Volume > Issue > Some Questions for the American Bishops

Some Questions for the American Bishops


By William H. Soisson III | November 2002
William H. Soisson III is a retired attorney in Naples, Florida, and is working on a volume of wit to be called The Curmudgeon's Dictionary.

Your Excellencies:

Many of your people are concerned about where our beloved Church is, and where it is going. That is why we’d like to ask you, our spiritual custodians, several questions. I travel a good bit and meet a lot of concerned Catholics. Their questions are relevant. I’ll put them into categories.


This is a question that badly needs to be addressed. When you look at a new church building in your diocese, are you sometimes reminded of Querry, the Graham Greene character who spent his career bilking American bishops with irrelevant buildings? Don’t amphitheaters have an effect opposite that of a real church? That is to say, shouldn’t a church building help us lift our minds and hearts to God? Or should a church be a community center, a fun place, where actors play out fantasies on a stage below us? If so, what does this do to our sense of the eternal reality of the Mass?

Where are the kneelers that used to help us relate so well to God? What is the message when the kneelers are missing? Why is the sanctuary crucifix so small now? Where is the Communion rail? Where is the sanctuary? Where is our awe? Where are the statues that helped us to focus? Doesn’t their absence create an impression that our Faith is impersonal and vaporous?

And where, oh where, is the tabernacle? (Oh. Of course. It’s off in that dark corner, way over there. Are we ashamed of it?)

Why are the stations of the cross so small and grotesque? Is that a set of trap drums over there, in a section of where the sanctuary used to be? Could your new church buildings be identified as Catholic if there were no large sign outside?

And finally: Do you ever wonder if there might be a concerted effort to undermine the Faith through architecture?

The Priesthood

A more delicate subject is the sexual misconduct I’ve been reading about in your seminaries and rectories. Have you really paid out over $1 billion to settle cases brought by the victims of perverted priests? If so, has the situation gotten to this point partly because you have put your heads in the sand?

Is it true that seminaries under bishops who are firm, clear, and orthodox are flourishing, while those of more “contemporary” bishops are poorly attended and more likely to be infected with sexual disorders among faculty and students?

Do you encourage your priests to live in a spirit of poverty? What sorts of cars do they drive? What golf clubs do they belong to? What is their social life like?

How much attention do you pay to the quality of preaching in your parishes? How many of your priests tell irrelevant, and often irreverent, jokes to begin the homily, as if they were after-dinner speakers? Are your priests known, in fact, for their ability as comedians? How many of your priests merely read prepackaged homilies to their people instead of giving well-prepared homilies of their own, or at least absorbing the prepackaged prose and making it their own? Don’t they owe their parishioners more? Is preaching no longer one of the highest of the priestly faculties? Do you require periodic training sessions in preaching for your priests? Do you send observers to listen to the parish sermons and help the priest with a critique?

More importantly, how many of your priests ever mention sin from the pulpit? I mean not only specific wrongs such as abortion, adultery, and fornication, but sin in general, as a meaningful concept? In the collective mind of your dioceses is there, in fact, sin? If not, then we’d better do away with what’s left of the confessionals, hadn’t we? Come to think of it, why is there Baptism? Indeed, why did Jesus come?

What happened to the theology of the cross? Did you think it was not helpful, that situation ethics could replace it? Are you helping us to understand the meaning of suffering: that God doesn’t do things to us, He does things through us?


How much supervision do you exercise over the curriculum and actual teaching in your grade and high schools? Do you ensure that the primary duty of each person to form a sound conscience is constantly taught? Is forming a sound conscience part of the curriculum? Can a person who is religiously illiterate graduate from your schools?

Can a religiously illiterate person teach in your schools and colleges?

Do you do your duty as prescribed by the Holy Father, relative to colleges? Do you exercise your authority as to the theology faculty? Do you require that your colleges openly recognize your jurisdiction? Which means more in your schools, government grants or truth?

Marriage & Annulment

Colossians 3:12-21 is the second reading on the Feast of the Holy Family, but the second paragraph of this reading, [“Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them”], has been put in brackets (as I have done here), because you have made it optional. Now, certain readings, notably those telling the passion story, are quite long and parts of them are made optional for the sake of brevity. That makes sense. But length is not a problem with Colossians 3:12-21. So are we to understand that it is now optional for husbands to love their wives? And for wives to be subordinate to their husbands?

Is it true that the Catholic divorce rate is virtually the same as that of society at large, and that most divorced Catholics can receive annulments, inspiring the sardonic claim that annulment is just “Catholic divorce”? Perhaps the thinking behind this is the following quotation, which I have seen used by the head of a marriage tribunal: “It is harder to marry validly than it is to commit a mortal sin.” In other words, one must have absolutely full knowledge of what marriage is all about and full consent of the will at the moment of the wedding in order to marry validly. If this is true, then isn’t a valid sacramental marriage a rarity?

