Considering Catholic Ecclesiology in Some of Its Professedly Progressive Forms

“Catholics today will need heroic virtue — did you hear me? heroic virtue — just to hold on to the Faith, much less to grow more in the Faith and to pass it on intact to our children.” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Dogmatic Theologian — words spoken solemnly and earnestly more than ten times over the years 1980-2000; and spoken in person to his intermittent assistant and penitent, R.D. Hickson.)


“Love is the willingness to suffer with the beloved, for the beloved, and — most painfully — from the beloved. Those three words — especially those three prepositions — didn’t come out of nowhere; they came out of many years in the Confessional. Suffering is the consciousness of pain; and sacrifice — Christian sacrifice — is the consecration of suffering. What we have is Nature; what we need is Grace. Holiness can be summed up in one word — ‘more‘: to suffer more, to give more, to forgive more, to love more. When we actively preserve that comparative adverb (‘more’), we can never become complacent. Notice the comparative adverb in the Jesuit Motto: ‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam‘ — ‘Unto the greater glory of God.’” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to R.D. Hickson in personal conversation.)


Considering Catholic Ecclesiology in Some of Its Professedly Progressive Forms:

The Place of National Bishops’ Conferences and New Consultative Synods

16 May 2015
Our Lady Queen of Apostles
Saint Simon Stock (d. 1265)
Saint John Nepomucene (d. 1393)

Some incisively lucid (and characteristically modest) insights first expressed to me some fifty years ago by Donald Koterwas — one of my very gifted West Point classmates in the graduating Class of 1964 — have stayed with me over these many years since the late 1960s. These words spoken in a military context, and during the time of our Vietnam War, have often prompted me to apply them as “searchlight insights” to other situations and to other institutions, to include the modernizing Catholic Church. (Hilaire Belloc himself gratefully spoke of the “searchlight insights” Cardinal Manning gave to him as a young man, although at first and for some years he did not understand their fuller meaning and fruitful applicability. One of those keen insights was: “All human conflict is ultimately theological.”)

For, I have come to detect, at least since late 1962, several perceptible and now cumulative instances of an “evasive diffusion of personal responsibility” and “a dilution of personal accountability” in individual senior leaders of the Catholic Church. These evasions and attenuations, often under the pretext or camouflage of “Collegiality,” are manifested especially in collective episcopal gatherings and especially amongst the somewhat novel, and even subtly subversive, Paramagisterium of National Bishops’ Conferences — and sometimes there are even Regional Bishops’ Conferences (as in Latin America, for example) — both kinds of which assemblies also have their own standing, growing, and even permanent Auxiliary Apparatus of Clericalist Bureaucrats.

We may here at the outset therefore raise a challenging “Disputed Question” (i.e., a “Quaestio Disputata” in Saint Thomas’ own lucid and disciplined sense): “Whether [“Utrum….”] collective Bishops’ Conferences now constitute part of the Church’s authentic and authoritative Magisterium (Teaching Authority); and, if so, to what extent and how so?”

Such seeming episcopal-magisterial, collegial attenuations of personal responsibility — and their occasionally attendant ideological truncations — as well as an obscured individual accountability — may also be observed in an even newer development in the Church now: namely, in the use and application of the advisory “Principle of Synodality”; and especially in the heightened emotional and iconic actuality of these various Consultative Synods — to include their sometimes dubiously managed, oligarchical methods in Rome (“Democratic Centralism”); and also in the Public Media’s own dramatized and misleading perceptions and tendentiously manipulated exaggerations of the events and the circumambient rumors. In such collegial-advisory gatherings and amidst their own “group dynamics,” the courage of an individual bishop is truly tested, as are his personal apostolic duties of forthright responsibility and his fully accepted public accountability, both at once at the Synod and then also in its sometimes ambiguous and turbulent aftermath. As occurred unmistakably after the Second Vatican Council.

(Father John Hardon, S.J. (d. 2000) often asked me, even in the early 1980s, to pray for “an increase of episcopal courage” and especially for those “episcopal martyrs to orthodoxy” such as Bishop Joseph Vincent Sullivan (d. 1982), the former bishop of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, “who died of a broken heart.” (These are Father Hardon’s own well-informed and exact words to me.))

