The Pope, the Bishops, and the Church’s Crisis of Trust

In any area of human endeavor, the testimony of others and certain types of authority are necessary to producing agreement about what is true and false, even in the realm of the natural sciences. The historian Steven Shapin argued many years ago that:

knowledge is a collective good. In securing our knowledge we rely upon others, and we cannot dispense with that reliance. That means that the relations in which we have and hold our knowledge have a moral character, and the word I use to indicate that moral relation is trust.

We must find our interlocutors in debate credible, and trust their basic honesty and veracity, in order to share a common moral order with them. Loss of trust means loss of the ability to tell true knowledge from its counterfeit, with all the confusion and chaos that implies.

It ought to be crystal clear to anyone paying attention that we live in an age of declining—if not almost nonexistent—trust in what is left of Western civilization. Though this is fairly obvious, if you want confirmation you can consult a variety of surveys since the 1960s which show just how little most Americans trust their government, the news media, and other authorities. This list also includes the Catholic Church. The difference, of course, between those institutions and the Church is that it possesses divine sanction. Yet it is clear that distrust—between bishops and priests, clergy and laity, among lay Catholics—has thoroughly poisoned God’s Bride on earth.

Two recent events illustrate this. The “Synod on Synodality” came to its 2023 conclusion without, apparently, a definitive attempt to overturn Catholic teaching on homosexuality or Holy Orders. The other is the Holy See’s removal of Bishop Joseph Strickland from his see in Tyler, Texas, for reasons that are not completely clear (and which the Vatican has not attempted to clarify).

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