Certain political and ideological currents within the Catholic Church treat almost any contemporary exercise of magisterial teaching as cause for pessimism, suspicion, and worry. In this way of thinking any new teaching that isn’t a straightforward reiteration of previous teaching should be understood as a departure from previous teaching, and any (or almost any) departure from previous teaching should be presumed heterodox. Much could be said about the fundamental problems with this way of looking at the Church, or even about the selective and self-dealing way in which people apply this approach. The social teaching of Mater et Magistra that Catholic conservatives in the United States rejected with the “Mater si, Magistra no” slogan of the early 1960s wasn’t exactly a novelty, butPope John XXIII’s decision to reiterate it when he did failed the ideological stress test anyway. What I think has gone without sufficient remark, however, is the astoundingly high regard in which many people who hold this suspicious view of magisterial teaching hold other exercises of authority in the Church.
“Believe in the moral teachings of Christianity,” British Prime Minister Clement Attlee once told an interviewer who asked him about his religious beliefs. “Can’t believe all the mumbo jumbo.” Attlee was not an orthodox man and never would have claimed to be, but there’s something respectable in a basic intellectual sense about his position. I can’t say the same for the reverse, the position that there’s something wrong with Church teaching but that the sacral mystique surrounding Church leadership is all hunky-dory. Yet this is exactly the position that we all too often see on the traditionalist-adjacent Catholic right today.
Michael Haynes of LifeSiteNews, in October 2021, approvingly quoted Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s warning that “the spiritual authority of the bishops and the mission of the laity” (implicitly, a mission involving submission to the bishops) was at risk because of “the political misunderstanding that the Church revolved around power that now has to be limited and shared ‘democratically’”—in other words, that limits on the bishops’ power are a threat to Catholicism. José Antonio Ureta continued the use of “democracy” as a snarl term about a year later when he wrote that “papal despotism is used to equalize and democratize the Church” in a wildly racist, elitist, and politically extreme-right essay on tfp.org. Back in 2019, Pedro Gabriel wrote about an extremely bizarre episode in which the pope’s critics attacked him for “disrespecting his office” by not allowing pilgrims to kiss his ring during a visit to Loreto (because he feared spreading germs). Mike Lewis’s essay “Synod Cynics and the Baptismal Call” provides many other examples of this mindset, wherein anybody who isn’t already in a position of spiritual authority within the Church is of suspect orthodoxy whenever they try to participate in Church governance (even though the Pope is of suspect orthodoxy as well!).
I am not going to mince words on this. I can think of very little that says “calling good evil and calling evil good” more than advocating for reflexive deference to the Catholic hierarchy except when they are teaching magisterially. The “Mater si, Magistra no” attitude towards Catholic authority is exactly backwards; the human, hierarchical, institutional element of the Church is a much better teacher than mother and has been for at least the past century.
Whether or not the charism of ordained ministry includes special insight when teaching on faith and morals is a matter of belief; if one does not hold that belief, plenty of avenues to work that out are available, up to and including ceasing to adhere to Catholicism. Whether or not the charism of ordained ministry includes special talent (or even competence!) when it comes to administration, oversight, interpersonal tact, or the ordained person’s own moral behavior is, however, an empirical question. It can be proven or disproven, and in case after case has been disproven to any rational observer. Trusting neither the clergy’s teaching authority nor its governing authority is a defensible set of attitudes; trusting the clergy’s governing authority more than one trusts its teaching authority is stark raving madness.
I’m tempted to just assert this as an obvious truth, but evidently it isn’t, so I won’t. Here are some examples of the moral insanity behind the atmosphere of awe, social cachet, and political and governmental deference extended to priests and bishops. I’m choosing ones that haven’t even reached the level of newsworthiness:
As Paul Fahey wrote recently, a certain priest in his own life refused absolution to a woman who confessed to having undergone a sterilization procedure following a traumatic pregnancy, feeling that she was “insufficiently sorry” for having done so. This woman then left the Catholic faith. God doesn’t care how “sorry” you “feel” for your sins—“salutary pain and sadness” are supposed to accompany penance; they are not themselves penance (CCC §1431), fortunately for people who have mental illnesses affecting their emotional responses and who would, in many cases, be irremediably hellbound if contrition were an emotional state. This random priest, however, certainly cared, and drove somebody out of the Church because of it.
In many dioceses in the Northeastern United States (and probably elsewhere), already-unpopular bishops have embarked on controversial church-closing and parish-merging programs, the ostensible purpose of which is generally to save money rather than to recognize the inconvenient and upsetting fact that these are parishes with declining congregations. The money has in several diocese not, ultimately, been saved, because the diocese has ended up declaring bankruptcy in response to sex abuse litigation. The charism of money management has evidently not devolved upon the bishops in question, but diocesan bishops and parish priests nevertheless have ultimate control over financial decisions made in or by their dioceses and parishes.
A priest I know once responded to my request that he say a Mass for the sick newborn baby of a non-Christian friend by asking if the baby had been baptized, then demanding to know why I had not done so myself. I occasionally regret that I restrained myself, hearing that. This same priest later tried to get a Catholic Charities English class for refugees (most of the students were Central American and Congolese Catholics) shuttered for using the church building’s electricity after hours.
Recently at Mass, I listened to a homily in which the priest repeatedly used a phrase that many consider antisemitic. Afterwards I called the priest, who was young and very recently ordained, to discuss the matter. He seemed receptive to my concerns and apologized. The next week, however, he used the same canard in another homily, in identical terms.
In all of these cases, some deference to different knowledge or skill sets held by laypeople involved in the incident, or even to basic interpersonal tact and common sense, would have gone miles in terms of making the priest’s or bishop’s decision-making more defensible.
Pope Francis, the man this website supports and defends, has made a number of baffling, negligent, and even deeply disturbing governance decisions himself. The Barros case in Chile is the foremost example. That case did ultimately set in motion a chain of events that led to positive reform, but this is a bit like saying that ultimately 9/11 set in motion a chain of events that led to some great pop punk albums. And this is the strongest possible defense of a high-profile decision made by a Church authority whom I and the other contributors to this website generally support and defend. We shouldn’t desperately trot out half-baked utilitarianism to paper over truly inexcusable decisions. We can be grateful for the pope’s change of heart after the Chilean people and press confronted him, but his refusal to listen to the survivors until he had no choice was a concrete failure on his part. The founders of this website made a conscious editorial decision not to defend it at the time. How could any self-respecting member of the laity support the right of clerics to make these decisions about one another—and about us—unrestricted and without accountability? It beggars reason.
We need to hold Church governance decisions to the same standard of account as any other governing authority. Many of the greatest saints, Catherine of Siena for example, did just this in their lives. This does involve, I think, training ourselves out of some of the hyper-deferential mystique surrounding the priesthood. This need for greater vigilance touches on how we react to the abuse crisis, ill-judged political interventions, financial mismanagement, and more, all of which have precipitated one of the greatest crises of credibility in the history of Catholicism. The stakes for a more pragmatic and realistic understanding of hierarchical authority have rarely ever been higher.
Photo by Mike Hsieh on Unsplash
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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.