The Pastoral Mandate, Politicians and Religious Liberty

Is this threat to religious liberty a political problem, or is it a pastoral problem? … With the 2012 election nearing, it is a time … to have a serious discussion about the relationship between the bishops’ pastoral practices and the political threats to religious liberty…

New York Governor Cuomo and New York’s Cardinal Dolan

On January 19th, 2011, EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo aired an interview with New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan. To his credit, Raymond Arroyo represented the concerns of many Catholics by asking the Archbishop about his pastoral position on discipline as it pertained to New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo. As most viewers know, Cuomo had long been an unapologetic advocate of abortion rights. In June of 2011, however, he took his public dissent from Catholic teaching to yet another level. The governor signed a bill making same-sex marriage legal in the state of New York. Cuomo, mind you, is a highly visible public figure who calls himself a “Catholic” and one who attends Mass from time to time. Accordingly, Raymond Arroyo asked where the governor of New York stood in relation to the Church to which he professed allegiance. Archbishop Dolan answered by saying that the talks between him and Cuomo are on-going, maintaining: “Our job is to invite people in and try to patiently change hearts—and not be throwing people out” (New York Daily News, June 17th, 2011).  I think it is fair to say that many U.S. bishops, especially in several of the archdioceses in the United States, concur with Archbishop Dolan on this form of dialogue.

Religious Liberty

The next day, January 20th, the Catholic News Agency reported that “the Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the administration would not expand a religious exemption for employers who object to its ‘preventative services’ mandate.” In other words, the Obama administration made it known that they would mandate that, against their will, Catholic agencies must provide abortifacients, contraception, sterilization, etc., in their health care coverage. In fact, these Catholic agencies have until August of 2013 to comply with the federal health care mandate. Archbishop Dolan did not mince words when he told the press what he thought of it. He said: “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” In fact, a day earlier the Holy Father weighed in with these sobering words: “No one who looks at these issues realistically can ignore the genuine difficulties which the Church encounters at the present moment.” Indeed, Pope Benedict’s “Dictatorship of Relativism” is on the march in America.

Asking Important Questions

The question then becomes: Is this threat to religious liberty a political problem, or is it a pastoral problem? I pose this question as a son of the Church, as one who loves the Catholic Church and, as a spiritual son, wants the bishops, the watchmen of the flock, to succeed in their mission. To be sure, this is not a time for venting or complaining. Rather, with the 2012 election nearing, it is a time in our nation’s history to have a serious discussion about the relationship between the bishops’ pastoral practices and the political threats to religious liberty that are daily mounting.

In filial reverence, therefore, can we ask if the reluctance on the part of the Catholic clergy to exercise fatherly discipline towards unfaithful Catholic politicians is an effective one? Furthermore, are not the current pastoral practices a departure from the pastoral standards of the apostles, the Church Fathers, and the saints? Furthermore, if the Catholic Church holds such exemplary pastors up as models to emulate, then why are we not doing as they did?

No doubt, the bishops’ current pastoral practice of reaching out to wayward politicians in order to keep the communication lines “open” is, no doubt, inspired by honorable intentions. In fact, we should not question whether or not Archbishop Dolan seeks to change the minds and hearts of unfaithful Catholic politicians by using this method. Nonetheless, the many faithful sons and daughters of the Church wonder if this ongoing conversation between bishops and politicians, behind closed doors, is what our Lord said should be done.

Matthew 18: The Pastoral Mandate

Take, for example, the Gospel of Matthew. Shortly after our Lord confers the keys to the kingdom of heaven to St. Peter, and the authority to bind and loose upon the apostles, he gives the following pastoral mandate for those sinners who refuse to acknowledge their authority:

If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17).

To begin with, it should be noted that elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says we should forgive those who sin against us personally seventy times seven times!  That is, personally and individually, and for our own sanctification, we should forgive those who trespass against us unconditionally, and indefinitely.  Yet, when we speak of the public life and the communal integrity of the Church, such unrepentant sins require a different approach. In the former case, we leave to God to deal with those who sinned against us. In the latter case, bishops are commissioned by Christ to act on God’s behalf for the sake of the Church’s welfare and unity. The failure to publicly discipline those brothers who poise themselves as followers of Christ, while obstinately defying the Church’s divine authority, undermines both the mission and the unity of the Church. When sins and errors go unchecked, such as a persistent and obstinate refusal of obedience, it causes confusion among onlookers, and it further creates division within the Mystical Body of Christ.

This is precisely why our Lord draws the line in the sand as it pertains to those brothers and sisters who do not listen to the Church. Jesus wants the leaders of his Church to give the benefit of the doubt to those brothers who do get it wrong. So, as to eliminate the possibility that ignorance is the cause of wrong doing, Our Lord says to have one brother correct the sinner; then two if necessary. If the sinner does not listen to the two brothers who bear witness to the truth of the Gospel, then Our Lord said bring him before the Church. If the sinner does not listen even to the Church, then they, the elders of the Church (i.e. bishops, priests, etc.), are no longer dealing with a person who is merely ignorant. Instead, what the Church has before her is an obstinate sinner who refuses to recognize her God-given authority. The disease of sin and error that was once thought to be benign has now proven to be malignant, and must be treated and removed!

Reinforcing the Pastoral Mandate

This pastoral practice of removing the sinner from the Body of Christ is promulgated several times in the New Testament. In his letter to Titus, St. Paul said: “After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic, realizing that such a person is perverted and sinful and stands self-condemned” (Tit 3:10-11). To the Corinthians, he wrote at length about this pastoral necessity. Again, he said: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people…But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if he is immoral…not even to eat with such a person…God will judge those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from your midst’” (1 Cor 5:9-13).