Wouldn’t the same reasoning apply to other sacraments? How many priests know all the implications of the priesthood on the day they are ordained? And if a priest’s sacrament is null, then isn’t his consecrating the Eucharist null? And if I am then receiving a mere bread wafer, I am receiving no eucharistic grace. And what if we apply the same reasoning to Baptism? If I didn’t know what the Faith was all about when I was baptized, am I deluding myself when I call myself a Catholic? And if that is the case, what will you do if those of us with voidable Baptisms demand our money back for all those hundreds or thousands of weeks of contributions to the collection?

To get to the core of it, what is the Catholic divorce rate in your diocese compared to the general divorce rate there? How are you helping couples to make their marriages work? Is the husband the head of the family or not? If so, why did you make parts of the reading from Colossians optional at the Mass (see above)? How did we get to the point where the overall Catholic divorce rate is equal to that of America at large? And isn’t that true of abortions too?

Speaking of abortions, how many of you march for life each January 22? How many of you speak out clearly and consistently about this wretched evil? Don’t you know how much it would mean to us marchers if you were there, if you spoke out consistently?

The Eucharist

Are you aware of the recent survey that indicated only about one-third of American Catholics believe that the Eucharist is what it is? What is the percentage in your diocese? If the percentage is not good, why not? Could it be because when we want to pray in a quiet church we walk between kneelerless pews down sloped aisles to a sanctuary that isn’t there, to a tabernacle that is hidden? Is it because of liturgical and other practices we could categorize as “irreverent” or at least “sub-reverent”? Things such as standing up to take the living Christ into our hearts? Things such as the lack of concern about being in a state of grace? Things such as the cafeteria-like distribution of Communion in the hand by lay ministers with plastered smiles numbering as many as a dozen instead of “as needed,” as the rules state? How many of those lay Eucharistic ministers are aware of the awesome nature of what they are doing?

And by the way, if a priest of yours drops a Host these days, what is he required to do about it? Is the Rite of Purification a thing of the past?

If you were Jesus, might you feel insulted at the way you are treated during the Mass these days?

The Psychology of Rites and Wrongs

Why are funerals now “celebrated” in white vestments? Don’t we have a right, even a need, to mourn? Why is the pre-Communion fast so short as to be a joke? Why is the need to be in a state of grace so de-emphasized now? Where has guilt gone, the healthy guilt that used to take us to the confessional, from which we emerged with that wonderful feeling of being back in God’s good graces? Is it good psychology to bypass guilt?

Was the psychology of mourning, of guilt, of forgiveness, of purification by fasting such a bad thing? Or was it actually very healthy?

And if it was healthy, why is it gone?

Moveable Feasts

Why have so many of you moved the “obligations” of some holy days — when they fall on a weekday — to the following Sunday, so that two obligations are made into one? Doesn’t this smack of legalistic shenanigans to pamper the people? And isn’t it curious that when we prepare our Sunday envelope for the collection, we find not one envelope but two, one for the holy day and one for that Sunday? Surely you’ll understand that if the obligations become one, the contributions should also become one. You’ll not mind if we only fill one envelope, will you?

Our Dress-Down Church

Have you ever spoken with a non-Catholic who was shocked to see how we Catholics dress for Sunday Mass? Has one ever said to you, “You people get totally dressed up for Saturday night dinner, then show up for your Sunday services in clothes that the Goodwill wouldn’t take”?

Didn’t priests formerly refuse Communion to women who were dressed inappropriately? Yet aren’t miniskirts, scoop-necked blouses, and t-shirts all increasingly common at Communion today?

Do any of your priests even talk to the congregation about it?

A Few More Questions

Have you ever seen one of your lay ministers taking the Eucharist to the sick, carrying the Sacred Species in a pyx with the attitude of someone who is about to start bouncing it up and down like a basketball? Are they, in their training, told the story of dear little Tarcisius, who died rather than let some rowdy boys be irreverent toward the Sacred Host?

Why do so many of your nuns, brothers, and priests walk around in clothing indistinguishable from that of the general public? Is it because they themselves are increasingly indistinguishable? And if so, why? Didn’t they get more respect when they stood apart? Can it be that the shrinking number of vocations is a result of the lack of distinction that now prevails?

We’d really like to hear your answers to these questions. We think a lot of things have been cheapened, that perhaps the Pearl of Great Price has become — or is treated like — costume jewelry. Would you sell everything you own for costume jewelry? Fr. Hanley, my Dominican mentor at Notre Dame, used to lament the Catholic “ghetto mentality,” a leftover immigration attitude that, he said, made us want to be like everyone else. You seem reluctant to ask us to be different. But are we the salt of the earth, or have we lost our savor?


©2002 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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