Do We Want Our Bishops to Preach A Costly Word to Us?

Fr. Peter-Michael Preble on his own most excellent blog wonders why Orthodox bishops have said so little about the current health care debate (h/t Byzantine, Texas).

Recently Dr. Bradley Nassif wrote an article entitled “The Calling of a Bishop is to Preach the Gospel” and this is a good start and a jump off point for this discussion. Dr. Nassif states that “All bishops are to proclaim and interpret the gospel of Christ to the church and to the world.” and what is the Gospel? “The gospel is the “good news” that God became human in Jesus Christ, took upon himself our fallen humanity in order to restore it into communion with God, conquer sin and vanquish death. This he did pre-eminently through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. This “good news” must be at the very core of every life-giving action in the church – the sacraments and throughout every liturgical season of fasting and prayer.”

My personal belief is that the Gospel also includes the interpretation of events of the day and how that fits in the Christian life. What do I mean by this? An example of what I mean would be the present health care debate. The Church needs to be heard on these issues and the church, meaning the bishops, need to speak on these issues. Catholic bishop after Catholic Bishop have written statements instructing the faithful on what the church teaches on this very important social issue.

A brief check of the SCOBA website will reveal that since that start of the summer the SCOBA bishops have released the following statements:

  • Disability and Communion

  • ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN PRISON MINISTRY

  • College Student Sunday – September 20, 2009

All important topics don’t get me wrong but where is the teaching office of the bishop? Why is silence all we hear on such an important debate?

Why indeed?

In my own comments on the topic at American Orthodox Institute blog (click here) I argue that why it all well and good for us to argue for administrative unity, the unity we seek comes not through administrative structures but grace-filled human encounters.

The problem with any authentic human encounter is that (even if it is grace-filled) it isn’t always pleasant. I suspect that (especially at first) any substantive moral teaching offered by the bishops in the the US will not be well received. That said, however, I am hesitant to conclude that a lack of positive reception is necessarily a bad thing, much less that it would be polarizing.

Rather it is more likely the case that if the bishops were to take a more intentional approach to offering moral instruction this would invariably bring to light the divisions that are already present in the Church. Let me take one example.

Among the lower clergy, I know that there is no consensus on matters such as war & peace, economics, or sexual morality (specifically, contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage). Typically, however, we simply chose not to talk about our differences. Given this state of affairs among the priests and deacons I suspect that there is likely also no consensus on these matters among the bishops (and as I have mentioned before, there is also no consensus among the laity for that matter). This is true both cross jurisdictional line and even within a given jurisdiction.

But simply agreeing among ourselves not to talk about these matters doesn’t make our disagreements go away–it has quite the opposite effect, it gives our disagreements more and more power over us. Increasingly, we seem committed not to discuss our disagreements in matters of social justice and personal morality so as not to rock the boat. Unfortunately deciding to remain silent only results in more silence and (in order to not break our rule to not disagree) our becoming ever more guarded with each other when we are together.

Let me ask you a question: If we cannot speak our minds, if we cannot say what is in our hearts but must remain guarded with each other, can we really say that we love each other? What is our communion worth if it is only maintained by dishonesty with each other and our silence about the moral tradition of the Church?

There is certainly a place for silence in the spiritual life but we cannot be silent about the Gospel–even if speaking means that we are in conflict with each other, to say nothing of the world.

All of this came to mind this morning when reading Front Porch Republic’s Jeremy Beer and his thought on culture (“Anti-Culture, America and the Other”).

The truth is that we have a culture that is growing in its psychological power, and increasing its sociological foothold, everyday. We have our thou-shalt-nots. We live within a web of mutually reinforcing nos, taboos, do-not-discusses, and impossible-to-think-otherwises. This web is the harder to see, sometimes, because it is rooted in an ideology that claims to be content-free, neutral, procedural—liberalism (in the deep philosophical sense, needless to say). This is the point of Jim Kalb in his The Tyranny of Liberalism, and I think that he is substantially right. Kalb sums up the ideology of liberalism as the enforcement of “equal freedom.” But it is important to understand, as Kalb does, that this ideology does not simply issue in a set of political or social doctrines, but in a culture in the profoundly anthropological, Rieffian/Freudian sense. And the culture of liberalism—like all cultures—is essentially subrational.

