Focusing On Minor Grievances Is A Way To Avoid Institutional Reform

Focusing On Minor Grievances Is A Way To Avoid Institutional Reform March 14, 2022

No photographer listed: Bishops, Priests, And Other Clergy In Procession / pxhere

Saint Salvian mourned the way many of the hierarchy of the institutional church sold themselves out to the rich and powerful in such. He understood that this led them to ignore the plight of the people, including and especially the abuses affecting the poor and vulnerable: “Who gives help to the distressed and those that labor, when even the Lord’s priests do not resist the violence of wicked men?”[1] Salvian’s question is one which can and should be repeated by every generation. While the church is always in need of reform, this is especially true in regards its hierarchy, for they are the ones most responsible for what happens in and with the institutional aspects of the church. If they ignore their duty and the common good which they should promote, and instead look after their own particular interests and desires, the institutional church suffers, and many people will question whether or not they should join in with an institution which ignores so much of the teachings given to it by Christ. [2]

Today, we find many of the elite, the rich and powerful, having great and dangerous influences over bishops, priests, religious, and vocal lay Catholics,  diverting attention away from the needs of the Christian faithful (or even the world at large). The people suffer as the praxis of the church, the promotion of social justice and charity, is not only neglected, but rejected. This is especially true when many of the hierarchy join in and promote activities and speak in ways which run contrary to the church’s social teachings in order to lend support to the ideologies of their rich and powerful donors.

Bishop and priest after bishops and priest seem to be bought and sold. The pathos of God, a heart for the poor and vulnerable, is pushed aside for lesser concerns. Those within the hierarchy who engage such a compromise should be warned that even though grace can be imparted to the church through them (contrary to any Donatist ideology), they will be held responsible for all those whom they harm and turn away thanks to the way they have trivialized God’s call for justice.

Throughout Scripture, we find God’s concern as being for the vulnerable, for those who have been hurt by those with power and authority. Many of those involved with such abuses were religious leaders, and because they should have known and done better God spoke out and warned them that they are risking grave consequences for their actions of they did not change their ways. St. Jerome understood this, which is why, when commenting upon the prophecies of Isaiah, he said that Isaiah’s warnings were true, not only for the Jewish authorities of his time, but also for those who governed the church today:

And what follows is clearly addressed to the rulers of the Jews: Why do you wear down my people and soften, or “confound,” the faces of the poor? But it can also refer to our rulers, if they wear down the people subject to them and publicly rebuke and “confound” the poor who transgress, but do not dare even to make a sound against those who commit worse sins. And the plunderer of the poor is in their  houses, when they replenish their treasures and use the wealth of the church for pleasures, and they either keep for themselves public donations, which were given to support the poor, or they distribute them to their neighbors and turn someone else’s poverty into their own wealth and that of their family. [3]

Jerome saw how easy it was to take up a concern about some minor error and magnify it and make a great campaign against it; he also understood when this happened, it was often at the expense of justice or other, much more serious, issues. When injustices lead to great pain and sorrow, minor concerns, instead of those injustices, come into focus and are used as scapegoats so that the root problem would not have to be dealt with. Thus we find that instead of promoting God’s pathos, many in religious positions of leadership focus on very minor moral offenses and say that these are what God is most angry about. And since those minor problems were not dealt with properly, God now sends us famine, pestilence, war, or some other great disaster. If anyone were to mention the real offenses, the great injustices, which can be more readily shown as being connected to and leading to such disasters, they are ignored, because such injustices are the ones promoted by the rich and powerful who buy and sell priests and bishops in order to keep the attention away from the evils which they promote:

Many leaders of the churches, fearing that they will lose the friendship and incur the hostility of those who hate them, do not correct those who sin, and they are afraid to rebuke those who oppress the poor; nor are they afraid of the severity of the retribution that will be handed out to them, due to the fact that they have been silent about the common people entrusted to their care.[4]

The church is more than the hierarchy, more than the bishops and priests. But the hierarchy often is what is most heeded. The institutional church should be a vessel of grace in the world, promoting justice where injustice is to be found. Sadly, this is often not the case, as many of its members heed their rich benefactors more than the church’s proper moral teachings. The hierarchy, and with it, the church, often becomes a laughing stock in the world, not because of its radical embrace of the Gospel of Christ and the dictates of love, but because they ignore what Christ taught it to do:

What more can I say? I am about to speak on a grave and lamentable subject. The Church herself, which should be the appeaser of God in all things, what is she but the exasperator of God? Beyond a very few individuals who shun evil, what else is the whole assemblage of Christians but the bilge water of vice?[5]

This does not mean there is no role, no value, to the institutional church; despite how often it succumbs to the rich and powerful, there are those within it who do not, those who speak up, and with the graces given to them, help promote justice in the world. We have some, like Salvian, who remind us of what the institution should be like, what the concerns of the clergy should be; thanks to them and their efforts, we find, from time to time, the institution being reformed as it should. When this happens, the reform not only helps the church, but the world at large, because the church then will be doing what it is meant to be doing, to be the salt of the earth, helping the world with the grace given to it. This, of course, means that the clergy will have to take up the role of shepherd, willing to lay down their life in order to take care of the people of the church (and also the world):

When the poor are oppressed by their rulers, good priests [bishops] – in order to deliver them from this – offer them the help of their protection and they do not fear the hostility of any of their enemies. Rather, they openly confront the oppressors of the poor, they reproach them, they excommunicate them, and they have little fear of their plots to harm them even if they are able to harm them: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). [6]

Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and others like them, when they looked to the pathos of God and to the justice which God wanted established in the world, did what they could to promote it. They suffered, like the prophets of old suffered, for the sake of their mission. They were not always perfect, but no one is; focusing on their imperfections only leads us away the good which they promoted, just as looking to minor grievances in the world leads us away from the greater good which we should be engaging. We should remember the hierarchy of truth, and with it, the hierarchy of the good. We must focus on the greater good, and helping to restore it where it is deficient. We must not let ourselves become distracted by petty concerns, for if we do, then we will find our distraction only leads to greater and greater suffering in the world.


[1] Salvian the Presbyter, “The Governance of God” in The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter. Trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1962) 135.

[2] St. Augustine understood this problem, and said in return, that although many might seem to be running away from the church when they find themselves distancing themselves from its institutional representation, he said that in reality, they have not lost their connection to the body of Christ and the grace which they need for their salvation: “Often, too, divine providence permits even good men to be driven from the congregation of Christ by the turbulent seditions of carnal men. When for the sake of the peace of the Church they patiently endure that insult or injury, and attempt no novelties in the way of heresy or schism, they will teach men how God is to be served with a true disposition and with great and sincere charity. The intention of such men is to return when the tumult has subsided. But if that is not permitted because the storm continues or because a fiercer one might be stirred up by their return, they hold fast to their purpose to look to the good even of those responsible for the tumults and commotions that drove them out. They form no separate conventicles of their own, but defend to the death and assist by their testimony the faith which they know is preached in the Catholic Church. These the Father who seeth in secret crowns secretly. It appears that this is a rare kind of Christian, but examples are not lacking. Indeed there are more than can be believed,” St. Augustine, “Of True Religion,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings. trans. John H.S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 231.

[3] St. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah in St Jerome: Commentary on Isaiah; Origen Homilies 1-9 on Isaiah. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (New York: Paulist Press, 2015), 120.

[4] St. Isidore of Seville, Sententiae. Trans. Thomas L. Knoebel (New York: Newman Press, 2018),  195.

[5] Salvian the Presbyter, “The Governance of God,” 84.

[6] St. Isidore of Seville, Sententiae, 195.

 

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