The Broken Path (2011) by Judie Brown catalogs recent behavior among American Catholic bishops. The title refers to the many instances when bishops have "strayed from the path," so to speak, and acted scandalously or contrary to the teachings of the Church. I give the book 7 out of 10 stars.
This book is not an easy one for faithful Catholics to digest. Reading it made me uncomfortable at times. One is forced to confront the idea that bishops do not always act in defense of life, moral doctrine, or other teachings of the Church. I think recognizing the value of this book demands a certain level of maturity, to be able to admit one's own failings and the failings that take place at high levels in his Church. It also takes a certain degree of catechesis to understand that such failings do not mar the unblemished doctrines of faith and morals within the Church. Sometimes the ignorant or anti-Catholics advance the idea that a failure in individual Church leaders' behaviors is a good apologetic against the Catholic idea of infallibility, but such is not the case. Even the very idea of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is not an "infallible" body. Brown quotes Pope Benedict XVI stating: "episcopal conferences have no theological basis; they do not belong to the structure of the Church as willed by Christ..." (p 64)
Brown details several programs supported by the USCCB, for instance, Catholic Charities or the Catholic Health Association, which often advance anti-Church causes like the Obama Administration's health care plan and all it entails, including funding for abortion, contraception, and sterilization. Other groups mentioned throughout this book have influences within the Church that are opposed to Church teaching. Many of these arrangements have gone without much historical protest from bishops. Groups include Planned Parenthood, the largest U.S. abortion provider; the USCCB's "Safe Environment" office which has been met with opposition for reducing parental influence in their children's sexual understanding; and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a group headed by supporters of abortion, same-sex "marriage," and contraception in schools; to name a few. Brown devotes a number of pages to these and other organization bringing scandal and dissent to the Church.
When some bishops work in tandem with or act passively in the face of such organizations, Catholics are sent a confusing or contradictory message. A good summary of such problems is in Brown's words is: "lack of consistency sends a mixed message to Catholics." (p 156)
One example she gives of the USCCB's confusing action occurred in 2004. Catholic Answers produced a voters guide identifying five "non-negotiables." Brown writes:
The lawyers for the bishops rejected the voting guide, claiming that it was confusing to people and that only its officially approved material should be used. This is strange, indeed, since the Catholic Answers publication agrees 100 percent with Catholic teaching that identifies five 'non-negotiable' subjects by which a politician is to be evaluated: abortion, euthanasia, human embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and homosexual marriage. (p 100)If one researches the background of this matter, it seems the USCCB's lawyers discouraged use of the guide because it could appear to favor a political candidate and thus jeopardize non-profit status. However, it seems there is a difference in actively discouraging something's use versus not legally claiming ownership of it. At the least, the USCCB lawyers' actions and subsequent refusal to clarify causes confusion and scandal in the Church.
One of the problems Brown cites is a culture of "Americanism." By this term, Brown refers to a sentiment prevalent in the United States that "any group, or individual, could 'correct the pope' with impunity..." (p 19) It is "an amalgamation of pluralism, modernism, atheism, Gnosticism, and Arianism." (p 32) The Arian heresy was a 4th century doctrinal scandal in the Church in which the priest Arius sought to correct doctrine taught by the Magisterium. Such attitudes depart from the chain of Apostolic succession through which Christ promised truth would be taught by the Holy Spirit. Individuals and even individual bishops who thus depart from the consistent teaching of the Church cause error, scandal, and confusion.
Brown details a variety of quotations and actions/inactions by individual American bishops in recent years, bringing what is a significant problem in the American Church to the attention of the faithful. For example, she describes the of silence from some bishops who remain idle on the sidelines while openly pro-choice politicians continue to receive Holy Communion while supporting the so-called "right" to terminate an infant in the womb. In chapter 8 of the book, Brown reviews Canon 915 on providing the Eucharist and scandals within the Church violating that Canon.
