In this time when the iron curtain of authoritarianism has descended upon the United States and most of the rest of the formerly free world, one of the voices one might have expected to offer at least a whimper of resistance has been curiously silent. Despite being put almost completely out of commission, declared "non-essential," and relegated to the virtual reality of live-streamed Masses, the Catholic Church has made almost no effort whatsoever to fight for more reasonable restrictions, much less strike back at the heart of what is nothing less than a brutal assault on religious freedom by Satan and his allies. As the restrictions piled on, bishop after bishop not only made no effort to defy or challenge the blatantly unconstitutional and indefensible acts by state governors, but in many cases were eager to close up shop even before being required to do so. Only today (Ascension Thursday 2020) we finally saw a gram or two of courage as the Minnesota bishops decided to reopen despite the government's plainly unconstitutional restrictions there.
What is causing this speechlessness on the part of Catholics, while much smaller Protestant churches have been aggressively filing lawsuits and seeking injunctions against state overreach? One obvious explanation is that the bishops have been infected with the mass insanity that afflicts at least half the world these days; after all, they are merely human beings like the rest of us. Episcopal ordination, while an important act, does not confer infallibility on individual bishops, much less impeccability. It does not render perfect the men chosen any more than the twelve apostles became perfect immediately when Jesus chose them. Even after three years, countless miracles, and witnessing a Man risen from the dead, in chapter 21 of the Gospel of John we see that these still imperfect men wanted to forget about all that and go back to fishing. Despite that, Jesus forgave them, so perhaps we can at least understand why their successors today are acting no better, and we may even be able to muster the courage to forgive them as well. They are still vulnerable to all the faults and failings that afflict all of us, and mass insanity is no exception.
It's much deeper than that, though. Even a somewhat frightened man may be able to overcome his fear of one thing by fear of something else. One would think that these fallible men, if not motivated purely by love of God, might at least be motivated by fear of God, fear of becoming permanently subjugated to state control, or even fear of going bankrupt on account of empty collection baskets caused by empty pews. Other negative factors have unfortunately come into play here. The nearly complete capitulation of the Catholic Church to government interference is the result of decades of bad choices and corrupt attitudes rather than a simple fear of coronavirus.
Some might want to go back even further, but we can start with the sex abuse scandals. First, a slight diversion. One of the problems with the Church today is that it is run too much like a large corporation, with the bishop being no more than a CEO. An example of this in my diocese is the diocesan television channel. Its leader, a diocesan priest, actually has the title of "CEO" and advertises himself as that, which is wholly inappropriate for a priest in such a position. Perhaps he might have such a title in terms of the civil incorporation of the legal entity, but he shouldn't be advertising himself as a "CEO," which says volumes about how many priests and bishops see themselves today. Wouldn't "diocesan vicar for television" sound a bit more religious?
When the horror of clerical sex abuse and its mishandling became public after being quietly swept under the rug the way CEO's do things, the Church made little effort to root out the causes and reacted much the way she is reacting today-- with extremism. The Dallas Charter, crafted in 2002, was nothing short of an abomination. The Church decided that simply cooperating with civil authorities as needed was insufficient; she'd be ahead of them. Many accusations of questionable veracity were simply treated as gospel, and many priests were thrown under the bus regardless of what sort of objective evidence was offered. One such priest, Father Gordon MacRae, has been sitting in prison in New Hampshire for over twenty years after a kangaroo trial in a civil court. He has not been laicized, because deep down they all must know that he's most likely innocent-- but they are all happy to let him sit in jail because as long as he's there, the Church can wring its hands in mock exasperation and say "there's nothing we can do."
We were more recently treated to the case of Cardinal Pell of Australia. With a bit more luck, probably some better lawyers of his own, and the High Court in Australia that was willing to buck the tide that put the cardinal in jail in the first place, he managed to get out of jail in only a little over a year despite having been convicted solely on the testimony of the accuser and despite numerous witnesses insisting that the story of the accuser was grossly implausible. Again, Church leaders were mostly silent or offered only tepid support-- even after the conviction was unanimously overturned-- and would have been happy to let him rot in prison where they wouldn't have to deal with the issue, with that tired refrain of "there's nothing we can do."
That attitude is what underlies the Church's response to coronavirus. Since 2002, the Church has essentially been run by lawyers. They have no interest in evangelization, no interest in spreading the Gospel, no interest in truth or justice. Their whole "mission" if one could call it that is to protect the Church from liability. That's one reason why the Church has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements, mostly settled out of court, even though in many cases the evidence is specious. That's why the abominable Dallas Charter talks about "credible evidence," which in many places means nothing more than "we can't prove that it didn't happen," the standard under which Cardinal Pell was originally convicted.
