A Prophetic Leader: How Bishop Hubbard Offers Hope in the Church Today

In his monthly column in the Diocese of Albany newspaper, The Evangelist, Bishop Howard Hubbard recently wrote a piece titled, “Failings of the Church.” It is an honest and direct response to the feedback he has received in light of the “amazing God” program his diocese has launched in an effort to stoke a spirit of evangelization and spiritual renewal in the Diocese of Albany. For several months he has been writing about various challenges his sees in society and our culture that threaten faith and relationship to God. These themes include, the “loss of a sense of sin, individualism, rampant consumerism, narcissism, secularism, scientism and atheism.” Yet, he received some correspondence from the faithful in his diocese challenging his outlook. Bishop Hubbard explains:

I have sought to highlight the cultural and social landscape in which we find ourselves.I believe that, if our efforts at evangelization are to be successful, we must constructively address the religious and spiritual dimensions of people’s lives. In order to do this, we must be knowledgeable about those societal influences which help shape and form attitudes, perspectives and values.In response to these articles, I received some feedback, noting that I neglected to acknowledge ways in which the Church itself has contributed to the alienation of many of its members and to its lack of appeal, especially to younger people.

He then goes on to name and discuss seven areas in which the Church has failed the people of God and the world. These seven areas include:

  • Clergy Sexual Abuse
  • Parish Closures
  • Anemic Parish Life
  • Pastoral Insensitivity
  • Poor Preaching/Liturgies
  • Deficiency in Technology
  • Feeling Unaccepted/Exploited

Although the length and scope of his monthly column prohibits an exhaustive treatment of any one, let alone seven, of these themes, that an American Bishop in today’s ecclesiastical and political climate would be so bold as to speak with the prophetic voice of the Spirit to name such controversial subjects in an honest and direct way is surely a sign of hope in the Church.

While so many bishops across the country (and world) speak publicly only to defend one’s actions — misguided or otherwise, or condemn a person, group or idea, Bishop Hubbard has spoken publicly to recognize the ways in which the Church has been complicit and the alienation of so many people.

It’s easy to blame external sources, to discuss “secularism” — that vague specter of problematic culture — and other things as the reason for decreased participation in the life of the Church, it is not easy to admit that the Church itself has at times, and continues in ways, to perpetuate this very same alienation, discrimination and even instances of injustice.

highly recommend that you read Bishop Hubbard’s entire column, but I would like to briefly talk about my take on a few of the themes he raises. The matters of clergy sexual abuse and parish closures are, rather unfortunately, obvious examples of the Church’s failings, so I wish to discuss a few of the other less-obvious, but still important subjects.

Anemic Parish Life

Bishop Hubbard highlights some of the ways in which he sees authentic parish life unfolding in our world. Perhaps these are not always realized everywhere, but they are legitimate parochial goals.

Parishes are meant to be places where people feel a sense of belonging and spiritual kinship; where theology comes alive; where the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection are regularly celebrated; where sacramental moments multiply as mysteriously as the bread and the fishes; where people are being nourished into an earthly image of the Body of Christ.

He goes on to share the stories of two Catholics who were treated unfairly or simply ignored by the community. The Church is not just the priest, bishop or other “officials,” but is the whole Body of Christ. Everybody must work together to support one another in living out our collective Baptismal vocations.

Pastoral Insensitivity

“A number of readers mentioned that they or family members have left the Church because of the manner in which they were treated by a priest, deacon or lay representative of the parish,” Bishop Hubbard writes. How sad and true is this unfortunate reality of our ecclesial experience. As one of my classmates recently shared in a seminar discussion about the identity of Catholic priests: “who do these people think they are?”

If people leave because they were treated poorly, ignored or discriminated against, then something is terribly wrong. Way, way, way too often people get the impression (from certain behaviors and statements by a very vocal minority) that the Church is all about keeping people out, welcoming only the “morally pure” and insisting that everybody is “following the rules.” What’s humorous, among other things, about this outlook is that Jesus technically broke all the rules! He welcomed the sinners, the marginalized, the despised, as well as so many others.