However, in contradistinction to those graver ecclesiastical matters of diffusive responsibility and dodged accountability in the Catholic Church, Lt. Koterwas had earlier seen the comparable effects of such “collectivism” and collegial “group dynamics” in the U.S. Pentagon itself — and even with the Chairman of the JCS and with the individual Joint Chiefs of Staff themselves, on whose senior staff a very young Lt. Koterwas very observantly worked as a zealous military secretary in the mid-1960s. That is to say, near the end, and then shortly after the close, of the diffusive and somewhat ambiguous Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) — which was itself an unprecedented type of Council: i.e., a formally Pastoral (not a formally Dogmatic) Ecumenical Council convened by the Catholic Church.

Don Koterwas told me the following story. As a very young military officer soon after graduation from West Point, he was assigned to the staff of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and regularly appointed to attend their high-level meetings and discussions; and, when asked, he was also to take notes, which were then “stamped as classified” for security purposes, thereby upholding a strict policy of confidentiality and non-disclosure. This was a very responsible position for a young Second Lieutenant to have. Some months into his assignment, however, some new procedures were proposed by someone (we do not know by whom), so that a more open expression of opinions could be allowed; and so that, purportedly, larger, more inclusive, and consensual-collective decisions could somehow and “dynamically” be arrived at. Before these proposed innovations had been so suddenly proposed and then swiftly put into practice — imparting an atmosphere and the expectation of having more dialogue and counterpoint, and even contradiction — there had been a long-standing traditional method.

The traditional method was more disciplined and had simply first allowed robust and candid discussion amongst the members, after which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs himself — after weighing all the evidence and proffered arguments — would himself make the final decision, as the sole responsible commander. Such was itself an application of the Principle of War called the “Unity of Command.” The Rationale was to ensure that, for every sought-for objective, both unity of aim and unity of effort would be maintained under one, sole, responsible commander. This principle of authority and command is what both Koterwas and I were also emphatically and recurrently taught as young cadets at West Point during the years 1960-1964.

However, there was now to come more “group dynamics” — lest we form “authoritarian personalities” — and other related (and now to be applied) “psycho-techniques” and “sensitive” social-science methods of “decision-making” — all of which were purportedly to be more “democratic” (and more “socialized”) and, of course, less authoritarian — although, in the words of one mentor of mine, “some people then became so sensitive that they couldn’t make a decision!” Moreover, in attempting “to socialize the costs and thus to distribute the risks,” one was soon also collectively tempted to “socialize one’s personal responsibility” and thus “to make much more diffuse and impersonal, and even anonymous, one’s own final public accountability.”

(Analogously, just as financial systems of usury strive to remove or to cancel personal risk entirely — especially a bank’s own risk — so, too, some modern forms of “high-tech warfare” and “robotics and drones” want to avoid personal risk to the “user,” with the result that they thereby make warfare more impersonal, anonymous, and unaccountable. Some have even compactly said that “we fight wars the way we make our money.” If we make money with the System of Usury, we may well try to fight our wars in analogous ways. Think of the Remote Manipulators of Drones, for example.)

But, to return to the JCS. What were some of the unmistakable results that Lt. Don Koterwas himself unexpectedly came to see in the often momentous but diffuse discussions of the Chiefs of Staff with the Chairman? For, these discussions were occurring, it must be remembered, during the difficult, protracted, and often precarious Vietnam War.

In the free-flowing discussions and “open dialogues” of the Chiefs, there was never any tape-recording, nor was there, at first, any written recording, so as to know reliably “who said what, and when, and why.” But when, amidst some uncertainties, written Summaries of the Meetings then had to be drawn up — sometimes (even often) by Lt. Koterwas himself — some problems precariously arose, in that some of the Chiefs said: “I never said that” or “you got me wrong here” and the like. More importantly, some would say: “I never proposed that, nor did I finally vote for this.” So, the Chairman then required that all the Chiefs should carefully take their own written notes, and then sign them at the end of their meetings — after which all the notes would be collected and promptly “classified.” Don Koterwas would then often have to compose incisive summaries from those classified notes, and make his own careful citations from the specific notes, and then circulate them for approval. Very time-consuming it was, too. And tedious.

