It is nothing new for many people to be passionate about the Catholic Church, whether that passion is directed against the Church or for the Church. However, passion should be balanced with compassion. As a theologian whose special interest is ecclesiology — the theology of church — I try to be aware of what’s going on in and around the church. I try to avoid extreme positions on either side of the spectrum, firmly believing the ancient maxim “in medio stat virtus“, “virtue stands in the middle.” Presuming the truth of that claim, then, we might conclude that “at the extremes stand weakness,” and perhaps even sin. As one approaches the extremes, then, it becomes important to know where the boundaries are, the lines that one must not cross if it is truly truth and virtue that is sought. For this reason I think it is important for us to consider the recent activities of a supposedly Catholic commentator by the name of Michael Voris. I would not normally pay much attention to his work since in the several times I’ve reviewed it, I have found it consistently unbalanced and “over the top.” But I was recently directed to a couple of his most recent broadcasts which seem even more so, and in my opinion, can give us a good example of how passion brought to the extreme crosses the line. So, while I am loath to draw attention to his work on the one hand, I think that we also have a responsibility to challenge such extremism so we can all avoid it in the future. Simply hoping that this kind of thing will just disappear if we ignore it is simplistic, dangerous and naive.
Mr. Voris has recently targeted for particular attention the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan. (For full disclosure: I have known Cardinal Dolan for many years, first meeting him briefly when we were both in the seminary, and again more closely during the years I served on the senior staff of the USCCB.) While there may be more videos like these out there, these two will give a sense of what is going on. Watch them here and here.
One of my first reactions when I watched them for the first time was what I would do if someone said such things about me in such a public forum! Certainly I would be consulting an attorney about whether such videos might constitute slander or libel. But the legality of these videos, at least under US law, is a matter far beyond my qualifications or competence. I can only examine them as a theologian, so let’s begin by highlighting just a few of the claims Mr. Voris makes in the videos above.
Cardinal Dolan is accused of being “a wicked bishop”, of being “under the grip of the devil.” He is accused of not caring for or loving the Church, and that he apparently no longer believes in Hell. He is accused of “giving your blessing to a group publicly celebrating their sin,” and that “you give your approval to mortal sin. . . You give active homosexuality a free pass in your Archdiocese.” Then Mr. Voris expands his list of complaints, accusing Cardinal Dolan of not supporting “faithful Catholics.” He has, according to Voris, never publicly condemned Islam as “a heresy and a false religion that does not have supernatural faith.” The Cardinal, he claims “has been a non-stop source of scandal” and is “not fit to be a bishop.” Voris wants the Cardinal and any other bishops who agree with him (the Cardinal) to repent their sins and resign their office.
Where to begin? While reasonable people might certainly disagree with the actions of any bishop, just as one might with any leader, one must certainly stop there, without going on to try to infer motivation or motive. I am sure that if Cardinal Dolan were asked about these things, he would completely and fully reject all of these assertions, and with good reason. To lump together, as Mr. Voris does, sexual orientation and sexual activity is to miss an important distinction made in the teaching of the church. Nowhere has Cardinal Dolan ever sanctioned sinful behavior by anyone, nor does the record indicate that he has ever given anyone a “free pass” on sin of any kind. There is no substantiation of any kind for a claim that the Cardinal has lost his faith, or that he is not striving to provide for the cura animarum of the people of New York — all the people. To spring from a criticism of certain decisions into a full blown attempt to characterize another person’s intentions and motivations — much less that state of that person’s soul — is not only fatally flawed logic, it is seriously deficient in Catholic morality.
But perhaps most disturbing is the challenge offered by Mr. Voris toward the end of the first video: “Do not think that the punishment visited on you will not be the most severe when you die, perhaps even before you die, if you do not change.” He then cries, “Now is the time for an authentic Catholic uprising.” For me, these statements are most disturbing and downright frightening. I suppose coming from a person whose website is called “Church Militant,” this should not be surprising. Still, couched in such militaristic tones and context, one could easily infer a call to physical violence against the Cardinal and other bishops.
The last point I wish to highlight is the claim made in the crawler at the bottom of the video. It is an advertisement for a paid subscription to the site, which professes to be “100% faithful to the Magisterium.” I must confess that when I first saw that claim, while watching the video and its assertions about Cardinal Dolan and other “wicked bishops,” I laughed out loud. How a person could claim to be completely faithful to the teaching authority of the Church while at the same time denigrating those men whose ministry includes being authoritative teachers of that Magisterium is simply nonsensical.