That attitude of being "ahead of the authorities" is what seems to be motivating bishops today. One easily gets the impression that they are quite happy to defer the decision-making to state governors, because even if the governors were not doing such a poor job of concealing their vile contempt for religion, by being modern-day Pontius Pilates washing their hands of responsibility, the bishops can't be sued by someone who gets coronavirus after walking through a church. Padlocking the doors is easier and legally safer. No, sir, no one is going to accuse us of spreading germs. They won't accuse us of spreading the Gospel, either. One can easily imagine some of these bishops in private conversations with their governors begging to be kept shut down, much like the cowardly Padre Jose in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, who is all too eager to prove how un-Catholic he is lest he actually suffer for the Gospel.
This leads us to the question of how we came to have so many of these lightweights in bishop's mitres today. That is the result of perhaps forty years of selecting almost exclusively "smiling bishops" to the exclusion of any other type of person. While having a big smile may make for great photographs, what we've done is the equivalent of stacking our baseball team's 25-man roster with nothing but catchers and right-handed pitchers, forgetting that we might occasionally need a lefty, a single, or even a home run. In building a team, diversity actually is an important consideration, despite the negative connotations associated with that word these days on account of it being used to describe uniformity of thought. Henry Ford practiced the sort of diversity we encounter today when he famously said that a car buyer could buy a car from him in any color as long as it was black. On the other hand, true diversity is an asset. Sure, we should have some smiling bishops, but we should have introverts and extroverts, scholars and common men, smilers and pit bulls. Holding a carrot works better when one has a stick in the other hand. Unfortunately, St. John Paul II, for all his greatness, did not do a very good job of diversifying the episcopacy to prepare for the current onslaught of attacks against religious freedom, and Pope Francis in particular has continued that stacking with lightweights.
With an overabundance of cautious bishops at the helm in most dioceses, willing to be led instead of leading, a maxim that perhaps best explains the situation today is "follow the money." These days, we have two powerful anti-motivators to bishops fighting to get churches reopened; both deal with money. The first is significant but probably less important: automated giving. A significant portion of many parishes' income now comes from automated giving programs-- the sort where one signs up on a web site and hands over a checking account routing number or credit or debit card number and permanently has a donation automatically deducted on a regular basis. It's the sort of thing that lets bishops and pastors live in a world of virtual reality where it matters not if the church is open closed or dead. "Well, hey, the money just keeps coming in; we can manage; no rush to reopen," one can imagine being said quietly in rectories and chanceries across the land.
The other anti-motivator is that the Church has simply become too dependent upon government funding. A Washington Times article from March of 2017 indicates that at the time Catholic Charities received over 60 percent of its funding from the government. The same article also adds, "Catholic institutions in the United States received over $500,000,000 in federal funding in 2016." For an organization to bite the hand that feeds it is just not, shall we say, "staying safe."
What's worth noting here is that such a situation is unhealthy for the Church. The weakest Catholic Church in the world is the one in Germany, and it produces the most heterodox ideas as well. The pews are empty, but the money keeps coming in from the church tax, allowing the leaders of the German Church to exist in an insulated bubble divorced from any sort of reality. If it weren't for the church tax, perhaps the German Church might have been forced to clean up its act long ago, but as long as the money is there, the can can be kicked up the road. While we certainly don't want to see preachers with a Nielsen popularity meter at the pulpit to monitor if what they are preaching is going over well, the idea that the effectiveness of preaching should have no correlation to whether anyone is listening or not is untenable as well. I'm sure that even Jesus had some level of concern about whether he was making a difference or not; otherwise, He would not have gone to the trouble of becoming man in the first place.
Further, this analysis would not be complete without addressing a perennial thorn in the side of Catholics who want to see their Church preach the Gospel without reservation or hindrance: the tax-exempt status of the Church. Too many times, we have heard, "well, the Church needs to stay out of politics." Once again, we are hearing the voice of the lawyers and accountants behind this equally tired mantra. While one cannot doubt that the Church's tax exemption has kept her out of trouble at times, more often than justly protecting her from engaging in inappropriate partisanship, the tax-exempt status has been a convenient cover for wishy-washy bishops and priests to justify lightweight homilies and pulled punches instead of the boldness and courage that we need. The time has long past come to renounce the tax exemption. Surely they aren't making a profit on the Gospel, are they? If there is no profit, taxes should be minimal anyway, and donors should be motivated by charity, not a tax deduction. The accountants and lawyers are on the payroll anyway, so what if they have to file tax returns besides? What's a little more paperwork among bureaucrats?
Finally, we come to a logical contradiction caused by the Church's insufficient action against abortion over the last 50 years or so. We should have taken on the abortionists of the 1970's and 1980's when we still had some semblance of moral power, but we were mostly silent then. Now we face the choice of fighting harder against an arguably lesser and marginally debatable evil and looking as though our priorities are backward-- and at a time when we have less moral authority than ever-- or simply remaining silent. In New York State, the situation is stark and obvious: by not taking on Mario Cuomo and putting him in his place decisively and conclusively when we had the chance to do that, we are now stuck with Andrew Cuomo, who makes his father look like a candidate for sainthood by comparison.