Bishops, Blogs and the Clergy: Accountability and Obedience

Holy SpiritThe recent fracas over a blog hosted by a deacon in England has revealed some interesting fault lines in the development of communications strategies in the contemporary Catholic world. Add to the normal ecclesial relationships involved based on our sacramental theology of Holy Orders and canon law, the American penchant for seeing everything through the lens of personal rights and freedom, and you have a fascinating matrix of meaning. What follows is not intended as in any way comprehensive or exhaustive on the subject, but I would like to raise certain things for reflection and consideration.  It is also important to remember that these comments are focused on the Latin Church of the Catholic Church.

First, let’s consider two points about the relationship between a cleric and his bishop.

Point #1: The cleric has become a cleric because he was ordained by a bishop. This ordination has certain effects, both sacramental and canonical.  The sacramental effect configures the ordinand in a particular way with Christ; I will address the canonical effect shortly.  Since 1972 and the revisions made to the sacrament of Holy Orders by Pope Paul VI, one enters the clerical state by ordination as a deacon through the laying on of the bishop’s hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. (Prior to 1972, one entered the clerical state, not through ordination at all, but through the liturgical rite of “tonsure”; the new cleric was then considered “capable” ( “capax” in Latin) of receiving sacramental ordination. The analogy might be with farming: one first plows a furrow and prepares the land to receive the seed and be fruitful; tonsure was that necessary first step.)

Deacon-2Point #2: During the liturgy of ordination, and prior to the moment of ordination itself, the ordinand makes a series of promises to the bishop. The most dramatic promise comes when the ordinand approaches the bishop, puts his hands in the bishops’ while the bishop asks: “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors?” (If the ordinand is being ordained by a bishop other than his own, the words are changed slightly to reflect that he is promising obedience to his own diocesan bishop and not to the ordaining bishop.) Through this promise and subsequent ordination, the newly-ordained deacon is sacramentally changed at the core of his being, and also becomes linked permanently in relationship with his bishop and the diocesan church. This particular effect of ordination also has a canonical effect, and is referred to as incardination. For example, on 25 March 1990, I was ordained into the Order of Deacons by His Eminence James Cardinal Hickey, then the Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, DC. I made the promise of obedience to Cardinal Hickey and his successors, which has now included Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl. Over all of the years since, although I have served in a variety of places outside of the archdiocese as well as within the archdiocese, I have always remained incardinated in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. That is my ecclesiastical “home”.

Concerning the notion of obedience, this is no mere profession of blind obedience to the bishop, nor is it simply a legal requirement to preserve good order and discipline.  Holy Orders, as we are told repeatedly in Vatican documents on the diaconate and the priesthood, is at its core about relationships: the relationship of the ordained with Christ, the relationship of the clergy with their bishop, for example, and the relationship of the clergy with the people we serve, or with each other. Ordination is not simply about the individual being ordained, but is actually about the entire Church. For example, it is often helpful to state that a person is not ordained “a deacon” or “a priest”; rather, he is ordained into the Order of Deacons or into the Order of Presbyters. We never operate alone: we are called into a community of service. Therefore, obedience sets the standard for this community. Obedience, in its theological roots, refers to listening and hearing (Latin: ob + audire) the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit working through others, and in the case of ordination, that means recognizing the Holy Spirit working through the bishop. It acknowledges in humility that the ordinand recognizes that, through the Bishop’s own ordination into the Order of Bishops, he has received the Holy Spirit in a unique way, the same Holy Spirit he is about to invoke upon the ordinand. The “promise of obedience” then is a profound theological as well as legal moment of that new relationship. Both our theology and consequently our law abhors the notion of a “vagus” cleric: an “unattached” cleric who is not incardinated somewhere, a cleric who is not somehow attached to a particular Church and exercising ministry under the “oversight” (episkopē” in Greek) of a bishop or other legitimate ecclesiastical superior.

IncardinationBefore turning to this particular example, one more technical point to make.  There are two broad categories of clergy: so-called “secular” (or diocesan) clergy, where the relationship is focused on the particular geographical community known as a diocese, headed by a diocesan bishop.  The other broad category are “religious” clergy, who are members of various religious communities that are most often not geographically restricted.  Vows are made (unlike diocesan clergy who do not make vows) upon entrance into the particular religious community, and the religious superior is not a diocesan bishop, but a religious superior; religious clergy serve wherever their congregation serves, and that might be worldwide.

With this as background we come to the current situation of a cleric and his bishop and the deacon’s blog.

