“The search for consensus can result in a flattened document — or, as one bishop put it, documents that have found their least common denominator,” noted Bishop Robert Vasa, speaking on “The Bishop and the Conference” at the InsideCatholic Partnership Award Dinner. It is an excellent talk, not only for Catholics frustrated by the apparent deadening effect of the national conference on episcopal clarity and courage, but for any religious believer who has seen what happens when pastors combine in some way at the national level.
Thus, when individual bishops and there are more than a few make personal statements about certain situations, those statements are often stronger, bolder, more decisive, and thus more likely to be criticized as harsh and insensitive.
I fear that there has been such a steady diet of such flattened documents that anything issued by individual bishops that contains some element of strength is readily and roundly condemned or simply dismissed as being out of touch with the conference or in conflict with what other bishops might do.
He is paraphrasing insights from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, which will not surprise you. Bishop Vasa goes on lay out the Church’s actual teaching on national bishops’ conferences, and then to describe the peculiar dynamics of teaching and leading today. “Pastoral documents, recognizing that people have lost a tolerance for sound teaching, tend to appeal without necessarily being too direct or critical,” he says.
The obvious goal is to offer gentle invitations to conversion in a way that might attract those who prefer ear-tickling messages. Unfortunately, since they are pastoral in nature, such documents are open to a broad range of interpretation and misinterpretation. A charge could be brought that such documents are intentionally vague and misleading . . . .
Sadly, since sound teaching is often rejected out of hand, the teachers who advocate a popular, ear tickling message are more likely to be admired and warmly received and accepted by our secular age. This contributes to an even further flattening of the message.
He then offers a kind of pastoral theology of appeal and correction, taken from St. Gregory the Great (well worth reading) and then circles back to his opening theme, that each bishop must speak on his own authority, and not defer to the collective:
What is most notable about each of these courageous men is that they are acting not as members of a congress of bishops, but as individual bishops in their own dioceses. They have each shown a very serious determination to avoid indiscreet speech, while overcoming what would otherwise be an imprudent silence.
In the evaluation of a secular media, any strong speech against moral evil is most often labeled as indiscreet; while imprudent silence, even in the face of very serious moral evils, is praised as the epitome of Christ-like compassion. Appealing is praised, while correcting or reproving is deemed to be too harsh.
You need to be aware, also, that episcopal courage is often linked to suffering . . . .