…. Criticism will always come to every leader, but the critic, especially one who purports to be a devout Catholic, has his own moral responsibility to make sure that both the substance and the form of his criticism are appropriately just and merciful.

Having offered those preliminary thoughts, I would like to consider an article, “The Shepherds the Church Needs Now,” published March 25 in the National Catholic Register by Janet E. Smith, my former professor and an esteemed colleague at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Smith takes the bishops to task for what she describes as their insufficient response to the COVID-19 crisis. According to Smith, the bishops have largely been “missing in action” during these days of social distancing.

In short, Smith’s article contains much “action,” in the form of criticism of various kinds lodged against the bishops’ response to COVID-19, but “missing” from her article is a cohesive, coherent argument.

Smith fails to make her case on a number of levels. First, she sets the bar of competence impossibly high. And the standard she sets is one entirely of her own design. This is a very common flaw in criticisms of those in authority—using as the sole standard of judgment one’s own sense about what those in authority ought to do.

In Smith’s view, in order to respond competently to the current crisis, each bishop ought to do the following:

  • Lead Eucharistic processions in public areas of his diocese;
  • “Step-up” his “personal presence to (his) flock” in his online ministry;
  • Catechize his people on how to deal constructively with the suspension of public Masses;
  • Ensure that chancery personnel are prepared to field incoming calls with requests for Baptism;
  • To “learn from their priests,” whose pastoral initiative has produced abundant good fruit: “flying in a plane or helicopter with a monstrance over a whole diocese while people ‘adore’ from the ground; hearing confessions and saying Mass in parking lots; and processing with a monstrance in a flatbed of a truck to take the Eucharist to all parts of town, in addition to live-streaming Masses, Rosaries, Stations of the Cross, and retreats”;
  • “Be present to us like never before—to help us keep our faith alive and to have the virtue of hope for our benefit and the benefit of those around us”;
  • “Use social media to keep constant contact with your flock. Teach us what we need to know about how to keep spiritually strong in these frightening times”;
  • Spend time answering Smith’s list of seven “frequently asked questions” for the flock;
  • “[Provide] online spiritual direction every day, and they should broadcast their own daily Mass; they should say at least one Rosary online every day, lead novenas and litanies; they should lead a reflection on Scripture daily, and teach people how to do lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture)”;
  • “Introduce the laity to various devotions—their favorite ones—and stories of their ‘friend’ saints. Or at least some of these!”;
  • “Make themselves daily guests in the living rooms (or prayer spaces) of their flock. Imagine the impact if large numbers of the laity of a diocese logged on daily to pray together with their bishop.”

If this is what it takes merely to achieve the competence required to avoid the criticism of commentators like Smith, I rejoice all-the-more in the unlikelihood of my ever being called to the episcopacy! I simply could not fulfill these requirements, and very few priests or lay people I know could do so. At least, most would find it impossible to do all that Smith requires and perform all the vital functions of leadership without which a diocese is quickly set adrift during a time of crisis….

The above comes from a March 30 article by Father Charles Fox in Catholic World Report.