I am loath to criticize the bishops, or even a bishop, for several reasons. First, it’s too easy, and it is too likely to make the writer popular in a bad way.
Second, bishops are the successors of the apostles, and we owe them respect for their office. They need not be perfect for us to show them that respect. As the Scriptures make clear, all the apostles had their problems: in-fighting, an invidious desire for glory, and frequent failures of faith culminating in the abandonment of Christ at the crucial time. If those men, as weak and damaged as they were, could exercise “apostolic authority” with the help of the Holy Spirit, then modern bishops can, too.
Third, it’s hard being a bishop in contemporary American culture. The divisions that rend American society rend the Church, and bishops are often torn between competing factions. Making the decisions a bishop must make is hard.
But so is making the decisions a governor must make. So, when a bishop becomes more politician than pastor, perhaps some gentle remonstrance is in order. This is, after all, supposed to be the “Age of the Laity”. And yet, even though clerics often say this, some are not especially pleased when laypeople make their own practical judgments, even in areas where the clerics have little practical expertise.
“Clericalism” isn’t just a problem that beset the Church’s sexual abuse scandal. Clericalism is an issue of power and privilege, a sense of being above the rules that apply to everyone else. The only remedy is a certain humility. You don’t curtail clericalism by bemoaning it. You curtail clericalism by humbly refraining from speaking like a politician, especially when the way politicians speak today is so often given over to emotional manipulation rather than reasonable argumentation. You curtail clericalism by focusing on moral principles rather than on partisan political positions. And you curtail it by distinguishing clearly between violations of exceptionless moral norms, on the one hand, and prudential judgments about different means to an end, on the other — matters best left to the judgment of the laypeople who have done extensive study on the problem and those who have been entrusted with care of the common good of the community.
Imputations of bad faith
In this regard, consider some of the recent comments of San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller. Among the tragedies we in Texas and the nation have had to face this summer was the shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde and deaths of 53 migrants being smuggled across the border and who were abandoned in a truck trailer along a highway. What can anyone say? We need to do better. We need to value all human life. We know that God will not abandon us, especially those who are poor and powerless, so we offer these souls to God in the firm hope of the resurrection of the dead and pray for His grace that we can have the wisdom and strength to serve Him and our neighbors more fully and faithfully.
What was the Archbishop’s response? On May 31, after the Uvalde tragedy, he went on MSNBC and said that the nation is out of touch with reality, making “guns an idol.” The continued problem of mass shootings, he claimed, can only be solved by amending gun laws. “I believe with my whole heart that gun control has to take place in a more radical way.” “We have been seeing movements that are leading to the very expression of tyrant leadership,” he said, “and it’s because people are not in touch with reality.”
To be clear, I’m not a fan of guns. I don’t own one and don’t want to. But the Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms, and the Supreme Court has “incorporated” that right by means of the Fourteenth Amendment into federal jurisprudence, as they have with most of the other amendments in the federal Bill of Rights that originally bound only the federal government. As a result, only limited restrictions on gun ownership are currently allowed, and “gun control” is now under the same scrutiny and Supreme Court-determined restrictions that states were under for five decades when they attempted to pass laws restricting abortion. It is simply the case in the U.S. that when the Court determines that something is a “fundamental right,” they take a dim view of restrictions on exercises of that right.
Archbishop Garcia-Siller can “believe with his whole heart” what he likes, and I can be as uncomfortable as I want to be about guns, but neither his emotion nor mine addresses the fundamental Constitutional principles at stake. And what he and I would both find if we went out into the community to gain support for “gun control” is that plenty of good people have views different from ours. I suppose some people have made “guns an idol.” Certainly many people have made abortion an idol and an ideal — not something to be done rarely in a crisis, but something to be loud and proud about. There are always people on the fringes. I would not say, however, that every person in America who supports abortion has “made it an idol” any more than most people in American who support gun rights have “made it an idol.” They just think differently. What they need are good arguments, not imputations of bad faith.
Although it is clear to me that we should always value human life and fight courageously against those who threaten it, it is not so clear to me — not yet, at least — that the problem of mass shootings can only be solved by amending gun laws: A) because “amending gun laws” would almost certainly be struck down by the courts, and B) because there might be other ways of protecting innocent people from mass shootings. The goal of protecting human life is clear; the question that remains is what are the best means, and what are the best means we would be allowed to use by the federal courts. And because these are complicated questions, I wouldn’t say that those who disagree with me are “out of touch with reality.”
