Rorate Caeli

“Episcopal Conference? Freedom for the Bishops!” — Article by Archbishop Aguer — strong words on Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torres

On other occasions I have criticized the current centralized ecclesiastical organization, whose key piece is the local protagonism of the Episcopal Conferences. These have assumed a political role, imitating secular parliaments. There is, in general, a Presidency and two Vice-Presidencies, elected by a majority vote of the members of the Conference. There are no formally constituted episcopal parties, but there is no lack of groups that bring together those who share a certain ecclesiology, and the same opinion on intra-ecclesial issues as well as on social and political issues of the country; undoubtedly linked to Catholic morality and the Social Doctrine of the Church.

In these episcopal parliaments, an order analogous to those of the secular order is verified: there are voices and votes (the emeritus bishops may speak but decide nothing), the floor is requested, it is granted or not according to the circumstances, there are also majorities and minorities, etc. We are used to this organization; not only the Catholic faithful, but all citizens -- at least those who are interested in the eventual power and influence of the Church -- who are informed, or rather "misinformed," thanks to certain journalists who claim to be "specialized in religious matters."

The aforementioned organization favors a certain type of exercise of authority within it. Experience reveals that there is, for example, officialdom (we all know what this term means: a tendency to support the government), and there are no lack of bishops of whom one can think -- I say this with all respect and appreciation -- who, because of their simplicity and lack of a clear and broad thinking of their own, yield to the reigning officialdom. I would like to think that there are also those who appreciate their freedom, who try to preserve it and exercise it, yet without sounding out of tune with the whole (since the need for "unity" is usually insisted upon). The "verse" of unity, typical of episcopal poetry, can be recited with a right intention, without prejudice, and without the mere purpose of maintaining a cover (even if it is alien to reality). The ideal of unity is often wielded in order to "fit in the sheath" and thus "squeeze" those who are reluctant to support a certain position. We ecclesiastics -- I am thinking of the bishops -- are human persons, and each one is a world in which legitimate opinions, defects (more or less serious), closed and unjustified positions -- and of course, also authentic virtues are intertwined! I dare to think that this is how it happens "ut in pluribus"; among the members there may be some saints; I can imagine how much they will have to suffer! We can all be more or less good, but that is not the same as being saints.

One of the purposes attributed to the action of the Episcopal Conferences is to ensure pastoral care in the life of the Church. In fact, it is pastoral problems that are usually discussed in Plenary Assemblies. To the overview that I have presented, I can add other critical observations that come from my reflection on experience.

First of all, what comes to mind about the documents and statements. Generally speaking, pronouncements are expected out of every plenary meeting of the Bishops' Conference; this is what journalists speculate about, sometimes approaching this or that prelate to elicit statements for the print, radio, or television. The elaboration of the texts to which I have alluded implies a process that is quite complex; it is usually so, and it does not seem necessary to me now to offer details on the matter. I will say, however, that some of these documents are considered "substantial," conceived as an echo of the universal magisterium, or meant to guide the life of the local Church for a considerable period of time. Most commonly, an ad hoc commission prepares a draft; one who might wish to reorient the line of argument put forward by the commission because one disagrees with it will find it not easy to do. Classroom discussions have a relative value in terms of the outcome. I do not wish, in any way, to express a negative opinion; the situations and the issues addressed are very diverse.

I must now address an unpleasant issue: sorry! The authorities of the Conference may manifest a Stalinist-type psychology; this qualification designates a dictatorial inclination. This attitude harms, damages, the necessary freedom of the bishops in the government of their respective dioceses, since the authorities try to impose a certain way of acting that has somehow managed to become official. A collateral phenomenon, which I consider of the utmost gravity, is murmuring, a typical clerical defect, which is exercised especially in "little worlds," in which a person who is rather cowardly can speak between his teeth, and even "run off at the mouth" disloyally.

Some doctrinal and pastoral matters are of the utmost importance and topicality in the Church, and are part of the personal responsibility of each successor of the Apostles. I am thinking, for example, of liturgical norms and the formation of new priests. On this second point, I dare to speak with total clarity and independence: many years ago, I had the task of organizing a Diocesan Seminary and then of being its rector for a decade. As archbishop, I dedicated myself expressly to my seminary and to dealing with the fifty or so young men whom I later ordained to the priesthood. In this matter, of capital importance for the future of the Catholic Church, the "Stalinist officialdom," no matter how much it tries to cover itself in disguise, seems to me absolutely unacceptable.

The problem posed to the Church by an organization centered on the Episcopal Conference is aggravated because, in addition to the National Episcopal Conferences, there are also Regional and Continental Episcopal Conferences, all of them political structures that multiply the difficulties already mentioned. Let us remember the influence exerted by Medellin and Puebla.

A case that, in my opinion, shows how far gone an Episcopal Conference can be is the deviation from dogmatic, moral, and disciplinary orthodoxy of the German Episcopal Conference. We, together with many of the faithful, are astonished and do not understand why Rome, the Holy See, does not intervene and allows this lamentable confusion to take hold. My thoughts go out to any German priests and laity who do not agree with the path that their local "pontiffs" have opened, and by which they are rushing towards schism; in fact, at this stage of things one can speak of a kind of immanent schism, which can only produce bitter fruits and perdition.