While the whole of the post is excellent, I was especially drawn to his observation at the beginning of his essay “that in the twentieth-century West there had risen to social dominance not any particular culture but a suspicion of all cultures, which consisted in authoritative institutions and internalized psychological demands—you know, guilt. Nothing any longer regulated individual conduct except for the idea that nothing should regulate individual conduct.”

I worry (as I mentioned in my posts on antinomianism in the Orthodox Church) that what ever might be its cause or intent, our lack of moral witness plays into the profoundly unhealthy tendency among many of us to seek out a culture that does not regulate our conduct.

That might seem a strange fear for an Orthodox priest to have about the pastoral life of the Church, but I nevertheless do think that this is a real pastoral challenge which, if left unanswered (and even if it is as our Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters have discovered) can serious undermine the spiritual health of the Church.

Let me return to the question of episcopal moral teaching.

As I wrote recently to someone, the Gospel demands not only those who preach the Word but (as the late Karl Rahner famously stated) hearers of the Word. Any preacher will tell you, the best preaching (really the only preaching worth anything) is always a dialog between the preacher and the congregation. If, as I think they are, our bishops (to say nothing of lower clergy and lay leaders) are reticent to enter into the moral debates of our time might it not be, at least in part, because we rather prefer it to be this way?

I must confess, in many ways I rather prefer the silence but that’s not a good thing is it?

As always, your thoughts, comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • http://www.natemccallum.com/ Nathaniel McCallum

    I suspect that this occurs for many reasons (all of which need to be overcome):
    1. The Orthodox Church globally is (hopefully) emerging from “survival mode”
    2. We lack thriving, native (local) monastic communities (i.e. hundreds of monks), resulting in a small pool of often unqualified episcopal candidates.
    3. America has generally been viewed by immigrants as a place to come and make money. Our bishops have imbibed this view and are largely comfortable in their wealth.
    4. Ties to old world churches have enforced the “care for our remote flock and don’t rock the boat” mentality.
    5. Our ghettoization has ensured that each bishop has an audience small enough to not matter (or at least it is so perceived).
    6. Lack of strong leadership over generations has made us a people unacquainted with the mystery of obedience. Simply put, we have become a cantankerous people.

    Honestly, I think if you look at the American Catholic Church(es) 75 years ago, it would not look a whole lot different (other than #1). The main thing we are lacking is time in the American context.

    Also to be fair, the American Catholic Church still has not solved the problem of Catholic civil servants supporting un-Catholic policies. We have the same problem.

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  • http://www.natemccallum.com Nathaniel McCallum

    I suspect that this occurs for many reasons (all of which need to be overcome):
    1. The Orthodox Church globally is (hopefully) emerging from “survival mode”
    2. We lack thriving, native (local) monastic communities (i.e. hundreds of monks), resulting in a small pool of often unqualified episcopal candidates.
    3. America has generally been viewed by immigrants as a place to come and make money. Our bishops have imbibed this view and are largely comfortable in their wealth.
    4. Ties to old world churches have enforced the “care for our remote flock and don’t rock the boat” mentality.
    5. Our ghettoization has ensured that each bishop has an audience small enough to not matter (or at least it is so perceived).
    6. Lack of strong leadership over generations has made us a people unacquainted with the mystery of obedience. Simply put, we have become a cantankerous people.

    Honestly, I think if you look at the American Catholic Church(es) 75 years ago, it would not look a whole lot different (other than #1). The main thing we are lacking is time in the American context.

    Also to be fair, the American Catholic Church still has not solved the problem of Catholic civil servants supporting un-Catholic policies. We have the same problem.

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  • http://www.natemccallum.com/ Nathaniel McCallum

    Oh, I also wanted to say, Fr. Roman Braga is quite clear on the issues of abortion and birth control. I don’t think anyone would disagree that a word from him is as great as a word from any bishop.

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  • http://www.natemccallum.com Nathaniel McCallum

    Oh, I also wanted to say, Fr. Roman Braga is quite clear on the issues of abortion and birth control. I don’t think anyone would disagree that a word from him is as great as a word from any bishop.

