Monday, June 20, 2011

The Corapi Matter and the Polarization of the Catholic Church in the United States

Permit me to give some necessary personal context to the reflections that follow.

If you look at the brief biography that accompanies this site, you'll notice that I have been blessed to be a Catholic my whole life, and from an early age I knew I had a vocation to ordained ministry.  For eight years I attended high school and college seminary preparing for diocesan priesthood.  Although I discerned that I did not have a vocation to the priesthood, I remained active in ministry throughout the years as a lay person.  I pursued graduate education in Theology during my off-duty time throughout my Navy career.  Eventually, I was ordained a deacon by Cardinal James Hickey for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC in 1990.  From that time to this I remain an incardinated deacon of that Archdiocese although ministry has taken me frequently to other dioceses for service.  My Ph.D. is in Theology from the Catholic University of America, with a special emphasis on Ecclesiology and Sacramental Theology.  Since 1989, I have been associated with the USCCB headquarters variously as a consultant and later as director of two of the Secretariats there.

Against that background I wish to respond to a couple of recent comments made on this blog.  Here's what the readers wrote.

The first reader stated:  

While I am fiercely loyal to the Church, I also accept the reality that She has been gravely harmed by some members in the USCCB who have championed a liberal/progressive agenda in place of Gospel values.

A second reader then wrote:
And there in lies the problem...with the USCCB and their progressive/liberal ALINSKY tactics in order to protect their agenda. I hear nothing about the PRO-ABORT-CATHOLICS in Congress [] because they, too, are 'progressive/liberal' .... I see what's happening to Father Corapi as "Rule 13" in Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. And it takes the focus off of the USCCB's failures to uphold the Church's Pro-Life teaching and their refusal to own up to their own guilt and complicity in failing to promote and uphold the Teachings of the Magisterium.
The USCCB fails to take today's Gospel to heart. They're too busy allowing sin to run rampant in their diocese and across this nation.
PS this is not an indictment against every member of the USCCB. There are some truly godly men doing their best against the tide of those 'progressive/liberals' who would silence them.
God have mercy on The Catholic Church in America.

The first reader at least qualified his criticism by saying the "some members" of the USCCB were involved in pursuing a liberal/progressive agenda.  The second goes much, much further, eventually only qualifying the indictment in a postscriptum to her remarks.

It is precisely this kind of broad brush and imprecise language which does much damage to the Body of Christ.  I am not saying that all bishops, their staffs, including the national staff in Washington, DC are perfect.  They (we) are not.  And people SHOULD criticize the bishops and their staffs when that criticism is warranted, by all means!  We have, under canon law, an OBLIGATION to do so.  I am not suggesting otherwise.  What I am pleading for, however, is precision in language, temperance and charity in tone, and accuracy in reporting.  Here's one example.

With both writers above: What do THEY mean by the term "USCCB"?  Do they mean the bishops as a body?  Or do they mean just the staff of priests, deacons, religious and lay persons who staff the headquarters in Washington?  Or do they mean both, the body of bishops AND their staff collectively?

Then, we need to ask: How is this language understood by the READERS of the posting?  Do they understand what these terms mean?  Do they understand the term in the same way as the writer does?

We need answers to all of this before we can even begin to assess the validity of the claims being made about whatever this "USCCB" is in the minds of the writers!  As this language now stands, it is clearly based on emotion, is grossly over-generalized, and, frankly, designed to incite to fear and anger.  It appears to be rhetorical, not factual.

Well, let's get to some actual FACTS here.  The USCCB is the assembly of all ordained bishops (and for some matters, this includes priests who are administering dioceses while the diocese is sede vacante awaiting the appointment of a new diocesan bishop) of the United States, and it includes bishops and eparchs of both the Latin and the Eastern Catholic Churches.  Once a priest is ordained a bishop, he is automatically a member of the USCCB (prior to Vatican II, membership in the predecessor organization was purely a voluntary matter).  While the majority of the bishops are serving as diocesan bishops, others are auxiliary bishops, and still others are "retired" bishops (although the preferred term is to refer to them as the "seniores").  As you can well imagine, such a diverse group would be very difficult to characterize as "liberal", "progressive," "conservative" or "traditional," or any other adjective you care to apply.  In fact, even if you tried to do this, you would find that in many cases, the same bishop might -- on one issue -- adopt a progressive stance, while on another issue, he will be conservative.  These broad generalizations about bishops are just as inaccurate as they are about most of us who are NOT bishops!