Toward the end of his column, Bishop Hubbard cites the Jesuit scholar William Byron, SJ, and lists several examples of reasons disenfranchised Catholics have said they left the Church. They include:

  • failure to implement the reforms of the 1960s’ Second Vatican Council, particularly in the areas of collegiality and lay participation;
  • dissatisfaction with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and its subsequent moral, social, ecumenical and interfaith teachings;
  • too little connection between the Scriptures and the Eucharist and their relevance to the issues of poverty and to environmental, immigration and criminal justice reform;
  • not enough emphasis on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary and other traditional devotions;
  • bishops interfering in elections by politicizing the Euchar-ist: for example, refusing communion to elected officials who vote for abortion funding or same-sex marriage;
  • public relations disasters like the Vatican document linking women’s aspirations to the priesthood with sexual abuse, citing both as guilty of a “grave delict;”
  • faith formation programs which are either too superficial or too academic, but not transformative of the heart;
  • forthcoming liturgical translations which seem too esoteric, non-inclusive, and do not sing; and
  • institutions, systems and rules which have little or no relation to what people read in the Gospel or experience in their own lives.

Deficiency in Technology

I believe that this problem is fundamentally tied to another theme Bishop Hubbard discusses, namely “Poor Preaching/Liturgies.” At the core, both of these subjects center on the need to communicate the faith and reach the hearts and minds of today’s Christians (and the unbelievers who are seeking truth). The poor preaching and liturgies does not reach the population of the faithful that currently seeks participation in the regular life of the Church. Meanwhile, deficiency in technology broadens the horizon of those who are excluded, disregarded, ignored or otherwise unreached by the Church. The effects are staggering as the fora within which today’s young people search for meaning and understanding becomes increasingly unfamiliar territory for Church officials. The Digital Age is not indicative of a passing fad, but is the context for evangelization today (and the future!).

Conclusion

In conclusion, Bishop Hubbard offers some very insightful remarks:

These insights point out the diversity of people’s needs and expectations related to Church membership. Some people find the Church too traditional; others too progressive. Some want strong leadership; others feel they are being overly controlled and denied a voice.

Our Church is indeed a jumble of inconsistencies, shortcomings, flaws and complexities. Yet we share a commitment as followers of the Gospel and disciples of Jesus, and that is our strength.

In light of these responses, I am conscious of an address that Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, the former master general of the Dominicans, delivered to a group of priests.

He noted that “we must rejoice in the very existence of people with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married, divorced or single; whether they are straight or gay; whether their lives are in accord with the Church or not. The Church should be a community in which people discover God delights in them.”

Let us pray that a better understanding of the cultural climate in which we live and a better addressing of the above-mentioned and other pastoral issues will enable our Amazing God initiative to respond to the deep, spiritual hunger in our midst.

The hope that I see Bishop Hubbard offering the Church today isn’t one based in naïve or wishful thinking, but a genuine willingness to speak intelligently, honestly and openly about matters that should be first on our collective agenda. Too often what we hear is a bunch of nonsense and vapidity proclaimed about an amorphous “new evangelization” without much concrete articulation about what that means, to whom it is directed and the reasons for such a need in the first place. My hope is that other bishops will likewise respond to “Signs of our Time” in light of the Gospel (Gaudium et Spes), challenging the world and the Church to better live peaceably, justly and in communion with God and neighbor.

