The episcopal opportunity

The late Ronald Knox was thought to have a sterling wit, but I’ve never found anything of his as funny as a proposal attributed to his brother, Wilfred: like Ronald, before the latter’s conversion, an Anglican clergyman. Wilfred Knox was also a theologian and, as the story goes, once proposed a two-volume study of Christian ethics. The first volume would be entitled, Respect for the Clergy. The second volume would be styled more simply: Other Virtues.  I laugh, or at least smile, every time I run across that tale, and I expect most Catholics would, too. Which is a good thing, because our amusement reflects that distinctive Catholic combination of a profound respect for the ordained ministry of the Church and a cheerful skepticism about the sillier aspects of clerical culture. That instinct – reverence without sycophancy – has stood the Church in America in good stead ever since what Father Richard Neuhaus called the “Long Lent of 2002″ brought the Church’s ordained ministry under the microscope of public scrutiny. Some of that scrutiny was biased and unfair; some of it was even vicious. But if the intent of the biased, the unfair, and the vicious was to promote a contempt for their priests among the people of the Catholic Church, that intention fizzled. The overwhelming majority of Catholics in America know that the overwhelming majority of their priests are men living virtuous lives of self-sacrifice.

At the same time, however, the Long Lent of 2002 has left a residue of deep, and in some cases, smoldering, lay discontent with the Church’s episcopal leadership. Catholics have understood that a scandal of clerical sexual misconduct became a crisis of enormous (and, in financial terms, still untold) proportions because of the failures of bishops: failures that were theological as well as managerial. Some, perhaps many, bishops believe that this reaction is unfair, that the entire episcopate is being maligned for the malfeasance of a few. There is perhaps some truth in that complaint, but until the bishops of the United States show a far greater capacity for self-correction than they’ve shown to date, lay discontent will continue. And it will likely grow.

That discontent, which often focuses on inept administration, has already taken some unhelpful forms. The Boston-based Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, while identifying some real problems in Church governance, has addressed those problems with proposals that would, in effect, turn the Catholic Church in America into another liberal Protestant denomination. And even the most well-intentioned initiatives toward the reform of diocesan governance (and there are some out there) must contend with the fact that changes in management structures and processes will only take the Church so far. Indeed, any such reforms must clearly protect the bishop’s authority as governor of his local Church while freeing him to be the apostle – the evangelical witness – he was ordained to be. That’s a tall order, but not an impossible one.

Whether that tall order will be filled is one of the great questions of U.S. Catholic life today. The actuarial tables dictate that the episcopal leadership of American Catholicism will change, dramatically, over the next several years. Two American cardinals are already beyond the retirement age of 75; one cardinal will turn 75 this month, and another will turn 75 next year. In addition, two more metropolitan archbishops will reach 75 in 2006. Five dioceses currently have no bishop; six have a bishop who is past 75; and in five more, the bishop will turn 75 this year. A major transition is, clearly, at hand. The new apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, will play a large role in guiding this transition; so, obviously, will Pope Benedict XVI, who has thus far demonstrated, in the main, a very hands-on approach to episcopal appointments.

There are great possibilities here: the Church in the United States has a greater opportunity to be the “Church in the modern world” that Vatican II envisioned than perhaps any other local church on earth. Seizing that opportunity, however, requires a dramatically different kind of episcopal leadership than the style that helped bring us the Long Lent of 2002.


COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.