By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
Along the Way – October, 2014
Two weeks ago Bishop Kieran Conry made the surprise announcement to his diocese in England that he was resigning as their bishop because he had been unfaithful to his promises as a Catholic priest to live a chaste life. In his statement he admitted that he had been involved for a number of years in an illicit sexual relationship with an unnamed woman. After apologizing for the harm his actions caused to the individuals involved, he said he was sorry for the shame he had brought on the diocese and the Church and asked for forgiveness and prayers.
My initial response as a fellow sinner was to say a prayer for him and for all those involved. All of us, if we are honest with ourselves, struggle to always faithfully observe each of the commandments. It is a challenge over a lifetime to live up to the sacred promises and commitments we have made as husbands and wives, as parents, as baptized Christians and as ordained ministers. There, but for the grace of God go any of us.
But then I read that in an interview in a secular British newspaper, Bishop Conry was quoted as saying, “It has been difficult keeping the secret.
“In some respects I feel very calm. It is liberating. It is a relief. I have been very careful not to make sexual morality a priority [in his sermons]. I don’t think it got in the way of my job, I don’t think people would say I have been a bad bishop. But I can’t defend myself. I did wrong.”
Incredible. I was disappointed, to say the least, by his comments.
How was it possible that a bishop could congratulate himself on being “very careful” to avoid making preaching on sexual morality a “priority” in his preaching? Presumably he was afraid of being perceived as being a “hypocrite” by exhorting his flock to observe the very commandments that he was failing to observe in his own life. Of course, he could have avoided the risk of being perceived as a hypocrite by repenting and ceasing to be a hypocrite. While it is true that sexual morality is not the only or even the most important homily topic, by being very careful to never preach on this subject because of the guilty knowledge of his own transgressions, he betrayed the pledge at his episcopal ordination “to preach the Gospel of Christ with constancy and fidelity.”
How is it possible that a bishop could observe that he didn’t think “it” got “in the way of my job?” (The “it” presumably being the illicit and sinful secret life that violated his solemn vow to live a chaste and celibate life for the sake of the Kingdom). Putting to one side the mistaken notion that being the successor of the apostles and chief shepherd of the local Church, ordained to teach, govern and sanctify the holy people of God is a job like any other, Bishop Conry’s “job” was to lead his people to Christ and to heaven by his words, by his example and by his actions. His choice to violate his solemn promise of fidelity was inexcusable. That he was unable to grasp that his sinful betrayal and duplicity corrupted his entire ministry as a bishop is astonishing but unfortunately all too common, as we have sadly seen in the clerical sexual abuse scandal in our own country.
How is it possible that a bishop could attempt to excuse his own inexcusable behavior by pleading, “I don’t think people would say I was a bad bishop?” Having been much, much too easy on himself, he slyly invited others to be easy on him as well. And there are, unfortunately, those who seek to rationalize if not defend his bad behavior. By all accounts Bishop Conry was a popular and personable figure in the English hierarchy, the possessor of many outstanding abilities and competencies (he was reportedly serving as the Chair of the Bishop’s Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis when he resigned.) But being a bishop, being a shepherd is, in the end, a matter of character. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. A bad shepherd, the hireling, leaves his flock scattered and defenseless. (See Ezekiel 34:1-31 on what the Lord expects from his shepherds.) Having failed his flock when he put his own desires before the welfare of those he was responsible for, he was in the end revealed to be a bad shepherd and a bad bishop.
For me, Bishop Conry’s comments called to mind the first lines of the spiritual classic, The Cost of Discipleship by the German Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He began by declaring, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”
Contrasting cheap and costly grace, he continued, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
…[Costly] grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
Like Bishop Conry, every baptized adult is someone’s shepherd. We are charged with being self-sacrificing good shepherds and not self-serving hired hands. Each of us has been given a share in governing, teaching and sanctifying the domestic Church of our marriages and families. Not as something outside of ourselves but as a daily, lived participation in the universal vocation to holiness. We are, each of us, despite being flawed and sinful men and women, responsible for how we live and the choices we make daily. Each of us is called to live with integrity as we strive, with the help of God’s grace and mercy to grow in virtue as disciples of Jesus.
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our ability to follow and to witness to Jesus Christ. Let us not be afraid to fight, first and foremost in our own lives, and in the Church for costly grace.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.