Writer to Conservative Bishops: “Watch. Listen. You Might Learn Something.”

Pope Francis’ press conference on the return flight from Brazil

Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on Catholic bishops’ varied responses to Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” comment. Some welcomed the remark, others disapproved, and yet more tried to convince the world there was nothing new to it.  Michael Sean Winters comments on bishops’ responses in National Catholic Reporter with an eye towards those bishops struggling with the pope’s new leadership.

The responses of anti-LGBT Catholics caused Winters to rethink the role of and vision for bishops in our Church, as he writes:

“It would be amusing, if it were not so sad, to see many conservative Catholics attempt to qualify Pope Francis’ comment – ‘who am I to judge?’ – when asked about the circumstance of a Vatican prelate against whom charges of homosexual conduct were leveled…

“More troubling have been the reactions of some bishops. Emblematic would be the statement issued by San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone

“Here is a man who clearly thinks that his primary duty as pastor is to defend the moral law. Certainly, his words do not suggest he has ever talked to gay people and acquired the ‘smell of the sheep’ from them. In an early section of the statement, in which he affirms the dignity of all people, including gay people, there is a lack of human warmth that is astounding.”

Winters points out that American bishops have reduced the moral law to sexual ethics as a sole focus, but instead of criticizing this errant narrowing he asks the larger question: are bishops first and foremost supposed to defend the moral law?

The columnist provides a brief historical rundown on morality from Scriptural roots to contemporary contexts. Of Jesus’ teachings and the first Christians, Winters writes:

“More importantly, Jesus called His disciples not just to a strict moral life, but to a prior stance towards other human beings, especially those in need, and reserved to Himself the judgment of others, a judgment He dispenses with great mercy: ‘Than neither do I condemn you,’ he said to the woman caught in the act of adultery.

“The early Church was certainly aware of the need for the moral law, but that concern did not dominate the early Church.”

Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters

Of the modern world, Winters makes two points. First, religions are forced to jettison faith and keep just their ethics when they speak publicly. When a Catholic bishop’s primary role is just a defender of the moral law not only are they ignoring the broader thoughts of early Christianity, Winters also contends they concede to negative modern trends of secularization:

“A religious leader who presents himself primarily as a defender of the moral law has accepted secular norms in restricting his ministry. The leaders of the Church must be ministers of God’s mercy as much as they are teachers of the moral law. That, it seems to me is the essence of what Pope Francis is trying to tell the entire Church, but especially the clergy. Francis is trying to re-establish the authority of Jesus by following His admonition to leave the judging to God.”

Second, Archbishop Cordileone’s statement, among others, employed the argument that Catholics judge actions, not people and this thinking furthers the modern notion that morality is an abstract exercise. Referencing the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Winters criticizes those who fail to concern themselves with the “messiness of actual moral decision-making” and “live at the level of abstract principles” alone. He quotes a priest friend who writes:

“…it was bizarre [for Cordileone] to state ‘that we don’t judge people but we judge actions. Actions are done by people so how can you not really judge an action without some of the judgment falling on the person? The pope of course did not make this distinction because he saw that mercy has to enter into the equation and also because the pope is not a Kantian…”

These realities mean a negative answer to his initial question, namely that bishops are not primarily defenders of the moral law. Bishops are more than ethical voices, they should be pastors foremost, and Winters suggests this is one of Pope Francis’ major themes for his fellow clergy. Bishops must preach about Christ first and enter into life of those whom they serve (certainly themes Pope Francis has preached heavily on). Bishops, like all clergy, should express mercy.

And Winters’ suggestion for those uncomfortable with a pope who wants bishops to show mercy and enter the messiness of real life ethics? He concludes:

“Instead of trying to parse the new pope’s words in ways that empty them of their content, I suggest that those bishops who are wrestling with how to respond to Pope Francis’ way of leading the Church be quiet for bit. Watch. Listen. You might learn something. Pope Francis is getting us back to the basics of discipleship. When he stated, ‘who am I to judge?’ he was not overturning 2,000 years of moral teaching but he was inviting Christians to place themselves in the crowd, stones in hand, gathered around the woman caught in adultery, and to listen to the words of the Master: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ “

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

2 replies
  1. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
    Fran Rossi Szpylczyn says:

    Oh my, where do I begin with this one? Other than beginning by concurring with Michael Sean Winters!

