Above: Ordinary public consistory (Sept. 30, 2023). Vatican Media.
The fissure in the ratio of widowed, divorced, and married women 1900 to 2018. Source.
Between 1900 and 2018 the percentage of currently divorced women rose from less than 1% to 21% in 2018. Graphed, the wedge of hapless women is like a fissure or wound widening in time. If you google “how to save your marriage”, dozens of self-help sites pop up. Actually, there are 423 million search results, according to Google. Having written recently on ecclesial obedience compared to the spousal relationship, I started to wonder: why do so few ecclesiastical superiors take the common-sense approaches to their flocks that sites like “marriage.com” specialize in proclaiming? The widening fissure of Catholic faithful who feel abandoned by the Church is reminiscent of the graphed wound of divorce.
Sometimes things that go without being said need to be said over and over. Consequently, I thought a brief look at some of the points in two versions of “20 Tips to Save your Marriage” might be helpful in the ecclesiastical context. I’ve sourced these from choosingtherapy.com and marriage.com. As completely mainstream secular sites, their points are obvious and very simply put—not always a bad thing.
Listen to your spouse. It’s surprising how little listening there is on the part of bishops. Not to cast all the blame on them, but the consistent feeling of many faithful is that they are not listened to, perhaps not even acknowledged as existing. Regardless of whether you agree with their content or not, the dozens of letters of “filial protest” which go unanswered, along with unacknowledged “brotherly corrections” and Dubia issued by Bishops and Cardinals, seem to belie the “listening” of the newly synodal Church. This seems like a case of selective deafness if there ever was one.
Stop Making Assumptions. “When we assume,” writes Ana De la Cruz, “we take away our partner’s power and words, which can lead to a lack of trust.” The assumption that all traditionalists are rigid flat-earthers often seems to be a premise in episcopal interactions. In the climate of accompaniment that is our current ecclesial Febreze scent, one would think that hierarchs would know that “It’s important to understand that assumptions can leave people feeling misunderstood.” Or maybe that is true of everyone except white, western, orthodox faithful who don’t deserve to be understood. As Ana writes, “Rather than assuming, take the time to ask the questions even if you think they are silly to ask.” Perhaps these could include, “Why do you think the indissolubility of marriage is important?,” or “Why are you attached to praying the way Catholics have always prayed?”
Use Kindness When Discussing a Conflict of Interest. This one’s pretty basic, but I feel like offenses against the last two points make it difficult for everyone involved to remember. Again, it should go without saying, but bishops shouldn’t demean their flocks by ridiculing their desires. Nor should Popes view spiritual bouquets of rosaries as a “concerning” thing!
Work on Communicating Better. If a layman or bishop accuses the other of hyperbole on social media, why not resolve to communicate more effectively in the future? Instead of making assumptions, not listening, and using harsh words, take the Febreze of “dialogue” to the concrete, pots-and-pans scrubbing level of starting and stopping a conversation as each one’s blood pressure boils over, and then ebbs back down in an attempt to reasonably communicate. One aspect of better communication, however, rests on the conception of obedience: if absolute and anti-rational obedience is viewed as the modus operandi, neither party will be able to constructively move forward.
Remember what brought you together. At the end of the day, aren’t bishops and laity alike here to be Catholics, here to worship and receive mercy from their Creator? The problem is, not all of us act like it. Bishops included. But if there is a genuine desire to serve the Lord, then prayer about what is asked of us as sons of the Church—regardless of our status in its hierarchy—along with study of its tradition should bring clarity to what is asked of us. If “being Catholic” is fundamentally what brings laity and bishops together, then asking oneself if one still wants to be Catholic seems helpful for both parties. If the answer is no, let each go his way; if yes, well then why don’t we try to be Catholic? For example, if the indissolubility of marriage, or belief in the “real presence,” or impossibility of female ordinations, have always been part of “being Catholic,” then let’s remember that these are some of the things that originally brought us into the same fold.
One of the problems is that most if not all bishops don’t feel free to treat their flocks right, because that would involve doing things that are against current policy in Rome. However, Bishops are ordained for the service of their own flocks, not for the service of the pope. Yes, they should maintain communion with the pope, but not at the expense of basic goods like piety, doctrine, and morals. To remain “in unity” with the pope when that means alienating their own most faithful people begins to sound like nonsense. After all, they are not dissenters but adherents to the same Faith as their forefathers. If this is suddenly wrong, why should any ecclesiastical authority be obeyed?
One remedy might be for enterprising laity to see if they can invite their bishop over for dinner sometime. This opens the door to a more personal interaction, and rapport and positive ethos can be developed through conversations on non-controversial topics. The faithful can also show the bishop he is appreciated even if they have requests or criticisms. Instead of being treated merely like a branch manager or figurehead, the bishop will be treated as a person—opening the door to the possibility of his treating his hosts with similar kindness.
While what I’ve said may seem simplistic (and it is), it is important to remember that like marriage, ecclesiology is not “rocket science.” Wounds are often stopped by sewing the fissured flesh back together–itself a painful process. Effective communication is so often the stitching thread of relationships: it will hold it together, heal it, but oh is it painful and counterintuitive at times. If we want our ecclesiastical relationships and families to hold together, perhaps a little “marriage counseling” for bishops might not be a bad idea.
A musician, visual artist, and writer, Julian Kwasniewski is Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Wyoming Catholic College. His writings have appeared in numerous venues, including The National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Salvo Magazine, Latin Mass Magazine, and The European Conservative. You can find some of his artistic work on Etsy and YouTube.