For example, if the Chairman were to pose one or more acute questions — as they were all leading up to a more consensual opinion and a collegial final decision — he then wanted them to specify their own specific view and logical reasoning in their notes, even in a “shorthand” if necessary. But the shorthand had to be intelligible to others and for a wider distribution and a further reading. If the Chairman had, instead, made his own reflective and responsible, final decision — after first hearing and weighing all of the contributory considerations of the other Chiefs of Staff — then the method and the outcome would have been much more disciplined and orderly and clearer and less ambiguous and less equivocal. Moreover, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would not only have been more disciplined in conducting the discourse, but also more conspicuously and personally responsible himself and, finally, more fully accountable himself. There would have been no diffusion or confusion of authority. (As the boxer Joe Louis used to say: “When somebody gets in the ring with me, he may run, but he can’t hide.”)

So, too, as it seems to me, much diffusion is especially evident in the case of ecclesiastical-political discourse — particularly at the now-even-more-unwieldy “National Bishops’ Conferences,” with their often laical or clericalist General Staffs. This applies, as well, to the newer and now-multiplying “Consultative Synods” occurring in the “Dialoguing” Church, both at Rome and also, perhaps even more “ecumenically,” elsewhere, even with the Jews. For, what is important is the personal responsibility of the individual Successors of the Apostles: the Bishops themselves — without a diffusive or evasive attenuation of their own Authority and courageous Catholic Witness.

To return now to the Long-Range Project of Theological Modernism:

From the sincerely reflective and candid wisdom of several of my own Catholic mentors down the years (1960-2000), I gradually came to consider and then to believe that the deeper, cumulative revolution desired and deftly promoted by the progressivist-Modernist elements within the Catholic Church was strategically aimed at a Revolution De Ecclesiaa revolution about the very nature of the Church; a revolution of thought and practice (not only Gramscian) about the very nature and boundaries of the Church, even as they might be eventually and authoritatively proposed (and even formally defined) by the Church herself (i.e., “Suo Magisterio”). For example, who was to be considered to be a Member of the Church? And could you still somehow be in the Church without being a Member of the Church, and for how long? And, if so, howso? By what authority? On what grounds?

Therefore, there was a good occasion recently to recall with gratitude one of my mentors, John Cardinal Carberry, and his unexpected and gracious words to me in person during our two lengthy conversations in the early 1980s (1983, 1984) on the southern seacoast of New Jersey, in Longport. Moreover, our first meeting occurred some ten months after the sudden death of Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan of Baton Rouge at 63 years of age. Although I did not expect to meet Cardinal Carberry in New Jersey, nor did I even then know that he had intimately known and admired the great Bishop Sullivan, I had first learned of both Cardinal Carberry and Bishop Sullivan from my confessor, Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Father Hardon was also Cardinal Carberry’s friend, consultor, and collaborator.

In that late summer of 1983, Cardinal Carberry was especially attentive to the Concept and Reality of Bishops’ Conferences. For, from early on, he had seen this collegial-collective innovation as part of a “New Ecclesiology.” Even at the Second Vatican Council, he had already seen the dangers of managed group dynamics within the National Conference and their psychological pressures for conformity and consensus and an “undivisive unity.” He thus also saw the grave risk of a gradual (sometimes rapid) attenuation of an individual bishop’s Personal Episcopal Responsibility as a successor of the Apostles. And such “collegiality” — even then (as is now explicitly so in the current German Bishops’ Conference) — did not always want to be “merely a subsidiary of Rome” and “thereby to lose its [putative] independence.”

For, Cardinal Carberry — with the help of Father Hardon — knew well already the kinds of heart-piercing pressures that were put upon Bishop Sullivan by the U.S. National Bishops’ Conference (the NCCB) and by their assigned and quite intimidating spokesmen. As to the application of “moral pressure,” they would tell Bishop Sullivan, for example, “your fellow bishops despise your postures and divisive conduct — especially your proclaimed independence.”

