In his most recent post, Mike Lewis mentioned a website called “Faithful Shepherds,” which is spun off from LifeSiteNews. Faithful Shepherds ostensibly exists to “hold bishops accountable.” Gallingly, given current events in the Church, what the site means by “accountable” is not “morally accountable” but “accountable to a certain set of Catholic political priorities.” For the people at LifeSiteNews, publicly taking pro-choice politicians to task is equally constitutive of orthodoxy as holding pro-life views oneself. Both issues are listed below a bishop’s positions on last year’s Viganò letter and the interminable Amoris Laetitia controversy. (In both cases, the allegedly-orthodox position is the one that is more suspicious of Pope Francis.) The website is part of LSN’s growing platform as a sort of one-stop emporium for talking points and brickbats to use against Pope Francis and the bishops who share his priorities and vision for the Church. It even contains a mechanism for sending semi-automated postcards to bishops either lauding them or chastising them over what Faithful Shepherds has to say about them.
The other night, a curiosity-driven search of the site for various bishops with whom I am familiar led me down several dismaying byways.
I’m a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter and geographically reside in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, so the bishops with whom I am most familiar are Steven Lopes and Mitchell Rozanski. Faithful Shepherds, understandably, loves Lopes, since he’s definitely a conservative figure; I like Lopes too, because he runs a tight ship and is willing to crack down on the element of the anti-Francis vortex that intersects with the Ordinariate when he has to. Faithful Shepherds’ takes on Lopes are more or less verifiably correct and are understandable for the type of website that this is. It is when I got to the website’s page on Rozanski that obvious problems with it started to emerge.
Rozanski is listed as not having “enough evidence collected” on the issue of his “pro-life leadership.” As somebody who almost always attends Diocese of Springfield Masses (the mountains are high, and my Ordinariate parish is far away), I’ve personally experienced two examples of Bishop Rozanski’s pro-life leadership. First, every Mother’s Day he has all the churches in the diocese sell bouquets of roses in the narthex to support pro-life organizations in Massachusetts. Secondly, the last time the Massachusetts legislature considered legalizing assisted suicide, as it intermittently does, Bishop Rozanski had every priest in the diocese read out a pastoral letter arguing against the proposal at every weekend Mass. I’m not necessarily thrilled about the association of pro-life causes with Mother’s Day in particular, especially since my own mother (to whom I am very close) is staunchly pro-choice, but both of these strike me as much more effective examples of pro-life leadership than simply declaring the Church’s opposition to abortion over and over again like a customer service menu tree.
While the idea that there isn’t enough evidence that Mitchell Rozanski is pro-life is obviously ridiculous to anybody who’s lived in Western Massachusetts for any length of time, the problem doesn’t seem to be with the website’s standards. Instead, it appears that the way the website is set up is that one can provide “evidence” on one’s own bishop that the site then aggregates, and it is possible that not enough people in the Diocese of Springfield have done so yet. This setup is worrying in and of itself; it carries a distinct hue of informing, denunciation, and public shaming. What it reminds me of more than anything else is the concept of “getting receipts”—documentation of embarrassing or immoral behavior to be filed away in a sort of akashic Rolodex for later use against a foe. Moreover, Faithful Shepherds seems to reserve the right to decide which of these #receipts to accept and which not to.
More worrying still is Faithful Shepherds’ take on Edward Scharfenberger, the Bishop of Albany, who succeeded the recently-disgraced liberal lion Howard Hubbard five years ago. Two of my closest friends live in the Diocese of Albany and it is probably the diocese with whose internal politics I am most familiar other than my own. Scharfenberger is much more scrupulously orthodox than Hubbard but he is not what most people would call a doctrinaire conservative. One of Hubbard’s positive legacies is a good relationship between Catholics and Jews in the Albany area and this has continued to be an emphasis of the diocese under Scharfenberger, whose grandfather was Jewish (as was mine, so I see “Bishop Ed” as a kindred spirit of sorts). What Faithful Shepherds cares about when it comes to Bishop Ed, however, is that he “supports investigating Archbishop Viganò’s claims.”
I found this astonishing given what I know about Bishop Scharfenberger so I read the sources that Faithful Shepherds cited. One was about Scharfenberger coming out early against ex-Cardinal McCarrick when his scandal first broke last summer. The other was about Scharfenberger being the bishop most strongly against Cardinal Wuerl’s call for the bishops to police one another a week or two later. Neither article linked mentioned Viganò or his letter, which makes sense given that both articles predated the publication of the letter by at least two weeks.
Perhaps, I thought, reading this, Bishop Ed does support investigating Viganò’s charges. It wouldn’t be entirely out of character, since he has been on the warpath against the abuse coverups. So I googled “scharfenberger vigano.” The first result, mirabile dictu, was a website called Planet Albany lamenting that Scharfenberger had not commented on Viganò’s charges (of which charges Planet Albany was itself partially supportive and partially skeptical). Almost every other result was from Scharfenberger’s initial appointment in 2014, dealing with Viganò in his then-capacity as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States; in this post he would have had a role in Scharfenberger’s appointment. No word about Bishop Ed “supporting” Viganò, his letter, or the veracity of the claims therein. In other words, no word that Faithful Shepherds had not, quite simply, lied about the extent to which a bishop known for his integrity on the abuse crisis was sympathetic to their own positions. A little more digging revealed that other bishops–including, incidentally, Bishop Lopes–had also been characterized as supportive or not supportive of Viganò on the basis of their remarks on non-Viganò aspects of the crisis.
Reader, I closed the tab. Faithful Shepherds is not a reliable source. Not only does its raison d’être include fomenting intrigue against the Pope, not only does its definition of orthodoxy involve adherence to a very specific series of political views, but it is not even honest on its own terms. If Faithful Shepherds is neither able to ascertain whether a Catholic bishop is pro-life without soliciting informants, nor able to be honest about what responses to the abuse crisis another bishop does and does not support, then it is of no use as a key or tool for the faithful.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.