By Charlie Johnston
American Bishops who are committed to living orthodox faith with fidelity to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles have begun to work in concert with each other. The most notable example is the list of Bishops who have publicly supported San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in his decision to bar House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from communion until she repents of the grave public scandal of supporting abortion. When any group of people find themselves under organized assault they must, of necessity, mount an organized defense. This is a great first step – and a very public sign that a core of Bishops in America understand that it is the faithful and the faith, itself, that is under assault.
Any sustained contest over public policy or public identity is, in the purest form of the term, political in nature. To successfully mount such a battle for hearts and minds requires the adept use of some specific skills to most advantageously frame the debate – a coherent and effective strategy. All too often those who have the better of the substantive argument neglect these skills as mere window-dressing and so lose the public debate. One must get the substantive argument right without neglecting the needful tools to present it in a compelling manner.
I have spent most of my life offering strategic counsel on such matters, either informally or (frequently) formally, to a host of public advocates and entities. I have been doing it since I was 16 years old.
Bishops have become so used to governing by authority that their capacity for engaging in contested advocacy in effective collaboration with each other has become a bit atrophied. With deep fissures having opened up in all of society and, in fact, between Bishops, it is crucial for those who have gotten the substance right to re-invigorate the skills necessary to win a contested case.
Since offering effective strategic counsel has been in my wheelhouse for almost 50 years, I am going to occasionally presume to advise our orthodox Bishops on these matters. I don’t know whether they are interested: some Bishops think quite highly of me and my counsel while some dismiss me altogether and others think I’m dangerous. I’ll cast my bread upon the waters and if it helps, good. If not, God has His ways of accomplishing His will and it is never thwarted over the long haul. I want to keep these sessions to a few easily digestible bites each time I engage in this presumption, so here goes with the first three tips:
- Listen to what people say, but watch what they do to determine who they are. Pope Francis often offers soothing orthodox pieties to reassure people that he is, actually, Catholic. But he appoints the most heterodox Bishops to all the most important sees, invites pro-abortion advocates to participate in and even lead Vatican-sponsored seminars, and presents awards to pro-abortion advocates and other overt enemies of the faith. He could not argue coherently with Abp. Cordileone’s decision on barring Pelosi from communion until she publicly embraces critical Catholic doctrine rather than just proclaiming Catholic identity. He could, however, continue to snub the multitude of accomplished orthodox American Archbishops and appoint San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy a new Cardinal of the Church. The LGBT community is jubilantly celebrating McElroy’s elevation, as he adamantly opposes any doctrinal discipline or coherence. In his eyes, if you say you Catholic, then you are and can continue to do your own thing your own way, regardless of what that old fud, Jesus Christ, had to say on the matter. There is no need for penance or reform: just join the club and pay your dues. McElroy rivals Chicago’s Cdl. Blasé Cupich in his contempt for Catholic teaching and his second-rate intellect. It is a snub and a provocation to any Bishop who seeks to live fidelity to Christ, Scripture and the Magisterium. Take the message and understand that, if you are orthodox, you have risen as high as you ever will while Francis is Pope, barring a road to Damascus event. Don’t trim your sails. Do not try to ingratiate yourself with the current powers in the Vatican by choosing to support some heterodox positions while maintaining fidelity to others you consider more important. Without getting into pointless squabbles, wear your fidelity as a badge of honor, publicly committed to Christ and the Magisterium. Your Diocese will flourish as the heterodox Dioceses grow increasingly barren. Your public witness of fidelity now will draw a multitude back to full faith and fidelity when the madness passes – and it will. If that fidelity is faltering and timid, you will be as irrelevant when the madness passes as the Vatican is trying to make you now. When assessing colleagues, go back to the same sentence that opens this point. Not everyone who says nice things to you is your friend and not everyone who criticizes you is your enemy. As your group grows in strength those who seek to undermine the Magisterium will try to infiltrate you to undermine your counsels from within. Already, in the list of Bishops who support Abp. Cordileone is one name that jarred me, for he is known for his opposition to orthodoxy. Either he has had a serious conversion – in which you should wait to see it demonstrated consistently over a long period of time – or he is trying to topple you from within. Be open and engaging to all, but a chump to none.