Moreover, as Father Hardon carefully and confidentially told me, after speaking with his own editor-friend in Baton Rouge — the editor of Bishop Sullivan’s own faithful diocesan paper whom he also knew well — it was Archbishop Philip Hannan himself of New Orleans who had been the last one of those pressuring and sternly reproachful NCCB representatives to call Bishop Sullivan. Archbishop Hannan’s own derisive and deeply intimidating call happened on that fateful afternoon (or early in the evening) of 3 September 1982, just before Bishop Sullivan was to die that same night — and we should also now know Father Hardon’s slow and solemn unforgettable words to me then: “Robert, Bishop Sullivan died of a broken heart. He was — he is — a martyr to orthodoxy.” It is understandable, therefore, that Cardinal Carberry promptly and gratefully accepted to be the main celebrant at the Funeral-Requiem Mass for Bishop Sullivan which was offered in Baton Rouge four days later, on the Feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, on 8 September 1982. Bishop Joseph Sullivan, like Cardinal Carberry himself, had a special love for the Blessed Mother and a deep devotion to her. Especially to Our Lady of Fatima.

We should know, furthermore, that, from his own earlier 1962-1965 experience as a Prelate at Vaticanum II, and especially in view of its maturing aftermath, Cardinal Carberry was more and more aware of the indispensability of a truly authoritative and focused Magisterium of the Church — as distinct from an indirect and diffusive, or subversive, “Paramagisterium” conducted at National Bishops’ Conferences. He was also concerned about the effectively continuous and networked operations of the attached largely Lay Bureaucracies — the “civic arm” of the NCCB — which purportedly supported the Bishops’ Conferences and which were, thus, throughout the entire year (and unlike the only intermittent Assemblies of Bishops) bureaucratically, even deviously, “in session” and “in operation”! (One might remember the notable operations of Father Bryan Hehir, for example, the USCC’s “Secretary of Social Development and World Peace” and frequent composer of Documents, even about War and Peace.)

The lay and partly clericalized United States Catholic Conference (the “USCC”), for example, was distinct from, and putatively subordinate to, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (“NCCB”), but often enough the bureaucratic Managers themselves often seemed to be of more influence, and even to be more “in charge” of the initiatives and the framing of the issues, than the Bishops themselves — except, perhaps, for the Bishops’ Progressive Oligarchy, or Nomenklatura.

After that summer of 1983, subsequent discussions with Cardinal Carberry and, separately, with Father John A. Hardon were about these same topics; and they were also trenchant and complementary, and the counterpoint was very illuminating of reality. For example, concerning “the corruptions of collegiality and ecumenism,” we spoke about how the dialectical triad — “Religious Liberty, Collegiality, and Ecumenism” — could itself be cunningly and subversively manipulated so as to be even more intractable and pernicious than the Enlightenment triad of the French Revolution’s Naturalistic Dialectic: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” “Solve et coagula” is one of the principles for effecting in practice a “demonic social solvent” (in the words of Louis Cardinal Billot, S.J.)

Now in the summer of 2015 — almost thirty-five years later — and after recently assisting my German wife with her requested translations into English of several revealing documents from the current German Bishops’ Conference and then also from the Swiss Bishops’ Conference — concerning Marriage and the Catholic Family and other closely related doctrinal-moral matters, to include homo-eroticism and the status of sodomitical unions and liaisons — I have again gratefully recalled the profound admonitory insights — indeed the articulately farsighted warning words — of Cardinal Carberry of Saint Louis, and the added earnest insights of the cautiously discrete Father Hardon.