Another specific example includes a letter written by Bobby Schindler to his bishop, Robert Lynch, in 2007. Schindler was critical of the bishop's lack of voice when his sister Terri Schiavo was publicly starved to death in Florida in 2005 in an act of euthanasia. (p 157ff)
Brown's book is fraught with footnotes linking to various articles and publications. It would be daunting to cross-reference them all, and the ones I perused were sound references. There was one long story she relayed, of which I was familiar, that I found wanting for detail. (p 124ff) In 2010, Phoenix archbishop Thomas Olmsted renounced St. Joseph Hospital's Catholic status and notified an involved nun that she had incurred excommunication. A woman received an abortion at the hospital. Brown did point out that Church teaching forbids surgical abortion, but the story did involve complexities that I thought warranted further explanation. The hospital justified the abortion in the following words:
Tests revealed that [the mother] now had life-threatening pulmonary hypertension. The chart notes that she had been informed that her risk of mortality was close to 100 percent if she continued the pregnancy. The medical team contacted the Ethics Consult team for review. The consultation team talked to several physicians and nurses as well as reviewed the patient’s record. The patient and her family, her doctors and the Ethics Consult team agreed that the pregnancy could be terminated, and that it was appropriate since the goal was not to end the pregnancy but save the mother’s life. (quoted in National Catholic Reporter, Dec. 22, 2010)Brown's focus in this story was to demonstrate the scandal of nuns involved with the hospital complicit in the abortion against the bishop's position. However, I would liked to have seen Brown provide more information on why the bishop's position was what it was. Bishop Omsted wrote of his decision:
[E]arlier this year, it was brought to my attention that an abortion had taken place at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. When I met with officials of the hospital to learn more of the details of what had occurred, it became clear that, in the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld; but that the baby was directly killed, which is a clear violation of ERD #45. It also was clear that the exceptional cases, mentioned in ERD #47, were not met, that is, that there was not a cancerous uterus or other grave malady that might justify an indirect and unintended termination of the life of the baby to treat the grave illness. In this case, the baby was healthy and there were no problems with the pregnancy; rather, the mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph’s medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church (Cf. Evangelium Vitae, #62).In other words, the goal of the procedure was to kill the baby. It was an abortion. The baby was a healthy human being. The baby was not given due consideration as a person. They were not treating the mother's cancer that resulted in the death of the baby. This perspective, though a difficult one, is why the bishop stood his ground.
Another nitpick I had in the book was with this statement: "Magisterial teaching refers to doctrinal pronouncements from the pope on matters of faith and morals." (p 5) That statement is not quite accurate and may give the impression that only the pope ever formulates dogma. From the catechism:
CCC#100 The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.
CCC#892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent" which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.
The Pope, though he has a special role, is not on an island. There is a real unity there that includes not only the Pope but the other apostolic successors. Though that was just a small snippet of Brown's book, I know, as one who delves in the world of Catholic apologetics, someone might find themselves confused by, or an anti-Catholic might consider it opportune to utilize Brown's sentence as it is worded.
Brown has a significant amount on President Barack Obama and those who influence the Church. Obama is certainly well-known as perhaps the greatest opponent to Catholic teaching in the history of the United States executive office. The current HHS mandate is a violation of the very rights of religious persons in the U.S. I thought that section tended to carry on lengthily as Brown gave detail after detail of Obama's political appointments, health care, and other actions.
Although many of the politically-intertwined scandals in the Church involve Democrat politicians, Brown does not limit her criticism only to one party. For instance, she praises Bishop John Smith of New Jersey for writing a critical letter to a school for inviting Republican and pro-choice politician Christine Todd Whitman to speak. (p 84) The problem is not one limited to political lines. And as some good writers have pointed out, the Church is neither Republican or Democrat. The Church advances the truth of Christ.
Along with the likes of Bishop Smith, Brown is sure to include a number of uplifting stories throughout the book of brave bishops who have stood up to politicians or other Church dissenters, upholding the teaching of the Church despite the criticism they knew they would receive. So even though the main purpose of the book is to show what is the problem, Brown includes a balance of positive stories for the faithful, offering hope that our bishops often do what they are, as shepherds, called to do.
And even after the writing of this book, perhaps there are more signs of faithful shepherds in the U.S. At one point, Brown writes: "What is it about birth control that scares bishops into silence." And yet in February 2012, after the publication of The Broken Path, 100% of all 181 diocesan U.S. Catholic bishops publicly condemned the HHS mandate, which demanded even religious bodies fund birth control. Perhaps voices like Brown's have helped remind the U.S. Bishops to all stand for the teaching of the Church as many of their peers have done in the past. Her last chapter is called: "Holy Priests are the Cure" which includes sections on several heroic bishops.