Sunday, March 5, 2006

What the Archbishop Knew, and What He Should Have Known

By Mitchell

Welcome back. In our last episode, we were talking about "The Silencing of Fr. Altier." And if this begins to sound to you like an adventure from Rocky & Bullwinkle, it sometimes seems to us here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as if we're living in the theatre of the absurd.

There's been a near-record number of hits on this site over the last couple of days, and I know my fellow local bloggers are receiving quite the treatment as well. As such, I suppose it's expected that we have some insight into what's going on, and some opinions on same. I don't suppose I can afford to disappoint you, loyal readers.

I don't have a lot of insight - check Julie at Adoro for that, since she kind of broke this story - but I do have opinions.


It seems the concensus is that Fr. Altier was silenced because of his opposition to the sex education program VIRTUS®. Now, being that I am not a parent, I don't pretend to be an expert on VIRTUS®. However, thanks to the blogosphere, I don't have to be - The Church Online has an excellent guide to many of the problems with the VIRTUS® program. Clayton at The Weight of Glory speaks well of why parents should be distrustful of VIRTUS®. And, as I mentioned, Julie seems to have been out front with Fr. Altier's comments on the whole thing, which appear to have been the last straw as far as the archbishop is concerned.

So, as Clayton says, Lent is not a good time to be spreading rumors; nonetheless, this seems to be a pretty educated guess. And thus we arrive tht he crux of the problem.


This archdiocese is quite a curiosity. On the one hand, we have an Indult parish (St. Augustine) with a thriving Tridentine Mass. We have jewels like St. Agnes (where Fr. Altier preaches), where the Novus Ordo is said reverently. We have an amazing amount of Eucharistic Adoration chapels.

On the other hand, there's a parish like St. Joan of Arc where Catholic liturgy and Catholic teaching is flaunted liberally (pun intended), and the archbishop's tepid response. There's the open letter by some local pastors opposing the archbishop's support of an amendment to the Minnesota constitution prohibiting homosexual marriage (a proposal, incidentally, that was also opposed by some in the archdiocese's own newspaper). and the archbishop's refusal (so far) to do anything about it. There's the archbishop's refusal a few years ago to concelebrate a pro-life Mass with Fr. Marx, responding to pressure from groups suggesting Fr. Marx guilty of anti-semitism. There's the archbishop's refusal (until last year) to deny Communion to dissident Catholics wearing Rainbow Sashes. (I don't have time to track down links to all of these; I'm afraid you'll have to rely on Google for them.)

There may be good reasons for some of these actions - I'm not in the middle of it, so I don't claim to have all the facts. And one might ask whether or not priests are justified in disagreeing with the means of implementation on public policy questions, even though they might agree with the purpose. (For example, who among our readers might not agree with a priest who stood up against Cardinal Mahoney's support for open-borders legislation?) But in this age, more than in others, perception has become reality. And there is the perception, well-founded I think, that there's an unequal distribution of discipline handed out by the archbishop and his administrative staff (whom I believe, with their liberal agenda, to be at the root of many of these problems).

And I think what bothers so many people, me included: the appearance of this double-standard at work here in the archdiocese.

For some time there's been this sense of distrust between the administration of the archdiocese and conservative organizations within the archdiocese. I'm sure that both sides have, at times, acted unwisely.

But the very fact that we're discussing "sides" within the archdiocese, that we're considering an "us vs. them" atmosphere, tells us that there's a problem.


One hardly knows where to begin in all of this, but I suppose there has to be a starting point, and for me the question is this: what did the archbishop know, and what should he have known? For the archbishop, the leader of our flock, should be aware of the impact of his actions. The suggestion here is that he has fallen short in many respects. For example, let's look at the handling of the affair in the media.

Most of the early news reports have emphasized that while Fr. Altier's opposition to VIRTUS is the assumed reason for the silencing, the archdiocese has provided no reason for the action. Fr. Welzbacher confirms that he was not informed in advance of the archbishop's decision, nor was he given the reason for the action. Given the way the rumor mill has operated within our society over the last few years, especially when it comes to Catholic priests being disciplined in some fashion or other, one might expect speculation to run wild.

The archbishop knew, or should have know, that in this age of instant communications word of his action would spread rapidly. The archbishop knew, or should have known, that failure to provide an explanation would allow speculation to run rampant, and that providing such an explanation (even though not required to) would have at lesat provided a context for his action and silenced some of the rumors. The archbishop knew, or should have known, that by handling the situation in the way he did he was going to look arrogant at best, autocratic and pernicious at worst. As such, he comes off - rightly or wrongly - as anything but the humble leader to which he should aspire. And one might ask whether this archdiocese can afford an archbishop who not only has a tin ear for public relations, but also a tin ear for the teaching of the Church?

What about charity? The archbishop knew, or should have known, how orthodox groups within the archdiocese would react to this news. He knows, or should know, that some of the reaction is going to be very personal and very uncharitable, to say the least. And yet, given the relationship between the local hierarchy and orthodox groups, could one expect anything less? And in fact, is the archbishop not responsible for causing some of these feelings, given his handling of the whole affair? Can you really hold people entirely responsible for their actions when they've been poked, prodded, and virtually goaded into making such a response?

Or does the responsibility like with the archbishop and his administrators, who sometimes seem to be spoiling for such fights? It is said that when nations at war use their own citizens as human shields by building military installations in high-population areas, that nation assumes the responsibility for those civilian deaths when collateral damage from military attacks claims innocent human life.

In the same way, one might suggest that the archdiocese, by the way they've behaved in the entire matter, should assume some of the moral responsibility for the uncharitable discussion that follows. In the popular lingo, they asked for it.

And then there's the spectre of scandal. By permitting liturgical abuses such as those at St. Joan of Arc, by tolerating challenges to Catholic teaching such as those (implicitly) seen in the opposition to the marriage amendment, does not the archbishop create the breeding ground for scandal. I wish I could keep track of how many times I've had to explain to non-Catholic friends that they shouldn't judge the Catholic Church based on what these dissodent parishes do. I wish I could count the number of friends and acquaintances I know who've left the Church because they've been given a distorted impression of what the Church teaches and stands for. It's hard enough trying to evangelize in a secular society without having the hierarchy of the Church represent your biggest obstacle.

By permitting such dissent the archbishop knew, or should have known, that he was creating a false reading of what the Catholic Church teaches. The archbishop knew or should have known the harm that this could do to the Church, both from within and without. He knows this, or should know it, and apparently does nothing about it.

As I've said numerous times, I do not tend to question the genuine love of God which the archbishop has displayed many times. I think he's a good man, a holy man, a man who thinks he's doing the right thing. I also think he's a lousy administrator, a pastoral man who probably is in over his head as the administrative head of an archdiocese.

Through his actions, one could reasonably suggest to the archbishop a lack of humility in the way in which his actions were taken, a lack of charity in the way in which they were calculated to produce a harsh response, and the suggestion of scandal in that so many other challenges to Church authority seem to go unpunished.

Jefferson famously said that he trembled for his country when he reflected that God was just. In the same way we tremble for our church leaders when we reflect not only on God's justice, but on the standards to which He holds His leaders, the chosen few to whom He has entrusted authority over His Church.

We tremble for them but not, perhaps, as much as they should tremble for themselves.

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