Bishops Ignore Their Burning House

By Rod Dreher
The Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
May 18, 2004

On the road this weekend, I went to Sunday Mass at a Catholic parish outside the Dallas diocese. The priest did something I've only seen happen once before in the 11 years I've been a Catholic: He spoke from the pulpit against abortion and the politicians who support it.

This is going to shock non-Catholics, who seem to think that we faithful papists hear nothing but lectures on abortion and sexual morality from our priests. It's not true. Except for illness, I've not missed a single Sunday Mass since I entered the church in 1993. Though I've lived in major East Coast sees, as well as Dallas, I have yet to hear a sermon explaining, or even proclaiming, church teaching on any aspect of human sexuality - save for abortion, which I'd last heard preached on in, no kidding, 1995.

After this Sunday's Mass, I thanked the priest for his words, and told him I wanted to praise him in print. He kindly asked me not to, explaining that it could only get him in trouble with his bishop. I understood. I've known good priests to be punished by their bishops for teaching the Catholic faith, but no priests punished for failing to do so.

This is the context in which the move by some Catholic bishops to deny communion to pro-choice politicians - and now, according to the bishop of Colorado Springs, to Catholics who vote for them - should be understood.

Look, I believe that lawmakers who vote for legalized abortion have directly participated in a form of murder, and should be denied communion, which the church teaches is literally the Body of Christ. But I also believe it's folly, and even grandstanding for a Vatican audience, for the American bishops to get on their high horse about this issue right now.

The child sex abuse scandal and the evacuation of moral authority it caused is part of it, but there's a more fundamental problem here: For an entire generation, Catholics in this country have not been taught the basics of the faith.

In a powerful essay published in The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper, Father Joseph F. Wilson writes that this communion controversy is taking place as if the church in America has clearly and forcefully taught its people what the Eucharist is, and why abortion is so morally repugnant. Nonsense, says the Brooklyn priest, who argues that parishes have fed their people a steady diet of noncontroversial, content-free "mommy religion" for so long that nobody should be surprised that Catholics don't understand what the church teaches, and why.

"They may come to Mass, but they are, sadly, never really fed, never really formed in the Catholic faith," the priest says. "And their attitudes and values morph into what we would expect of amiable pagans."

"And as a church," he concludes, "we have done this to ourselves."

This is exactly correct. The episcopal crusade for electoral pro-life purity brings to mind a principal overseeing a failing high school, who marches into a classroom demanding that illiterate children who have been taught by incompetents suddenly read a passage from Shakespeare.

That's something 10th-graders should be able to do. But if the students come from a system where making them feel good about themselves was the only point of school, and in which the principals have, for 40 years, done little or nothing to ensure that the teachers were properly educated, and were held accountable for their performance in the classroom - well, that principal is going to look foolish and out of touch. As do these Catholic bishops, who have presided over a 40-year collapse of sacramental and catechetical discipline.

I suppose I should be grateful that at least some bishops, at long last, have found their spines. You have to start somewhere. But rather than plucking the speck from John Kerry's eye, it would be better for the bishops to examine critically their own records as pastors and teachers. How is it that only one in three American Catholics accept church teaching on abortion? How is it that only the same miserable percentage has the foggiest idea what the Eucharist really is? John Kerry, whatever his sins, didn't cause this to happen.

It's fine for some bishops to get serious about the church discipline now, but as Father Wilson puts it, this is like someone standing on the front lawn watching his house burn to the ground, wondering what kind of table would go best in the dining room.

Editorial board member Rod Dreher is an occasional Viewpoints columnist. His e-mail address is


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