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  • http://www.ochlophobist.blogspot.com/ ochlophobist

    Fr. Gregory,

    Very good post.

    What is your sense on the homosexuality issue? My sense is that while some priests argue that legal protections for homosexuals and state sanctioned same sex partnerships are a political matter that one can support as an Orthodox Christian, there are still very few priests that support the matter in terms of believing that the Orthodox Church should bless homosexual unions. Would you agree with that? I have heard similar arguments with regard to abortion. I have heard priests and a female Orthodox theologian argue that supporting the policies of the Democratic Party will reduce the number of abortions in this country more than supporting policies of the Republican Party. I have also heard priests say that one might support legalized abortion in some instances while at the same time holding that the Church can never grant a blessing to get an abortion.

    But, then again, I have heard of some clerics who support homosexual unions and I have heard of clerics blessing women to get an abortion. The thought of this gives me chills.

    I think that there is so much political fragmentation in American Orthodoxy that we are afraid to hear our bishops on these issues because it will only highlight the fragmentation.

    What does it mean to be a Church when we cannot be of one mind with regard to questions concerning the murder of children and the blessing of homosexual unions?

    At the same time, I am a wee bit leery of how an institution can become homogenous in this regard – I am pro-life, but I am very much in opposition to neo-conservative politics. Thus I would not be happy to see the convert heavy neo-con elements within American Orthodoxy dictate the terms of the conversation, even on abortion.

    It is very difficult to discern which manner to approach these things.

    I hope that you and your family our enjoying Madison. It is one of my wife and I’s favorite towns.
    .-= ochlophobist´s last blog ..girls, uninterrupted…. =-.

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  • http://www.ochlophobist.blogspot.com ochlophobist

    Fr. Gregory,

    Very good post.

    What is your sense on the homosexuality issue? My sense is that while some priests argue that legal protections for homosexuals and state sanctioned same sex partnerships are a political matter that one can support as an Orthodox Christian, there are still very few priests that support the matter in terms of believing that the Orthodox Church should bless homosexual unions. Would you agree with that? I have heard similar arguments with regard to abortion. I have heard priests and a female Orthodox theologian argue that supporting the policies of the Democratic Party will reduce the number of abortions in this country more than supporting policies of the Republican Party. I have also heard priests say that one might support legalized abortion in some instances while at the same time holding that the Church can never grant a blessing to get an abortion.

    But, then again, I have heard of some clerics who support homosexual unions and I have heard of clerics blessing women to get an abortion. The thought of this gives me chills.

    I think that there is so much political fragmentation in American Orthodoxy that we are afraid to hear our bishops on these issues because it will only highlight the fragmentation.

    What does it mean to be a Church when we cannot be of one mind with regard to questions concerning the murder of children and the blessing of homosexual unions?

    At the same time, I am a wee bit leery of how an institution can become homogenous in this regard – I am pro-life, but I am very much in opposition to neo-conservative politics. Thus I would not be happy to see the convert heavy neo-con elements within American Orthodoxy dictate the terms of the conversation, even on abortion.

    It is very difficult to discern which manner to approach these things.

    I hope that you and your family our enjoying Madison. It is one of my wife and I’s favorite towns.
    .-= ochlophobist´s last blog ..girls, uninterrupted…. =-.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    My first reaction to Fr. Peter’s blog was “I don’t think I want our Bishops making public statements to unbelievers regarding things that are predominantly dealt with on a pastoral level WITHIN the Church.” Moral clarity and public statements that amount to sound bytes that can be further excerpted and misrepresented and misconstrued are fruitless in the long run. If someone wants to know what the Orthodox Church teaches on a moral hot button issue in our culture, let them encounter the Church, not a piece of paper or website.
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Capital Punishment, Final =-.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    My first reaction to Fr. Peter’s blog was “I don’t think I want our Bishops making public statements to unbelievers regarding things that are predominantly dealt with on a pastoral level WITHIN the Church.” Moral clarity and public statements that amount to sound bytes that can be further excerpted and misrepresented and misconstrued are fruitless in the long run. If someone wants to know what the Orthodox Church teaches on a moral hot button issue in our culture, let them encounter the Church, not a piece of paper or website.
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Capital Punishment, Final =-.

