On Awful Bishops and the Retention of Faith

By Mark Shea
August 25, 2018

So the other day I posted this on the Book of Face:

“I didn’t come to the church for the bishops, so I won’t leave because of them. Much of this is very understandable lashing out in rage, but there are a lot of people who really have lost faith because of it. I wish I knew what to say to them. My faith was never in men, so men can disgust me and let me down, but they can’t take away what wasn’t theirs to give.” – Tom McDonald, echoing my exact thoughts

That explains my own interior. I wish I knew how to help those whose hearts have been wrecked by this. All I can say is “I love you and hope you find peace. Please don’t take my own continuing faith as some kind of rebuke to your pain or struggles.” I think the day is done for any defenses of the faith that begin with superior rebukes to the unbeliever. God knoweth we Catholics have done all in our power to drive away even the staunchest believer.

My friend, Sam Rocha, not in response to this but not long after it, remarked (in response to other, similar sentiments about “being Catholic for Jesus and not for men”:

Amazing how many Roman Catholics are Catholic without any people being involved all of a sudden. No humans anymore, just pure Divinity. No one since the apostles has followed Christ because they literally met Christ on the street one day. The apostolic Church is deeply and wretchedly human. This defensive Gnosticism is trash theology and trash morality.

So I replied:

I make no claim to being a Catholic “without any people being involved”. I simply note that the people involved are virtually never bishops. Oh sure they exist on the fringes of my experience and they are handy when I need some magisterial backup for this or that abstruse theological point. But as a living presence in my life as a Catholic? Virtually never. One time in my life a very good bishop actually called me just to give me a shoulder to cry on after the Greatest Catholics of All Time (including a truly vicious priest with a huge cult of combox orcs he whipped into a frenzy) did their damnedest to humiliate me and ruin my family’s income. I actually have an emotional personal attachment to that kind man (who is not, I should carefully note, an American bishop but one of your countrymen).

Beyond that, I could name maybe ten bishops in the whole wide world and I am astonished that my present bishop in Seattle is the first bishop in this diocese to have any idea that I exist.

My human connections with the Church are much closer to home and almost entirely lay. And a helluva lot of them are now damaged beyond repair by my anger and their rejection (and in some cases, betrayal).

It’s been a helluva couple of years. But at the end of the day, I’m here because of Jesus. And I’m here because of the prayers, love, and friendship that still remain amid the ruins.

And I’m here because of the saints in the communion of saints both dead and outside the US who remind me that not everywhere is the Freak Show.

And that prompted the following conversation between me and another reader. Hopefully, you will find it helpful, Gentle Reader:

But Mark Shea the whole case for the Catholic Church as the the church founded by Jesus and the only church with the really Real Presence in the eucharist rests on apostolic succession. It rests on the bishops.

These are the very people who have created this teaching. How can that teaching be trusted? Being catholic means belief that the Roman Church is the only church with valid apostolic succession. I don’t know that I can believe this anymore.

The bishops absolutely did not “create” the Tradition. They are merely the custodians of it. They no more created it than the pipe makes the water. Apostolic succession and the Tradition are not harmed by the sin of bishops. We are not Donatists.

I’m really asking you bc I want to be able to rationalize this. I promise I’m not deliberately trying to be a jerk. If we can’t trust the custodians of the tradition where does it leave us?

Precisely the nature of Tradition is that it does not depend on the personal sanctity of the custodian. What depends far more on such sanctity is the witness of the prophet. We live in in an age that exalts prophets and distrusts Tradition. A prophet mediates to us a much more immediate encounter with the true, the beautiful, the holy. And part of his impact is precisely that he is personally authentic. He is, ‘ow you say? not full of crapo. So it’s really shattering when the prophet fails or falls due to sin because the integrity of his witness is so bound up with his message.

But when the custodian of Tradition fails or falls it is he, not the Tradition that is impugned. By the very nature of the case, he is handing on something he did not invent and does not own. It was there before him. It is shared by others who can go on guaranteeing its bona fides, and it will still be here after he is gone.

I hear you. But at what point is it reasonable to conclude that this untrustworthy pack of wolves has altered the tradition they’ve been so honored to pass on to the faithful, in order to protect their own power? Or am I misusing the word tradition? It’s not like church teaching just dropped out of the sky. I’m not really talking about Mere Christianity here, but about the things that make us distinctively RC. I’m not sure how to trust that anymore.

Precisely the reason the charisms of indefectibility and infallibility are guaranteed to us by Jesus when he promises that the Spirit will lead the Church into all truth and he will be with the Church to the end of the age is that there has never been a time when the Church’s leaders were not sinful screwups. Never. The danger is not that now, at last, 2000 years down the line, the bishops are finally men of such low degree that the Tradition will be corrupted. The danger was that there, in the room with him, were dumbells who would lose track of his teaching five minutes after the Ascension were it not for the gracious protection of the Spirit making sure they would not. Infallibility and indefectibility are extremely minimalist promises and presuppose that the humans granted these gifts need them because they are dolts. They do not mean the bishops cannot be grave sinners, massively stupid, and deeply corrupt. Bishops can and have been all these things and still are. The protections only mean that the Spirit will not allow the bishops to define as part of the Tradition something that is not and he will not allow them to excise from the Tradition something that is. And the nature of the Tradition (being symphonic and communal) is that it is self-reinforcing and intensely resistant to mutation. There’s a long paper trail for it and we can see how we got from Pentecost to here and how the mustard seed grew.

Ultimately it comes back, not to the personal trustworthiness of bishops, but to Jesus and the nature of the Tradition itself.








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