Although I was never to see Cardinal Carberry in person again after 1984 (before he was to die in 1998), I did occasionally write him and telephone him after he first had had a stroke in 1988. Never will I forget his words and the warm way he had of expressing them: his eyes, his smile, his tone of voice. And his radiant humility and gracious courtesy. After he had retired as Archbishop of Saint Louis in 1979 — which was mandatory after he had turned seventy-five years of age (on 31 July) — he more or less yearly visited the seacoast of Southern New Jersey to see his sister. For, his own sister was a Religious Nun there, and they were both always very affectionate with each other and especially with the children. Father Hardon, whom I had first met in 1980 at Christendom College while I was on the Faculty there (until 1988), later often kept me informed about Cardinal Carberry, since Father Hardon was also himself then nearby in Virginia, and we often saw each other, not only during my collaborations with him on his book, The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan (1988-1989), and then on the drafts he was reading of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1990-1991).


As I now finish these personal reflections on 13 June 2015 — which is not only the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua (and of Lisbon), but also the anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima’s second appearance to the little children in Portugal in 1917 — I also recall what Cardinal Carberry so poignantly told me about his presence at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops during their preparatory discussions and final writing of their U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on “War and Peace” — which was finally promulgated on 3 May 1983, and entitled The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. (The Pastoral dealt primarily with nuclear weapons and with the morality of nuclear deterrence; but it essentially omitted any discussion of “where the real warfare then was,” even when empirically considered; to include the doctrinal and moral challenges of setting humane and just limits to the even-then-pervasive forms of irregular revolutionary warfare, such as urban guerrilla warfare and varieties of strategic deception and subversion — and even the Leninist-Soviet strategy of terror.)

At one point in that 1983 Bishops Conference, Cardinal Carberry stood up and proposed that their Pastoral Letter be especially Dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. But, at once, and throughout the plenary gathering, there came forth an audible hissing. Cardinal Carberry told me that he just stood there stunned. It was a shock. He did not know what to do. As he thus remained there standing a few moments in his incredulity, tears came into his eyes. Flowing tears. And then he quietly sat down. This humiliation happened less than one year after Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Baton Rouge, Louisiana had “died of a broken heart” and as a Catholic Witness: “a martyr to orthodoxy.”

May we now better remember and honor these men. These faithful and courageous Successors of the Apostles. May we pray for them, and even to them.

May we also honor the often quiet person and largely unseen (and unknown) work of Father John Hardon down the years — faithful to the end, despite even his great trial in the Jesuit Order, which began for him — he was more than once to tell me — in 1957. He was to die on 30 December 2000.

With this affirmation of priestly fidelity and courage in mind, I propose to end this recollective essay with a little-known story about Father Hardon’s work with Édouard Cardinal Gagnon (d. 2007) — who was then until 1990 still President of the Pontifical Council on the Family in Rome. Father Hardon continued his close work with Cardinal Gagnon even after he resigned from the Council of the Family in 1990, after 16 years in his Curial office there.

The collaborative project of which I now choose to disclose concerns certain books — especially books in the Benzinger Series — that were not fitting for the Little Children and would likely lure their modest thoughts, not just their kindled imagination, into impurity — also by violating the vulnerable “latency of (in) a child.” What was technically then called a child’s vulnerable “latency” meant getting too explicit about things that are too inciting of the young one’s vivid sensual imagination, as was already the case with the surrounding neo-paganized “Media of Social Communication” (cf. The Document Inter Mirifica of Vaticanum II). More implicitness and modesty and reverence were needed, both in the ways of writing and in the choices of illustration (“the unmediated visual factor”).

Therefore, Father Hardon wrote a well-researched and profound Monograph for Cardinal Gagnon, which, in its entirety, the Cardinal wholeheartedly endorsed. He was even touched by Father’s distinctive eloquence, and expressed great joy; for he saw how Father Hardon had striven convincingly to protect the higher purity of the Family and of the Little Ones of Christ — the Parvuli Christi.

Father Hardon then chose to take a Strategic Initiative with the Governing Board of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, explicitly at their meeting in New York in the early-mid 1990s. Father Hardon sought to receive their important endorsement of Cardinal Gagnon’s Monograph (anonymously composed by Father Hardon himself). Therefore, with the help of his fellow Jesuit and friend, Father Kenneth Baker, S.J. — then still Editor of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review at 86 Riverside Drive in New York City — Father Hardon helped to initiate and — by the agency of Father Baker himself — then to introduce formally the presentation of Cardinal Gagnon’s very timely and earnest Document, even so that it could be thereby forwarded to Rome. Thus, it was presented to the Chairman of the Board himself at their yearly Conference. That year, the Chairman of the Board of the collegial Fellowship of Catholic Scholars was the learned Historian, Dr. James Hitchcock.