The same applies to the national staff.  The staff is also a part of the "USCCB" and the job of the staff is to implement the policies SET BY THE BISHOPS.  No staff member sets his or her own agenda; even if they tried to do so, they wouldn't be around long.  The bishops alone staff the various Committees (some years ago, this was different, but not now), and the Committees set the policies, directions and priorities that they desire, and the staff carries them out.  Let's talk more about the staff.  I will share with you that during my time on the senior staff, we sometimes would find it almost amusing to hear ourselves referred to by some folks as "progressive-liberal"!  After all, here we ALL were, serving the institutional church through her bishops -- not really where you'd expect to find a nest of progressive liberals!  And, as a matter of fact, there weren't.  Did some among us have more progressive views than others?  Of course!  But as diverse as the staff was on the "theo-political" spectrum, we were all there to serve the needs of the bishops; the staff is a professional organization, made up of priests, deacons, religious and lay persons, ALL of whom have extensive diocesan, national and international experience in their areas of expertise.  One of the great joys for me when I worked on the staff was the ability to walk down the hall and have a conversation with such exceptional and dedicated professionals.

All of that is "the USCCB" to me.  To read a comment that somehow there is a cabal trying to implement some "Saul Alinsky" plot is, frankly, just ludicrous.  It would humorous if it were not so tragically inaccurate and, bluntly, libelous.

Dear Readers: We ALL have to find ways of communicating and dealing with each other as Christian disciples, and quit trying to find villains around every corner.  There is enough sinfulness in the world already, and we all are guilty of sin.  But the world -- and the church which is supposed to be the "soul and leaven"  of society -- is just not as black and white as many people would like it to be.  When things are black and white, decisions can be seen as simple things; in such a polarized world, we would be free of struggles and strife, because choices would be so clear and obvious.  But we all know, from our own gained experience, that life is simply not like that.  This side of heaven, we must strive, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to do the best we can, enjoying the good, struggling against the evil, and accepting the bumps along the way.  Just as we can acknowledge such complexity in our lives "outside" the church, we need to accept that complexity within the church as well.

God bless all here, and let us pray for each other!


  1. I don't watch TV at all, but I have noticed that EWTN fans tend to think of themselves as especially "orthodox," and that makes them susceptible to a very narrow view of real Catholicism popularized by right-wing Internet pundits. Even our bishops--or at least their advisory staff--are readily written out of the Church if their support for Catholic social teaching makes them politically suspect. I have never heard Fr. Corapi preach, but it frightens me to think that he helped form the religious faith of people who now think of themselves as more Catholic than the successors of the apostles.

  2. Polarization?

    You invited such polarization and division and rancor when you and others decided to, instead of speaking on the faith, obsess about personalities, engage in gossip, and descend into detraction and calumny.

    And you really do protest too much methinks professing ignorance and innocence with respect to the well-known tilt toward the political left by the staff at the bishops' conference.

    What is needed at the USCCB is that it be truly a bishops' conference -- that 90 percent of the staff positions be eliminated.

  3. Dear Bender,

    And you know all of this about the people at the Conference -- how? How many of them do you know? If you're going to make such claims, how about backing them up with some actual FACTS?

    It's this tired old innuendo that appeals to fear and emotionalism that gets very old, very fast.

    Do you have some facts to back up your claims, or not?

    Please cite for me how I (I'm not concerned about other bloggers or organizations at the moment) have engaged in any calumnious conversation, or have otherwise spread inaccuracies? Please show me the quotes where you think I've done that. If you can, I'll take steps to correct it, and with thanks to you. If you can't, knock it off.

    You mention a "well-known" shift to the political left among the staff at the Conference. Well known by whom? And again, facts: if this is so well known, then who are the actual staff members you feel have been a part of this "tilt to the political left"? Names, please, and things they've written or otherwise communicated that demonstrate such an action.

    Just how many people do you think serve as staff at the USCCB? Put a figure to that, please. Do you even comprehend what, precisely, a 90% reduction in staff would look like? How many people would that be, exactly?

    So, Bender, put up or shut up. Facts, please, not innuendo, gossip, or detraction and calumny. Oh, wait! That's what the "other" people do! I forgot.


    Deacon Bill

  4. Well said, Bill. I know that you also have experience at the local (i.e., diocesan level) and now work for the wonderful Bp Garcia in lovely Monterrey. I have had and continue to have the distinct privilege of getting to know and working with two bishops- one of whom is routinely pilloried as well as slandered and libelled- the current archbishop of San Francisco, the man who ordained me- George Niederauer. Nobody who knows Abp Niederauer could possibly impugn his honesty, integrity, piety, or personal orthodoxy. Is he perfect? By no means! But he is a man of the church through-and-through.

    Further, anyone who knows anything about the demands and challenges of episcopal ministry in the contemporary U.S. would be very slow to rush to hasty judgments about individual bishops, let alone our bishops generally. By slow I mean prudent, which, in turn, means sometimes constructive criticism, even publicly given, is fine and even an act of charity. I think about the unfortunate recent events in Kansas City-St. Joseph as an example. I don't for one minute think Bishop Finn is a bad or evil man unconcerned about his flock, even while I find it both incomprehensible and lamentable that he opted not to read a memo about Shawn Ratigan.

