Thursday, January 7, 2010

Does The Assurance For The Few Outweigh The Frustration Of The Many?

Bishop Vasa of Oregon would keep diabetics away from Mary Poppins and her notions of spoonfuls of sugar just as he would keep Catholics away from Catholic politicians whose policies recognize the US is not a Catholic theocracy.

Bishop Vasa explains use of excommunication and communion denial
Bend, Ore., Jan 7, 2010 / 04:17 am (CNA).-

A bishop’s power of excommunication in grave cases is like that of a doctor who cuts off a diabetic patient from sugar, Bishop of Bend, Oregon Robert Vasa has said. Explaining the practice, he noted that excommunication is an act of charity intended to instruct a wayward Catholic about the gravity of his or her situation. (Actually excommunication is more like a doctor cutting off someones head to save their own.)

Writing in his Jan. 7 column for the Catholic Sentinel, Bishop Vasa noted that bishops are “extremely reluctant” to take the step of excommunication.
Accusations of abuse of power towards bishops who talk about excommunication are “unfair,” the bishop said.“Excommunication is a declaration, based on solid evidence, that the actions or public teachings of a particular Catholic are categorically incompatible with the teachings of the Church,” he explained. “It is intended primarily as a means of getting the person who is in grave error to recognize the depth of his error and repent.”

Bishop Vasa added that a secondary reason for the practice is to assure the faithful that what they believe to be Catholic teaching is true and correct. (It assures some faithful and alienates more faithful. The question is, does the assurance for the few out weigh the anger of the many?)

“Allowing their faith to be shaken or allowing them to be confused when Catholics publicly affirm something contrary to faith or morals, seemingly without consequences, scandalizes and confuses the faithful. This is no small matter.” (I'm glad a bishop finally explained that for some of them the idea is to cater to those whose faith is not internal and integrated but external and subject to peer pressure.)

The bishop noticed that he receives “a significant number” of messages from supportive Catholics when he speaks on matters of morality and discipline. Further, allowing public error to stand without comment is “discouraging” to faithful Catholics and may give the impression that the error is condoned by the bishop and the Church.

He compared excommunication to a doctor’s treatment of a diabetic patient.

“Accusing the doctor of being a tyrannical power monger would never cross anyone’s mind,” he noted. When a doctor “excommunicates” a diabetic man from sugar, Bishop Vasa explained, “it is clear that his desire is solely the health of his patient.” (The good bishop needs to update himself on diabetic treatment for starters because diabetes is about insulin not sugar, but I forget, the good bishop is justifying a spiritual treatment from the middle ages.)

Any doctor who encouraged a diabetic patient in destructive habits, he noted, would be “grossly negligent and guilty of malpractice.” (And any doctor who limited his treatment to cutting out sugar would be equally guilty of malpractice.)

Bishops must tell the faithful when they are gravely wrong and out of communion with the Catholic faith, he said.

“In serious cases, and the cases of misled Catholic public officials are often very serious, a declaration of the fact that the person is de facto out of communion may be the only responsible and charitable thing to do,” the bishop added.

Not naming an error for fear of causing offense is not compassionate or charitable, he continued.
“Confronting or challenging the error or evil of another is never easy yet it must be done,” Bishop Vasa concluded his Catholic Sentinel column.

“In an era when error runs rampant and false teachings abound, the voice of the Holy Father rings clear and true. The teachings of the Church are well documented and consistent. Bishops and the pastors who serve in their Dioceses have an obligation both to lead their people to the truth and protect them from error.” (Especially if you buy the 'parent/child' mode of spiritual leadership.)


I really wish some bishop, maybe even Pope Benedict himself, would get honest about whose spiritual needs they think the Church should care about. That might be the first step in a transparency that Catholicism desperately needs. Let's stop ignoring this particular elephant. The current Church leadership either does not care about people who have moved up the spiritual maturation ladder, or is incapable of dealing with them given it's current structure. I don't understand this at all because historic Catholicism has plenty of examples of people who have moved beyond a pre adolescent level of spiritual maturity.

