After some disturbing news I received at the end of last week, I thought I would share some thoughts on the question of orthodoxy and obedience. I think given all the recent scandals, we ought to learn a deep lesson. It is the same lesson that Fr. Neuhaus taught during that long Lent so many years ago. It is that fidelity to authority is what is lacking in our time. We need both orthodoxy and obedience my friends.
Many years ago I argued back and forth, or maybe just back, with ultra-traditionalist Catholics, folks who were convinced that the Church had gone astray during and after the Second Vatican Council. Because of the perceived apostasy, bishops, priests and lay people fought for orthodoxy by founding their own society. Archbishop Lefebvre was the international head of this movement, and as he got on in age, he was worried that with his passing there would be no one left to fight the good fight. So he sought the opportunity to ordain a bishop for the society, thus securing its future. He met with then Cardinal Ratzinger, and they signed an agreement. Then days later, he rejected the agreement and decided he was going to ordain four bishops. When asked, nay begged, by the Church not to do this, he refused. He disobeyed.
In 2001 Fr. Nicolas Gruner was in the midst of his great ministry to spread the teachings of Our Lady of Fatima. His Fatima Rosary Crusader was widely dispersed throughout North America. He was stationed in Canada, producing arguments for why John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were like the Biblical Pharisees, evil men who refused to listen to Our Lady’s revelation and call to consecrate Russia – and only Russia, consarnit – and for hiding the real third secret. His bishop, that is the bishop to whom he pledged obedience when he was ordained, was in Italy, not Canada, and so when said bishop told Fr. Gruner it was time for him to come home, Fr. Gruner refused on the grounds that this was a conspiracy to shut him up. He had done nothing wrong.
The bishop and Gruner agreed that he if could find a diocese elsewhere that would take him, he could place himself under the authority of that bishop. He found none, and he refused to go to his home diocese – claiming among other things that he did not know the dialect of that particular region in Italy – and so ended up with his faculties suspended. He disobeyed.
In 2010, Nadine Brown founded a private and then public association of the faithful centered around hermit intercessors who were dedicated to teaching contemplation and discernment techniques, or at least that’s the best I could gather. She brought many around her and racked up quite a few very high profile Catholics. As she got on in age, she approached the Archdiocese of Omaha about formally taking the steps necessary to become a full-fledged religious order. She agreed to an investigation which found several irregularities in finances and canonical structures. She was asked to step down, and she did, sort of. In her stead, the members of the private corporation she had set up, stood their ground and, after raiding the hermitage of files and computers, refused to give up the reins of the organization. When asked to meet with the Archbishop so as to address these issues, they refused…three times in fact. They disobeyed.
In 2011 John Corapi, who apparently doesn’t want to be called “father” anymore, had an illustrious career telling Catholics that they needed to obey the Church’s teaching on contraception and confession and hell and, well, you know all the hot button issues of the day. Fearless, he spoke and spoke and spoke for years about the importance of being a faithful Catholic. But folks certainly didn’t fail to notice that he went from being the bearded priest in humble habit, to a look-a-like for Ming the Merciless in black clerics, to, now, the blacksheepdog in leather jacket and that same shaved-head/black-goatee ensemble. When asked by the superior of his religious society to be transparent about his financial dealings and to return to the community, he refused. Repeated requests were met with silence or canon and civil lawyers who gave various reasons why he didn’t have to. Instead of trying to place himself under a different bishop, John Corapi has just decided he’s not a priest anymore. He disobeyed.
Now in all of these cases, the reaction of the person(s) disciplined by the Church has been to say that they’ve done nothing wrong. They’ve concocted some conspiracy theory involving Masons, the Illuminati, the Rothchilds and the ghost of Elvis Presley to show that in this case, even though they have largely made a career of the importance of obedience, in this case they don’t have to obey their bishop.
While I don’t know the full story behind these events, I know that all of these reinforce in me the conviction that orthodoxy is not the end-all-be-all of Catholic living. The right kind of teaching is not the sum total of Catholic authenticity. Indeed, what is crucial to that authenticity is my obedience to the Church, my fidelity to authority.
In 2010 when Cardinal George addressed the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops for the last time as its President, he made a very important point. He was speaking about his frustration as the President in dealing with some Catholic organizations that would, in a sudden moment of firm insistence, make statements diametrically opposed to the position of the bishops. In that context he said,
In 1990, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quoted now Blessed John Henry Newman that, ‘the whole duty and work of a Christian is made up of these two parts, faith and obedience; “looking unto Jesus” (Hebrews 2:9) and acting according to his will.’ Orthodoxy is necessary but not enough; the devil is orthodox. He knows the Catechism better than anybody in this room; but he will not serve, he will not obey. There can be mistakes in our thinking, but there can be no self-righteousness in our will, for this is the sin against the Holy Spirit.
Now, sure, people will always, as they always do, bring up St. Athanasius and other saints who were persecuted in their own time, disciplined for this or that and who were eventually even excommunicated. But let’s be clear about something here, shall we? In the cases above, these are not instances where bishops are requiring that a priest or founder reject or fiddle with an aspect of the faith – although the Lefebvrites would disagree with me. These are questions about whether or not Fr. Corapi, or Fr. Gruner, or Msgr. Lefebvre, or Nadine Brown must be at the head of their organization or ministry in order for it to continue. These individuals identified their ministries with their very persons. They came to think that without them, there was no ministry. This is a very dangerous habit of thought.
I had a position once as the head of a fledgling organization. I knew it would be tough and I knew going into it that there was dysfunction, but I also knew that God was calling me to take the lead. I did, and it was great for a time. Then, differences of opinion became attacks on my character and became perceived attacks from me to them. Finally, I was asked to do things that I knew were morally unjustifiable and I was given an ultimatum. Do “X” or consider working elsewhere.
As my wife and I knelt before the Blessed Sacrament praying feverishly about what we were going to do, I had no other job prospects and quiting would certainly mean moving, I remember asking Our Lord what would happen to the organization if I left? Wouldn’t it suffer terribly. Couldn’t it close? Didn’t I have an obligation to those touched by the ministry to stay on, despite the moral injustices in which I was asked to partake? This is what Our Lord told me:
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU! I’M IN CHARGE!
Well, maybe He didn’t yell it exactly, but I heard it loud and clear. It is oh so very tempting to think that a project, a ministry, an organization cannot go further without us. We would all love to be that important. But, if it is truly of God, He will find a way. He always does. “No self-righteousness in our will.”
Of course the phrase that Cardinal George uses, the phrase about the devil, really strikes home. The Devil does know the faith better than all of us put together. His knowledge of the Scriptures is second to none on this planet. It was not for lack of knowledge that he lost his way. He would not serve. He would not submit. He would not obey. That’s the problem.
Have there been abuses on the part of bishops? Of course there have. Was Msgr. Lefebvre right to be offended by some of the changes at and after the Council? Sure. Actually, it seems Cardinal Ratzinger had some problems with them too. But obedience! Shall we become like the horned one, open to criticizing our bishops at all times because they don’t say things as forcefully as we want them too or because they are not as zealous as this or that preacher? Do we condemn them because they request simple and very basic transparency?
As I weigh all these issues and scandals on my heart, I just have to make sure I strip myself of the self-righteous will and continue to obey, and I hope that we all learn to shed that self-righteousness. I need to continue to pray not just for the gift of faith and knowledge and understanding but also for the wisdom to allow me to obey, and to do so joyfully. I also need to pray, and I invite all of us to pray for our Church, pray for our priests, pray especially for our bishops who need our help.