Bishops Under Attack
There is a problem with the Catholic Church's use of the various sanctions available under canon law. The Church has no means to compel obedience, relying instead upon the willingness of Catholics to submit voluntarily to its disciplines. This has become deeply ingrained in Catholic culture due in no small measure to having made mistakes and having learned from them. Resorting to civil authority is not an option that is open to us lest we place such authority over the Church with dire consequences. Moreover, such sanctions are always meant to be medicinal not punitive. The Church wants them to bring about repentance and reconciliation not estrangement or even schism.
There have been several instances in recent years involving bishops attempting to deal with groups representing themselves as Catholic. While some groups avoid the use of the name Catholic in their names simply to avoid difficulties, others call themselves Catholic in spite of significant differences with the Church. The blog Team Orthodoxy recently voluntarily changed its name from Orthodox Catholicism in response to being made aware of canon 216 without any involvement of their bishop. The Bellarmine Theological Forum removed the name Catholic at the request of the bishop. On the other hand, according to blogger Mark Shea, The National Catholic Reporter and Catholics for Free Choice have also run afoul of canon 216 and there is no evidence of compliance to date.
Sometimes a decree revoking the right of a group to call themselves Catholic can have far reaching consequences. Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix revoked the right of St. Joseph's Hospital to identify itself as a Catholic institution in December 2010 citing concerns over compliance with Catholic moral teaching. The Catholic Health Association backed the hospital over the bishop. Recently Catholic Healthcare West, the hospital's parent company, decided to change it's name to Dignity Health and end any affiliation with the Catholic Church. Citing concerns about the Church's ban on abortions, in-vitro fertilizations and sterilizations, they hope for better growth opportunities in a marketplace that is increasingly secular. Clearly the health care debate in the US is going to have far reaching consequences for Catholic institutions.
In Detroit, Archbishop Vigneron seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place in his attempt to deal with both liberal and conservative groups in his diocese. The American Catholic Council, a liberal group, announced plans to hold its inaugural conference in June 2010. The archbishop took the unusual step of warning Detroit Catholics against participating in the ACC conference or allowing ACC meetings on church property. The reason? "Because a counter-structure of ecclesial authority is being set up that stands in opposition to the authority of the bishops, the Pope and the divine constitution of the Church as articulated by Vatican II." In spite of the warning the ACC held a mass attended by many Detroit area priests and deacons. In December of 2011 the Archdiocese of Detroit released a statement to the press saying that RealCatholicTV, a conservative producer of internet programming and catechetics, does not have permission to use the name Catholic. So far the situation is still unresolved. Both liberals and conservatives accuse the archbishop of being sympathetic to the other side.
There is a pattern here to be sure and it does not seem to have anything to do with the usual conservative liberal divide. Each time a bishop acts publicly in this way it generates a flurry of press coverage and opposition. The media takes a perverse joy in highlighting the bishop's helplessness in the face of opposition from both within and outside the Church. Who benefits from this situation?
One immediate beneficiary would seem to be the Obama administration, which is coming under fire from the American bishops over implementation of HHS rules requiring Catholics to pay for drugs and procedures that violate church teaching. Archbishop Dolan has spoken out very clearly about this issue but it really will come down to who has the most votes. If Catholics can be conditioned to ignore their bishops, then convincing them to support policies and candidates that violate Church teaching should not pose a problem. According to Pope Benedict XVI, “it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be appreciated at every level of ecclesial life.”
We were warned by Jesus that there would be times of lawlessness and chaos in which the Church would be persecuted.
"Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end wil be saved." Mt24:9-13
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