From Baltimore Catechism to Baltimore Cataclysm
The bishops must recognize the paramount importance of teaching doctrine, rather than running from it or “spinning” it.
In 1884, seeing the need to explain Catholic doctrine clearly and definitively to American schoolchildren, the bishops of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore appointed a commission to prepare a new catechism. The American bishops decisively recognized that their sacred duties involved protecting children against doctrinal errors. The result was the famous Baltimore Catechism. Contrast that fact with the recent Baltimore gathering of bishops, at which Bishop Strickland challenged some members of the audience: “Do we believe the doctrine of the Church or not?”
Amidst continuing revelations of a shocking and scandalous coverup of sexual abuse that rises to the levels of the Roman Curia, the assembled American bishops in Baltimore conducted a vote on the following resolution:
Recognizing the ongoing investigation of the Holy See into the case of Archbishop McCarrick, be it resolved that the bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops encourage the Holy See to release all the documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick.”
The wording seemed intentionally bland – lacking even a silhouette of strength. This was most likely so as to allow almost anyone to vote in favor of it; after all, it asked for little more than simply following proper protocols of canon and civil law in matters involving a bishop of their own nation.
Nevertheless, in a motion that was meant to address a conspiracy of silence—ironically enough, by secret ballot—the bishops voted it down in a cataclysmic landslide: 137 to 83. To add insult to injury—considering the charge that the bishops have acted indecisively far too often—three bishops abstained from voting.
Those Catholics who were hoping for some kind of action – any action – to result from this meeting were again heartbroken.
A few days earlier, Archbishop Viganò had issued an open letter to the American bishops, writing:
I am writing to remind you of the sacred mandate you were given on the day of your episcopal ordination: to lead the flock to Christ. Meditate on Proverbs 9:10: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom! Do not behave like frightened sheep, but as courageous shepherds. Do not be afraid of standing up and doing the right thing for the victims, for the faithful and for your own salvation. The Lord will render to every one of us according to our actions and omissions.
Viganò was, of course, criticized for his tough remarks: in our politically-correct/theologically incorrect culture, asking people not to “behave like frightened sheep” is uncouth, and reminding people of God’s judgment is just too gauche. But Archbishop Viganò is a teddy bear compared to one particular saint and the comments she made during a previous moral crisis. The crisis was the Avignon Papacy and the saint was Catherine of Siena.
In a letter to Pope Gregory XI, Catherine writes:
Since He has given you authority and you have assumed it, you should use your virtue and power: and if you are not willing to use it, it would be better for you to resign what you have assumed; more honor to God and health to your soul would it be.
…If you want justice, you can execute it. You can have peace, withdrawing from the perverse pomps and delights of the world, preserving only the honor of God and the due of Holy Church. Authority also you have to give peace to those who ask you for it.
…Therefore I beg you most gently on behalf of Christ crucified to be obedient to the will of God, for I know that you want and desire no other thing than to do His will, that this sharp rebuke fall not upon you: “Cursed be thou, for the time and the strength entrusted to thee thou hast not used.
Clearly, bishops do not have the power to right all the wrongs that have been committed over the years; it would be an insult to the many who have suffered to suggest otherwise. Yet, bishops must transparently recognize those wrongs in order to perform the work of justice that precedes the work of charity. And it is proper that the lay faithful point this out to the bishops. What does it say about us if we don’t?
The bishops must also recognize the paramount importance of teaching doctrine, rather than running from it or “spinning” it. Doctrine is not only an essential ingredient in healing, but is a recognition and promotion of the Good News of the Gospel. As Bishop Strickland put it, Jesus “lived, died, and rose so that we could be free from sin and death. I think the more we can share that Good News, the more we can overcome the tragic things that we’re facing now.”
The Baltimore Catechism never said it better.