Photo: Albany Times-Union

10 Responses to “A Prophetic Leader: How Bishop Hubbard Offers Hope in the Church Today”

  1. Bishop Hubbard’s willingness to address “Failings of the Church” is heartening, but from my perspective it’s like a plantation owner wringing his hands over the treatment of slaves without ever addressing the issue of slavery. The very fact that the exclusion of women from ordained ministry doesn’t even make the list tells me that our patriarchal hierarchy remains in as much denial about the damage this causes the Church as the sexual abuse cover-ups. We can’t even talk about it. We can’t even name the sin. We punish those who dare to ask why, in the 21st century, the Catholic Church’s exclusively male ministers cling to medieval ideas about the defectiveness and uncleanliness of the female. Even if Catholics doing “exit interviews” might not think to name this issue specifically, the ramifications of excluding women from full participation in all Church ministry and decision-making has led, I believe, to much of the current turmoil. It is like a family in which the mother does half the work but has no voice, no vote, no presence. The father represents every aspect of “family” life and the mother has no face (and don’t insult the Blessed Mother by trotting her out as the supreme example of how much we respect women). It’s unbalanced, unfair, and ultimately un-Christian. We have the witness of our Protestant sisters and brothers to show that our sexual perspectives are skewered and the presence of women – as the wives of clergy and clergy herself – is healthy, human and Christ-like. The Bishops brief allusion to the issue – “public relations disasters like the Vatican document linking women’s aspirations to the priesthood with sexual abuse, citing both as guilty of a ‘grave delict'” – reduces it to a communication snafu. It is much more than a public relations disaster. It reveals a deeply flawed, misogynist perspective coming from the central office – a twisted attempt to fend off the perversion that has engulfed the Catholic Church by blaming women who aspire to full inclusion! It is the ultimate example of blaming the victim. The utter failure of the Church’s leadership to courageously embrace fully half of the Church’s members in any substantial and meaningful way – and I don’t mean nods to all the good Sisters who have served the Church for centuries, I mean a complete repudiation of barriers to female ordination – leaves a massive vacuum of moral authority. It is a tragedy in full view, no less stunning and critical as the Church’s inability to come to terms with issues raised by Protestant reformers almost 500 years ago. We now enjoy rich ecumenical dialogue and respect for our “separated brethren.” Will it take another 500 years to admit the harm done by disenfranchising fully half the members of our Church?

  2. Matthew M. Says:

    The challenges of the Church today are exactly because of the secular ideals that forced the Holy Mother Church to call the pastoral Vatican II Council to address those issues. I find it ironic that some of the issues are directly caused from the misinterpreted “spirit” of Vatican II.

    The weak homilies are also due to the incepted drivel of being “sensitive” to everyone and not telling the authentic truth. Jesus, the Son of God the Father, did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Pastors seem to be more concerned with “relating” and telling stories than to provide good catechisis and linking the Gospel to the challenges we the lay must face. Now, I am not advocating a return to the sterile, wrote, “hell-fire and brimstone” sermons as seen the “Pollyanna”. But, it would be nice to hear on occasion.

    It is also very disheartening that there are some who would insult the devotion and veneration of the Blessed Mother by suggesting She is just “trotted-out”. While She is consider the perfect Mother and scripture places her above all other women for all generations, it was her Fiat, that makes her such the example — not just for women, but for men. And, before anyone starts on the husband bashing, we men are called to sacrifice ourselves like Christ did to the Church.

    I will concede that the public relations equating sexual abuse crisis with idea of women ordination was wrong and disasterous. Definitely not thought out, but to their defense, the focus was perhaps on the lack of obedience, and not just the egregious sin of the former.

    Lastly, while some may consider it misogynistic, I would suggest that it hubris to the point of Original Sin, that all in the name of “equality”, some women feel the need to become ordained Roman Catholic priests. Men and women were created equal, but not the same. We were created different, but complimenary. All one need do is look to basic procreative nature. Man and woman cannot procreate without each other, and our roles are clearly defined at that level. (Now, that does not mean that men cannot be nurturing and women be providers). Perhaps, all the gender bashing has less to do with equality, and more to do with ego (self-image/esteem/worth) and trust issues (but let’s save that for another day).

  3. Matthew says some women “feel the need” to become ordained Roman Catholic priests. This is a typical and casual dismissal of a woman expressing a genuine vocation. Women feel called by the Lord to serve. Their obedience is first to Jesus Christ. They are not the first and will not be the last women to be thwarted by men “ruling” the Church, many of whom frequently place power and control ahead of love and compassion, and there is ample evidence of this. Obedience? I used the slave analogy for a reason. Even when the Church accepted slavery (and even justified it based on Scripture) there were men and women of conscience within the Church who rejected it and fought against it. It was objectively an inhumane, evil practice long before a Pope issued a statement against it in the 19th century. I think the same will be true of sexism and the exclusion of women from ordained ministry. The hubris of which you speak does not lie with those who yearn to serve Jesus as fully as our Church provides, but with those who with threats and denunciations – who use fear – to prevent even a discussion of the issue. Jesus said “be not afraid” and that’s why there will always be those within the Church who will press forward with responding to the call to serve. The Holy Spirit calls, not the hierarchy. There are instances of this kind of hubris throughout the history of the Church, because men cling to power. There is no vocation shortage. There is shortage of white celibate males willing to maintain a structure that grows increasingly corrupt. The pedophilia, and years of elaborate cover-ups and denials from the very “top” Church leadership, is one profound symptom of the sickness. I value Bishop Hubbard’s expression of deep sorrow concerning the abuse, and all the other issues he names, but I am reminded of another bishop’s famous quote, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.” The Church can and should make amends for the abuse and other instances in which its members have been alienated, but it must go deeper and have the courage to ask why this is happening. What I see is circling the wagons and scapegoating. Such behavior is reprehensible and unworthy of Church leaders.