This letter from Bishop Vasa is simplistic in the extreme. Excommunication is not like a diabetic being told to quite eating sugar. Excommunication effects the totality of Catholic practice, not just one aspect of it, because it theoretically removes a person from everything the Church offers for spiritual solace. It bans one from the community. Diabetics are not told to stop eating and leave their families out of some sense of 'love'. Besides sugar is only one of a number of foods on the glycemic index a diabetic has to watch. Stevia, as well as other artificial sweeteners, are alternatives that can replace sugar. Excommunication as a spiritual therapy offers no such alternatives. Excommunication says such spiritual alternatives do not exist inside 'god's' church.

If it's so important to 'assure' the few at the expense of the many, and the lack of concern for the vast numbers of faithful who have left the Church seems to prove this point, then please come out and say this honestly and give your reasons--if you dare. As it stands now, I'm of the opinion that bishops like Vasa are terrified that their real reasons for cultivating the needs of the few have a less to do with protecting them from confusion and scandal, and a great deal more to do with pleasing certain wealthy benefactors and apostolates and furthering their own ecclesiastical careers in the process.

If official Catholicism is to be the Church of the beginning stages of spiritual development then come out and say so because all the excommunications you throw out will not force people who have moved up in spiritual maturity to revert to previous levels. Spirituality doesn't work that way. Maturing in spirituality moves one away from black and white regulations towards non judgmental compassion, sharing, and the universal recognition of our similarities not our differences. Human consciousness is maturing exactly along these lines.

The current Church is setting itself up in opposition to this trend rather then encouraging it's development. This is so unfortunate given the biggest boost to this development was Jesus Himself. But then He suffered the ultimate form of excommunication for His speaking out against rigid adherence to Jewish law in it's zealous need to supersede compassion and human decency. In a very real sense Jesus taught about the necessity to maintain relationship with our fellow man at all cost. He instructed Peter that forgiveness was so important Peter must be prepared to forgive seventy times seven.

Yes, Jesus frequently suggested people he healed 'go and sin no more'. But he didn't add, "and if you don't, you are dead to me". It's not the hierarchies place to declare who is and who is not dead to Jesus or His Church. That's a choice we make as individuals and that choice does not reflect on the real truth or lack there of in the Church. To think it does is not a particularly mature response and shows a stunning lack of belief in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and protect the Church.
**Personal note. My daughter is a type I diabetic and has been since she was nine. I wish for her sake that managing this disease was as simple as cutting out sugar. If we had taken that simplistic a position she would have died a long long time ago. Simple solutions to complex problems rarely work. Bishop Vasa is not doing diabetics or Catholics any good with his simple understandings and solutions.


  1. I really wish some bishop, maybe even Pope Benedict himself, would get honest about whose spiritual needs they think the Church should care about.

    I think Benedict has been quite honest about this, actually. In a speech he gave at the University of Toronto in the 80s, he made it quite clear. I think I've quoted this before in a comment on one of your previous posts, but I'll quote it again:

    "The church's main job is the care of the faith of the simple. A truly reverential awe should arise from this which becomes an internal rule of thumb for every theologian."

    More recently, he has denied that "mature" faith involves an internal relocation of authority, a movement away from dependence on external sources. That is, of course, precisely the opposite of what faith development research has found.

    I find it odd that he feels this way. Many of his own writings demonstrate that he is (or can be) an original thinker who has not hesitated to question traditional doctrines, and who has, therefore, accepted some personal responsibility for his beliefs.

    Benedict certainly doesn't count himself among "the simple faithful." One wonders why he thinks that keeping people at that stage should be a priority for "the church." Perhaps it's because moving beyond it is difficult, and risks leading people to abandon their faith as often (or perhaps more often) as it leads to growth. (I wrote about this recently.)

    Perhaps Benedict would rather err on the side of caution; instead of encouraging people to grow, which might result in their leaving, he would prefer to keep them in a state of childlike dependence.

    The irony, of course, is that this conservatism is probably a major factor in the mass exodus the church has seen in recent decades -- an exodus so massive that fully one out of every ten Americans is a former Catholic.

  2. I don't think you've quoted that one of Benedict's before. It might have been his famous quote about the simple people in reference to Kung's silencing.

    I agree with you completely. In his major encyclicals he can write from a highly developed spirituality, but then in this whole other aspect of his papacy he encourages immaturity and dependence. This actually drives me crazy.

    Spiritual maturity almost calls for leaving the Church until a person gets to the point where they understand the Church's spirituality transcends their old understanding of the Catholic religion.

