depends upon love and the call to serve, and obedience in love entails no loss of dignity. He understands, too, that it was not hierarchy that caused priests to meddle with the bodies and souls of teenage boys. He does not claim, as do the opportunistic worldlings of Voice of the Faithful, that no scandal would ever have befallen the Church if only she had listened to that Voice on matters regarding sex—as if the cure for Sodom were Gomorrah.

Moreover, Shaw’s prescriptions for “the Church with nothing to hide” are modest and sensible, and with one (partial) exception, I agree with them and urge the bishops to adopt them, especially his recommendation that diocesan newspapers become “honest sources of reliable factual information and responsible commentary and as vehicles for public opinion.” Shaw’s other recommendations are as follows:

• That general meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops be open to journalists;

• That openness, particularly financial openness, be the rule for “the business of all dioceses and parishes and religious institutes”;

• That diocesan and parish councils be given “a real say in policy making” and that their agendas and minutes be recorded and available to the public;

• That “qualified lay people” be given “a consultative voice” in choosing bishops;

• That the Church at all levels should treat journalists honestly, without exception;

• That information at all levels be freely attainable;

• That the Church from the parish to the Holy See begin to use the Internet for two-way communication;

• That the relationship between Vatican II’s ecclesiology and issues of communication be examined;

• That clericalism (which I read as clubbiness among the ordained, and not genuine brotherhood) be rooted out.

Had a few of these policies been in place decades ago, the sexual predators would have had no one to hide them, and nowhere to go but to the confessional.

I do disagree, in part, with Shaw’s recommendation that laymen be consulted in the choosing of bishops. I know that it was the practice in the early Church, and that it worked well enough when the laymen esteemed a man’s holiness, his ability to see that roads were repaired and alms were distributed, his eloquence, and his fidelity to the deposit of the faith. So the faithful in Milan called for the as-yet-unordained Ambrose to be their bishop, and the people of Rome dragooned a monk named Gregory to lead the universal church—Saint Gregory the Great.

But now, when piety has been shuffled off to this or that day on the weekend, and when it is assumed that the world shall dictate to the Church and not the Church to the world, I fear that lay participation in the election of bishops would conform that process to “campaigning,” a sport wherein knaves lie to fools and are rewarded for the outlandishness and frequency of their lies.

Yet this is an excellent book, eloquently written and chastely argued. As Shaw justly says, without communication there is no communion and therefore no real Church. Still, I should like to offer three critical comments, in a friendly spirit. All three bear upon the question of authority.

First, I worry that Shaw has accepted, perhaps unwittingly, the erasure of fatherliness from the idea of a priest. He cites “paternalism” as a problem in the Church, and I’ll agree, so long as we understand it to denote a paternalistic parody of fatherhood, and not fatherhood per se—as a philosopher may be Hellenistic because he is not genuinely Hellenic.

The distinction is crucial. Our bishops failed not because they were too fatherly. They failed because they were not fatherly enough, or fatherly at all. What father would allow a pederast within 10 miles of his son? They have enjoyed the perks of power, but have been too timid to discipline the wayward, too arrogant to heed the pleas of the faithful, and too busy—or too indolent—to go among the people to teach. That adds up to a portrait of neglect: men who let spouse and children fend for themselves.

Shaw sometimes implies (I beg his pardon if I am misreading him here) that the model of the family is of limited application to the Church. But when St. Paul wrote about the choosing of bishops, the family was precisely what he had in mind. The churches were to choose honorable heads of orderly and faithful households. Our tradition of calling the priest “father” is not idle. Nor is our habit, at which the world might scoff, of deferring to young men who have consecrated their lives to God; for even they, with their youthful voices and scanty beards, are our fathers.

Part of the trouble is that we no longer know what an old-fashioned household looks like, with our lonely flophouses for a mommy and a daddy and a toddler. That problem is made worse by the devil of politically correct translation, which renders the Greek “sons” as “children,” making the language instantly juvenile, even infantile, and distorting the analogy of the congregation to the family.

