“To serve and protect” is the motto of most law enforcement agencies. In many respects it should serve as a byword for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. First and foremost, it would involve serving the faithful in need and especially protecting them in times of abuse and persecution. It would also entail leading the Church to serve the needs of the faithful by protecting “the deposit of faith” to instruct and model the doctrines, teachings, and practices handed down from Jesus to the Apostles to today’s leaders.
A Lack of True Leadership
It would appear that the opposite is occurring today. There is an expressed naivety or lack of courage in defending the faithful where they are being oppressed for their faith. At the same time, much of the news and commentaries could lead one to believe there are movements within the Church to remake the faith. Yet little is heard from the Vatican leadership to confront false teachings and wrongheaded actions.
I have always wanted to be proud of what I am a part of. Whether it be my old Army outfit, a championship sports team or other organizations/communities I belong to (such as the Church). That pride keeps me motivated and invested in the organization and its mission. It’s a positive pride based on the organization having leadership integrity and continuity of belief and actions. Unfortunately, the hierarchy of our Church has on several fronts displayed a lack of leadership to stand up to “serve and protect” that, at times, makes me ashamed and embarrassed.
C.S. Lewis talked about Christianity being “a fighting religion” in his book Mere Christianity. He was not referring to being aggressive and attacking others. What he meant was we fight for the “truth” and are not “wishy-washy” about what we profess and practice. Leadership is about having the courage to base one’s decisions and directives on the truth. Sometimes that truth is uncomfortable because it may reveal a negative aspect of oneself. Likewise, the truth may go against one’s biases and faulty perceptions or what is considered the politically correct viewpoint in the culture. Some may avoid the truth out of fear or retribution. Others do not want to “rock the boat”. In other instances, it can be deliberate evasion because one has something to hide. To avoid the truth is the opposite of courageous leadership.
When a capable leader sees an untruth, immorality, a wrong perception or a crime he or she stands up. That response can take many forms but the bottom line is that real leaders do not sit by and let the issue go unanswered or let the problem fester and hope that it goes away. The British philosopher Edmund Burke perhaps said it best in his famous quote “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
I have sorrowfully observed that nowadays many members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church have set such courageous leadership qualities aside. An evasion, an avoidance, a naivety and a timidity has been demonstrated on numerous fronts. All the noise around many issues can make one disappointed and angry. Biting my tongue, I have tried to not get carried away in all the negativity about what I have observed, however, there comes a point when inept leadership needs to be called out for its impact on the faithful. There have been two issues that have been on my radar screen for quite a while that illustrate the lack of a “serve and protect” leadership.
A Leadership Failure to Serve and Protect the Faithful
As everybody knows, the most significant example of the Church hierarchy failing its leadership responsibilities has been the clergy abuse scandal. That failure is well documented and reported on and need to be duplicated here. While that crisis has taken up all the headlines over the last two years another situation of the faithful being abused and persecuted is starting to take up space in Catholic news outlets. That issue is the betrayal of the Chinese Catholics.
The Vatican’s recent agreement with the totalitarian regime of China gathered a few headlines, yet very few of the hierarchy stood up to confront the “caving” to Chinese authority except Cardinal Zen, the former Archbishop of Hong Kong. He emphasized that the agreement is a betrayal to the Catholics of China. The ongoing actions of the autocratic Chinese government since the agreement went into effect in tearing down churches, mandating indoctrination classes for Catholic clergy, replacing the plaques of the 10 commandments by the principles of socialism and denying those under 18 years of age to attend mass certainly validates the reality of that betrayal.
Little if anything has been heard from the Vatican condemning such actions. In fact, the reverse has been communicated. Bishop Sorondo, (the Vatican diplomat sent to China to arrange the agreement) communicated a naive and “Alice in Wonderland” impression of that evil regime. He stated, “right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese”. Although not all the details of the agreement are not fully known, there is no doubt misplaced compromises were made with an untrustworthy and tyrannical regime. It certainly appears that a more formal relationship between the Vatican and China in the name of harmony and understanding was of more importance than defending the faith and the faithful in China.
