Some Older Bishops and Leisure Suits

by Steve Ray on May 5, 2004

This recent article by Karl Keating just had to be reprinted. The Old Guard vs. the Young Fogeys is an interesting generation gap in the Church. Enjoy!

A BISHOP CAUGHT IN AMBER

Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:

 

To the left-wing Catholic intelligentsia, Kenneth Untener was a model bishop. “Bishop Ken,” as he liked to be called, favored all the trendy causes and appeared in all the trendy protests. His name was found frequently in the pages of the “National Catholic Reporter,” where he was mentioned in hagiographic terms.

 

That was never more evident than in that paper’s April 9 remembrance of him. Untener, not long retired as bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, died March 27 at the age of 63. He had led the diocese since 1980.

 

A VISIONARY BISHOP LOCKED IN TIME

 

The April 23 issue of the “Reporter” ran a surprising letter about the paper’s eulogy of Untener–surprising in that it took the paper to task for its fawning description of the bishop. The letter was written by Bette Woods of Brighton, Michigan.

 

As Dr. Johnson noted, “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.” When eulogizing the dead we highlight their virtues and omit their failings, giving necessarily a skewed–but, for the moment, forgivable–impression. That is permissible at the funeral service and at the graveyard, but we expect a more considered treatment when the deceased is reflected upon in print.

 

Let me quote from Woods’ letter:

 

“I am sadly amused, though not surprised, at the sappy over-eulogizing of the former bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, Kenneth Untener. May he rest in peace, but at least when speaking about him, we should be honest. And honestly, what is so humble about a man who refused to submit himself to the teaching and discipline of the church he promised to serve … and what is so visionary about a man whose ideology and vision has [sic] not been replicated anywhere and will die with his generation because it is not being widely replicated with my generation?

 

“I understand that he is very popular with you older folks at NCR and Call to Action and the like, but the future of the Church is in us ‘young fogeys,’ as Fr. Andrew Greeley recently referred to our next generation of priests and Church professionals. You may not like that, but at least you should be honest about it.

 

“Every person I have every met, particularly in the field of Church work, who admires anything even close to Bishop Ken’s vision is over 50. Young people, particularly young Catholic women–I am 24–are embracing a much more dynamic John Paul II-esque interpretation of Vatican II, which includes liturgical fidelity, attraction to Christ-centered (and habit-wearing) religious life, and not only an acceptance of but a love for the Church’s teachings on the all-male priesthood and the immorality of contraception. And we are the ones graduating from theology schools to minister to youth, teach religion, and write textbooks.

 

“Bishop Ken may have been a well-meaning, nice man. I hope that God is as merciful to him as he will be to me when all the mistakes I have made in my ministry are before him. But to call him a ‘visionary’ seems both dishonest and blind when his vision did not capture the next generation!”

 

Woods makes several telling comments, but let me highlight two:

 

1. The Church in this country suffers from a “generation gap.” When we hear that phrase, normally we think of the elders being conservative and the youth being liberal. Here it is the reverse. Young Catholics, if active in the Church, are almost universally orthodox, even if not yet well formed in their faith.

 

The most radicalized segment of the Church in America is populated by folks near or past retirement age. Sure, there are twentysomethings who admire what Kenneth Untener stood for, but they are so few that at meetings of Call to Action they are trotted before the audience to prove the organization is not yet moribund.

 

2. Dissident Catholics justify themselves by saying that their heroes are “visionaries,” a visionary being someone who is leading you where you were going anyway. Throughout his long episcopal career Untener was described by his fans as a visionary. He stood up to Rome. He “did” theology and liturgy his own way. He represented the wave of the future.

 

The problem is that his wave turned out to be the wave of the past, the ecclesiastical equivalent of the leisure suit. Young Catholics such as Bette Woods see this. For some reason, the editors at the “Reporter” do not–or, if they do, they are not admitting it in print.

 

I wonder what the “Reporter” staffers do after an issue is put to bed. Do they gather at Clancy’s Bar for a beer and marvel at how their brand of Catholicism is taking the country by storm? I doubt it, since they can’t be subject to that much self-deception.

 

No, I see them huddled at a side table, cupping their drinks in their hands, eyes downcast, faces drawn, wishing for a return of the exuberance they felt in the 1970s, when things seemed to be going their way. Back then, they could not have imagined that the infants they saw in church would grow up to turn their backs on the “vision” they offered.

 

Last month it was a eulogy for Kenneth Untener. Soon enough it will be a eulogy for the kind of Catholicism he stood for.

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