    That of course seems to take more trust in Catholic spirituality than the church is willing to exhibit. Far better to emphasize religious identiy and appeal to the less matured aspects of our personality.

    Kind of like me with my Redwing fixation, but at least I know that is one of my less mature attributes and it only controls a little bit of my life and I even get an off season.

  3. The post you linked to is very good. Would you mind terribly if I stole that for my other endeavor. I really think this is a conversation the Church needs to have.

  4. Colleen, Bishops who speak freely of excommunication should read a little church history. When I read Eamonn Duffy's wonderful "Saints & Sinners", one of the chief features that stuck with me was how frequently, for many centuries, bishops and popes freely excommunicated each other in the battles with their rivals - including groups of bishops who excommunicated popes. This has had nothing to do with "charity" but only with the struggle for power and control.

    Benedict has indeed demonstrated that he favours original, critical thinking - as long as it is his own.

    This is indeed a conversation we need to have, and to develop further

  5. Bishop Vasa is an intellectual idiot, a theological hammer of conformity vs. an adult understanding of one's faith, and a traitor to the supremacy of conscience in the history of church teaching. As a pastor of souls vs. a curmudgeon of "party" loyality, he is lacking.

  6. Bishop Vasa is an example of why the Roman church is imploding from within. The real reason for these teachings is an attempt at control and an attempt at maintaining an empire of Episcopal dominance. This dominance features a greedy group of Bishops that control their own personal wealth and comfort. Rome itself and so many of the great Roman Catholic edifices in Europe were built with indulgences, now the magisterium preaches the tithe of the simple and promises votes for likewise greedy politicians from the simple in the US. This is a disastrous ethical system that is rapidly imploding. Remember it was this type of greed that caused the first reformation and now we are seeing the ethical Catholics leaving in droves many for Protestant churches and independent Catholic Churches but also many to no religious organizations at all.

    It is impossible for a person to eat a diet not containing carbohydrate. Every diabetic must eat carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars. This is what all animals (diabetic or not) use for energy. To think that any physician simply prescribes the non use of sugar or sugar forming substances is remarkable for its simpleton approach to medicine and science. Yet this is the type of reasoning used by the Roman Catholic Fundamentalist Bishops. Yes there is no way to prevent this implosion with the current group of Bishops.

    I have asked this question before and we are getting some answers. "What comes next and what do we as individuals do now?" I think it would be sinful of us to sit around and hope that things will change for the better. We must use our prayerful actions to counter this unethical group of men.

    My we gain grace through peace and understanding.

    R. Dennis Porch, MD

  7. I agree with anonymous that Bishop Vasa comes off here as an intellectual idiot.

    The bishop demeans the whole intellectual history of the church with his approach.

    With these kinds of bishops is the church at risk of becoming anti-intellectual? Why should anyone, any politician want to talk with them?

  8. Below is taken from the fourth part of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. I think it appropriate for us to listen to her. Since what I am quoting is a little long, I will do it in two installments. dennis

    The current conflicts between hierarchical authority and the exercise of their prophetic ministry by women Religious has been escalating since the institutional renewal of Religious Life began in the early 1970's. Implicit in the call of the Vatican Council to Religious to renew their lives for the sake of ministry in and to the world, which the Council itself had embraced in a new way, is a new understanding of their practice of obedience as rooted in the prophetic nature of Religious Life itself. Religious began to embrace a call to ministry fully compatible with their vocation, indeed more compatible in many ways than the standardized institutional apostolates of the past century. They began to reclaim the specifically ministerial (but non-ordained) nature of their life which was, in effect, a reclaiming of its prophetic character.
    This ministerial renewal has been, in many respects, more unsettling for the institutional authorities than the internal lifestyle and community renewal was, but for the same reasons. religious were no longer as easily controllable by the clergy. They could no longer be "ordered up" as troops for institutional campaigns and "deployed where needed" by the hierarchy. Where once there had been twenty religious staffing one institution under the control of the local clergy, now there were one or two, ministering in many initiatives sometimes beyond the borders of Catholic institutions, and empowering in ministry groups of laity newly conscious of their own call to ministry.
    Ecclesiastical authority, at least in the reigns of the last two Popes, often has been an exercise in the suppression of all voices except its own, branding as "dissent" (always understood as sinful disobedience rather than mature critical engagement) any position, and sometimes even the consideration of arguments for any position, at variance with "official teaching." Religious obedience, however, is precisely an exercise of a prophetic vocation calling its members to carefully discern the meaning of the Word of God in and for a particular situation.
    Here we see very clearly the point of tension, namely, two different understandings of obedience. The hierarchical definition of obedience is total and absolute submission in thought, word, and deed, interiorly and exteriorly, to office authority. Any deviation from this understanding constitutes dissent, which is always sinful, and if acted upon, is disobedience. The prophetic definition of obedience is the prayerful listening for the will of God in all relevant "voices" and the search for that will in the "signs of the times," followed by careful discernment and responsible speaking and acting out of that discernment for the good of real people in concrete situations. This may at times involve dissent, not as defiance or disobedience but as creative contribution to a fuller discernment of and obedience to the will of God in the present situation. Obedience, in other words is not about mindless submission; it is an explicit commitment to mindful discernment. Cont to next segment