  4. I would add that Matthew might reflect more deeply on the important point he raises that “Jesus, the Son of God the Father, did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” The law included many practices stemming from the cultural idea that women were unclean. The teachings of Jesus transcended Jewish law and he was often accused of breaking the rules, by curing the sick on the Sabbath, for example. Many of our “church laws” stem from cultural perspectives that change – like the acceptance of slavery and acquiescence to rigid sexual roles that have evolved. Matthew rightly observes, “Now, that does not mean that men cannot be nurturing and women be providers.” His comment that “Men and women were created equal, but not the same. We were created different, but complimentary” skirts the question of why women are able to serve in the highest leadership positions in government and in most Christian denominations, but not in the Catholic Church. If equal, why not? If complimentary, why are women completely absent from any ordained ministry – how is that complimentary?

  5. Matthew M. Says:

    “Matthew says some women “feel the need” to become ordained Roman Catholic priests. This is a typical and casual dismissal of a woman expressing a genuine vocation. Women feel called by the Lord to serve. Their obedience is first to Jesus Christ.”

    I would agree whole heartedly, but did not Martha and Mary serve the Lord. Did not the Blessed Mother endure the sword that pierced Her heart? Did not even Her Son obey Her at the Wedding of Canaan? Did He not appear first to Mary Magdalene after His Resurrection? Is it not by modern perception or mere “anthropological” theory that they were treated as “slaves”? Not quite seeing the argument here.

    It is quite evident that by using the “slavery” example, and the focusing on the “ruling”, the argument cited in regards to woman ordination is clearly not solely about “equality” but is about the most base “power” struggle. And, personally to even compare the atrocities of slavery to that of the perceived “sexism”, when there are REAL issues facing women rights around the globe, is offensive: Not-to-mention the abortion and birth-control in the U.S., which IMHO does not free women, but enslaves women as well.

    And, if the one does truly believe that the Holy Spirit calls, then for whatever reason, the Holy Spirit has not called any of the Holy Fathers, nor the learned clergy or College of Cardinals to the cause of women to become Roman Catholic priests. Even Blessed John Paul II ultimately was not moved to further the cause. Furthermore, I do believe it extremely self-serving and hypocritical to wholly dismiss the Church hierarchy’s knowledge and experience, based solely on their gender as well.

    It is also rather a dire situation that some feel that instead of building up the men who have also been called to be Persona Christi; they take every opportunity to attack the Church. Perhaps, if one were to pray more for the priests and religious, then it might be possible that our priests would not fall prey to Satan and fall. (I am in no way dismissing or diminishing the severe gravity of the abuse issues. I also believe, as did the recent study released, that the issues which led to these egregious sins, was a failing on the vetting process for the priesthood, and not caused from the vow of celibacy or chastity).

    Thank you for the suggestion to reflect more on “I did not come to abolish the law, but fulfill it.” While so many protestants see this as the basis to break away from the Holy Mother Church, because of the “rituals and rules”; this is exactly the argument to be used to support the Holy Mother Church. I fully believe that God the Father’s most profound desire is for us to have a relationship with Him, it is through our obedience that we are set free from the bonds. The Holy Mother Church is just one of those ways. Therefore as the bride submits herself to her husband, so too does the Church submit to Jesus. But, moreover, husbands shall love their wives, as Christ loved the Church. Now, if one believes in that Christ laid-down His life for His friends, then us men as husbands must do the same from our wives. And, our wives should support, help and actually allow us to fulfill our call to holiness and vocation. Instead we have continuing gender competition, mostly from the other side. Even the most rudimentary knowledge of Scripture accepts the Church as the Bride and Christ the Groom. Now, when is the bride ever not feminine? When is the Groom ever not masculine? (And, this discussion does not and will not address the modern concept of marriage).

