Friday, November 02, 2007

My Bishop, Right or Wrong

Look at the sexual abuse scandal. Suffering under the leadership of the same men who allowed this abomination, who are now paying ridiculous amounts of money to protect their own hides, is hardly sensible or wise from the temporal perspective. My archbishop is Roger Cardinal Mahony, described in the media as the "Teflon Cardinal" for his ability to slide out from under any reponsibility for the scandal. My bishop faced contempt charges for sending a priest under investigation for sexual abuse charges to Canada for "treatment." But unfortunately, they are the people that God saw fit to ordain to their respective positions, and I have to accept that. I don't get to pick my bishop, my metropolitan, or my Pope. I can only pray for God to send good men and live with it when He doesn't. From the perspective of worldly wisdom, that is "complacency" or even "negligence." I can't disagree or even expect you to understand; it is thoroughly alien to anything in this world. But if you want to understand the Catholic way of thinking, it is that the Church comes from God's will and grace alone.

During the Sixties, I often saw the slogan “My Country, Right or Wrong” on the bumper or rearview mirror of pickup trucks. Regardless of its original intent, it’s come to epitomize blind patriotism. But, in fairness, this was a response to the equally blind unpatriotism (to coin a phrase) of the Counterculture.

Prejean has articulated the ecclesiastical equivalent of the slogan. A good Catholic, like a good German, should salute smartly, click his heels, and follow the orders of his ecclesiastical superiors without question. After all, “they are the people that God saw fit to ordain to their respective positions,”

So his conclusion follows, with flawless fatality, from a flawed premise. It’s not that his church can do no wrong. Rather, it matters not whether his church does right or wrong.

And not just the institution of the church, but its officers. No matter how corrupt his denomination becomes, no matter how depraved its officers, he owes them his unquestioning and amoral allegiance.

It’s instructive, in this regard, to consider what Catholics find scandalous. They are scandalized by Protestant diversity. For them, that’s the worst-case scenario. That is intolerable.

Yet the sexual abuse scandal is not a worse-case scenario. It is not intolerable.

In a free-church or low-church polity, the laity does get to pick who is in charge. And, by the same token, the laity can fire whoever is in charge.

Take the case of Ted Haggard. His church fired him for sexual misconduct. Chaos! Anarchy!

If you want a watertight argument for the superiority of Rome, it’s the fact that the layman doesn’t get to pick his bishop or pontiff. So, if you have a top-down sexual abuse scandal, well, that just goes with the territory.

How could anyone fail to see what a signal improvement this arrangement is over the “anarchy” or “chaos” of the low-church tradition.

Prejean, as a good Catholic, is committed to the system, right or wrong—and to its officers, right or wrong. The system can never become too evil to buck the system or its officers. That would be treasonous.

Prejean is a process purist. All he cares about is the purity of the process and not the purity of the product. If the Pope were to sacrifice a child as a burnt offering in St. Peter’s, he’d have to accept that.

By contrast, let’s compare his Catholic fanaticism to the Biblical view of institutional authority, whether civil or religious. Because institutional authority is a delegated authority, deriving its authorization from God, it is not absolute.

Under the Mosaic Law, both the priesthood and the monarchy were divine institutions. But they took the form of a constitutional priesthood and constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute priesthood and absolute monarchy. Because office-holders were empowered by the covenant, they would be deposed (or worse) for breach of covenant.

In terms of church/state relations, the state was not above the church, and the church was not above the state, for both were answerable to the law of God. For this reason, either sphere could intervene if the other sphere became corrupt. The church didn’t police itself and the state didn’t police itself. The civil authorities could intervene to rectify a corrupt religious order, while the religious authorities could intervene to rectify a corrupt civil order.

A theology of revolution is implicit in the notion of a constitutional monarchy. And, indeed, Jehoiada the priest staged a coup d’etat to overthrow an idolatrous monarch—even to the point of regicide (2 Kgs 11:20; 2 Chron 23:14-15)—and restore the status quo ante (2 Kgs 11-12; 2 Chron 23-24).

