Judie Brown, President of the American Life League (ALL), recently published a bold book entitled, The Broken Path: How Catholic Bishops Got Lost in the Weeds of American Politics (2011). In the interest of full disclosure, I was contacted by the ALL and asked if I would be willing to read and review the book. My only compensation was a free copy of the book.
Ms. Brown has been a staunch pro-life advocate for over 30 years and has been appointed to The Pontifical Academy for Life three times, by both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Her credentials in the advancement of pro-life causes are without question and she is rightly regarded as one of the pioneers in the quest to end the murder of unborn children.
I originally picked up Ms. Brown’s book in the second week of January to read it; however, different pressures at work and school prevented me from actually doing it. Instead, I read it over the past two months as the drama between the Obama administration and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was reaching a fever pitch. As part of President Obama’s national health care plan, The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a mandate on January 20th requiring Catholic organizations to provide sterilization, contraception, and abortifacient drugs in their health care plans. Essentially, the religious freedom clause allowing religious organizations to refuse providing these services was removed. Now, anyone even remotely familiar with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church knows these services and drugs are directly opposed by the Church’s teachings. To require Church organizations to provide, and pay for, these services is an absolute slap in the face.
So it was while these events were unfolding that I read Ms. Brown’s book. In a way, it was really strange reading the book while following the news between HHS and the Catholic Bishops. Since Ms. Brown makes a considerable effort to demonstrate which bishops are more vocal in supporting authentic, Catholic teachings on sexual ethics and which ones are silent (or outright contradicting it), I found myself looking to see who would stand up to the challenge the Obama administration had thrown down and which ones would cower. To my great relief, and hopefully Ms. Brown’s as well, every bishop actively shepherding a diocese has spoken out against the mandate.
The primary point, at least in my mind, Ms. Brown is attempting to communicate in her book is any change in the status quo regarding America’s sexual ethics, which most people would likely agree is a mess, can only come by adhering to a natural law based, common sense approach – the approach the Catholic Church takes. I don’t think there are too many people, regardless of religious affiliation, who believe a country with a 50% divorce rate, 1 million+ abortions per year, and millions of teens getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease is headed in the right direction when it comes to the its sexual ethics. But what can be done? More “comprehensive sex education?” More condoms? Should we start teaching kids about sex at an even younger age? That has been the course America has taken for the past 40 years with only miserable results to show for it. We need to move in a different direction and we need to start now!
While a person can easily find thick, scholarly tomes on Catholic sexual ethics, I believe the basic gist can be widdled down to a few, basic, common sense statements: 1) wait until marriage to have sex; 2) don’t get married until you are ready to also be a parent; 3) reproduction can only naturally occur between a male and a female; 3) don’t fill your body with potentially dangerous chemicals in an attempt to avoid pregnancy. That’s it! Pretty simple and straightforward.
These uncomplicated statements are representative of the Catholic teachings on chastity, parenthood, the nature of marriage (i.e. “traditional marriage”), and artificial contraception. In fact, these statements are so simplistic that it seems almost nonsensical to even have to spell them out for anyone. Yet, these four statements are anathema in our current culture that is so intent on having as much sex as possible, without any restrictions and without any boundaries. And in this sex-saturated culture if an “accident” should happen (i.e. pregnancy), well, there’s a ready answer for that too. Our society is indeed in a sad state.
Now since the aforementioned statements can be found within the larger framework of Catholic sexual ethics, we can ask, “Who is primarily responsible for teaching them to Catholics and presenting them as an alternative to our country’s current ‘anything goes’ culture?”
The answer is, “Catholic Bishops.”
How are they doing at it? Well, according to Ms. Brown, some are doing a pretty good job while some others appear to be lagging behind in their responsibilities.
In addition to their role as teachers, bishops are also responsible for ensuring Catholics who publicly, and with full intent, distort the Catholic Church’s teachings are held accountable (e.g. Catholic politicians publicly endorsing abortion). Bishops have a responsibility to ensure the Church’s teachings are not twisted for personal gain and if they are, to reprimand the guilty party and set the record straight with sound doctrine. When this is not done, as Ms. Brown clearly demonstrates with numerous examples in her book, subversiveness spreads. Doubt and confusion cloud the minds of Catholics until they are unsure of what is true or permissible? The drama concludes with poorly catechized Catholics falling away from the Church due to a lack of clear guidance from their bishops. This tragedy, of people leaving Church, is initiated in many instances by a public officials’ sin of scandal. Ms. Brown rightly calls for bishops to be held accountable for allowing such public, heretical displays to go unchallenged.
So where is the pastoral guidance from the bishops? When will they exercise their teaching authority? And, perhaps even more importantly for Ms. Brown, when will the bishops take corrective action to discipline wayward public officials (e.g. excommunication)? There is no question these are important and timely questions as doubts continue to spread throughout the Church and little seems to be done about it.
As I contemplated these questions while reading the book, I came up with another question: if the discharge of ecclesial authority can be executed swiftly against those who are perceived to break the rules or not uphold the standard, then why hasn’t the Vatican held wayward bishops to account for failing to be faithful teachers and pastors? We can easily point to our local bishops and accuse them of everything from apathy to outright heresy, but why aren’t they held accountable? Is it because they are not as wayward as we think they are or is the system that is supposed to hold them accountable broken as well? Maybe bishops keep letting public officials slide by (i.e. a failure of leadership their part) because Rome never held them to account for their failure of leadership. It’s just a thought.