    There are so many nuances and not enough time nor space to express in a blog comment. In the end, we either accept the Bible and especially the Gospel as inspired fully by Holy Spirit and therefore the Word of God, or we do not. We either accept the Credo or we do not. We either trust fully in the Divine Plan or we do not. As for me, I do believe in all (although I struggle many times with the later!) And of course, none of us will know that authentic truth until the day we meet Our Father in heaven, and I am still certain that I will be spending some time first in Purgatory, so please pray for me. But I have faith, that someday, I will make it, and I am ever grateful for the merciful sacrifice He made for me.

    • Ah, there is always enough time and space for the truth, Matthew. But since you’re coming from the triumphalist point of view and I believe in a servant Church, it’s rather pointless. The very examples you mention of Martha and Mary, and the Blessed Mother, not to mention all the women saints of the Church, begs the question of why women have been excluded from leadership roles. And you’re correct, it’s a matter of anthropology, not theology. You make the argument for me perfectly.

      This is not, as you say, an attack on all the men who serve the Church. I love and respect all who serve Holy Mother Church. But I cannot equate every decision of the hierarchy with the Holy Spirit and the will of God, as you seem to do, and clearly history shows that they are not always doing the work of God, or Blessed Pope John Paul II would not have had to apologize for some of our corporate sins, like the persecution of Jews, the Inquisition and the Crusades. We may hold that the Church is a divinely guided institution without pretending that the humans who run it are without sin and unable to make mistakes and to evolve. Otherwise we would not have silenced Galileo or taken other ill-advised actions, bound as we have been by history and the times we live in. But the Church we see today has indeed developed and remarkably so over 2000 years. In some places it is still the persecuted Church of the martyrs, but in most places it is clearly no longer underground and suffering. We have grappled with many issues including racism and anti-Semitic expressions right in the heart of our Liturgy. We started out with Aramaic, moved to Greek, moved to Latin, and now we celebrate Mass in the vernacular of our given country. The Church does change and will continue to open her heart and obey the will of God which I equate neither with the hierarchy or my own views. But together we will find a way to hear and obey.

  6. By the way, if the “power issue” is as base as you claim, then surely humility would impel the powerful to be as little children rather than scribes and pharisees lording it over us. But you see it’s not that simple. There is much truth in Lord Acton’s expression that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is precisely because I love the Church and its leaders that I hope and pray they will repent of the entrenched sexism and stop using theology to explain anthropology. The deepest meaning of acting “in persona Christi” should certainly go beyond having a penis.

    • Matthew M. Says:

      Then when a woman can produce a child without the use of a penis (in anyway, include IVF), then perhaps I might concede.

      It is exactly why, in persona Christi, the priesthood is a man. God the Father did NOT send His daughter, but His Son. He did not send an androgonous or hermaphrodite either. He sent His Son, the perfect Man (who obviously possesses the perfect amount of rudimentary, and complimentary masculine and feminine: e.g. protector/provider and nuture/caretaker, etc.).

      Now, for the sake of argument, I will concede that perhaps, there does need to be more woman supporting the decision-making process, but to take position to ordain woman, citing anthropological “oppression” or even just because the protestants are doing it, is IMHO is unfounded.

      Furthermore, IMHO the “evolution” of the Church has also seen more problems since V2 than it has seen in the previous millenia. Now, understandably putting the mass in the vernacular, may have been a seen as a plus by some, the other liturgical abuses and the absolute lowering of the mass is inexcusable. Just one point from V2 called for the priests to be more “pastoral” and not so rigid, but in-turn, what happened was a “love-fest” that could have taken the place of Woodstock, and singing kum-ba-yah!

      Lastly, if there has been one thing that I have learned on my own spiritual journey is to not pray for myself (although one can perhaps never be totally altruistic). I say this, in reference to “I hope and pray they will repent of the entrenched sexism and stop using theology to explain anthropology”. Instead, I pray that Holy Spirit guide and protect our priests and religious, their well-being, so they may serve God’s people, according to the Father’s Will.

      • Matthew M. Says:

        My comment RE: the penis snipe was in context of Theology of the Body; and the symbolism represented by Christ being the new Adam and Mary the new Eve.

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