Somewhere deep in the core of any proverbial handbook for diocesan bishops must be a sacrosanct rule: When facing a pastoral or doctrinal crisis, be sure to treat it like a public-relations problem and seize control of the narrative.
The faithful have endured decades of this kind of response from Catholic bishops bent upon PR-based damage control first and actual shepherding of the flock second. Such catastrophic conduct has fueled — and refueled — the atrocity of the clergy sex abuse crisis, but it is also overwhelmingly present at all levels of diocesan activity and in all issues dealt with at that level.
So it comes as no surprise whatever that Catholics who have bravely voiced their concerns over the homosexualist dissent of Nashville diocese priest Fr. Steve Wolf, who says he's "gay" and teaches that "gay" is quite normal, should experience this.
For more than a year, they have begged Nashville Bp. J. Mark Spalding to respond and act. But their efforts have been met with the seize-the-narrative response in the form of both their own bishop's longstanding and unswerving refusal to meet with them and the communications arm of the diocese actually and deliberately muting and in some cases silencing the voices of those begging for action.
In recent days, following previous Church Militant coverage of this scandal and Bp. Spalding's long-awaited but strategically ambiguous public response to the issue this past Friday, April 5, two disturbing developments have taken place.
First, a spokesman for the diocese of Nashville, Rick Musacchio, seems to suggest that Bp. Spalding's "contact" with the concerned parishioners who have for months sought to meet with him has been sufficient despite refusing to meet with them.
Second, comments on the diocese of Nashville Facebook page left by Catholics scandalized by Fr. Steve Wolf's public and parish-based open dissent from Church teaching on homosexuality are having those comments intentionally muted and, in at least one case, banned outright.
In the first instance, diocesan spokesman Rick Musacchio offered a too-brief response to my request for on-the-record comments regarding multiple elements of this scandal that remain unresolved after Bp. Spalding's Friday statement.
In fact, Musacchio merely provided me with the link to that statement, which is considered woefully inadequate by many of those still fighting the good fight in Fr. Wolf's parish, Immaculate Conception in Clarksville, Tennessee.
The headline actually masks the specific issue at hand, and Spalding offers no doctrinal clarity on the issue. Further, even though he states that Fr. Wolf's vanity press booklet Gay Respect in the Good News can't be considered an authentic source of Catholic teaching, Spalding still allows Wolf's book to be sold in the parish's own book store and elsewhere.
Musacchio's only other response was to direct my attention to the fact that in the last month, Bp. Spalding has attended two different events at Immaculate Conception parish "where he has had direct contact with many parishioners."
One can only suppose this was to offset the inquiry I made regarding Bp. Spalding's continued refusal to meet personally with those who have requested such a meeting. Instead, Spalding has redirected everyone to other members of the chancery or merely ignored their communication altogether.
Is Spalding's generic "direct contact with many parishioners" at unrelated parish events, which hardly lends itself to earnest and frank discussion regarding something scandalous, supposed to suffice in place of actually making time to honor repeated requests to meet privately to address the problem?
But equally concerning — perhaps even more so — is the sad fact that the diocese is systematically and deliberately arranging its public Facebook page to suppress any comments left there regarding the issue of Fr. Wolf's dissent and the ongoing attempt by the lay faithful to have his dissent properly dealt with. And it's being done via a deceptive maneuver that Facebook itself makes possible on such pages.
All such critical comments that have been left on the Nashville diocese's Facebook page, with only one exception, have met with the same fate. The page moderator can flag specific comments so that only the one commenting and that person's own Facebook "friends" can see the comment they left.
The numerous comments — all respectful in tone, and all fully in keeping with a Catholic's canonical right to let his needs be known and shared with those in authority — are being censored from public view. Readers of the page can see a list of who actually did comment on any particular post, but if you have been flagged in this way, your comment will never be seen publicly.
In one specific case, a commenter was told by the page administrator that if he continued to "troll" the diocesan page by leaving comments on "an issue" (what a remarkable euphemism), he would "unfortunately" have to be banned — and he was.
On one diocesan post, four different people commented on the scandal — all four were muted into oblivion as far as the general public is concerned.
That a Catholic diocese does this is not really surprising — it's part of the PR handbook, no doubt — but it is no less a deception of the faithful to leave them thinking they are actually being listened to when instead they are being intentionally silenced for the sake of maintaining a completely false narrative that everything is really OK in the diocese.
The real irony here is that what is happening on the diocesan Facebook page is merely a direct consequence of Bp. Spalding's consistent refusal to personally address this matter as requested by lay Catholics subject to his authority. Some such parishioners affected by Fr. Wolf's false teaching have been seeking such a meeting for over a year. All the while the scandal in the parish has grown in intensity, as have the parishioners' concerns.
When one is made to feel marginalized, ignored and intentionally shut out, it is no surprise that other avenues — such as media coverage and public comments on diocesan Facebook pages — are employed in hopes of making a dent in the otherwise impervious bureaucracy of a diocesan curia. And, as we've seen before on a monumental scale with the abuse crisis, dioceses shrug off the marginalized faithful Catholic precisely because they know they've gotten away with doing so for so long.
But the times are changing, and concerned Catholics are no longer taking "shut up, he explained" as an answer. The feet of the lay faithful are now firmly keeping that door from getting slammed shut, despite the risk of having those feet bruised in the process.
It may well take a petition drive like the one seeking concrete action from Bp. Spalding to address Fr. Wolf's dissent, charitably but firmly. More than 800 people have now signed an effort that originally only hoped to achieve 100 signatures.
Whatever it does take, we must do. Through prayer, dialogue and public and private action, the Catholic faithful can reclaim our rightful voice and place in preserving and defending the Faith, even when our own pastors and shepherds fail us. Staying silent — and being kept silent — is a thing of the past.