In a recent conversation with my brother, a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, we were discussing the various roles of the bishop and he reminded me that in addition to pastor, teacher, and arbiter of justice, the bishop is also a shepherd, a role signified by the crosier (i.e. shepherd’s staff) he carries with him. What is the symbolic purpose of that staff? Is it to poke and prod the sheep in order to get them to follow or is it to be used as a deterrent/protection against those who seek to kill members of the flock? I think we can get a sense of the answer to that last question in John’s gospel where Jesus told the Jews in Solomon’s portico that his sheep follow because they know and hear his voice (John 10:22-28). They do not follow because they are prodded along with a stick.
Since I read the book and wrote this review during Lent, it may also be helpful to consider some of the readings we recently heard over the past few weeks. In them, we can see the different “faces” of Jesus. I think given the topics Ms. Brown addresses in her book, and the style in which she engages them, it would be helpful to look at the Gospel readings from the Third Sunday of Lent (John 2:13-25) and Palm Sunday (Mark 14:1 – 15:47).
In John’s Gospel from the Third Sunday in Lent, we see a “zealous Jesus,” maybe even an “angry Jesus,” cleansing the temple by chasing out the money-changers with a whip he fashioned from cords. We often times say his anger was justified or even righteous. Pointing to that Jesus, we can justify our own indignation as we witness our country and our beloved Church sliding into what we believe to be decay. We believe we must not back down from a “fight” (a word used regularly by Cardinal Dolan).
On Palm Sunday, Mark shows us another face of Jesus, the one where he stands silent before Pilate (Mark 15:5). If there was ever a time for Jesus to be screaming for justice, it was then! Yet, Jesus wouldn’t even fight for his own life. He was purposefully silent so that it made Pilate “wonder” why. When we contemplate this face of Jesus, we are also reminded of his birth. We reflect on his humility, his meekness, his modesty. Interestingly, these are the traits we most commonly think of when we contemplate the spirituality and personalities of The Saints.
So what of our bishops? Indeed there are some who more vocal than others. For example, scarcely a day goes by when Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Burke, or Archbishop Chaput (“heroes” in Ms. Brown’s book (pg. 204)) are not in the news for their latest comments when speaking truth to power and loudly proclaiming the Church’s teachings (and rightly so!). Then there are other bishops, who Ms. Brown claims, lack “the strength of conviction when the rubber meets the road,” and “look the other way” in the face of controversy (e.g. Cardinal George (pg. 51)). But could it be their divergent approaches to difficult situations reflect the many faces of Jesus? Is it necessary for all of our bishops to be type-A, in your face, kind of shepherds, leading with their staff rather than with the soft call of their voice? Once again, it’s only a thought.
What about Catholics in general? I believe the Catholic Church needs all kinds of people, from the loud and raucous to the meek and unassuming. By incorporating all kinds of people, the Church will reflect the many different faces of Jesus and become “all things to all men (I Cor 9:22).
The issues primarily covered in Ms. Brown’s book: sexual ethics, pro-life concerns, religious liberty are more much theologically nuanced than people on either the “right” or “left” knows, acknowledges, or understands. For example, the personhood issue is something clearly near and dear to Ms. Brown’s heart but it has many complex sides to it within the disciplines of theology, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology. To chastise bishops, individually or collectively, for not supporting state level personhood initiatives is too simple an answer when the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has stated in its Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974): “This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement” (para #13 and footnote #19). For bishops in the United States to avoid championing such initiatives is to follow the example the CDF gave in its declaration (also see by the CDF: Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day (1987), paragraph 1 under Respect for Human Embryos).
These last few paragraphs are not meant to defend weak bishops. I think Ms. Brown has done Catholics a great service by writing this book and I heartily endorse it (for whatever that is worth). However, I would just say that it may be a bridge too far to say a poorly worded blog entry by a bishop or a less than rousing endorsement from the USCCB (“middle management” as Ms. Brown calls them (pg 78)) on state level initiatives is automatically indicative of a weak will, a desire to purposefully deceive, a lack of conviction, or a desire to be on the “A-list” at social events (charges Ms. Brown levies against bishops she is dissatisfied with).
Are there bishops like that? Yes, I’m quite sure there are. They are human after all. Yet, knowing all the angles in complex issues is almost an insurmountable task and then sufficiently documenting them all in a curial document, a diocesan press release, or a chapter in a book, can be equally as challenging.
This is why charity must abound in all things. Charity, as understood within the context of our Catholic faith is not for the faint of heart. We must present our concerns with clear voices, but always with charity. Ms. Brown calls the virtue of charity “a merciful salve” (pg. 216). I rather like that term!
If someone asked me, “Christopher, what did you like the most about Judie Brown’s book?” I would tell them I liked the fact that I could see myself in it. I easily relate to Ms. Brown’s frustration with lackadaisical bishops and her anger with unrepentant “Catholic” politicians who twist and distort the beauty of the Catholic faith for their own selfish gain. But in between readings, I calmed down and thought how we must act more cautiously because there are too many dangers if we proceed too hastily with condemnations of our bishops without knowing all the specifics (i.e. theological, philosophical, sociological, and yes, even political). But then I thought, “Doesn’t cautiousness only prolong the matter and mean more innocent children will die within their mother’s wombs?” When I considered it that way, I felt the heat rising in my face and I wanted to charge out and do something. Anything!!
Reading Ms. Brown’s A Broken Path was a back and forth emotional experience for me. Any book that can evoke those kinds of emotions and cause me to think a little more is worth the time to read! You may find the same is true for you.
This review was originally published on my website Christopher’s Apologies on 4/12/12.