- Abandon all cliques and act as one body in Christ and in concert with each other. Contemplate I Corinthians:12 intensely and with an open heart. Bishops are the princes of their domain (Diocese) with very broad authority over them. Every organization develops cliques – it’s human nature. But an organization that consists of individuals who have near plenary power in their realm can get more stratified than a cross-cut hill in the Rockies. God gives each of us an authentic personality that, properly developed, is useful for His purposes. In organizations I have run, I specifically look for a diverse set of interests and abilities, because it keeps us all honest and keeps us open to the unexpected. Right now, as admirable as it is that orthodox Bishops have gotten on the field to defend both the faith and the faithful, they are not yet quite acting as a team. The center fielder is turning up his nose at the mere second baseman, while the pitchers don’t want to hang out with those lowly infielders. An example is Tyler Bishop Joseph Strickland. He has acted with as noble and holy fidelity these last couple of years as any, yet he continues to be treated as a bumbling country cousin by his brother Bishops, even among those who are prominently orthodox. The best I can get from contacts who are in the know is that he is not considered theologically sophisticated. That may well be but, frankly, many Bishops are not near as theologically sophisticated as they think. One must pause to ponder why Jesus passed over the very intellectually sophisticated John to choose the much more erratic Peter to be the first Pope. Which of the Apostles did Jesus want the others to treat as an outsider, a red-headed stepchild? Both as consistent with your commission by Christ AND as a practical matter, you are called to treat all on your team with the value with which Christ has dignified them. Not all can be leaders, not all can be engaging, not all can be strategists but all can be useful and all are necessary to achieve complete success. I have been friends with orthodox Bishops who were not great at enunciating the faith, but were passionate at giving pastoral care for the most vulnerable; Bishops who had a real flair for language but were poor organizers. To work collaboratively, you must collaborate. Everyone must know, especially from the leaders, how much value they bring to the table. If someone I know to be extremely sophisticated is speaking with me, I am unlikely to miss the nuance of what he says. But it often pleases God to embed a particularly staggering insight into someone we take lightly. It proves whether we seek God in everything or seek to validate ourselves. Endeavor not to miss the little whisper as God is passing by. There is a need for organizational discipline and confidentiality. I do not advise against that. But truly collaborate with each other and act as a team. Somewhere buried in your ranks is an Audie Murphy or two. The current Vatican desperately wants to keep them buried. Your job is to know them and deploy them as part of your team. Failure to do so will make failure much more likely.
- Calibrate your actions well to the moment and the opportunities it offers. I have always been frustrated by people in my ranks who have never won anything yet think they are super-geniuses whose counsel I must abide by. Some want a rigid application of rules every time; others are so enamored of diplomacy that they will negotiate all the rules out of existence, making the organization, itself, meaningless; and still others get so excited by every unvetted crackpot assertion that comes along that they would keep you forever chasing…um, squirrels, while entirely losing focus and mission. Some Bishops are, indeed, gifted diplomats and choose to gently try to bring people back to fidelity to doctrine. I have seen this method succeed. I have more often seen it degenerate into an excuse not to defend the faith when there will be blowback. Some of the best Bishops I know, particularly in troubled Dioceses, focus intensely on a particular aspect to bring the faithful back. One such Bishop is focused on rigorous reform of Catholic education. Another is focused on forming a solidly orthodox cohort of seminarians. Once, when visiting a friend who was the right-hand man to an orthodox Bishop, my friend started to apologize for some things his Bishop had let slide. I stopped him and said I well knew the Bishop’s priorities and so, though I did not always agree with his methods, I respected what he was trying to accomplish. If someone takes responsibility for what they have to lead, they do not have to do it my way to earn my respect. Everything involves trade-offs, particularly in a divided world. Think hard and know you must answer to Christ for whatever you do. If you justify cowardice as diplomacy, if you justify rigid authoritarianism as discipline, if you do not seek out considered counsel that varies from your own, not only will you have something to answer for when you stand before Christ, you will significantly reduce your chances of prevailing while still here. It is a tough situation which requires moment to moment judgment. Because you are human, sometimes you will exercise diplomacy when discipline is called for and vice versa. Sometimes with the best of counsel, you will make an errant decision. The good news is that Christ already knows this about all of us. If you purify your intentions and exercise every faculty you have to get it right, He will cover the many gaps in your judgment and actions. When you err, acknowledge it. But this, in itself, is not sufficient. Seek to learn from your errors. See what you did wrong and endeavor to find ways of avoiding whatever it is that caused the error. Do this and opponents will find themselves frequently fighting an old you that you have already learned from and transcended.
Our orthodox Bishops have already begun to show great courage in confronting the terrible evils of our time. As presumptuous as it may be, I hope to offer advice that will help those who value fidelity to Christ and the Magisterium to prevail – not just in internal battles, but in the hearts of the faithful who have been so badly confused by the battle.
If communication goes out for any length of time, meet outside your local Church at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings. Tell friends at Church now in case you can’t then. CORAC teams will be out looking for people to gather in and work with.
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