A Failure to Serve and Protect the Teachings of the Church
Some in the hierarchy appear to be trying to change the doctrines and practices of the Church and there has been some noise that the Church may undergo a schism over these differences. It seems that much of the dissonance is coming from the German Bishops. They have undertaken a national synodal process that appears to undercut papal and magisterial authority. Proposals are being discussed that go against the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church such as their synod having binding authority over the teaching of sexual morality. The Vatican has responded by noting that this would go against canon law and that they should not go forward with their agenda. The Germans have rejected that demand. Yet, the Vatican does not appear willing to push the German bishops further to go along with Vatican wishes.
The German Bishops are also heavily involved with the Amazon synod originally set up to deal with evangelization for the Amazon region (such as the need for priests) but has evolved into something quite else. Many theological errors have been noted in the working document of that synod that does not reflect the teachings of the Magisterium or doctrines expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. An implicit pantheism, an acceptance that pagan superstitions are sources of divine revelation, an erroneous conception of sacramental ordination that could lead to marriage and women clergy and liberation theology are just a few of the problems with the synod. Yet, the Vatican has said little in challenging the synod documents.
For many years some of the European Church hierarchy have accepted politically correct narratives at the expense of standing up for Church teachings. An example of trying to demonstrate they are “modern” and “tolerant” were some of the European hierarchy to include Bishop Bode of Germany and Bishop Bonney of Belgium who support blessings of same-sex marriage. Again, little was heard from the Vatican confronting such statements and viewpoints.
The various explanations for these movements and efforts is that they are trying to make the Church more “appealing” as a response to the declining Church membership. However, it seems to be more of a progressive attempt to accommodate to modernity and to the relative cultural moral norms. Unfortunately, these examples show leadership that is too timid to confront these views to being complacent in tolerating Church leaders expressing beliefs that go against the truth taught by the faith.
The downside of all this is that it leads to confusion for many over what the Church teaches and stands for. Add to the mix are the unclear messages from informal interviews and formal encyclicals (such as Amoris Laetitia) from the Vatican and Pope Francis. The lack of clarity has led to further puzzlement regarding several Church teachings on issues such as communion for the divorced and remarried. The many requests for clarification from many outside of the Vatican hierarchy have not been answered.
Supporting Courageous Leadership
It’s easy to get trapped into just having an emotional response to rant and rave at the examples above. However, more is required. There are many ways to work for change, but condemning and complaining about those who do not stand up has limited value. We need to look at the other side of the coin and consider what is necessary to assist a courageous leadership.
The failure of many Church leaders to express a “serve and protect” leadership should not blind us to those Church leaders who have stood up and are confronting the Church when it is not living up to its responsibilities. Besides Cardinal Zen, previously mentioned, there is Cardinal Burke of the United States, Bishop Schneider of Kazakhstan, Cardinal Mueller; the past prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia and Cardinal Sarah of Guinea who been vocal in challenging Church leadership to “serve and protect”. There are many more, however, they are (by and large), not in the inner circles of Church leadership in the Vatican.
Church leaders do not stand up and model courageous leadership in a vacuum. There is an obligation for us laity to support leaders standing up to be better shepherds. We have a role to play in modeling what the Church teaches in our lives and in recognizing and supporting courageous leadership whenever it is shown. We need to continually pray for our leaders to “serve and protect”. Personally, I have written several letters of support to Bishops and cardinals who have demonstrated such leadership. Similarly, we have a responsibility to encourage those “silent leaders” to speak out and stand up. Finally, we need to dutifully confront and name those clergy and Church leaders who do not stand up for what is right and for what the Church teaches. We need to raise our voices and call for transparency by letters, essays or face to face conversations. The Apostle Paul models such an obligation in Galatians 2:11-14 where he confronts Peter for being hypocritical. Likewise, Paul reminds all of us of the importance of such a faith-based “standing up” to “serve and protect” in Ephesians 6:13-15.
Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand
in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded
your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;