Bishop Athanasius Schneider was at Thomas More College last week, to celebrate Mass on what was, appropriately, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary: the 450th anniversary of the fateful Battle of Lepanto. Later in the day I had the opportunity to interview him for the Thomas More Center.
The primary subject of that interview—which is now posted on the Center’s site—was the bishop’s new book: The Catholic Mass: Steps to Restore the Centrality of God in the Liturgy, which is coming soon from Sophia Institute Press. But our conversation quickly expanded to encompass a more general subject: the crisis of faith in the Catholic Church. I recommend the interview to your attention—not only because Bishop Schneider has an important message to relay, but also because his plain, clear speech is a balm.
Born under Soviet rule, to fiercely loyal Catholic parents who were prisoners in the gulag, the future bishop was raised in the Catholic underground. His family routinely traveled sixty miles to attend Mass, taking night trains to avoid notice; they sheltered priests who were wanted by the secret police. Had they been caught, they would have faced severe consequences: certainly a loss of job status for the parents and educational opportunities for the children; possibly much worse. So today Bishop Schneider speaks with some authority when he says that Catholics should be willing to suffer—at a minimum to risk some adverse consequences—for the sake of the faith. He has walked that walk.
This slight, self-effacing prelate, now an auxiliary bishop in Astana, Kazakhstan, has become a prominent figure among traditionalist Catholics. But his appeal should stretch beyond the traditionalist movement, because he speaks with a candor that demonstrates his willingness to face adversity. He is remarkably soft-spoken (I kept nudging the microphone closer to him); his words, not his delivery, pack the punch.
This week, as I read the words of Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the president of the French bishops’ conference, speaking with studied ambiguity about the confessional seal, I could not help but contrast his approach with that of Bishop Schneider. What harm would have been done if the French archbishop had simply reaffirmed his original statement that the authority of the confessional seal “is stronger than the laws of the Republic”? That statement was accurate. It is what the Church has always believed and taught. It is what the French bishops’ conference would later confirm—albeit somewhat haltingly, almost apologetically, with a nod to the possibility that something could be changed.
The strength of the confessional seal has not changed, will not change, cannot change, no matter what laws the French government enacts. A prudent Catholic prelate might take pains to explain the seal, to add that a priest-confessor should insist that the penitent inform authorities about sexual abuse. But the priest himself can never reveal what was intended only for the Lord’s ears. Far better, then, for Church leaders to discourage any speculation about how or when the seal might be broken. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’” the Lord tells his disciples; “anything more than this comes from evil.”
For me a conversation with Bishop Schneider was an enormous relief: an oasis of plain speech in a desert of obfuscation. Our Church is in crisis, suffering from systemic corruption, and the first step toward reform is a recognition of the magnitude of the problem.
Originally appeared in Catholic Culture.