The crisis of authority in the Catholic Church in America continues to plague us in the final year of the 20th century. Since 1998 three U. S. bishops have resigned under a cloud of sexual misconduct.1 Lawsuits result in astronomical financial settlements devastating dioceses around the country. Bishops and priests directly oppose core teachings of the Church with impunity. And the church "renovation" movement goes on unhindered destroying our patrimony. These assaults on the faith due to priestly misconduct have been financed primarily by Catholics in the pew giving (they think) to maintain their parishes, help the poor, and evangelize. Fraud is not too harsh a word to describe the betrayal of trust.

Due to sheer numbers, even more devastating than wolves in sheep's clothing are clerics who fail to use their authority to protect the flock. In 1973 Dietrich von Hildebrand called the "lethargy of the guardians" the "disease of our times," and dubbed it "especially infuriating when certain bishops, who themselves show this lethargy toward heretics, assume a rigorously authoritarian attitude toward those believers who are fighting for orthodoxy, and who are thus doing what the bishops ought to be doing themselves!"2

Unfortunately little has changed since 1973, except that the Church in the U.S. is in a greater shambles than ever. And yet the abuse and misuse of authority and just plain foolishness continue. A few examples.

In October, Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Alabama issued a decree forbidding all priests in the diocese (even visitors) from celebrating Mass ad orientem, i.e., with their backs to the people. In what has been described as the "Mother Angelica decree" referring to the popular director of EWTN [The Eternal Word Network], Bishop Foley also required priests saying Mass for broadcast to face the people at a freestanding altar. Those failing to follow the decree are threatened with suspension or removal of faculties.

Helen Hull Hitchcock in the November Adoremus Bulletin raised a pressing question of Church Law: "Can a bishop prohibit for his diocese a practice which is permitted as an option in the universal Church?" SJF [St. Joseph Foundation] of San Antonio, Texas, which defends the rights of Catholics in the Church, says no. In their December newsletter, SJF said Bishop Foley overstepped his authority and the new law is "certainly invalid." How to test it? "Bishop Foley's decree could be challenged.. . by the appeal of a priest who was penalized for disobeying it. An appeal of a penalty immediately suspends its effect (canon 1353), so the priest would not suffer unduly while the appeal ran its course. The defense would be based upon the assumption that one cannot be penalized for violating an invalid decree.3"

But why did Bishop Foley choose this battle in the first place? He accused priests who follow the ancient practice (one which the Vatican's Cardinal Ratzinger himself has endorsed) of "taking liberties with the Mass." This is ludicrous from a bishop who for eight years was auxiliary in the Diocese of Richmond, VA where liturgical abuses have rendered the Mass almost unrecognizable in some parishes.

So why did he do it? Our guess: He reacted to peer pressure from some brother bishops who hate the standard of reverence Mother Angelica has set through her televised Masses. It makes them look bad because of the deplorable state of the Mass in their dioceses!

A situation closer to home is in the Diocese of Wheeling/Charleston, West Virginia. In 1997 Bishop Bernard Schmitt called the Ninth Diocesan Synod for the Church in West Virginia. Early announcements described it as a "consultation process," but past experience illustrates these events often have a liberal agenda with a predetermined outcome. Orthodox participants are frequently screened out.

We know of at least one case where this happened. A friend of Les Femmes, Fred Paschal, who helps produce an orthodox lay-run publication called The Defender, was elected by the parish council of St. Vincent de Paul in Berkley Springs to attend the synod. The pastor, Fr. John Ledford, vetoed the council's decision in favor of a more liberal parishioner.

And what is the outcome to date? The official "theme paper" printed in a two volume document titled On a Journey Together calls for the typical heterodox agenda: married priests, ordination of women, return of unfaithful priests to active ministry, small faith communities, environmental action, etc. It also calls on the Church to serve all people "regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, gender, sexual conduct and orientation, [our emphasis] or disabling conditions." In a January 27 article in The Wanderer writer Paul Likoudis described asking synod secretary, Mary Paczewski, if Bishop Schmitt had approved the publication for dissemination in the diocese. Paczewski said no. "The bishop can't actually say anything until the process is over," One isn't sure whether to laugh or weep over such absurdity.

In the meantime, worshipers at the Cathedral Church in Wheeling are instructed to stand from the great Amen, through the Communion, to the end of Mass. At Corpus Christi in the Warwood suburb the altar boys stand (and fidget) for the entire Eucharistic prayer. including the Consecration, which directly violates the instruction of the U.S. bishops. When this reporter questioned the pastor, he replied if he had his way the entire congregation would stand. Is it any wonder two thirds of Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence, a situation bemoaned by the bishops at their annual meeting in Washington.

A major abuse of authority can be seen in the "renovation" movement ruining so many of our churches. While the faith disintegrates, bishops and pastors implement projects that strip and rip. Tabernacles are hidden in side chapels; pews are replaced by movable chairs; kneelers, statues, icons, etc. disappear. In the process parishioners are lied to (fund drives stress repair and restoration), and manipulated at meetings through the use of "consensus circles," (called "Soviets" in Russia). Mike Rose, an architect and editor of the St. Catherine Review in Cincinnati, has written a well-documented expose called The Renovation Manipulation, outlining the tragic extent of the destruction and calling the laity to fight back. [See review]

Egregious sex scandals continue to make headlines all over the country. One lay-run group recently infiltrated a chatroom for homosexual clergy (53 participants) that is filled with pornographic photos including an action-video clip of an ejaculating penis. The group posted the chatroom contents on the web, including the pornography, a decision with which Les Femmes vehemently disagrees. We can no longer support them as a result. But after having their legitimate concerns ignored by the hierarchy for years this group finally got their attention. Since the end never justifies the means, we believe their actions ultimately will cause more harm than good; but we understand the frustration. When those in authority refuse to exercise it, especially in the face of moral turpitude, others without that authority will fill the void.

It is the duty of a bishop to exercise fatherly discipline over his diocese, beginning with his spiritual sons, the priests. It is the duty of priests to exercise fraternal correction toward their brothers. But more and more, the laity are standing in the gap. That's why dozens of groups like Les Femmes have risen all over the country-to defend the faith and the family. We do it reluctantly with our rosaries in our hands as we pray for shepherds to lead us. May God hear our prayer and make haste to help us.


1. Bishop J. Keith Symons of West Palm Beach, Florida; Bishop Daniel Ryan of Springfield, Illinois, and Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann of Santa Rosa, California.

2. Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Devastated Vineyard, Roman Catholic Books, New York, 1985, pp. 3-4.

3. St. Joseph Foundation newsletter, Christifidelis December 25, 1999, p. 3.

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