Thinking as a Catholic When Your Bishop is a Quack and a Crank
George Carlin once remarked that someone in the world is the World’s Worst Doctor–and someone has an appointment with him tomorrow!
It’s the same with bishops. The average bishop is average. There are a few who stick out as intellectual or spiritual giants down through history. Most were just guys doing their jobs and handing down a tradition they did not invent and they tried to live passably well, which is the way of average people. Since the faith was intended for average people, I don’t think that damning. Being average myself I hope my boring and unexceptional life will likewise be acceptable to God. We aren’t, most of us, Francis of Assisi.
But there are also those who are out at the other end of the bell curve. The exceptionally bad.
I don’t mean here the criminally bad. For crimes, there is a solution: jail. That the criminals don’t get jailed is ultimately a problem for our justice system to solve. The problem is for us laity–that is, the Catholics and non-
Catholics of good will who run all the police, staff all courts, sit on all the juries, own all the guns, and run all the prisons–to create systems that deal with criminals who work in the clergy as we create systems to deal with all other criminals in all other walks of life. If the Church is smart, she will realize predators go where prey is and find ways to vet candidates for the three offices of Holy Orders who go there seeking prey–and to hand miscreants over to the secular arm when those vetting processes accidentally let a rotter through. Thus, and no other way will criminals in the Church be dealt with.
No, I just mean those who are just flat lousy bishops without necessarily being crooks or abusers. Take, for instance, Bp. Joseph Strickland. He first emerged on my radar a couple of years ago when, along with the rest of the Catholic Right Wing Media Lie Machine, he threw his weight behind the carefully coordinated assault on Pope Francis led by Abp. Vigano.
In that assault and attempted palace coup, Vigano released a “testimonial” screaming for the one man who had actually done something about removing McCarrick to ‘RESIGN” while carefully covering up the fact that he himself had done nothing at all about McCarrick except wine, dine, and give him awards even when, by his own testimony, he knew he was a predator.
Instead of demanding to know why Vigano did nothing during his tenure as apostolic nuncio (the only guy in the Church on US soil who can remove and punish cardinals), Strickland did not say “boo” to Vigano. Instead, he attacked Francis, who did remove and punish McCarrick.
Strickland did not act alone in that attempted palace coup. Along with EWTN and Lifesite News and various other hotbeds of Francis-hatred, he was part of a carefully coordinated assault that quickly collapsed. But he made clear his hostility to this pope and did his best to poison those under his sway against him, as MAGAfied Catholics have done since the day Francis was elected.
Nor was that all. This year, Strickland’s intensely MAGAfied gospel reared its head again when (again following the lead of the increasingly unstable Vigano), Bp. Strickland chose to sign an insane “manifesto” alleging that COVID is part of a plot to establish some sort of New World Government.
This narrative is nuts, but it scratches the itch that MAGA cultists have for conspiratorial thinking, for seeing themselves as perpetual victims, for inflicting pain and suffering on others in their massive selfishness, and for indulging their narcissistic conviction that they are the true heroes in their struggle for “liberty” as they walk over the sick and dying in whom they have no interest up until the moment suffering affects them personally.
A bishop like this, totally committed to the MAGA view of unreality naturally is going to ignore the tradition when it challenges the shriveled ideological mantra that boils down entirely to “Vote GOP or the Baby Gets It”.
So, of course, when a crank priest comes out with a video that utterly falsifies the moral complexities of voting in the Age of Trump and emotionally blackmails millions of American Catholics with the absolute lie that “You cannot be a Democrat and a Catholic”, this dreadfully bad bishop instantly gives his imprimatur to it–alone in the entire US hierarchy.
Here is reality, of course, which Bp. Strickland is either ignorant of (making him an intellectually bad bishop who never learned the Tradition he is supposed to be teaching) or wilfully dishonest about (making him a morally bad bishop who is deliberately misleading his flock in the service of a wicked man they have every right to oppose in conscience). According to actual good bishop and reliable teacher of elementary common sense Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.
In short, when there is no prolife candidate, and candidate A is clearly a massive danger to the common good on a dozen fronts besides abortion while candidate B is more or less the same on abortion, but considerably better on a host of other issues, then prudence says to lessen evil and support candidate B, even if he is (BUM BUM BUMMMM) a Democrat. It is absolute hogwash that a voter cannot be a Catholic and do that. Do not put up with this blackmailing lie.
Meanwhile, in addition, to offering emotional and spiritual blackmail in the attempt to assault the conscience of Democrats in his flock, Bp. Strickland is also physically endangering their lives by giving his blessing to total medical quackery beyond his nutty COVID New World Government Conspiracy Theory.