Situations that were once simply inconceivable are now multiplying all over the world. The Episcopal Conferences -- I exaggerate somewhat so that the seriousness of the matter may be perceived -- often react later, and at other times sooner, than would be appropriate.

Daniel Fernandez Torres, Bishop of Arecibo, is a sad case; he has been displaced, "cancelled," and why? Because he is an excellent bishop who did not want to bow to senseless projects. And where is the Episcopal Conference of Puerto Rico, composed of six or seven members -- where has their episcopal fraternity halted? Worse still, I dare to suspect: could it not have been precisely they who went to the Apostolic Delegate with stories, or even directly to Rome? They should have defended and accompanied their brother, clarifying in a trusting dialogue with him if there were points to discuss, and served as effective mediators. The Puerto Rican bishops should have asked the Apostolic Delegate why they were removing Bishop Daniel, and whether he had committed any crime. Instead, they only issued a communiqué in which, after announcing the dismissal, they said that "out of deference and respect for the internal canonical processes of the Church, these will be the only official expressions that will be made on this matter." In other words, they have said nothing. What canonical process has been followed? Rome says nothing. I protest. And I ask and suggest to the clergy and the people of Arecibo to demonstrate before the Apostolic Delegate. Ask him to return the Bishop. Although this may seem a little excessive, it is the right thing to do. Because if one is silent, one consents. He who is silent concedes. We must ask them to tell the truth. And not to deceive the Christian people.

I know Bishop Fernandez Torres very well; he was kind enough to invite me to preach the Spiritual Exercises for his clergy three years ago. They were followed with great attention and piety by the priests. And I was able to verify that it is a magnificent diocese, with full pastoral activity and a flourishing of vocations. The dismissed Bishop is an example of the "cancellation" that is taking place in the Church. After the publication, in "InfoCatólica" of "To the 'cancelled' priests," a little more than a month ago, I have received numerous letters, emails, and messages from different priests, from different parts of the world, who are suffering this situation. Why are they stripped of their offices? Because they are orthodox, because they are good Catholics. And because the reigning progressivism, the progressive officialdom, is implacable, and does not tolerate bishops and priests who let themselves be guided by the great Tradition of the Church, as Pope Benedict XVI called it. This is the problem of "cancellation". You get fired, just like that; and make do as you can. It is moving to hear and read the testimonies of these priests, who must even go to live with their parents in order to have a plate of food and the care and support that the Hierarchy denies them.

Another story that I have already dealt with several times is the universal devastation of the Sacred Liturgy, contrary to what the Second Vatican Council established with its purpose of prudent aggiornamento. In Argentina, there are some notable cases: a few years ago a bishop celebrated Mass on the beach using a mate cup as a chalice, and I have just learned of another scandalous fact: a priest --of the clergy of a diocese in the center of the country -- celebrated the Holy Mass dressed as a clown. What other nonsense can be allowed? If the diocesan who is directly responsible did not react, the Episcopal Conference, which has a Liturgy Commission, should have intervened reproving this sacrilege. It is not honorable to remain silent about such an outrage. It is said that "a button is enough to prove it." It is not possible for me to prolong this writing with a list of ecclesial calamities that leave the faithful perplexed and constitute a terrible sign for young people. The Holy Father has recently said that we bishops must share our charism with the laity. The laity do not have to suffer in silence and stillness such outrages as those I have pointed out.

The critique I have presented of the existing organization calls for me to propose an alternative. I find it in the great ecclesial Tradition. I mentioned the necessary freedom of the diocesan bishops; this position is not equivalent to anarchy, and to a solipsistic individualism in a Body whose essence is communion. The traditional figure is the Ecclesiastical Province, presided over by the Metropolitan (the pallium is not a mere ornament); in it, an authentic synodality, not metaphorical or discursive but real, is fulfilled and can be lived. Of course, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus himself -- who assured that he would accompany the apostles every day, even until the end of the ages (Mt 28:20) -- are the ones who sovereignly govern the Church. In proposing the traditional organization, we understand that it constitutes what Aristotle recognized and called "secondary causes." It is up to the men of the Church, beginning with the Supreme Pontiff, the Successor of Peter, to see to it that these secondary causes are ordered in an adequate organization. The ordering of the Ecclesiastical Provinces, crowned by the Assembly of Metropolitans, is a real possibility that counts in its favor the support of Tradition; and it avoids the intrusion of secular political schemes that are incapable of assuring a true democracy -- neither tyranny nor anarchy -- to the republics that suffer them.

It is not hidden from me that what I have just written may disturb many colleagues. I wish to assure everyone of my right intention, my respect and collegial affection. We would lose nothing if we discuss with objectivity and patience these issues of utmost importance for today and tomorrow of our beloved Church.

+ Hector Aguer
Archbishop Emeritus of La Plata