Across the developed world, ignorant mobs and anarchists are tearing down statues of saints, defacing church monuments, and setting the churches on fire. Not to mention that in the developing world many Christians continue to suffer martyrdom by the thousands at the hands of secular and religious extremists. This has caused many people to finally ask: what are the bishops doing?
The famed Bishop Robert Barron recently answered this question with another question: What are you laymen doing?
On June 24, Bishop Barron published an article on his Word on Fire blog tersely titled, “Why ‘What Are the Bishops Doing About It?’ Is the Wrong Question.” According to His Excellency, many lay Catholics like to complain that their leadership does nothing about the problems happening in the world while doing little themselves. Although he grants that the bishops could do more (though not much more), he claims that these concerned Catholics “are putting way too much onus on the clergy and not nearly enough on themselves.”
Rather, he argues that it is the laity, not the clergy, who must fight the legal and cultural battles in the public square. To support this claim, he cites the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, which states that “the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” In Bishop Barron’s reading, this means that the bishops need to attend to Church matters more or less exclusively while laypeople live out their Catholicism in the secular world.
It is difficult to know what the bishop has in mind for how this looks. Do clergy busy themselves with discussing theology, attending synods, and filming award-winning documentaries about Catholicism while all laypeople proselytize at their jobs, guard church property in their free time, and debate enemies of the Church online or in person whenever possible? Perhaps. At the end of his essay, Bishop Barron offers the example of the Catholic Action movement, an initiative which, “sadly and surprisingly, fell into desuetude after Vatican II,” where a member of the clergy would work with a group of laymen to study Scripture and consider ways to live out the gospel. So, there.
Overall, Bishop Barron’s response is sadly, though unsurprisingly, inadequate. While he intends to channel President Kennedy in his call to service—ask not what your Church can do for you; ask what you can do for your Church—he fails to explain what laypeople should actually do. The majority of Catholics, and people in general, aren’t sure how much they should resist the current anti-Christian iconoclasm, or if they should even resist it at all. This is probably due to the fact that most Catholic clergymen have been notoriously mealy-mouthed in the pulpit, hardly going further than preaching platitudes and raising money for the Bishop’s Annual Appeal.
And this in turn stems from a lack of leadership from their bishops. Bishop Barron’s description of what constitutes the responsibilities of a bishop is tellingly deficient: “We can indeed lobby politicians, encourage legislative changes, and call community leaders together.” He doesn’t mention that bishops also ordain priests, preach to their diocese, and lead programs in faith formation. No, for Bishop Barron and most of his colleagues, their title and duties are primarily political. They are public figures who happen to represent the Church, not the other way around.
As such, they would never dream of risking their good standing among society’s elite by denouncing any popular movement—unless it’s associated with President Trump, as Archbishop Wilton Gregory demonstrated a few weeks ago. This is why Bishop Barron completely ignores the question of whether destroying statues of Saint Junípero Serra is right or wrong. Instead, he references a weak statement on the issue, made by the Californian bishops, which tries to appease both sides, teach a little history, and ultimately settle nothing.
By sidestepping the issue and choosing to focus on what the laity should be doing, all the rest of Baron’s essay is sheer deflection. He demonstrates perfectly how today’s bishops have led the Church into decline: he takes no responsibility for problems, presents no solutions to those problems, and places the burden of leadership on others. It would be funny (one thinks of the bad bosses in The Office or the comic Dilbert) if it were not so depressingly true.
This situation has persisted for many decades now. What Bishop Barron and the framers of Vatican II intended as a greater role for laypeople has mostly resulted in a diminished role for clergy. No longer do they imitate the original Christian apostles from whom they spiritually descend; they prefer to imitate corporate managers and politicians who avoid controversy at every turn.
For their part, Catholic laypeople have sought spiritual and moral guidance elsewhere—in politics, entertainment, academia—and find little reason in upholding their obligations to the Church. In no small way has this affected Western culture at large, which continues to become more irrational, destructive, and divided.
So, where does that leave faithful lay Catholics who want to protect their heritage?
Although Bishop Barron and his fellow bishops are a large part of the problem, he is at least honest enough to tell his flock not to wait on their shepherds to act. Indeed, they really do need to take action and apply their faith in practical ways. This would mean speaking out against movements that threaten civilization instead of trying to make peace with them. It would also mean holding politicians—and, yes, bishops—accountable, and demanding that they uphold individual freedom while recovering law and order, and this would require them to become politically and culturally involved.
Some Catholics have already started this work even though they continually risk their reputation and livelihoods by doing so. Like all disciples who witness to the Faith, they know they will be tested and face some form of persecution. But, like Peter and the first disciples who saw so many others leave Jesus because of His “hard sayings,” most Catholics and orthodox Christians know there is nowhere else to turn: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
It has become clear, especially in light of the passivity and complacency of Church leadership, that reforming the Church and Western culture will have to be a grassroots movement. Laypeople will need to have families, preserve tradition, form close communities committed to the gospel, and, yes, show some courage against the thugs attacking their property and freedoms, as Mr. Mark Williams did last week in Saint Louis, Missouri.
There is no alternative.