  9. If God's will coincided exactly, always, and exhaustively with the teaching or legislating of office holders, no discernment, of course, would be necessary or legitimate. But the example of Jesus makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case and no one is dispensed from the challenge of discernment, even when the teaching or law in question is derived from Scripture itself.
    This has led to the kinds of tensions discussed above in which religious are no longer simply "channeling" official teaching or enforcing Church policy but ministering to people in concrete situations of suffering and struggle and having to help those people discern what God is doing in their lives and calling them to, which often enough cannot be fully identified with official teaching or policy.
    Many lay people of all ages and conditions have emerged in the past few months bearing witness to the role women religious have played in sustaining their faith and often their Church affiliation through experiences of rejection, denial of the sacraments or Christian burial for their family members, excommunication, and public shaming at the hands of hierarchical authority defending and enforcing its teaching which it equated with God's will.
    The outreach of religious to the socially marginalized and ecclesiastically alienated is not a matter of contradicting authority, any more than was Jesus' approach to the authorities who had arrested the woman taken in adultery. It is a matter of compassion, offered in the name of the God of the prodigal (who we all are), to suffering sisters and brothers of Jesus without conditioning that compassion on moral rectitude or theological orthodoxy. It is possible to say both "You are accepted and loved, unconditionally, just as you are" and, when a person is strong enough to hear it, "Sin no more."
    For the past four decades religious have been living into a new understanding of religious life itself involving a new understanding of their ministry as prophetic. This, in turn, has involved a new understanding of obedience. They have been living into the vision inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council of the Church as the People of God who are the ministerial Body of Christ in this world. And as they have lived into this reality themselves religious have been, for many, the most convincing corporate witness in the Church to the truth and power of the Conciliar vision of Christian identity and vocation. They have been calling the laity and even some of the clergy to be Church in a new way, and modeling the possibility of that kind of Christian faith and life. However, beginning seriously with the pontificate of John Paul II, the hierarchical Church began a retrenchment from Vatican II which has become increasingly a tridentine restorationism under the current Pope. These two visions of Church are running, one forward and one backward, on parallel ecclesiological tracks.
    Friday: Conclusion of "Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form"

  10. It should be said, though, that there are many Catholics living in parts of the world where the education available to people simply isn't good enough to develop them very far. There are still a lot of Catholics living in an essentially pre-modern world, and it is not realistic or fair to expect very many of them to advance to a modern (or higher) stage of faith.

    Even if most Catholics in the developed world can handle something more than the theological pablum we're served up most of the time, the conventional/conformist stage (or lower) is always going to dominate in poorer countries. And there might be an upper limit to how much diversity a Church can actually handle.

    The Anglican Communion has allowed more developed forms of faith and governance to develop right alongside more traditional ones, and they're having a hell of a time trying to hold things together. I certainly applaud the kind of progress that has been allowed to take place in the Anglican Communion, but I can only imagine that Rome sees it as a major red flag.

  11. Dennis, thanks for posting the thoughts of sr. Schneider. They are quite apropriate to this discussion.

    Prickliest, it's funny you wrote this last comment because when I was working out yesterday my thoughts were identical to yours. Education and access to other thinking is critical.

    I don't see why the Church can't act as a bridge rather than a barrier. In many respects the LCWR congregations have provided that historical development of a bridge, first in education and now in social action and a deeper spiritual understanding and development.

    I suspect we'll see this same kind of development at work in congregations in South America and Africa. First the foundational education and then the development from that foundation.