After the Vatican ordered US Bishops to refrain from voting on episcopal correctives to their failures on the sex abuse front (a February bishop’s gathering in Rome will now address it), American bishops left their bi-annual conference with little to show for their time beyond approving a the promotion of the excellent Sister Thea Bowman’s cause for sainthood.

The do-little gathering left plenty of American Catholics feeling short-changed and fed-up, and precipitated Melinda Henneburger’s scorching rebuke to the bishops as she declared herself “done” with the Church. Her piece is a stunningly naked and raw howl of authentic anguish from a woman who feels betrayed beyond endurance.

[USCCB President Cardinal Daniel] DiNardo recounted that it happened this way: “In our weakness,’’ he said in Baltimore, “we fell asleep.” Not so much like Peter in the garden, though. More like Rip Van Winkle, and for a century instead of 20 years.

When and if the bishops do fully rouse themselves, I won’t be in the pews to hear about it.

Read all of it.

Henneberger says she has not been able to bring herself to attend Mass since last June, when revelations concerning former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick came to light. Having covered the Vatican for the New York Times, Henneberger thought she had a good sense of McCarrick, and so she felt particularly and personally crushed by his sins, and the evidence they gave of the man’s deep betrayal of everything he professed and preached:

After “credible and substantiated” allegations that the now former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had taken advantage of seminarians, assaulted an altar boy in 1971 and even, because evil knows no shame, abused the first child he had ever baptized, the accused was shipped off to the quiet of a Kansas friary — thanks so much for thinking of us out here on the prairie! — to pray, repent and, so far, stick to his story that he has done nothing wrong.

Far from alone
Yes, that’s one angry woman, and she is far from alone. My email is a daily font of fury being expressed by friends and Catholic media colleagues who declare their faith shaken enough to impact their prayer lives, their attendance at Mass, and even their foundational belief in the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Amid so many lies, cover-ups and assists to evil, they catch themselves wondering, is any of true?

The behavior of our hierarchs and churchmen — our “shepherds” — and their sometimes wholly out-of-touch responses our expressions of pain have driven more sheep than they realize to the point of questioning not just some of their faith, but all of it.

It leaves me praying for many, but wanting to say this: My friends, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we need not lose our faith over men who have proved more feckless than faithful.

If regard for our bishops has been deflated, that may not be a bad thing. We were always better off keeping our eyes on Jesus, who is ever steadfast, than in imbuing a character of holiness upon human beings who, with a few exceptions, are destined to disappoint and fail and to shake our trust in our own abilities to discern who is worthy of admiration, and who is not — possibly something that plays a small part in Henneberger’s own despair.

There are many good bishops working earnestly to serve the Gospel and the Church with forthright conviction and servant’s hearts, and they are worth admiring. Others, admittedly seem less so. Before they are anything else (including “princes”) all of them are men in need of salvation, same as the rest of us.

We need to see them as such, and let them know that we do.

I pray that Melinda and the many Catholics who are staying away from Mass will be able to pray it out, and come to realize that, as the psalmist warns, we ought never place our trust in princes (Psalm 146:3).

Because here’s the thing about princes:

  • They are usually so insulated they become out-of-touch to common human realities
  • They are so shielded from accountability as to become thoughtless, selfish, and benumbed
  • They are treated with such deference as to become slavish fools to their privilege
  • The people permit all of that.

It should be different for “Princes of the Church” but it is not, because they are only men and therefore as eager to be liked, as susceptible to the soul-threatening charms of being praised, feted and indulged as anyone else. If some of them strike us as being closer to hell than heaven, it is good to recall that very few bishops, or priests (or monks or nuns for that matter) are “naturally holy”. Some, indeed are good and righteous, but whatever holiness they possess comes not from the office — it is no residual product of their pectoral crosses — but from the working of grace in their souls, unearned yet invited in through prayer, humility, self-effacement, and a shepherd’s instinct to sacrifice for the sake of the sheep.

How we got here, and how to move on
Today we are nauseated and roiled by this never-ending ache of discovery and disgust for three reasons:

    Primo: For decades the bishops shunted aside the Gospels and looked to the world, and to the so-called “experts,” to tell them how to deal with pedophile priests, predator priests, and power-abusing bishops, recidivism be damned.

    You live by the world, you die in the world, the carrions picking away at your bones. Secular advise should never again take precedence over the wisdom of the Gospels. Because we are a freaking church, first, or we are nothing.

    Secondo: For even longer, the laity permitted a deferential clericalism to color what they saw, and heard and accepted as true — even within their own families. Too respectful to challenge, or too fearful of precipitating scandal within the church, we helped things remain hidden.

    We will now have to step up and share in the penance, and then insist on meaningful inclusion in the structuring of reforms as we go forward.

    Terzo: With great humanity of mind and language, we must admit that yes, there is a homosexual element to some of what has been revealed in these awful disclosures, and address it openly, while keeping in mind the number of hard-working priests, faithful and devout, who live with same sex attraction and remain chaste.

    At the very least, that discussion would reinforce the notion that chastity is actually meant for everyone not called to the marriage vocation, including those espoused to Christ and his Bride the Church.

    I hope every bishop in the United States, most particularly those with open lines to the Vatican, read Henneberger’s piece and understand that this is not a single, isolated voice. The number of Catholics who feel as disgusted, betrayed and fed up as she is growing daily as new investigations open up, state-by-state, as new norms and practices are discussed but not acted-upon, as months slip by and Rome continues to crank slowly in an era that demands fast resolutions.

    Advent and the Nativity of Christ are before us, and then all-too quickly Lent will follow. The sacramental and sacred work of credibly communicating God’s consolation and salvation cannot go on if the pews are empty.

    UPDATE: Deacon Greg Kandra shares a story about how the Church is currently seen

    Read more: Vatican, US Bishops face class-action lawsuit from victims of clergy sex abuse

    Image: Public Domain