    It is truly peculiar and embarrassing to watch and listen to all the authoritative message massaging going on. One thing is that these statements continue to draw attention to Pope Francis’ remarks – this is not necessarily bad. The next thing that pops for me is that the bishops issuing these statements speak to us as if we are just a little bit too stupid to actually understand what the Holy Father said. Like the church-y pundits and bloggers that are in line with them, the hint, if not the outright statement, that the rest of us will be surely disappointed when Pope Francis’ real intent is understood is in the message. This of course does the most harmful thing – it is meant to divide us. Along those lines, the constant use of antiseptic and divisive terms like “homosexual persons,” and “them” does not simply divides, but also ghettoizes.

    I came to this post this morning after reading and praying with today’s mass readings. In the first reading from Judges we hear about a particularly lawless time. God’s people are without a king, and when they have a just leader or judge, they are attentive to God and God’s law and they prosper. When they lose touch with or forget God and turn to idolatry, they fail and suffer. Which of course turns them back to serving God, prospering, etc. We can study Scripture and understand the bigger picture, which is not God issuing some sort of “if-this-then-that” binary commands. Yet it seems to me that so much of what the bishops say fall into the trope of “call-to-holiness-if-this-then-that” rather than drawing us into relationship with God and one another.

    The Gospel is something for each of us to take to heart – the young man who wants to follow Christ but does not want to give up all of his possessions. While I know the many ways in which I must take that advice, literally, figuratively, and spiritually, to heart, I wonder what that might mean for the bishops – literally, figuratively, and spiritually. It is not just their finery and residences, but rather their major possessions such as their power and their “love” of the law in narrow context.

    Well, this is a long rant. It happens sometimes. I’ll close with what may be the most moral imperatives of all – fear not and love one another. THAT is what is hard to do.

  2. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    I saw The Butler this weekend. I loved the film, especially the real news footage that is included. It struck me that the butler and his son each lived a valid and worthy path. Each sought truth and justice. The butler chose to “work within the system,” and the son chose a radical MLK and then Malcolm X approach–demonstrations, getting beat up and arrested for the cause, etc. The father and the son experienced so much tension, distance, and misunderstanding. The love was there but each felt passionate that his path was the correct one. By the end of the movie, the butler had a new understanding and acceptance of his son. He lamented that much time had been lost between them due to rigid beliefs and fear.

    It strikes me that the divided church is just like this. Each thoughtful and prayerful Catholic lives a life of lifelong conscience formation, constantly evaluating his/her own actions and reactions to life. We strive, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be guided to the “right path.” Yet we cannot force others to see things exactly as we do. The teachings of the church are founded in moral principles and should be considered with deep attention. When we stray from the righteous path, we sin. All of us do this. We do what is easy, not what is right. With proper teaching, praying, and reflection, we know when we sin. Our conscience (gut, Holy Spirit) will tell us what to do and what is right.

    Most Catholics are fully convinced that the Holy Spirit has worked in the world to inform us that GLBT people deserve full rights of citizenship and participation in the church and society. This includes all the sacraments, including Holy Matrimony and the Eucharist. We feel it is a matter of conscience, and therefore necessary for us to speak up for the dignity of our brothers and sisters. It is a matter of social justice.

    Many forget that we must also show the same love and consideration for those who believe they are correct in demanding a strict and literal interpretation of the dogma of the church. We must love, but we must not fear acting in conscience for social justice. This is demanded by Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church itself (Vatican II). We must demand that change occur for the oppressed, and we must be bold and insistent in this demand. We cannot allow those who would deny rights and dignity to “talk us to death” (as we have been talked to death regarding the ordination of women). But neither must we demean those traditional church members who believe in a different approach. We must all pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us in this changing time. We do not know what word, what gesture, what idea will move the conversation in a positive direction. That is why we should stick to loving comments, actions, and interactions. The Holy Spirit is with us. The Holy Spirit is on the move. Things are changing!


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