The deacon in the current situation is member of the diocesan clergy, bound by his promise of obedience to his bishop.  Someone asked about Deacon Greg Kandra and his famous “Deacon’s Bench” blog: yes, if Greg’s bishop were to decide that Greg should no longer host his blog, he would be expected to give it up.  As clergy, we surrender a certain amount of freedom which lay people would have in a similar situation.  According to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), #18, all clergy exist for one reason: to build up the Body of Christ.  It is one of the responsibilities of the diocesan bishop to assess this “on the ground” and to make determinations about the building up of the Body of Christ in his own diocese.  As clergy, we are public persons.  As such, we cannot really say that “in this activity I am operating as a private person” with regard to the church.  We give that ability up upon ordination.  We now represent Christ and we also represent the Church.  St. Thomas Aquinas famously taught that a cleric acts “in persona Christi et in nomine ecclesiae” (“in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church”).

Dolan at Santa CruceCardinal Dolan, in a recent talk at Rome’s University of Santa Croce during a conference on communications, pointed out that we must “adhere to the best and highest standards. . . .  How we say something is just as important as what we say.”  In this observation he is echoing St. John XXIII, who frequently spoke of the permanence of religious truth on the one hand, and the ways in which those truths are expressed on the other.  How we communicate is just as important as the content of what we have to say.  As a screenwriter once put it, “Is coarseness a substitute for wit, I ask myself?”  Truth is one thing; a Christian should be communicating that truth in a Christian manner; there is no room for “snarkiness”, demeaning characterizations, ad hominem arguments or anything of the like.  This is so much more than just “being nice” to others.  For clergy in particular, it is about doing what “builds up” the Body, not acting in a manner which derides and  tears down the Body.  That’s really the gold standard: When I write, when I speak, am I building up the Body of Christ, or serving to tear it down?

If we are not building up the Body, and we are clergy, then it is the obligation of our bishop or religious superior to take corrective action on behalf of the diocesan church.  So, when we come across a blog hosted by a member of the Catholic clergy, consider the following points:

1) How well is the cleric in question reflecting a positive, constructive, and energetic vision of the Church?  If the blog is characterized by negative, hand-wringing, woe-is-me attitudes about the Church, find another blog to visit!

2) How does the cleric communicate, especially about others with whom he may disagree?  For example, Cardinal Dolan stressed the importance of “never caricaturing or stereotyping those who oppose the Magisterium and bishops at every opportunity.”  Even in the face of  “mean, vicious, and outward attacks,” he said, we must “always respond in charity and love,” he exhorted.  “We follow the instruction of Jesus by not responding back to with harsh words of our own.”  The use of demeaning, sarcastic and mocking language has no place in Christian communication, especially by members of the clergy, and the cleric should be rightly taken to task if this is part of his communication “style”; it’s simply not consistent with being Christ-like in the community.  If you find this on a blog supposedly run by a Catholic cleric, find another one!

3) As public ministers of the Church, no member of the clergy should be reticent about being transparent and accountable about his own ecclesiastical “credentials”: who is his ecclesiastical superior, for example, and how does his blog relate to his overall ministry within the broader communion of the Church?  Obviously, I’m not suggesting disclosing information which might be dangerous to his safety, but certainly his public identity as a cleric in a particular religious community or diocesan church is not unreasonable.  If a cleric is unwilling or unable to provide such bona fides, it will probably be better to visit someone else!

ottawa good friday xviThe bottom line, in my opinion, is the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church.  We clergy do this as part of a larger context, not as a collection of individual ministers, but as a communion of ordained ministers who share in the sacrament of Holy Orders.  It is no coincidence that “communio theology” has become one of the most paradigmatic forms of ecclesiology since Vatican II, an ecclesiology fully embraced by the papal magisterium.  Unlike other forms of Christianity, in which everything revolves around the individual’s relationship with God, our perspective is different.  While we certainly hold for the individual’s profession of faith, we do so as part of the larger Trinitarian communion of disciples.

As summarized at Vatican II, we are the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

It’s all about relationships.


10 comments on “Bishops, Blogs and the Clergy: Accountability and Obedience

  1. […] Over at his blog, Deacons Today, Bill Ditewig unpacks the recent controversy surrounding the UK’s Deacon Nick Donnelly, and takes a closer look at the relationship between a deacon and his bishop, […]

  2. billkeevers says:

    Those who engage in ad hominem attacks reveal lack of confidence in their own arguments. Ad hominem is a kind of logical fallacy, a subset of the genetic fallacy.

