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Letter from Rome: The political responsibility of bishops

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

Before I get to the latest from the news factory formerly known as the Vatican, a few housekeeping items. We had some troubles with our new server last month and were unable to send out the newsletter. Technology has a way of making us expect it to work perfectly all the time, which only disappoints us even more when it fails. If you’d like to read my letter and the other pieces we intended to deliver, you can find them on the Acton International page in English and Italian.

The technological disruption also gave us an opportunity to re-think the content of the newsletter. Thinking economically, we are not sure the benefit of translating three articles into Italian each month exceeds the cost of doing so. As a result, we have not translated any this month. If this is some pent-up demand among our Italian readers for them, please let us know and we’ll return to our traditional practice.

It’s no news to say that tradition and innovation are in tension with each other. Knowing when to side with one or the other is a particularly difficulty challenge for liberal societies and especially the statesmen (and stateswomen!) who are tasked with framing and guiding our public choices. The fact that the Microsoft Word I’m using to write this doesn’t like the term “statesmen” (preferring “political leaders,” “diplomats” and “public officials”) is revealing.

What is a liberal society, after all, and who speaks for it? If we are just a random collection of free and equal individuals with no real obligations to each other besides the consensual, then each of us is only responsible for himself and no one is entitled to speak for us. On the other hand, if we are parts of a greater whole and believe in the common good, there can and probably should be a certain hierarchical ordering of responsibilities among us.

I say “probably” because it is now impossible to believe in the ability of our elites to govern responsibly. This applies not only to our political leaders, but to our religious and business ones as well; even our entertainers fail to meet minimal standards of decency. This “crisis of responsibility” makes us distrust what were once culture-shaping institutions, deepening the chasms that divide us and leaving us further isolated as atomistic individuals.

The Catholic Church, of course, is the institutions of all institutions, and its failures of leadership are particularly galling, considering the Founder is Jesus Christ and the Protector is the Holy Spirit. Last month I wrote about the lack of a sense of justice in the hierarchy when it came to punishing criminals. Perhaps more serious is the inability of our bishops to form and guide us. The recent “provisional agreement” with the People’s Republic of China and the upcoming Synod for youth are two contemporary instances of the problem.

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the details of the deal with China. We are told to accept on good faith that the Holy See desires the unity of Catholics, even if this comes at the expense of the integrity of the episcopacy. The Vatican is telling us to trust this institutional process without giving us any reason to do so. It’s the style of 19th-century diplomacy and completely unsuited for an era of institutional breakdown. That the agreement is with an atheistic totalitarian regime with a horrific record of denying human rights make it much more troublesome.

This model of Church-State relations harkens back to an age when the Church actually governed in a political sense. Running the Papal States required skills that go beyond issuing Messages for the World Day of this or that. It meant protecting sovereignty, punishing criminals, collecting taxes and other unpleasant things that most theologians would prefer not to concern themselves with. If the recovery of the Papal States is the long-term objective, officials of the Secretariat of State should say so.

It used to be normal for governments to collaborate with the Holy See in the nomination of bishops. One reason is that bishops were considered temporal as well as spiritual leaders and therefore having political relevance. This may not have been in keeping with the example of Christ, but many of His Vicars thought it a necessary and legitimate aspect of their divine mandate.

Talking about the political responsibility of the bishops sounds like a joke today. With all the reports of sexual abuse and cover-up within the Church, no one believes that the Catholic bishops are in any condition to govern anything at all, including their own chanceries and seminaries. The laity have little or no trust in our pastors.

What can the bishops do to restore their credibility? First and foremost, they have to speak the truth, even and especially when it is inconvenient to do so – with charity, of course, but treating the laity like adults. With all due respect to the Holy Father, silence in the face of difficult questions about the nature of marriage or episcopal malfeasance is no answer.

Bishops also need to address political issues from a non- or, better yet, supra-partisan perspective. Far too many think they must balance right-wing stances on life and sexuality with left-wing ones on the environment and economics, or conversely that they should not say anything about politics at all. A more comprehensive vision of politics and what we can reasonably expect from it would be immensely beneficial.

Finally, when it comes to the youth, bishops need to focus on their education and formation rather than pandering to their ignorance. Serious young people want to grow in faith and holiness, even if it is difficult and unpopular. Maturity implies an understanding of what a fully human, virtuous life is. We currently have too many teachers who prefer the immature out of a false, sentimental sense of innocence.

I may be asking too much of bishops, who are, after all, elites in a populist age. Many of them are aware of the anger and disappointment directed towards them. Withdrawing from the public arena or restricting themselves to speaking in platitudes, however, is not the responsible thing to do. At their best, true pastors do not avoid politics but seek to transform it as a converted soul does the body.

KJ Sig.

Kishore Jayabalan

Featured image used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Cropped. 

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