By Charlie Johnston
By now you are at the Conference in South Dakota, on your way, or aren’t going to be able to join us physically. But you can join us in prayer. You can share our intentions. Afterwards, we will have video available of speakers and events from the conference.
I learned from my pilgrimage how powerful a virtual component to an event can be. Initially, I wasn’t going to even carry a phone. One of my dearest friends pushed me hard not to go completely primitive. As some of you may have noticed, I can be a tad stubborn from time to time. Finally, in frustration, he said, “Charlie, I can’t drop everything and just go traipsing across the country, but this is my pilgrimage, too.” He was right. He had been with me through thick and thin on a lot of things. It lit a firework in my head. I talked to one of my Priests, thinking if I carried a phone and wrote a little something out every day or two, I would do the walking, but a lot of people could join in and make it their pilgrimage, too. Thus was born the Facebook Page, Abraham’s Journey, which was originally designed to chronicle my journey and invite friends and folks I met along the way to join me virtually in it.
I thought maybe a couple of hundred people would enjoy the Facebook Page and be virtual companions to me on my way. To my astonishment, after a few weeks, about 50,000 people were checking in each week. After a month and a half, it was at about 100,000 – and stayed in that range for the rest of my pilgrimage. I don’t know how it happened, for I did nothing to promote it. It was by word of mouth, I guess. Though I did the walking, I almost certainly did not walk alone.
So join us in prayer. Together, let this little mustard seed of a conference spread out to begin the renewal of the whole world.
I was surprised at some of the cynicism and criticism that emerged from the ranks of the orthodox in response to the American Bishops voting overwhelmingly last week to go forward with drafting a document on Eucharistic Coherence. In talking with some cynics, I realized that there were two major misunderstandings on what was at issue here – and that it is largely the fault of people like me for assuming that people generally know the arcane details of how these things progress and what is possible at each step. Because of that erroneous assumption, I did not explain in depth what actually was at issue and what was not – and neither did much of the other Christian press. Let me elaborate on two points.
Many very sophisticated Catholics thought the question was whether or not the Bishops would issue a statement right now on the subject. When the Bishops voted to go forward with drafting one for the formal November conference, these Catholics thought the Bishops were avoiding action by kicking the can down the road. That was never the issue. Formal action at the USCCB comes at the annual November conference (with a few rare ad hoc exceptions). The summer meeting is to set priorities and decide what issues will be up for a vote. In a legislative equivalent, the summer meeting determines what will go on the calendar for action and a full vote at the annual conference. There was never going to be a document issued now. The furious battle was over whether Bishops could proceed to form a document at all – and the heterodox prelates were determined to stop the rest of the Bishops from even talking about such a thing. It took great courage and focus for the orthodox Bishops to boldly say we are going to go forward anyway and we are going to deal with this – with headwinds going against them from both the Vatican and a determined group of powerful American Bishops. The side of the faithful prevailed overwhelmingly on this one. It was only a next right step – but it was a big one and one that powerful forces were determined to kill from the start.
The second misunderstanding comes from saying that there will be no mandatory rule promulgated that would force all the Bishops in the country to comply. Of course there won’t, because that is not possible.
In the hierarchy, the Pope is equivalent to a king. The Bishops are not branch offices – and no national conference has any authority to mandate anything on individual Bishops. If a particular Bishop routinely flagrantly violates Canon Law, the only recourse is to appeal to the Vatican to remove him – for only the Pope can do such a thing, NOT a national conference.
Thus, now, when there is no statement of intent by the USCCB, even though Canon Law says what should be done in the case of public scandal, both the Vatican and some of the most powerful Bishops in America are deeply opposed to following Canon Law when it is politically or socially inconvenient to them. Even so, some faithful Bishops refuse the Eucharist to those officials who are in public disagreement with fundamental issues of the faith. Neither the Vatican nor the USCCB can stop these Bishops, only express their displeasure or make life difficult for them.
Each Bishop is an independent prince in his own Diocese, with broad authority that can only be revoked by a dismissal from office by the Pope. Thus, however bold any document the USCCB issues on the matter, each Bishop is free to decide how his own Diocese is run. The only recourse is Papal dismissal of that Bishop.
It startled me to see so many people angry because the USCCB can’t do what was never possible in the first place. If you are going to attack the orthodox Bishops who have finally found their voice for not doing what they never had the authority to do in the first place, than there is no temporal reason for orthodox Bishops to take the heat from their earthly superiors and the frantically malicious left for ever doing what they actually CAN do – for it would do them no good with the orthodox faithful and a lot of harm with the heterodox, but mouthy, minority.
I recognize that it is up to me and others in the Catholic Press to do a much better job of describing what is at stake, what is possible, what is not, and how it all works in reality. Most of the anger I hear from good folks in the pews over this one is anger over what was never on the table in the first place. That they didn’t know that is, in part, my fault. Mea Culpa!
The late Andrew Breitbart said that “Politics is downstream from culture.” That means, in part, that the idea must gain popular traction and acceptance before any action can be dispositive. I very much understand and share the frustration of so many orthodox Catholic who have watched the USCCB ponderously opine on political matters they have little or no authority over (and usually an equal amount of knowledge about) for at least two, maybe three, generations while studiously avoiding speaking on the fundamentals of the faith on which they do have authority. It is hard not to be reflexively cynical when you have generations of evidence to back that cynicism up. But I also appreciate the frustration many orthodox Bishops must feel right now, having incurred the ire of the Vatican and some of the most institutionally powerful Bishops in America to do the most right thing they can at this moment. Right now, the default position of the American Bishops is to do as you will, despite Canon Law and the clear instruction of Christ and the first Apostles. Do you really think it makes no difference if the default position among them publicly becomes that each Bishop should abide by Canon Law and follow the clear teaching of Christ and the first Apostles on the matter, even if they can’t enforce it on individual Bishops? If instead of Bishops like Thomas Paprocki and Joseph Strickland being the outliers for refusing to grant communion to those in flagrant public dispute with the Church’s fundamental teaching, Bishops like Blase Cupich and Joseph McElroy became the outliers for ignoring the public scandal created by giving communion to those in open, fundamental dispute with Church doctrine?
From the start of my writing on these subjects almost nine years ago, I have emphasized the doctrine of “the next right step.” I keep telling people that they should quit worrying that they can’t do all they would in one big leap, but simply focus on the little right step in front of them that they can do – and if they do that long enough and with fortitude, God will reward their little faith with an abundance of fruit. I mean that for Bishops as well as for all us little folk. You know that I don’t hesitate to criticize Bishops when they fail the faithful. But I will NOT fail to applaud them when they boldly take the next right step despite furious opposition. I don’t expect every step they take will be as magnificent as the one they took last week…and there are probably some wrong steps ahead, as with all of us. But on a fundamental matter of faith, with terrible opposition both from without and within, the Bishops of America chose to be intentional disciples of the Lord last week by doing the little that they could in the moment. I am as proud to be a Catholic in America at this moment as I have ever been. May we all chart our pilgrim way forward in loving service to Our Lord and each other.
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