The Nature of the Moment

Published May 8, 2024

The Catholic Thing

I spent nearly three decades working in senior diocesan positions.  I saw the failures, problems, and human sins of Church life in an intimate way.  None of it diminished my faith or damaged my trust in the Church or her teachings.  The reason is simple.  The priests and bishops I worked with were overwhelmingly good men; men with vastly different personalities, weaknesses, and strengths, but all — or very nearly all — committed to their people and trying to do their best in an increasingly hostile culture.  That kind of dedication doesn’t absolve them from criticism.  But it does warrant our sincere respect and support.  And when we fail to give them those things, we harm only ourselves.

Over the three years it took to write my book True Confessions, I interviewed 30 bishops in 25 states and one foreign country.  All were prudent, experienced men, men of hope but also realism, and all were in the mainstream of faithful Church thought and life.  Their comments, several of them excerpted here, help us understand the challenges American Catholics now face.

From the bishop of a diocese, central United States:

It’s easy to miss the good things happening in the Church.  That’s where we defeat ourselves.  I’m involved in a lot of evangelizing efforts, and some people are doing the work really well.  FOCUS, Augustine Institute:  These are the obvious examples, but many others are getting terrific results.  It’s a big challenge though, because today’s culture is so contrary to the Christian worldview.  So it’s all about the parable of the sower and seed.  Not all the seed falls on good ground, but some does, and it can be hugely fruitful.  That’s why more bishops need to regain their prophetic edge . . [because] when it comes to the federal government, I do believe that we’re dealing with a totalitarian attitude now.  And it’s going to force us to separate from the state more and more clearly.

From the bishop of a diocese, eastern United States:

We just don’t have the conceptual tools as a society anymore to bring about a healthy and respectful dialogue, let alone find common ground.  The tools are gone, and the main one missing is an acceptance, even unconsciously, of the natural moral law. . . .We used to have a substratum of commonly held moral sanity that helped people on both sides of a dispute come together.  Again, that’s gone.  Social media have made our discourse much nastier, more brittle, and apocalyptic.  Catholic media often ape and add to the confusion.  And compounding the problem is our forgetfulness of history.  As a nation, we’ve never been very good at history; now we barely know it at all.  The reason for that is our educational system.  We’ve created two generations of people who really don’t know their heritage, and then we wonder why they’re willing to part with it so easily.  I believe that was done on purpose by people in authority.  And I think it bodes ill for our democratic structures and representative form of government.

From the bishop of a diocese, western United States:

A lot of our Catholic people think that being a good Christian boils down to loving everybody, embracing and not judging them, and being inclusive and welcoming.  If we did that, we could just limp along, try to make everyone happy, and keep them in the fold at all costs.  The trouble is, that’s not Christianity.  It’s not the faith of the Catholic Church.  It’s not the truth Jesus taught.  As a Church we need to get back to apostolic mission; to preaching and living the whole Word of God.  I want everyone to have the necessities of a decent life.  I want every person to have the basic things that support his or her God-given dignity, and part of the Church’s mission is helping to provide that.  But my job isn’t ensuring people’s material happiness.  My job is leading people to a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ, for the sake of their salvation.  My task is the salvation of a man’s or woman’s soul.  So I find it distressing, frankly, when some of our Church leaders seem to worry more about the climate of the planet than the climate of faith, the crisis of faith, in our own house.

From the bishop of a diocese, southern United States:

For me, our culture has two big wounds.  The first is our appetite for sterility.  Contraception steals something from the soul.  If you’re a layperson, there’s no way to make up for not having children; for not welcoming new life.  And it has a ripple effect.  It damages the whole of society, including the integrity of family structure and the consolations of old age.  The other wound is our crisis in the identity and mission of men. We’re made in God’s image, male and female. Men and women both need to flourish in their particular ways.  Our culture now aggressively undermines the identity of women, but men even more so.  It strips away the reasons why men should be strong, and unselfish, and courageous.  It’s very much a work of the devil and a matter of spiritual warfare, because it attacks the nature of who and what human beings are, and why we’re here.  Our hearts were made for God.  They’re made for goodness, beauty, fruitfulness, and truth.  We long for those things.  We starve and become bitter without them.

It’s worth noting that none of the bishops – in fact, none of the 103 persons I interviewed for True Confessions – lacked a vigorous confidence in Jesus Christ and the future of the Church.  It’s always a mistake to dwell too fearfully on the seeming size of problems.  Fear drives out love, blinds us to the good, and leaves us unreasonably distressed.  So, the next time we’re tempted to bash bishops, it might be worth remembering the burdens they bear for us, and the challenges they face. They need our prayers, not our censure.

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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