For a genuine father raises his sons to share with him the responsibilities of the family business. The good father not only consults his sons for advice. He makes sure he is always raising sons—and daughters—from whom he can expect good advice. The good father not only tells his sons what to do. He raises sons whom he need not tell what to do, because their loving obedience and his loving authority have become one, and they enjoy authority in their own right, in and through that mature obedience.

This our hierarchs have generally failed to do, having been indifferently obedient themselves. And that leads me to my second criticism. I wonder whether Shaw underestimates the degree to which the clericalism of our day walks arm-in-arm with a mistaken egalitarianism and a perfect eagerness to listen to the laity.

Examples abound. Catholic nuns in the late 60s did not lose their faith, their reason, their habits, and their virginity because they spent too much time reading St. Teresa of Avila. They read Carl Rogers and Cosmopolitan. The bishops who sent homosexual priests to therapy were not requiring them to read the works of Peter Damian. They were relying on what lay psychologists were telling them, no matter that many of these doctors despised the Church and her teachings.

Nor have priests always been unwilling to let the laity help direct their parishes. Many a bad father will let everybody else do his work for him, and if he can call it “love” and “communion,” that will but spice his conscience. And who will do that work? Egalitarianism has, in practice, precious little to do with equality.

In the five-parish “pastoral unit” on the Canadian island where my family and I spend the summer, the laity have been running everything, right into the ground. The laity choose the music. A lay woman chooses the altar servers (not many, and almost all girls). Last year I met a lay woman who, I discovered in conversation, had never heard of a certain writer named “Dante.” She is the director of the five coordinated programs in religious education.

The laity, with diocesan approval, are being prepared for the day when Mass will consist of a layman giving a homily that isn’t officially a homily and then passing out hosts guaranteed as consecrated by the nearest priest. The divorce rate is over 50 percent, the young hardly bother to marry, boys drop out of school, the graveyards are more populous than the pews, but the laity are happy. I should rephrase that—certain members of the laity are happy. The young priests who used to serve the island fought to protect most of the laity from those few. The priest who now serves, pleasant and aloof, lets them do as they please. Should anyone complain about it, watch out. Then he will stand on his authority.

Which leads to my last point. The hierarchical structure of the Church is not an anomalous survival from the past. Granted, Shaw accepts that structure in full faith. But perhaps he takes for granted the naturalness of egalitarianism and democracy:

As Pope Benedict points out, the ecclesiology of Vatican II is distorted by reducing communion either to “the relationship between the local Church and the Church as a whole” or to “egalitarianism” among her members: the primacy of the vertical dimension of communion—the relationship with God—must always be respected.

But “egalitarianism” among the members of the Church—demanding equality for its own sake—must end in obliterating “the vertical dimension of communion,” as it has among the Quakers and many a Protestant denomination.

Grace builds upon nature. We begin to understand dimly the authority of God by seeing it reflected in legitimate authority not only in the Church but in civil and family life, for all authority comes from God, as St. Paul says. Even in our natural dealings with one another, that vertical dimension must exist. It is good for us that it should be so.

It is good especially now, when “equality” is a magic word, its critics supposed either malignant or mad; when fathers are absent or rendered null; when the Church is shunted into a corner and told to keep her peace; when school principals must face the wagging finger of the Supreme Court should they try to respect their local culture and let the students say a public prayer; when we are all equal, equally prone to, and equally defenseless against the new elites.

What might prevail against the gates of that world? A brotherhood in arms, whose least private is equal in dignity with the commander, knit together in love and obedience. And that brotherhood in arms, all the men and women of faith, must be led by the brotherhood of bishops, encouraging and rebuking one another and holding up for emulation the pattern of all brotherhoods, the apostles united in Christ.

For the good father does not retreat from his family to bumble about with other men at the Raccoon Lodge. He joins with other fathers for mutual help. He is no father if he will not fight, and he cannot fight alone.

These are, as I say, friendly criticisms, or reminders. I need reminders, too—I who have not suffered so terribly from the clericalism that Shaw astutely condemns. I read his work as such a reminder, and thank him for it, and recommend it to Catholics who love their Church and do not enjoy her shame.


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About Anthony Esolen 20 Articles
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.