He is achieving this by joining the Fifth International Public Conference on Vaccination, which starts today and runs through the weekend. This is basically a gathering of anti-vax nuts including, but not limited to, Andrew Wakefield (the crank whose fake research established the myth that vaccines cause autism and whose right to practice medicine was revoked for this fraud); Joseph Mercola, Internet Quack; Eric Metaxas, whose descent into Trump idolatry in no way qualifies him to talk about vaccines, and a huge roster of cranks, conspiracy theorists, dumbells with high school degrees in Youtube and Google “research” and kooks only a fool–and Bishop Strickland–would trust over actual public health experts.
Their mission? To do everything possible to see that the maximum number of people die from COVID when a vaccine is finally found and to make sure the maximum number of people die from easily preventable diseases for which we have a vaccine. They are deadly, stupid, dangerous–and widely loved by MAGA morons–enemies of public health and the common good.
So what do I, as a Catholic, do when confronted with a dreadfully bad bishop like this? Why is my faith not wrecked by him?
Paul sums up the reason fairly simply: “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Co 1:13).
I’m not scandalized (in the sense of “having my faith threatened”) by lousy bishops for the same reason I’m not scandalized by Peter denying Christ or the bishop of Rouen murdering Jeanne d’Arc: because what else do you expect? The average bishop is average and we’re bound to get some doofuses. What is remarkable to me are the good ones, such as the excellent Bp. Thomas Dowd of Montreal, who Americans have never heard of but who it has been my honor to get to know a bit.
I don’t expect bishops to be heroes or geniuses and they usually live up to my expectations. I expect them to be men, struggling along in offices for which they are wholly unqualified but whom Christ has called anyway, much as he called the wholly unqualified apostles.
Much as he called me. He puts up with me when I assert my averageness. Why should he not put up with them too? There’s nothing magic about being a bishop. It’s an office sustained by grace so that a very specific task can be carried out: handing down the Tradition. Some of them do it phenomenally well, some of them do it badly. None of them do it perfectly, but most of them do it tolerably well. They are, like the rest of us, jars of clay. The treasure is the Holy Spirit, who is the soul of the Church.
With a bad bishop, one of the nice things about being Catholic is that the Tradition is symphonic. It comes to us from many voices over the ages and develops over time as well. So when one voice is discordant with the symphony, you can check it against the rest of the Church. When one guy sticks out with his quack MAGA notions of COVID conspiracies and the rest of it, it tends to have this effect:
Something similar holds true with subcultures in the Church too. MAGA is rich and has a big microphone because it’s a temporarily powerful subculture due to the patronage of a temporarily powerful political movement in the the most powerful nation in the world that will, please God, receive a crushing blow on November 3. Then it will need to rethink the new reality it has created for itself.
Meanwhile, those laity who do in fact know the Tradition need to speak when a bishop does something dreadful, foolish, or imprudent, such as babble about COVID conspiracies or urge anti-vax idiocy. The way to do that is to learn prudence (the virtue of knowing what is so), as well as learning what the Church actually says (such as “Listen to competent doctors about vaccines, not quacks, hacks, and conspiracy theorists”).
In addition, Catholics desperately need to learn what the Church teaches for themselves (and where to find that information if they are not sure) and stop, for the love of Almighty God, ignorantly anointing culture war Folk Heroes who cannibalize the Tradition in order to tell them solely what their itching ears already were bound and determined to hear. Just because a man in a mitre tells you something does not mean you must accept it without question. Likewise, just because a man in a mitre tells you something does not mean it is rubbish. Don’t just listen to the guy who plays the triangle. Listen to the whole orchestra and if the triangle player is exceptionally bad, you will soon know it.
The thing about bishops is that some of what they do is just them trying to apply the Tradition to a particular circumstance. Sometimes, they do that very badly, as with Bp. Strickland. Other times, they can do it very well and very creatively. It depends on their prudence and wisdom.
Similarly, some math teachers may get their sums wrong. Others may get their sums right but still be crooks and dirtbags. That does not falsify 2+2=4 or mean trigonometry is a hoax. Bishops are can hand on the Tradition well or poorly. That does not make the Tradition false. They might apply it well or poorly. That does not mean there is no good application of it. Our task as laity is to learn it and apply it well and to “test everything and hold fast to what is good” even when a bishop is saying something stupid and especially when that bishop sticks out like a sore thumb against both reason and the rest of the Magisterium’s guidance.