On the Disunities of Bishop Stowe

Published June 5, 2024

The Catholic Thing

One of the reasons I spent three years writing a recent book on the Church in the United States was to capture the character, challenges, and real concerns of the men who lead us today as bishops. What I found confirmed my more than 40-year career experience. Our bishops have the same strengths and flaws as the rest of us. But they’re overwhelmingly good men, faithful to the Church and her teaching, and committed to their people.

Of course, there are always a few outliers who, whatever their good intentions, don’t quite fit the mold.

Simply put, no other U.S. bishop in recent memory has diverged so openly from his brother bishops on sensitive issues, or so obviously ignored the protocols of collegiality, than the Diocese of Lexington’s John Stowe. Jayd Henricks described the overall pattern of Bishop Stowe’s singular leadership in a recent article here. As Henricks – himself a former USCCB senior staffer – noted, Stowe “regularly steps into the most delicate and highly charged cultural and political issues with none of the painstaking care his brother bishops show. He seems determined, in fact, to follow his own blundering impulses, and to kick against the other bishops’ pastoral approach whenever it might rein him in.”

Henricks went on to note that:

During the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost [May 19], a diocesan-approved hermit under Stowe’s jurisdiction “came out” as “transgender.” The controversial event immediately made headlines, and Stowe’s role gradually came into focus . . . . “On Pentecost Sunday, Brother Christian Matson, a professed hermit in the Diocese of Lexington, has made it public that he is a transgender person,” the diocese stated – using male pronouns in reference to the gender-confused woman in question. “Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., accepted his profession [as a religious hermit] and is grateful to Brother Christian for his witness….” Additionally, Matson’s application to become a diocesan hermit was “repeatedly rejected” by other bishops in a ten-year search that ultimately found support from Stowe.

There’s more, and the Henricks article continues:

“LGBT persons,” Stowe wrote in a 2022 essay, “did not choose their identity, but are certain it is an essential part of who they are.” Such people “cannot and should not change,” he wrote. Stowe’s statements on questions of sexual morality and identity contradict the Church’s timeless teachings – principles reiterated in increasing frequency both by the Vatican and the USCCB as the LGBTQ movement’s aggression against the Church escalates. The Kentucky bishop’s pro-LGBTQ principles don’t stop at doctrinal opinion, however. He has also repeatedly pushed for policy and law to reflect his rejection of the Church’s guidance.

In 2021, Stowe signed a statement shopped around by progressive groups in order to advance the LGBTQ movement among schoolchildren in Catholic institutions such as schools. Also in 2021, Stowe went so far as to publicly endorse the pro-LGBTQ Equality Act, which was an act of almost unprecedented rebellion from the clear policy of the USCCB.

In taking such steps, Bishop Stowe’s personal motives are surely honest in their intent. But their practical result is disastrous – as he should already know. Compassion for people with same-sex attraction and other complex sexual issues is vital. But compassion amounts to mere indulgence unless it’s rooted in truth. And Bishop Stowe is well aware of Catholic teaching, rooted in the truth of the Word of God on matters of sexuality. . .the matters it blesses, and the matters it precludes as destructive and sinful. The abuse of the human body involved in transgenderism and its delusions directly and gravely violates Catholic teaching and, for that matter, the guidance of Pope Francis.

In his April Good Shepherd Sunday homily, Bishop Stowe stressed quite beautifully that “Early Christians, in their sufferings and trials, needed reminders of the nearness of the Good Shepherd who would rescue them and lead them to restful waters and green pastures.” He added that “The danger of wolves, the familiarity of the shepherd’s voice, the importance of the flock remaining together for safety, for survival, were all ordinary realities given extraordinary significance by the Good Shepherd, who not only risks his life for the sake of the sheep, but willingly lays down his life.”

Regrettably, the substance of his homily wasn’t the urgency of Eucharistic revival, or the global persecution of Christians, or the growing hostility of our government to religion, or the decline of faith in salvific realities, or the media’s wolfish idolatry of abortion “rights” since the overturning of Roe, but. . .climate change.

It’s worth remembering that Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei verbum) describes bishops as successors of the apostles (DV 7) – or at least the 11 apostles who remained faithful. It’s also worth reviewing the duties of bishops outlined in the Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen gentium).

In LG 23, the Council stresses that bishops – if they truly seek to be good shepherds – have the duty to be the “visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches.” They also have the task “of fostering and safeguarding the unity of the faith and of upholding the discipline which is common to the whole Church,” in order that “faith may increase and the light of truth may rise in its fullness on all men.” LG 25 adds that bishops must be “heralds of the faith” with the obligation “to ward off whatever errors threaten their flock.”

It’s difficult to square Bishop Stowe’s actions with any of the above; in fact, his actions clearly fuel disunity.

Over the past few decades, the label of “culture warrior” has been tossed lavishly around in attacking bishops of a (perceived) conservative nature. But ironies abound in life. It turns out that critics might reasonably apply the same label, for very different reasons, to the bishop of Lexington. And yet there’s nothing good or pleasing in that, because to the degree that Bishop Stowe earns it, the whole Church suffers.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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