A tale of two bishops and two different generations. One in love with interfaith dinners and endless dialoging. The other simply preaching the truth, regardless of his audience. Bold, authentic, refreshing and Catholic.
After 37 years of Bishop Howard Hubbard leading the Diocese of Albany, it appears that some within the interfaith community may miss him already. Earlier this year Pope Francis appointed Monsignor Edward Scharfenberger to replace Bishop Hubbard who had reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. For nearly four decades Bishop Hubbard was considered to be one of the most liberal prelates in the United States. The statistical collapse of the faith in Albany speaks to his tenure. In the last fifty years the diocese has experienced a 40% decline in parishes, a 75% decline in priests and a 91% drop in student enrollment at Catholic schools.
It appears, however, that Bishop Hubbard was always a hit at interfaith events, such as the annual Capital Region Theological Center Fall fundraising dinner. This is not the case apparently with his successor. As reported by Rev. Sam Trumbore of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany in the Times Union on October 6:
Bishop Scharfenberger’s after dinner speech…seriously missed his audience and likely ruffled a few feathers in the interfaith, largely Protestant audience of about 230 community leaders.
What exactly did the recently installed Catholic bishop of Albany say in his speech that supposedly missed the ecumenical mark? Rev. Trumbore continues:
In the interfaith world, we often focus our energies on where we agree rather than splitting the theological hairs where we disagree. As a Unitarian Universalist that focuses on shared values rather than shared beliefs, I’m used to hearing theological references to which I disagree when I attend interfaith events. What is more common though is to hear much more about how we are the same than how we are different.
So it surprised me with the new Bishop stood up after dinner and launched into a finely crafted Catholic sermon about the nature of freedom in Catholic theology…
I’m not going to be able to pull apart all the subtleties of his speech for us but he took us to the Garden of Eden to reiterate the Original Sinfulness of humanity and our rebellion against God. The evil in the world is our fault because we do not use our freedom wisely. We pursue power for our separate selves rather than the good and the love of God. Humanity falls into sin by choosing the freedom to get over the freedom to give. Real freedom isn’t the absence of constraints but to choose the constraints that God gives us. Most surprisingly given the liberal theological climate in Albany, he spoke about what was missing today was fear of Hell. That fear is necessary to drive us to make that free choice to love God. We are free to choose heaven or hell for ourselves. Those who choose wrongly are choosing slavery to sin.
Bravo Bishop Scharfenberger! Presented with an opportunity to share the fullness of the truth with a room predominantly made up of non-Catholics, the bishop shared his Catholic faith with them. How truly refreshing to see Bishop Scharfenberger not check his Catholicism at the door, but instead elect to share it with others. This, ofcourse, is not what the folks in Albany were used to during the era of Bishop Hubbard. More from our Unitarian Universalist friend Rev. Trumbore:
While I’d enjoy sitting down with the Bishop and having a deep theological discussion about these topics, this is not the normal fare for after dinner speeches…(this) is not the kind of address we would have heard from the superb, interfaith appreciating former Bishop Hubbard, who was in the audience.
I’m sad that Bishop Scharfenberger didn’t take this opportunity to build bridges with the Capital Region’s interfaith community. There is so much he could have said and appreciated about the ecumenical spirit here in Albany…
Thankfully, Bishop Scharfenberger has an expert nearby in former Bishop Hubbard if he needs any guidance.
To the contrary, I hope and pray that Bishop Edward Scharfenberger boldly continues to share the truth and beauty of Catholicism regardless of his audience. How encouraging it is to see an authentic evangelization which actually seeks to share the good news with all, regardless of venue or political correctness. After forty years of decline, the good folks of Albany deserve no less.
Update: The text of Bishop Scharfenberger’s speech has been posted at The Evangelist, the official publication of the Diocese of Albany.
Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.