What are we to make of all of this? Let’s review some basics.
The Magisterium is not simply a “who”; it is a “what.” Magisterium refers to the teaching authority of the Church, a Church we believe guided by the Holy Spirit. Every person, in some way or another, and in the broadest sense of the term, participates in this teaching authority, constantly learning and sharing this faith. Think of parents, for example, teaching and forming their children in faith, as they are charged at baptism; they are part of the magisterium in this broad sense. But in a very specific and particular way, the highest human teachers in the Church are the College of Bishops, always in communion with each other and with the head of the College, the Pope. Unless and until an authoritative judgment is made by the College (always in communion with the Pope), or by the Pope himself, that a bishop is no longer part of that College, then the bishop in question remains an authoritative teacher. It is not within the competence of someone else (like Mr. Voris, or myself) to judge when a bishop is no longer teaching authentic or faithful doctrine. In fact, I will go further and suggest that, if there should be a presumption of veracity and accuracy in presenting the Church’s teaching, that presumption goes to the bishops, not to anyone else. Put simply, Mr. Voris is neither qualified nor competent to make the judgments he is attempting to make.
Do bishops disagree with one another? Of course they do, but not about the fundamentals of the faith. They may disagree over pastoral strategies, over how a particular situation will be dealt with in their diocese, and they will be certainly be judged on the exercise of their ministry when they stand before God. But disagreement in practice does not necessarily mean a break in communion.
Am I saying that bishops never make mistakes? Of course not! Bishops make mistakes just like the rest of us, and they also deserve the benefit of fraternal correction. Some bishops commit crimes and should be held accountable under civil, criminal and canon law. But no one has appointed any of us to take the place of God in judging us all for our sins. Alone we will stand before God and take responsibility for the way we’ve lived our lives.
Let’s take just one example from the litany of complaints made by Mr. Voris, and analyze just how wrong he is. He condemns Cardinal Dolan for not publicly condemning Islam as “a heresy and a false religion”. While this may be what he believes, it is NOT what the Catholic Church teaches (remember the claim that he is 100% faithful to the Magisterium?). What DOES the Magisterium of the Church teach about Islam?
Here’s some truly authentic magisterial teaching, found in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution [please note that well -- it is a DOGMATIC text, dealing with the most fundamental issues of faith and church] on the Church (Lumen gentium), #16:
But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.
Later, this thought is developed in the same Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), #3:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and
subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has
spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as
Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though
they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His
virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of
judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead.
Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual
understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
In fact, even earlier — when talking about religion in general, the bishops of the Council (that “episcopal college” mentioned above) taught at #2:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.
When a person claims to speak with complete faithfulness to the Magisterium, then, we should expect that this person would be echoing these teachings, which Cardinal Dolan has certainly done. The Church does NOT teach what Mr. Voris teaches: that Islam is “a heresy and a false religion.”
Finally, I want to return to the threatening language used by Mr. Voris when he refers to punishment that he thinks may happen to Cardinal Dolan after he dies, “or even before you die,” and when he issues his call for an “authentic Catholic uprising. I would refer Mr. Voris and anyone else who is interested to the following canons from the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 1372 A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council [note: such as Vatican II] or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.
Can. 1373 A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary [note: such as Cardinal Dolan] because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.
It would be interesting to hear the opinion of a canon lawyer with regard to these canons as they might apply in this instance.
Many lines have been crossed in these ranting diatribes by Mr. Voris against Cardinal Dolan and any other bishops Mr. Voris decides to condemn. Lines of civility, lines of Christian charity, and lines of faithful adherence to what the Church actually teaches have all been overstepped.. One would hope that Mr. Voris will himself be open to fraternal correction. We just heard about this in the Gospel last Sunday. As Christ taught his disciples 2,000 years ago, as well as his disciples today:
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.
Mr. Voris is entitled and free to make his own judgments about things. However, he is not free to play fast and loose with the truths of our faith or to challenge and mock the legitimate and authoritative exercise of servant-leadership by a bishop in communion with the Church, regardless of his own personal disagreement with those teachings or that bishop. Yes, Cardinal Dolan will someday give an accounting of his stewardship; so, too, will Mr. Voris and the rest of us.