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  • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Nathan, you make some good points (#1). Certainly, we need a greater monastic witness–but I think for that to happen we need to first get the spiritual life of our parishes in order. Would a greater monastic witness help the Church in America? Hopefully, but not necessarily. Too often we look to monastic life to do what we should do as the baptized.

    Ochlophobist, thank you for your kind word and question about homosexuality. First I don’t think there is the kind of support for same-sex marriage among Orthodox clergy that one sees say among some mainline Protestant clergy. But I do think (as you said) that many, even most, Orthodox clergy are rather passive relative to the politic realm in general.

    The problem is sociological (as Nathan points out) but to his observations I would add the knee jerk anti-Western tendency that has taken hold almost universally among Orthodox clergy and laity. As I have mentioned before, while we are willing to use America, I am not certainly that we love America. Let me take that back, there is precious little love for America among the Orthodox in this country. Very few Orthodox Christians I’ve talked to have much, if any, knowledge (much less appreciation) of American history and political philosophy.

    I am not certain I agree with you that there is a growing neo-con influence in the Church. Could you please be more specific (i.e., name names) please? While there may be some Orthodox Christian who favor (to quote from Wikipedia) “using American economic and military power to bring liberalism, democracy, and human rights to other countries,” I am unaware of any great ground swell of interest in this. Nor am I certain (and correct me here please) that the Neo-con position is framing the discussion in the Church on how we ought to engage he Public Square. Again, maybe I’m just missing something but who do you have in mind?

    All that said, granting for a moment that the Neo-con voice is dominate and assuming for the sake of discussion that this is not a good thing (and in the interest of full disclosure, I would not see myself as a neo-con so I wouldn’t see their dominance as a good thing), I would argue that we are in this situation precisely because we have neglected our evangelical and pastoral duties to the larger American community.

    S-P, thanks for your first reaction, what was your second if I may?

    I agree with you that if someone wants to know what the Church thinks about this or that “hot button” issue they shouldn’t rely on sound bites or web pages but encounter the Church. That said, however, it is not the world’s responsibility to come to us and find out what we believe. It is rather our–and I do mean, OUR–responsibility to go out into the world and proclaim what we believe.

    And there my friend is the core of my argument: WE AREN’T DOING OUR JOB! We are passive when we are called to be not simply active, but pro-active. Much like with our knee-jerk anti-Westernism, we expect (and even demand) people to come to us and understand us on our terms. It is all well and good to for the services to be in English but if we don’t engage the cultural and intellectual currents of our day then not only have we failed in our obligation to those outside the Church, we have failed to be true to the very patristic inheritance that we say we are defending. The fathers engaged the cultural and intellectual debates of their time–we don’t.

    Finally, there are any number of reasons why we will fail to take up the engagement I am arguing for. But in the end I think it is simply a lack of charity.

    Your thoughts folks?

    Again, thank you everyone for your comments and questions.

    In Christ,

    +FrG
    .-= Fr Gregory´s last blog ..Pro-Choice Advocate Accused of KillingTwo Pro-Life Advocates =-.

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  • http://palamas.info Fr Gregory

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Nathan, you make some good points (#1). Certainly, we need a greater monastic witness–but I think for that to happen we need to first get the spiritual life of our parishes in order. Would a greater monastic witness help the Church in America? Hopefully, but not necessarily. Too often we look to monastic life to do what we should do as the baptized.

    Ochlophobist, thank you for your kind word and question about homosexuality. First I don’t think there is the kind of support for same-sex marriage among Orthodox clergy that one sees say among some mainline Protestant clergy. But I do think (as you said) that many, even most, Orthodox clergy are rather passive relative to the politic realm in general.

    The problem is sociological (as Nathan points out) but to his observations I would add the knee jerk anti-Western tendency that has taken hold almost universally among Orthodox clergy and laity. As I have mentioned before, while we are willing to use America, I am not certainly that we love America. Let me take that back, there is precious little love for America among the Orthodox in this country. Very few Orthodox Christians I’ve talked to have much, if any, knowledge (much less appreciation) of American history and political philosophy.

