Saturday, August 25, 2018

Imperial Episcopacy in the Catholic Periphery

I have been reflecting for several days on this article at First Things (The End of the Imperial Episcopate). In particular, it has been helpful to reflect on how this impacts us outside the Roman Catholic Church but still in the Catholic tradition. I will try to limit my commentary to our own needs.

In many ways, we are practically limited from an "imperial episcopate." We do not typically have large chancelleries and numerous staff. Some people might (in their own minds or on their websites) but it rarely reflects reality. Our outfits are usually much more humble. To me, this is one of the beautiful aspects of our movement. We are devoid of the bureaucracy that plagues other parts of the Church Catholic. 

Another part where we differ is that LITERALLY ANYONE can become a bishop. LITERALLY ANYONE. There, I said it. This is not unique to our movement--we see the exact same thing in traditionalist Catholic circles, among the Old Calendarists, etc. All one has to do is have a sympathetic bishop to consecrate them. Often, this can limit the clericalism of individuals because they realize that their episcopal nature is much closer to the Early Church model of presbyter-bishops and deacons (for good or for worse). When it becomes problematic is when people "don't get the memo" and try to set themselves up as imperial poobahs (His All Holiness the Patriarch of Mesopotamia and All the East--which to my knowledge is not a clerical title... yet) without realizing that their exalted episcopal status is... unremarkable.

These are things that are decried both inside and outside of the movement. "There are too many bishops. Anyone can become a bishop. There is no structure. We don't have a headquarters. We have no incentive to keep priests like health insurance or churches." These are just some of the comments we hear. Many of these things are true, but I try to look at the more positive aspects. We are without bureaucracy so we can meet people where they really are and where they are most in need. And that should be our calling--as both priests and bishops. 

I agree with the author of the above piece that externals can be problematic. However, I don't think that they should necessarily be eliminated. Choir cassocks and piping and all of those things give important events solemnity. I think they should and can be used, but--and this is a big but--sparingly. We look insane if we put on all our finery for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time or the 12th Sunday after Pentecost. An ordination, yes. Not every Sunday. In fact, as I've mentioned before, I much prefer to be called father and titles like Excellency and Your Grace make me rather uncomfortable. I think finery can be retained but in small doses and in the appropriate setting. Especially when the inevitable question comes--"how many ministries do you have?" If the remark is not suitably large enough for the petitioner, the one answering can look like a real kook.

In reality we are doing a lot of the things mentioned in the article. Dioceses are able to be smaller and people are able to know the bishop. There are very few auxiliary bishops and bishops get to know the priests they support. Bishops must be called to humility and gentleness. As mentioned, I don't think that episcopal finery is a problem in and of itself. I have, in fact, met progressive priests who were dictators in their own command for control. Who required everything to be a certain way--their way--to the exclusion of all others. And I have met the same quality in traditional priests. It is rarely the garment that makes the individual oppressive--it's the mindset.

So let us rejoice in those things we are doing well. Smaller, base communities of faithful who are receiving the sacraments. People who need access to the grace given by the holy sacraments receive them from our hands. Part of this may include a bit of finery (in appropriate doses) but it can't distract people from our mission. And it can't be so over used that we look truly crazy. Or crazier, in some cases.

"For a golden-hearted bishop, wooden crozier ; for a wooden-headed bishop, golden crozier." - French Proverb

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Sexual Abuse in the Church

We have all watched with horror the sex abuse happening in the Roman Catholic Church. The reality is, however, that none of us are immune to the risks of wayward clerics. The crucial part is how we deal with the issue. Autocephalous Catholics must have policies in place to deal with clergy who have had some type of sexual, physical, or other aggression towards others--especially children. It remains an issue at the forefront of our ministries, because we do get people from other traditions who have not matched the requirements of other entities. This can be for a whole host of reasons, but it does give us heightened cause to protect our ministries and the People of God.

The reality is that the Church is a hospital for sinners, and it will always attract people with problems. We cannot control who comes to us. All we can do is further protect children and vulnerable people so that they are not abused. This means putting policies in place that ensure people who have been accused or have the proclivity to abuse are not placed in ministerial positions. It also means (and this is going to be unpopular) ministering to abusers (while establishing boundaries) so that they are not cut off from the Christian community entirely. If we minister to all people we have to prepare ourselves to minister to people whose sins and condition we find morally repugnant. This is true of all clergy and all conditions.

There is a lot of conjecture currently about why priests abuse. Numerous psychological treatises have indicated that it is linked to a power dynamic in some cases. This seems natural because we instinctively look up to the clergy. They are presented as "worthy" figures whose voice has merit and gravitas. In the Roman Catholic cases, there is also the issue of improper formation. Human sexuality has not been viewed as something that is a natural part of an individual, but is often viewed as bad. When clergy are told that their vocation is the highest form of sacrifice at tender ages in minor seminary, a complex can be easily developed. These are not inclusive of why people abuse, they are just some of the factors. 

