By now we’re all familiar with “Uncle Ted,” the nickname Archbishop Theodore McCarrick gave himself. We now know of the sinister association that epithet had—McCarrick would refer to the priests and seminarians who were the objects of his attention as his “nephews” and asked them to call him “uncle,” a nauseating metaphor that rendered the arrangement unnatural in a number of ways. Indeed, the association of terms would be familiar to those of a certain vintage who knew the term “funny uncle” as code for an abusive family member.
But the then-Cardinal was known as “Uncle Ted” publicly as well. With his trademark grin and wink, he was regarded in many circles (especially fundraising circles) as a kindly cleric who was eager to shake hands and make everyone feel good about themselves. Essentially, like an uncle.
“Avuncular” describes the likes of McCarrick very well. Someone who wants to engender or project closeness without responsibility, enjoyment without discipline—fun but never firmness. The sort of figure you want to have around because he might buy ice cream for everyone. And indeed, when one looks at the career of McCarrick, one sees many dollar signs but not many conversions—courting popularity but not calling others to holiness.
Such an attitude plays right into our desires. C.S. Lewis wrote, “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” One could very well replace “grandfather” with “uncle” and the effect would be much the same. Too often that’s what we want, and too often that is what we are given. And the wicked by adopting such an attitude are able to aggrandize themselves, whether by staying in the good graces of the wealthy and influential or oppressing others with their advances.
We see this same avuncular attitude manifest, in a very different way, in certain members of the episcopate. Some of our bishops seem averse to teaching tough truths or administering just penalties. This is the work of spiritual fathers, of teaching and guiding and forming their spiritual children into holiness. Too many bishops seems content to be spiritual uncles: happy to appear at fundraisers and perhaps scold the fold for not giving sufficiently to the poor, by which they mean the diocesan appeal—much as your uncle might complain that no one ordered enough pizza for the big game. Perhaps that is too snarky, but there is a reason that most Catholics know their bishop simply as the man in the funny hat who came for Confirmation and appears in an annual video asking for money.
The case of Governor Andrew Cuomo has brought this reality into stark relief. Here is a Catholic politician who speaks proudly of his unity with the Holy Father on the subject of the death penalty, who has also spearheaded his legislature’s effort to put into law one of the most extreme abortion regimes in the country—and who ordered the major landmarks of New York to be lit up pink in celebration. And while there have been some expressions of “disappointment” and even a battle of words in the press from some of New York’s bishops, Cuomo has yet to face any canonical penalty—no excommunication, no interdict, nothing.
That may well be forthcoming, but the point remains: Your uncle might tell you he’s disappointed. Your father will ground you.
To be sure, some bishops have shown themselves to be true leaders, true spiritual fathers, in the Church’s recent crises. Two bishops from my own area, Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth and Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, come to mind for their strong words of condemnation of McCarrick at the November assembly. The bishops as a body can feel like an easy target in these difficult days, and it’s important not to issue blanket judgments and ignore the brave and prophetic work that some of our pastors are doing. Critique should be offered in a filial spirit that seeks the good of the Church, and not an anti-clericalism fueled by real pain but which would, to adapt a phrase, cut off the spiritual heads to spite the Body of Christ.
Let this be a plea to our bishops, then, to be fathers and not uncles. To take their paternal duties seriously, knowing the their own souls and the souls of their flocks depend upon it. They should not fear to rock the boat, for they should trust in the Lord who calms the storms, who walks on the waves, and who calls his apostles to come to Him, if only they have faith.
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