Boredom among priests and bishops has become a common malaise. After Texas passed a pro-life law that prohibits abortions after six weeks of gestation, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, KY, tweeted:
Those who vehemently fight legal abortion, but are uninterested in providing basic healthcare for pregnant mothers or needy children, who are unconcerned about refugee children or those lacking quality education with no hope of escaping poverty cannot really claim to respect life.
Bishop Stowe’s insult to pro-lifers drew the expected response. Pro-life activist Catholics were outraged, disappointed, and discouraged. Why does he hold pro-lifers in such contempt? Does he oppose anti-abortion laws? The Bishop undoubtedly anticipated that his provocation would again make him the center of attention. Aside from the dishonesty and viciousness of the remarks, his comments suggest he is bored with his episcopal responsibilities.
The intellectual framework for living the Christian life is threefold: Church doctrine, theology, and applying our understanding of Jesus to the circumstances of everyday life. This framework of faith and reason also helps us understand the contemporary landscape of the Church and to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught.” (2 Thess 2:15) The clergy are custodians of Church doctrine and theological inquiry. They are the primary teachers of the faith. The laity – responding to their Christian formation — are custodians of the secular political sphere, sanctifying the world by holy lives.
Doctrinal and dogmatic teachings of the Church are central to the Church because they infallibly sketch the portrait of Jesus, the Word made Flesh. The Creed provides the focal point for essential doctrinal truths that derive from the history of salvation. The precepts of the Ten Commandments similarly provide the pedagogy for teaching moral absolutes. The interplay between the Sacraments and Catholic doctrine safeguard prayer: Lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of prayer [is] the law of belief”).
Theological insights help us understand Catholic doctrine. But different — and even competing — theological perspectives (such as the theology of Augustine and Thomas) do not necessarily suggest infidelity and heterodoxy. Theological studies reward inquisitive minds with understanding and wisdom. The duties of the clergy generally focus on Catholic doctrine and theology. Their sacred duty is to hand on the faith with integrity: “If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8).
Assenting to Church doctrine as augmented by study of theology prepares us to live a Christian life. With God’s grace, we apply Church teaching to the everyday circumstances of our personal, public, and community lives. Prudential judgments belong to individuals: whether to marry or remain celibate, to consider religious life or continue in the lay state, to advocate this or that law, and so on. While the Church’s doctrinal assertions are comparatively few, we all make countless applications of Christian principles to our everyday circumstances. The role of the laity is to “sanctify the world” by their secular work (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium and Apostolicam Actuositatem).
So the laity – not the clergy – have the responsibility to establish just laws, tax policies, government programs, and immigration laws. Although there is some overlap in responsibility (laws that directly violate the Commandments, for example), the lines of demarcation coincide with the command of Jesus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17).
A chasm separates conservatives and liberals within the Church. We usually label priests and bishops who routinely invoke Church doctrine and theology as “conservatives.” We commonly identify the clergy who presume their authority includes secular and political judgments as “liberals.” (The USCCB has a record promoting social programs, government spending, and immigration policies that usually coincide with Democrat Party positions.) Most conservative priests and bishops reject the bureaucratic political positions of liberals but usually refrain from public criticism. (There are anecdotal accounts of bishops privately dismissing liberal USCCB policy positions but vote for them in the Conference.)
Conservatives may fear that liberals are, at heart, unfaithful dissidents (especially concerning abortion and human sexuality). Overlooking the liberal politics of the Church paper over differences and give the appearance of unity. So the bishops sponsor uncontroversial pastoral programs (such as “The Fortnight of Freedom” prayer initiative of years past) and reward pastoral inertia. Then-Cardinal McCarrick’s and now Archbishop Gregory’s refusal to invoke Canon Law to warn pro-abortion Catholic politicians dramatize the impotence of liberal and conservative unity. Indeed, with conservatives neutered by silence, the liberals become even more vocal – and irrelevant.
Wearied by Church doctrine and unable to find delights in the study of theology, liberal clergy look for the excitement of politics. So they enter into the arena of prudential judgments and go well beyond their competence as churchmen.Their clericalism edges out the rights of the laity – even silencing them — and presumes to speak with an authority that exceeds the boundaries of their religious mandates.
Bishop Stowe’s tweet perfectly illustrates this new clerical pattern. He cleverly undermines Church doctrine by attacking faithful prolifers with liberal political advocacy using the informal Twitter platform. His carefully crafted remarks remain outside the setting of formal teaching. But with plausible deniability, he implicitly and unmistakably signals that the cluster of moral evils assaulting marriage and family are unimportant, not binding, or inconsequential. He finds the real action in the arena of liberal politics.
Just as spouses look for adulterous outlets when a marriage grows cold, many priests and bishops look to the thrill of politics to soothe their boredom with the doctrinal components of their religious office. Bishop Stowe’s political distraction demonstrates this analogous form of clerical “promiscuity.” But the teachings of Christ, passed on faithfully by the Church, are not the whimsical playthings of the clergy. Passing on the gifts of the faith with fidelity and precision is often thankless work, similar to marital duties. It is not within their power, authority, or ability to tweak them as they desire or as the zeitgeist demands.
Alas, in a liberal culture, the views of liberal clergy are redundant. How long will it take for liberal bishops like Bishop Stowe to realize that they are, well, boring?
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