This past week in the American Catholic world was nothing to brag about. First, the Washington Post dropped a bombshell article outlining a new aspect of the rot that had crept into the American hierarchy, with Bishop Bransfield of West Virginia and his predilection not only for improper sexual favors, but finer worldly things as well. One bad apple? What about the large number of prelates who accepted his donations?
Then the secular Catholic world revealed another rift between a prominent Catholic layman and the truths of the faith. Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden revealed that after some conflicted messages, he will, after all, oppose the heretofore bipartisan Hyde Amendment which prohibits the use of federal funds to be used explicitly for abortion coverage.
I’d like to point out three points that Catholics should observe in this situation based on a heroic bishop from yesteryear whose feast fell in this worrying week:
First, one bad bishop (or many) does not mean that all bishops are bad. It is understandable that a bad priest and a bad bishop casts a certain scandalous pall upon the whole hierarchy. There is no possible historical room for naïveté, however. This has been the case since the first apostles. The people of God need above all to call their pastors to holiness and to pray for them.
Second, one bad layman (or many) does not mean that all laymen are bad. The public repudiation of a basic article of faith and morals by a prominent layman does not ruin the apostolate of the laity. I say this because sometimes there is an impression that we need so badly to hold the hierarchy and clergy to such high standards, but the Catholic laity are in as much need of mercy as the clergy, and rightly do the faithful lay Catholics not bear the guilt of their lay Catholic brethren when they err. Of course the clergy ought to be held to a higher standard, but rottenness is not imputed universally; that is, even several bad apples do not ruin the whole orchard, clerical or lay.
Third, all bishops ought to be more like St. Boniface. Boniface too lived in a time of both corrupt clergy and militant paganism. Yet he didn’t let the pagans diminish his strong voice to his fellow clergymen, nor did he let the corruption of the clergy soften his preaching to the anti-Christian culture. He didn’t allow the potential criticism of his episcopal and priestly office to diminish his ability to cut down the literal tree god worshipped by the society. This seems a model for today’s good bishop. To inform a cleric or a layman that his conduct contradicts the faith or practice of the Catholic Church requires a sanctified boldness that is so rare today. Yet neither side of the dilemma should neuter the other. Today’s bishops need to emulate the imperfect boldness of their forefathers.
The successors of the apostles have a necessary and uniquely powerful voice that the culture needs to hear, especially as the culture veers further into chaos. The bishops need encouragement in proclaiming heroically the message of Christ and his saving Truth, even if their office has been tainted by false shepherds. We can remember the words of the reformer Boniface ratified in his own blood: “In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course.”
Our ship is Christ and powered by the breath of the Holy Spirit. But this ship is, by God’s Providence, captained by sinful mortals. That part is unchanging. Let us encourage our earthly captains to guide her righteously and bravely, undeterred by the temptations of the port or the specter of storm or enemy.