What anyone can say at this point is that the Archbishop hasn’t made an argument; he’s merely emoted on national television. And why should anyone pay more attention to his emotions about guns than anyone else’s? Is it because he’s a bishop? They didn’t come to interview me. Why not? Oh, that’s right. Because I’m not a bishop. A bishop is called upon to speak about God’s providential care, the significance of His sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, and the basic moral principles of the Christian tradition. But what special expertise do bishops possess about the complex issues I mentioned above? If the answer is “not much”, then what could such comments on television be other than a classic expression of clericalism?
As for “seeing movements that are leading to the very expression of tyrant leadership,” I suppose this refers to the way the Democrats are arrogating more and more authority to the federal government, their threat to “pack” the Supreme Court so they can overturn the Dobbs decision, and their ceaseless attempts to get President Biden to issue executive orders to get around state restrictions on abortion. Or perhaps not. Still, it’s odd that before the Mass for the families of those killed in Uvalde, Archbishop Garcia-Siller had a special private meeting with President Biden and then went to the Bidens first to offer them communion at their seats before everyone else. This is a man whose support for actual murder means he shouldn’t be receiving communion at all. And Governor Greg Abbott? No special treatment there. He wheeled himself in his wheelchair to the back of the cathedral and came up the center aisle with his wife like everyone else. The Archbishop saw him but never acknowledged his presence.
The Archbishop and the Governor
Weeks later, after the tragedy authorities found the 53 migrants found dead in the truck trailer, the Archbishop told the San Antonio Express-News (July 3): “Since what happened at Uvalde, there has not been one word from my leader in my state of compassion, of care, of pain.” Rather, Greg Abbott “is using the situations, including the deaths of these people [in the tractor trailer], for personal gain.” First, he attributed ill or ignoble motives to someone whose heart and soul he does not know, which Christ forbids. And second, that statement was simply untrue, unless the only comments he cares about are those that show up in the media. Because when the Archbishop made that comment, the Governor had been in Uvalde for several days meeting privately with victims’ families: no cameras, no press, just the Governor in private with the families. Perhaps his real sin, then, was that he didn’t let the reporters know he was there to watch him console and pray with the victims and make public his grief — so that the San Antonio Express-News would write about the Governor the kind of things they wrote about the Archbishop:
[The Archbishop] asked to see their children, eventually gathering them to talk about their loss. Just before leaving to hold a memorial Mass for victims of the massacre, he asked one of the children to close the door of the room where they were talking. He needed to be honest with them about something — about someone else who wanted his guidance. “The mother of the one who killed your mother has asked for help,” he confided to the children. “I will help all. I do not know what we will talk about, or what will happen, but I need your help. I need your prayer.” The children nodded. García-Siller, 65, has been enveloped by grief since the massacre.
Governor Abbott said on Twitter that the deaths of the 53 people in that trailer resulted from President Biden’s “deadly open border policies,” which, although a logical leap, is arguably true. What the Governor did, which is more important, is that he vowed to step up truck inspections along the border, something that is actually the responsibility of the federal government. It is not too hard to imagine a governor being angry that the federal government’s lax border enforcement, over which he has no control, let this truck through, which resulted in the deaths of everyone inside in his state. I have no way of judging the Governor’s heart and soul, but it is possible to see a man—a Catholic—who is angry, determined to stop a horror from happening again, not a man who is out for his own personal gain. In my opinion, the Archbishop owes him an apology.
It is so easy to be seen praying with the families of the victims of these tragedies. It is much harder to figure out what can be done to resolve the problem —what can be done, that is, other than simply casting aspersions. The San Antonio Express-News says Archbishop Garcia-Siller “drew a direct line between the 53 dead and the dehumanization of immigrants.” Who “dehumanized” them? There has been no lack of deep sorrow and concern in the U.S. over their deaths. It is viewed as a horrendous tragedy. The people who “dehumanized” them were the guys who put them in that truck and locked the door and the guy who abandoned the truck. The people who “dehumanized” them were the drug lords in Mexico who kill people without care, concern, or compassion. The people who “dehumanize” them are those in the Mexican government who don’t care enough about them to stop the rampant crime and abuses of the drug cartels, preferring instead to line their own pockets and pay off their cronies while preaching socialist nostrums to the people.
There is at least some connection, as Governor Abbott suggests, between the Biden Administration’s lax border enforcement and what happened to those 53 people. Had that truck been stopped at the border as it should have been, those people would not be dead. But the Archbishop chose to tell the newspaper that it happened “because we don’t care.”
Who Are “We”?
What is meant by “we”? The whole article was about how much the Archbishop cares; how he’s wept; how “prayer and periods of silence” have given him “strength when dealing with shock and sorrow; how the two tragedies have left him “raw and angry, as well as mournful”; how “we’re going to suffer together and embrace as much and as close as we can those who have died those who have died, those who have survived and their families.” I take it the “we” who are going to “suffer together” is different from the “we” who “don’t care.”