Conversely, King Josiah conducted a purge of decadent religious regime. As one scholar notes,

“Josiah (c. 640-609 BC), son of Manasseh, undid all that Manasseh had done and extended his reforms even to the removal of Solomonic bamot in Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives (2 Kings 22:23). To the extent that he controlled parts of the north, he reversed all the cultic innovations introduced by Jeroboam I (1 Kgs 23:15-19). The foreign cultic figures (kemarim) were forced to stop their activities, the Judahite priests were permitted to continue to serve only in a limited way in Jerusalem, and the northern Israelite priests were put to death at their altars (2 Kings 23:5-9,20), R. Hess, Israelite Religions (Baker/Apollos 2007), 253.

Indeed, there is evidence that not only officeholders could be disciplined (from the outside), but the office itself could be modified in case of abuse (Ezk 44:1-14; Cf. I. Duguid, Ezekiel [Zondervan 1999], 502).

Like any good advocate, Prejean tries to make a virtue of necessity by staging a preemptive strike against criticism. If you oppose his Hobbesean view of institutional authority, then you’re guilty of “worldly wisdom.”

But he offers no argument. Indeed, he’s already admitted that he cannot argue for the divinity of the church (meaning his particular denomination). But he doesn’t need an argument cuz he has an “experience.”

Prejean’s apologetic is a communion wafer. My wafer is better than your wafer.


  1. I appreciate the restraint you showed by waiting all the way until your second paragraph to make a parallel between Catholics and the Nazis. :)

  2. So one fallible group keeps another fallible group in check. But when one group concludes that the other is corrupt, how do they know that they are correct? Are they no less susceptible to the human flaws that they claim brought the others to err? Groups can become corrupted through misinformation and clever rhetoric and remove non-corrupt leaders from leadership positions just as they can remove truly corrupt leaders from power. Over time, why would the result be leadership capable of maintaining sound doctrine rather than leadership who are clever politicians best able to manipulate the crowds and hide their own indiscretions?

    It seems like there is overwhelming selective pressure in the direction of clever politicians as church leaders and away from leaders who are willing to make tough and often unpopular decisions. After all, their leadership is dependent upon their popularity.

  3. tjw,
    Yes, it's depressing. Human wise- there's no magic oracle in this life. There's no one who won't disappoint you in the end in one way or another.

    "But when one group concludes that the other is corrupt, how do they know that they are correct? Are they no less susceptible to the human flaws that they claim brought the others to err?"

    If it can't know it's correct, it can't know if it's following the correct leaders, can it?
    Also, you can't use a borderline case to disprove a general principle. That would be like saying that because corrupt judges and police officers have existed, we all need to be anarchists. In general when clergy are found to be corrupt, it's usually something pretty egregious having to do with sex or money. It's not based on some subtle point that the laity are misunderstanding.

    Selective pressure may be towards leaders who are talented at covering up their own indiscretions (which is true of Catholic bishops as well), but if there is in principle accountability to an objective moral standard, the system can at least be corrected (as with Haggard).

    Your last paragraph really doesn't change the balance. You're pointing to the possibility of the corruption of the laity (with the collusion of leaders) rather than of the magisterium - if sound leaders are discouraged, then the laity would have corrupted doctrine. But you haven't shown why this is less reformable than an institution accountable to no one. Your argument that freedom from accountability would result in better leaders seems to lack logical force, and with the scandals such as these it lacks empirical force as well.

  4. One more thing, tjw - this question of Sola Scriptura vs authority of the RCC can't be short circuited by the kind of argument you're trying to make, since both sides can bring up similar objections.

    It needs to stay with the questions of what the Bible means by 'Church', what it says about ecclesiology, authority, transmission of doctrine, etc. (unless you subscribe to a partim partim view, I guess).