St. John, the beloved apostle, issued this pastoral mandate: “Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him in your house or even greet him; for whoever greets him shares in his evil works” (2 Jn 1:9-11) For St. John, refusing the admission of progressives into the house of God was totally consistent with the Christian love he preached about. In fact, keeping the obstinate sinner at bay until he repented was a necessary expression of that Christian love. Did Jesus ever change his mind, or soften his position, after he rose from the dead?  In the book of Revelation, the Risen Lord had this to say to the church in Thyatira: “Yet, I hold this against you, that you tolerate the woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, who teaches and misleads my servants to play the harlot, and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev 2:20). Jezebel was a queen of Israel, who had introduced pagan practices to the religion of Yahweh. Notice that the Risen Lord took great offense to the church of Thyatira’s tolerance of such Jezebel-types.

Three Reasons

Indeed, there are at least three reasons why the pastoral practice of excluding obstinate sinners from the communion of the Church was enjoined by our Lord, and practiced by the apostles, the Church Fathers, and the saints.

First, the failure to reprove or exclude from the Church unrepentant sinners creates the public perception that mortal sin is compatible with the life of Christ. Worse yet, such failure is a disservice to the sinner himself. Politicians, who publicly advocate for abortion rights and same-sex marriage with impunity, naturally suffer from the mistaken belief that they are in communion with the Church and, therefore, in communion with God. In fact, there are many adversaries of the Gospel of Life who go to their deathbeds with this assumption. But as the parable of the wedding banquet suggests, the King has a dress code in heaven. To be sure, those without a wedding garment will be asked to leave the table by the King. The question then becomes: When “Catholic” politicians enjoy full communion with the King’s Church, are they not made to believe that they can attend the heavenly banquet without a wedding garment? Are these current pastoral practices really preparing obstinate sinners for eternity?

The second reason for exclusion is this: Many bishops, again with good intentions, often engage in an ongoing conversation with wayward politicians behind closed doors. However, the unintended consequence is that mortal sin is perceived to be negotiable because of the high public profile politicians enjoy. It is because of unintended consequences like this that St. Paul instructed St. Timothy to reprimand the sinner publicly (1 Tim 5:20). It is why Pope St. Gregory the Great said that private sins should be addressed privately, and public sins should be dealt with publicly. Furthermore, it is why St. John the Apostle did not go behind closed doors to correct Diotrephes, a wayward brother. He said: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to dominate, does not acknowledge us. Therefore, if I come, I will draw attention to what he is doing, spreading evil nonsense about us” (3 Jn 1:9-10). “I will draw attention to what he is doing.” Today’s conventional wisdom in the Church is to avoid “drawing attention” to those who cause scandal. Again, this is yet another departure from the New Testament pastoral mandate.

The third reason is that when public sinners can sit next to faithful Catholics on your local church pew, when they can stand before the altar to receive the Eucharist—that is, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ (even after St. Paul’s warning about the dangers of receiving such a sacred gift unworthily; cf. 1 Cor 11:28-32)—and when they enjoy the fellowship of Catholics, intermingling with them, it inevitably creates moral confusion. In other words, when the bishops make no public distinction between obstinate sinners and repentant sinners, then in the minds of Catholics, and other onlookers, there cannot be but little distinction between error and truth, between sin and holiness, and between vice and virtue. Thereafter, all homilies and pastoral letters will be undermined by this indiscriminate mix of obstinate sinners and repentant sinners. From this indiscriminate mix, emerges a division within the Body of Christ, the Church. Why? Because sin and error divides! What is more, a consensus on the most important issues of life and death is much harder to come by.

The Connection to Religious Liberty

On January 19th, Pope Benedict XVI lamented this cultural breakdown of moral consensus in the United States, declaring: “At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good…Today, that consensus has eroded…” Indeed, it has; but the erosion of moral and spiritual consensus had its beginning in the Church, which then rippled out into society. So goes the Church; so goes America.

This is the precise point at which the failure to observe the New Testament pastoral mandate occasions, or even hastens, the erosion of religious liberty. The Church’s immune system, in any given region, begins to break down when it is flooded with the virus of error and the bacteria of sin. When this happens, such a system can no longer mount a sustainable defense against those very things which lend themselves to the decay of our culture, and to the erosion of religious liberty. When the very politicians who advance the “Dictatorship of Relativism,”—who aggressively deny religious liberty to the very Church they claim to love—are allowed to walk through our church doors, can we really expect to them to hearken to the complaints of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy? If our spiritual fathers do not discipline them, as God the Father disciplines his children, and as fathers of families are known to do, then can we expect these so-called Catholic politicians to reconsider their hostile actions? If some 54 percent of the Catholic voting bloc voted for President Obama in 2008—the very administration that reaffirmed, on January 20th, that we have a year to “figure out how to violate our conscience”—can we not admit that we have a pastoral problem on our hands, and not just a political one?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it must be remembered by the Catholic laity that, to carry out the New Testament pastoral mandate as the apostles, Church Fathers, and saints did, requires courage. But, it also requires our communal support. As sons and daughters of the Church, our prayers, spiritual sacrifices, and verbal support are most necessary. When we notice a reluctance or trepidation on the part of our bishops, it is important to remember that they face challenges that we can never fully appreciate or understand. The important thing is to lovingly hold out this pastoral mandate to them as a standard to which we need to aspire. Once it is universally practiced by the watchmen of the Lord’s House, it will soon be morning again.

Joe Tremblay About Joe Tremblay

Joe Tremblay is an adjunct professor of ecclesiology for Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and a weekly columnist for Catholic News Agency. He also writes for his Sky View blog, and is a regular guest on the Drew Mariani Show at Relevant Radio.


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