The second “we” would be most people, it seems, because according to the Archbishop, “apathy has gripped American society.” The first “we” — those who “suffer together” and care — would be, I take it, the Archbishop and a few others, about whom he could say: “Nothing has been done about the law to make a radical change, but we — with many people — we have done good. Little good, but we have done good.” What good? More people have died at the border this past year by far than any other year in history. Who doesn’t care? Everyone who doesn’t hold the same view as the Archbishop on how to implement immigration reform?
“We have made money an idol in the U.S., along with other things, like firearms. People in leadership and non-leadership” — a description that covers everyone — “they get away with murder.” Who has made “money” and “firearms” more of an “idol” than the drug cartels in Mexico? Who “gets away with murder” — actual murder, not metaphorical “murder” — more often than they do? Is the governor of Texas guiltier than they are? Is the governor of Texas guiltier than the President of the United States, who has done everything he can to keep open and running the abortion mills that kill, not 53 unfortunate people, but 1.5 million unborn children each year?
I will note, in passing, that I tend to be a pro-immigration guy. So, this essay does not come out of an opposition to immigration. I tend toward conservatism, and being in favor of immigration was always the conservative position until the mid-2000s or so. It was always liberals who, in an alliance with union leaders, opposed open immigration. As Angela Nagle writes in “The Left Case Against Open Borders” (American Affairs, vol. 2, no. 4):
From the first law restricting immigration in 1882 to Cesar Chavez and the famously multiethnic United Farm Workers protesting against employers’ use and encouragement of illegal migration in 1969, trade unions have often opposed mass migration. They saw the deliberate importation of illegal, low-wage workers as weakening labor’s bargaining power and as a form of exploitation.
I am a fan of “immigration reform,” something which is easy for me to say because I don’t have to provide any details of how that would work, unlike the people who actually have to deal with it. I have no doubt that many of the things I would propose would be opposed by others. Fair enough. That’s the way a democracy works. Disagreements about how to achieve a goal can lead to better implementation with fewer errors. Ideologues who want what they want because they consider those who disagree with them to be fools or scoundrels are rarely helpful. And those who think bursts of emotional outrage and indignation are good ways of finding sensible solutions need to think again.
It is one thing to say that we should respect all immigrants and visitors to this country and treat them fairly and justly. That is proper Church teaching. What should be done about H-1B visas and green cards and the number of immigrants to be accepted from various countries, troubled or otherwise — these are complex questions that require prudence and a host of practical judgments. I have my own views, but I do not consider those who disagree with me evil or foolish. It is a hard problem, and there are pros and cons on both sides.
I am not writing to ask Archbishop Gomez-Siller to re-consider his position on immigration and gun control. As an American citizen, he can have whatever position he thinks is best. But then again, so can others. I would, however, warn him and every other bishop in the country that the disagreements we Americans have are not made better or more tractable by clerics whose comments suggest that those with opposing views are not only wrong, but evil, “bad Catholics,” especially when those clerics do not support their views with solid arguments, but merely assert the purity of their intentions given the depth of their emotional reactions as opposed to the apathy and ill will they impute to others.
It is for this reason that I have taken the somewhat dicey step of criticizing a prominent archbishop. I have not done so (as I hope the Archbishop might eventually come to understand) “for personal gain.” What have I to gain? I have admitted in print that I hold a position on immigration that would likely put me at odds with many conservatives. I teach at a conservative Catholic university in Texas. I have gotten flack before from university authorities when I was critical of the actions of higher-ups, so it seems all too likely that I might get some serious blowback from those in authority were they to hear some angry noises from a certain archbishop. I might even be risking my job writing this. But so far, the Archbishop has risked nothing by making snarky comments about Governor Abbott to the media. That’s just a bit of political theater popular among certain partisan groups. Apologizing to the Governor and reaching out to heal a relationship with a fellow Catholic, that would be risky and require no small amount of humility.
In my opinion, the Archbishop done two things meriting fraternal correction. First, he judged other people’s motives, which he could not possibly know. And second, he has — again, in my judgment — made public comments that were not helpful, indulging too frequently in overt political posturing rather than in quiet pastoral care. If this criticism stings or offends or does not seem entirely fair, well, that’s how Greg Abbott probably feels.
But it is worth noting, in closing, that some things I have criticized here are in no way specific to the current Archbishop of San Antonio. For even in the “Age of the Laity,” there still seem to be clerics around who assume they can mandate for laypeople what means they must use to achieve our shared ends. And that’s just so — how to put this? — so pre-Vatican II.
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