What I do not believe has any bearing on abuse is human sexuality. Controversial clerics in the Roman tradition, and in the Orthodox one, have attributed abuse to homosexuality. This serves a dual purpose. 1) it allows the externalization of blame--if only "those people" could be rooted out of the priesthood. 2) it gives people with an axe to grind against society another reason to wax philosophical about the decline of society and our moral status. Empirical studies have indicated that the vast majority of abusers are heterosexual. Simply preventing homosexuals from the priesthood is not going to solve the issue, because it is not an exclusively homosexual issue (although there were homosexual priests who abused just like there were heterosexual ones).

I also don't think that the various culture warriors are going to solve the problem. There are shouts from the right that the abuse is the result of Vatican II. However, the abuse happened by priests who were trained prior to Vatican II. Abuse has happened throughout the history of the whole Christian Church--not just in one epoch. Similarly, there are shouts to ordain women because it will be the salve that settles all problems. Including this is not a discussion of women's ordination--it's an acknowledgement that no one issue can solve the problem.

Abuse will continue to happen. Prohibiting something does not stop it. If that was true there would no longer be prostitution, abortions, etc. Even after training courses and safeguarding courses, abuse still occurs. The thing that we can do is learn from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. We are not looking to mimic them (as covered in the last post) but we are going to learn from their experiences. And we can put policies in place the prevent people who have the proclivity to abuse or who have abused into positions of ministry.

There is nothing to stop Fr X, who has been accused of abuse, from starting his own "Independent Catholic" chapel and going at it on his own. Any more than there is a priest who committed gross theft from doing the same. But we, as communities and jurisdictions, can do due diligence about researching people's backgrounds as well as implementing protections as much as possible.

Pray for the Church. All branches and parts of it. The bad decisions of bishops and leadership, even in one part of the Body of Christ, impact all of it. You can be rightfully angry at the people guiding the Church, but don't let it cut you off from the Most Holy Eucharist. Clergy are people and, as such, are sinners. But just as hopefully having one bad doctor does not dissuade you from medical care, do not let it be so for your spiritual care either. 

"When Napoleon told Cardinal Ercole Consalvi he had the power the destroy the church, the Cardinal responded: ‘If in 1,800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you'll be able to do it?’”

Sunday, August 19, 2018


A great benefit of the Autocephalous Catholic movement is that it can be a home for former Roman Catholics. There are various people who have felt called to ministry but could not exercise it in the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly, there are laity who have been unable to practice their faith because they felt excluded because of their marital status, etc. The movement as a whole offers such variety that literally everyone can find someone or someplace that makes them feel they belong.

There is a downside, however, to attracting the (sometimes disgruntled) former adherents of another tradition. Inevitably, as is our human nature, they can want to re-mold it as "home." Suggestions are always helpful, and we can always improve. But when they are presented in a way that "I come from a 'real' church" or "I was trained properly because of my formation, seminary, etc." it can dampen the creative spirit of the Autocephalous Catholic movement. I have seen it happen before--former Roman Catholic priests (or priests from other traditions) believe they are the most important asset to a jurisdiction because their background or their experience. In reality, we are all just bumbling along on this trajectory called faith. Some may be more experienced or more educated, but it doesn't diminish the insight of the neophytes who are seeking to understand.

Because we are so local in our tradition, there is a real risk of forming communities which center around the personality of the priest. This can be especially risky when the priest brings most of their flock from a former parish. The connection can be to the priest rather than to the faith or the mission. This is, of course, not applicable to every priest who joins the movement. But it is something to monitor, lest the ministry or community suffer from being "a flash in the pan rather than a light to the world" in the words of Fr. Bjorn Marcussen.

Similarly, it is also problematic when people from other traditions bring along the anger and hurt they feel after isolation from their own tradition. I have sat through more than enough homilies about the "wrong that xx church caused me" or "how xx church needs to change" from clergy who were active in another jurisdiction. The reality is that once you've separated from it, you can chart your own course. This doesn't diminish one's experiences, but it does limit us from focusing on our former religious affiliation and centering our future around it. You have the freedom to follow your own spiritual destiny as you feel so called.

It is important to say that those of us who have been in this movement either from the beginning or for years do not have ways in which we can learn and grow. I was baptized in an independent Latin Mass parish and have been part of the periphery of Catholicism all my life. This has its own challenges and problems, as we can become blind to the problems that exist in our tradition. However, it does seem that those groups which adopt their own structures and traditions seem to be the ones that last the longest. Because there is a unifying ethos which brings them together, rather than a perspective of being "on the outside looking in" to another church.

My final thought is that it is impossible to not bring our own traditions and backgrounds into our spiritual journey. Every group has had its struggles when converts come in and bring their traditions to the table. The most apparent in my mind is the influx of former Evangelical Protestants into Eastern Orthodoxy. No transition is seamless, and we can learn from each other's experiences. But converts cannot presume that their way is the best way or that because they came from a more mainstream background that they are more experienced.

"I was the Lutheran with the greatest knowledge of the Orthodox Church, and now I am the Orthodox with the greatest knowledge of Luther. "  - An insightful quote from Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan after his conversion to Orthodoxy.