    I am not certain I agree with you that there is a growing neo-con influence in the Church. Could you please be more specific (i.e., name names) please? While there may be some Orthodox Christian who favor (to quote from Wikipedia) “using American economic and military power to bring liberalism, democracy, and human rights to other countries,” I am unaware of any great ground swell of interest in this. Nor am I certain (and correct me here please) that the Neo-con position is framing the discussion in the Church on how we ought to engage he Public Square. Again, maybe I’m just missing something but who do you have in mind?

    All that said, granting for a moment that the Neo-con voice is dominate and assuming for the sake of discussion that this is not a good thing (and in the interest of full disclosure, I would not see myself as a neo-con so I wouldn’t see their dominance as a good thing), I would argue that we are in this situation precisely because we have neglected our evangelical and pastoral duties to the larger American community.

    S-P, thanks for your first reaction, what was your second if I may?

    I agree with you that if someone wants to know what the Church thinks about this or that “hot button” issue they shouldn’t rely on sound bites or web pages but encounter the Church. That said, however, it is not the world’s responsibility to come to us and find out what we believe. It is rather our–and I do mean, OUR–responsibility to go out into the world and proclaim what we believe.

    And there my friend is the core of my argument: WE AREN’T DOING OUR JOB! We are passive when we are called to be not simply active, but pro-active. Much like with our knee-jerk anti-Westernism, we expect (and even demand) people to come to us and understand us on our terms. It is all well and good to for the services to be in English but if we don’t engage the cultural and intellectual currents of our day then not only have we failed in our obligation to those outside the Church, we have failed to be true to the very patristic inheritance that we say we are defending. The fathers engaged the cultural and intellectual debates of their time–we don’t.

    Finally, there are any number of reasons why we will fail to take up the engagement I am arguing for. But in the end I think it is simply a lack of charity.

    Your thoughts folks?

    Again, thank you everyone for your comments and questions.

    In Christ,

    +FrG
    .-= Fr Gregory´s last blog ..Pro-Choice Advocate Accused of KillingTwo Pro-Life Advocates =-.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Hi Father, OK, my second reaction…which is still kind of my first reaction. I am still decompressing from my series on the death penalty and reaction to the OCA’s statement and BP. Seraphim’s article which showed me how much I distrust the bishops to actually “speak the mind of the Church” to the culture (not that I did in my podcasts that were more of a challenge to the “Orthodox Peace Fellowship” kind of stuff as THE ORTHODOX position on the issues). I believe we could make some carefully crafted public statements that separate out the core of issues from the politicalized and pastoral side issues, but then again, could we ever get the Bishops of America together to write an agreed statement reflecting that core on moral issues? That is my concern, that if one bishop makes a unilateral statement to the press and it is “off the mark” the public will take it as “THE Orthodox Church’s position” on that issue. Our lack of a “Pope” (as THE authoritative voice for the Church) puts us in such a tenuous position when it comes to authority in the eyes of the public. I don’t know that there is an easy fix for this.
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Turtle Pin up Girls =-.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Hi Father, OK, my second reaction…which is still kind of my first reaction. I am still decompressing from my series on the death penalty and reaction to the OCA’s statement and BP. Seraphim’s article which showed me how much I distrust the bishops to actually “speak the mind of the Church” to the culture (not that I did in my podcasts that were more of a challenge to the “Orthodox Peace Fellowship” kind of stuff as THE ORTHODOX position on the issues). I believe we could make some carefully crafted public statements that separate out the core of issues from the politicalized and pastoral side issues, but then again, could we ever get the Bishops of America together to write an agreed statement reflecting that core on moral issues? That is my concern, that if one bishop makes a unilateral statement to the press and it is “off the mark” the public will take it as “THE Orthodox Church’s position” on that issue. Our lack of a “Pope” (as THE authoritative voice for the Church) puts us in such a tenuous position when it comes to authority in the eyes of the public. I don’t know that there is an easy fix for this.
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Turtle Pin up Girls =-.

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