Airing Things Out in the Fresh Light of Truth, and Rightly Ordered Resistance

A reader wrote the following in response to Father Testa’s article on Canceling Conservative Priests:

Ah, but is it the whole truth? For confidentiality reasons an ‘employer’ in a large organization does not release details of disciplinary disputes beyond the employee and representative, but the employee may choose share with colleagues his version, perhaps an abbreviated version of his ‘infractions’. The story being told therefore may not be the whole truth.
“Beware of the half truth; it may be the wrong half”. Author unknown.

Again comparing the Church as an organization that would have ‘HR’ policies akin to those of a large private or public organization, employees in the private or public sector who continue to disobey policies despite repeated counselling could be found insubordinate. In my viewpoint, that is what the conservative priests are doing when they repeatedly continue to contravene directives. When one is blessed to work in an organization one must follow the rules.

My perspective is that of a manager trying to coach, and ultimately having to take progressive steps to bring an employee’s behaviour in line with organizational policies. In an organization, one or a group does not have the option to unilaterally revert back to old rules. Until the organizational rules change, it is pretty clear in my mind that unilaterally breaking the rules is disobedience. As such, the Bishops may undertake corrective action.

This makes a good point, that in any normally functioning organization, the personnel decisions would be private, opaque to the outside world, which would only see the external effects of such decisions. Thus, priests are reassigned and moved about quite often (likely too often, according to the customs and laws of the Church, which envision pastors as true fathers of dioceses and parishes, there more or less for life, to raise up spiritual generations of Catholics, but I digress, and may write on that in the future).

The key term is ‘normally functioning’. When any corporation begins to wander, even deviate, from its purpose and its mission, from its own traditions, customs, and even its own laws and constitutions, its members feel impelled to adopt extraordinary measures, even going ‘outside the system’, in an attempt to bring things back somewhat to normal.

There are historical precedents for such, in the secular world, of course, but also in the Church, with even saints bringing their disagreements with recalcitrant bishops into the open forum, when canonical and other procedures break down. Resolutions are eventually reached, but often after much strife.

I sympathize with the difficulties entailed by confidentiality, and agree we should generally avoid airing out our dirty laundry, institutional or personal. But I don’t think the point of Father Marco’s article was to advocate such, nor of disobedience to the bishop. Rather, his intent seems to be to bring into the open forum a tendency, if not an unofficial policy, in certain dioceses to limit, silence or even remove, conservative, traditional priests, or block them from entry in the first place. Most of these priests and would-be priests are not ‘breaking the law’ or being disobedient, but are themselves often following the actual laws, prescriptions and exhortations of the Church. We have all heard stories of seminarians expelled for praying the Rosary; or praying in Latin; or reading the Summa; or contradicting heretical professors; or being explicitly pro-life and pro-chastity, not going along with all the ‘reindeer games’ in dysfunctional, or worse, seminaries, and so on. Now we have the Pope himself criticizing an ill-defined ‘rigidity’ – but, like our own skeletons, do we not need rigidity in some areas – moral principles come to mind – along with flexibility in others? Much peace and good order follow upon recognizing the difference.

Orthodox and traditional priests who do make it through have their own strife in ‘liberal’ (that is, unorthodox) parishes governed (often illicitly, and by tacit consent) by laypersons given too much authority, by law or by custom.

Now, with the over-reactions to Covid – at least to this author’s mind – this is all coming to the fore: We have dioceses in which baptism, confession, and even marriages and the holy sacrifice of the Mass were (and in some places still are) effectively forbidden for prolonged, indefinite times, even going beyond the decrees of state functionaries (which were hyperbolic enough), putting the very mission and nature of the Church in peril. It is certainly questionable whether bishops have the authority to do this, even if they have the ‘power’ (see the distinction in the quotation from Chesterton yesterday).

We may ask the same for proscribing reception of Holy Communion in the traditional manner; the forced wearing of masks and, now, proof of vaccination. And on it goes.

The Church is not primarily a human institution, but a divine and mystical one, whose purpose is to lead souls to heaven, whatever else she does on earth. The Church does not have ‘rules’, per se, but laws, many of them from God Himself, and we should recall the final line in the final Code of Canon Law (#1752):

prae oculis habita salute animarum quae in Ecclesia suprema semper lex

Keeping before our eyes that, in the Church, the salvation of souls is always the highest law.

Divine law – God’s law – requires that the Church – and that means priests – offer the sacraments, even in times of the greatest peril. Perhaps this may be done in a more controlled manner, but they must be offered nonetheless. come hell or high water, right up to the end of time. The history of the Church and her honour roll of saints (see today’s Saint Camillus) speaks no less.

Bishops, and still less diocesan and parochial officials, are not God, and their decrees and policies are not always the vox Dei. To allude to today’s first reading, there is no burning bush in a chancery office. Obedience to ecclesial authority should certainly be the norm, and is usually (normally!) the virtuous way to go, but does have its limits. There is, after all, the vice of servility, for there are higher laws, customs, traditions, to which we, our prelates, even the Pope himself, are bound, to keep, safeguard and enforce.

The commentator is correct that there is always ‘another side’ to these stories (as someone said to me recently, in any disagreement there are three sides: The perspective of the two who disagree, and then the truth). But too often what truth there might be is stonewalled behind lawyers and media correspondents, echoing anodyne boilerplate and soundbites. There are stories of priests being retired and dismissed without even meeting with their bishops, who are meant to be solicitous fathers to them.

Hence, the perceived need to air at least some this out in the public forum.

We laypeople comprise about 99.8% of the Church’s billion-plus membership, and hence have a vested interest in the health of our too-few and often beleaguered priests – spiritual, but also psychological and physical. We should help befriend, support and defend them, especially those amongst them who are most faithful and zealous – And this would include prospective priests and seminarians.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est – The Church is always in need of reform, and sometimes that reform requires respectful dialogue, disagreement, reasoned criticism, and even, at times, hopefully rarely, resistance – not only to our priests, but even to the highest of Church authorities. Ponder these sobering yet energizing words from the great Dietrich von Hildebrand. What was a lay Catholic to do when, as Saint Jerome laments, so many bishops went Arian? Or those who acquiesced to Henry’ VIII’s illegitimate marriage, and his blasphemous Oath of Supremacy? Or those bishops and priests who swore to the anti-Catholic principles of the ‘Revolution’ in France? Even Saint Jean Vianney’s family held ‘secret’ Masses (as if any Mass is truly secret!) behind closed doors?

We are not (yet?) in such overtly critical waters, but the signs are troubling (exhibit A: Germany and its synodal path). As we go through our own crises, we must pray, discern, seek counsel, strive for humility, and avoid arrogance or any hint of pride, and be willing to take the consequences of whatever decisions we make in conscience, trusting that God will see His justice and truth triumph in the end.