A few days after the meeting, I eagerly asked Father Hardon in person — when he was back in Virginia near Georgetown — what the decision was and the larger outcome of the proposed initiative. Father Hardon was at first hesitant to say anything, but then he spoke — in his well-known solemn manner — of his grave disappointment. For, he learned of the outcome only after he had spoken to Father Kenneth Baker who was present himself at the Catholic Scholars Conference — for Father Hardon was intentionally not present in New York at the time. Father Hardon told me that Dr. James Hitchcock did not want to touch the matter, for it might bring them into conflict with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger — and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars wanted to remain on good terms with Cardinal Ratzinger, who was himself — I regret to say — entirely supportive of the Benzinger Series of Children’s Books and other similar purity-tainting publishers. Father Hardon said that Cardinal Ratzinger did not give much attentiveness to the matter of “latency” and “the vulnerable innocence of the children.”

Thus, in his own remarkable poltroonery and carnal prudence — i.e., “Prudentia Carnalis” — in the words of Pope Gregory I the Great from his Moralia in Job — Dr. Hitchcock himself explicitly blocked the initiative, along with his Scholarly Catholic Organization (of both priestly and lay scholars). Father Hardon said: “They did not want to get in between two Cardinals — Cardinal Gagnon and Cardinal Ratzinger — especially since Cardinal Gagnon was more or less retired [after 1990]; and, more importantly, because Cardinal Ratzinger is still a key figure and very influential with the Pope, even in the Pope’s Encyclicals.”

Ten years earlier — in the early 1980s — the plucky Monsignor George A. Kelly was invited to Christendom College to be the Graduation Speaker. It was when I was still on the Faculty there. Monsignor Kelly and I had some very good private discussions about his then-recently-published 1979 book, entitled The Battle for the American Church (Doubleday). He told me — rather confidentially — that he had wanted to entitle his candid book by another name, but his publisher declined to accept it. “May I know the Title you had wanted to have?” The plucky Irishman said: The Invertebrate Primates and the Battle for the American Church. He told me “Primates” referred primarily to “the Bishops” — but that it also included other “Specimens,” too!

When I told this fact to Father Hardon in person, he first looked at me askance and then flashed me one of those inimitable and knowing looks of his, and then also one of his roguish smiles.


© 2015 Robert Hickson

Editor’s Footnote: With Robert’s kind permission and encouragement, I append a couple of observations of my own to his fine essay.

I. The recollections of the suffering of Bishop Sullivan — some of whose lay supporters I knew a little while I was a student at LSU — were very poignant for me, especially the sad (and previously unknown to me) role of Archbishop Hannan, my own bishop when I was growing up, in bullying Bishop Sullivan. I was reliably informed by associates of Bishop Sullivan that he kept a telephone line, in addition to regular chancery numbers, for the exclusive purpose of giving clerics and religious of the Baton Rouge Diocese direct access to their Spiritual Father. Only clergy and religious had the number. But what I was also told was that, at the height of the time when hatred was heaped upon him for his defense of Catholic moral teaching, the good bishop received obscene phone calls on that same line. This was long before caller ID.

II. Concerning the nature of ecclesiastical politics as meditated upon in this essay, I have great confidence that the crisis in manhood and fatherhood, which presently afflicts our sad society, can trace much of its causality to this cunning and cowardly casting off of paternal responsibility. Regarding “synodality,” I am told by a learned Eastern Catholic friend that the Byzantine concept of episcopal synods is quite different from the bureaucratic, occidentalized version that we see today in the Latin Church. My friend assures me that it is a much more patriarchal reality: a meeting of spiritual fathers and physicians to discern with each other how to apply the healing remedies of the Holy Ghost to the ills of their spiritual children. —Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.