    St. Faustian wrote that, while the enemy of souls can imitate a humble man, he can never imitate an obedient one.

  3. Popper says:

    This was a good overview of the subject which never gets around to addressing any specifics of the situation in question. Did the bishop find fault(s) with the deacon’s blog that reached these areas, ad hominem etc? The article above “suggests” the deacon is guilty and the bishop is righteous.

  4. Dear Popper,

    Thanks for your comment. You raise a good point: I deliberately do not want to make specific comments about the particular deacon and bishop in question, for one very simple reason: I don’t know anything about their situation! I don’t know either man, I don’t think I have ever read the deacon’s blog, nor am I party to any of the particular facts of their case. We are plagued, especially on the internet, by folks who are willing to opine on matters of which they have no knowledge; I try not to do that.

    In fact, I had observed many such comments being made about the particular case, based on faulty understandings of theology and law. This is why I wrote the piece: to provide the context and the background one should have before making such judgments.

    Might the bishop have exceeded his authority? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Might the deacon have exceeded his own responsibilities? Perhaps, perhaps not.

    So, as I say, I have no intention of “addressing any specifics of the situation in question” because that’s none of my business.

    God bless,

    Deacon Bill

  5. Well, that certainly is one point of view. Still, I don’t see evidence that the writer has any particular personal knowledge of the details of the incident itself, and is instead responding to an interpretation of what he believes the bishop is saying. On my blog, I am not interested in trying to assess or critique either the bishop or the deacon in question, but merely to provide the sacramental and canonical context that involves all of us clergy who decide to have an internet presence. In fact, I had many other examples of blogging clergy in mind as well as I wrote the piece.

    God bless,

    Deacon Bill

  6. Popper says:

    Deacon Bill,
    Just as a follow-up, how does one bridge that gap between the secular and the religious. Using the example you point out to us the bishop and deacon are following guidelines that both agree on following. In the secular area we tend to “strike back” when we feel we were wronged.

    Are we wrong in taking sides and feeling someone has been wronged? Should we just leave it all to our faith and trust in God? He gave us all these emotions that sometimes overwhelm us.


  7. mraemiller says:

    “I deliberately do not want to make specific comments about the particular deacon and bishop in question, for one very simple reason: I don’t know anything about their situation! ”

    With regard to Deacon Nick – let me shed some light. It is surely not an ad hominem attack to have a little look back over his own postings on this matter – without raking over every gorey detail…. Evidence of clear tensions between the Deacon and the Bishop have evident to me (as a connoisseur of literature that takes on us naughty and often blasphemous artists) as starting around October 2013 when it is clear that the issues involved in Deacon Nick exposing what he sees as internal dissent have come to a head…
    …in this amusing post about the “rules of the club”. It is clear that the Bishop (or someone lower down the power chain) has attempted to have a “quiet word” but the Deacon is not having any of it. Deacon Nick purports (if I read him correctly) that “The rules of the club are a code of conduct that are separate from the Code of Canon Law, and which you’ll not find written down anywhere, but once you’re ordained you learn them through a kind of clerical osmosis”.
    Now I’m not an expert in Canon Law but I suspect that this is not true. One might cite this publication
    Clearly a large promotional organisation where everybody just did their own thing would simply not work. Deacon Nick however has difficulty grasping this. To him arguments about the “tone” of communication are simply to sophistry to avoid telling the truth or something …
    We can see a further deterioration of the relationship between the Bishop and the Deacon here
    Deacon Nick see’s the Bishop and other clerics warnings as an example of what Pope Francis describes as “clericalism” … ordained people using their rank as conduits for their own ambition …or something. “we live in a Church constrained by the rules of the clerical club:

    Rule one. Do nothing to disturb the appearance of unity in the Church.
    Rule two. Express your concerns in private.
    Rule three. Do not comment on the affairs of other dioceses.
    Rule four. Know your place. ”

    To me these seem like sensible rules… at least I would suggest rules that one should not break unless one has totally exhaused the avenues of private internal redress. However, the Deacon clearly thinks this is all ******** and other words that I probably shouldn’t use on a blog like this. So … erm … it has seemed to me for a while that the Deacon and his Bishop were on a collision course. The only thing remarkable to me is that it took so long.

  8. What constitutes a permanent deacon’s obedience to his Bishop? Please give examples of disobedience to the bishop. There is obedience to God and obedience to a bishop. When does a deacon oppose a direct order from his bishop that is contrary to divinely spoken words of our Lord? Doesn’t the obedience to our Lord trumps obedience to a bishop’s order on a particular situation?

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