    Both the bishops with whom I have worked/collaborated, including my current ordinary, John Wester, are devoted, spiritual, and intelligent men very open to discussion. Their episcopal styles are collaborative rather than dictatorial. I have not always agreed with them on everything. I think both men are fairly representative of the kind of bishops we have and for whom we should all pray daily, not just in Mass, but privately as well.

    All of this leads me to the observation that I made on Saturday, which is that Corapi stepping aside is a boon for the church. In my judgment, he has long been an ideologically-driven divider. I continue to pray for him, namely that he will come to his senses and immediately halt his highly disingenuous passive aggressive offensive against the "murky" powers in the church out to get him. I think he now aspires to be the Catholic Glenn Beck (Beck having abandoned the Catholic Church to become LDS).

    There is no conspiracy at the USCCB in individual chanceries, or against Corapi. So, instead of to the self-styled "Dog," make your checks to payable to Catholic Relief Services, where it will be put to good use.

  5. I cannot comment on the American Bishops Conference; but here in the UK the same arguments are raging. Some comments are full of so much rancor and bile that one wonders were the spirit of Christian forgiveness lives.

  6. If the church is in such great shape in America Why are the confession lines almost empty??? Why has the tabernacle been moved to the side in so many churches. Why do pro-abortion politician receive Communion at Mass? Why do Catholics practice artifical birthcontrol in the same percentages as non-catholics. Why is the second largest demoniation in the US fallen away catholics? I can go on and on but the bottom line is the Bishops are in charge (if you would call it that) and I don't see any blood in the streets. One of the two formal messages of Our Blessed Mother given at Garabandal Spain in 1961-5 was that amoung other things that"Many Cardinal, Bishops and Priests are going to Perdition and taking many souls with them". Fifty years later this seems to have at least a scent of prophesy in it. Mary did not say all or even most but many. I believe the prudent catholic needs to pray for decernment about such things.

  7. Bob:

    I think your last sentence says it all: a prudent Catholic does need to pray for discernment about those issues you raised.

    Let's look, however, at your complaint about the confession lines being almost empty.

    I was in grade school and high school in the years before Vatican II and -- yes -- during that time there were usually long lines at the confessional. But let's consider some contemporaneous insights you are probably not old enough to have experienced: (1) Among those penitents was my grandfather (born in the mid 1890's) who went to confession every week, whether he needed to or not -- and in my mind (even then) he really did not need to; (2) There were a long list of very petty rules violations that were a part of the conventional wisdom of the Pre-Vatican Church. Most of them were not sins in any eternal/moral sense but penitents were led to believe they were by over-zealous preachers and under-educated religious sisters. Mumbled laundry-lists of these trivial items were so common they drove most confessors of that era to absolute distraction.

    Bottom line: Those long-lines at the confessionals prior to Vatican II could well have been more a result of bad catechesis than our modern-era shorter ones.

    Trust me, there was a lot of bad catechesis that the pew-sitting Catholic had to endure in the Pre-Vatican era.

    Only the very best of blessings!

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  8. I just feel compelled to comment on the confession lines issue. My parish is the only one in the area that offers confession on a daily basis and twice on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The lines are so long it often takes more that a half hour to get into the confessional. A lot of the people in line are from other parishes that hold to the mistaken notion that no one goes to confession anymore. I have found that Catholics will practice their faith in greater numbers if given the opportunity. Finally, Paula said it best, Thank you Deacon Bill!

  9. Norbert,
    I share your era and appreciate your recognition of the diminishment in the confessional line. You can presume what you want about your grandfather and his need to go to confession but he is in good company since, the now Blessed John-Paul II went to confession every week also. In JPII's case wouldn't it be difficult to dismiss this as the product of "over-zealous preachers and under-educated religious sisters"? As far as "very petty rules" and "trival items" you wouldn't include practicing Artificial Birth Control in that list would you? Especially since Natural Family Planning offers a genuine, healthy, moral alternative albeit it isn't readily offered in many parishes. Why Not? It also certainly couldn't include those practioners that may not hesitate to receive Sacrilegious Communions?

    People and human nature do not change so maybe some work needs to be done to help the faithful in examining their conscience and then maybe the business of confessional will pick up a little bit.

  10. "Especially since Natural Family Planning offers a genuine, healthy, moral alternative albeit it isn't readily offered in many parishes"

    How isn't NFP artificial? Is the couple not making a specific decision to take actions that they believe will relieve them of an unwanted pregnancy? Yes, you're avoiding the drugs, but the intent is the same -- "I choose" to try and not be pregnant.

    Caveat: I am not now, nor have I ever been, on the staff of the USCCB.