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Backward In Obedience: A Book Review of Bishop Matthew Clark’s “Forward In Hope”

February 1st, 2010, Promulgated by Dr. K

Bishop Matthew Clark?s Forward in Hope is the literary culmination of 30 years of dissent and liturgical rule-bending that has taken place in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester since his appointment as chief shepherd in 1979. In this book, the bishop tackles the subject of ?lay ecclesial ministry,? a term given to lay people who assume duties that previously were reserved to the ordained priesthood. Bishop Clark spends 114 pages addressing the various concerns that have been raised about lay ministry, attempting to assuage these concerns, and making the case for why we need even more lay ministers in the Catholic Church. Who else would be more authoritative on the subject of lay ministry than the bishop who has established a parallel hierarchy of lay ministers in his diocese that are equal, if not in possession of greater power than his ordained priests? Remember, in the Diocese of Rochester there are lay persons who run parishes and dominate the Mass as ?Pastoral Administrators?, while priests are delegated to the role of designate consecrator called ?Sacramental Ministers.?

In Forward in Hope, we are introduced to a tired, battle-worn progressive era zealot fighting his personal Waterloo in a war that all signs suggest he will lose. A hierarchy that once favored and cultivated progressive thinkers like Bishop Clark has radically changed since the loosey goosey ?Spirit of Vatican II? era of the 1960s and 70s. The Church has slowed down from the full-speed ahead approach pertaining to change, and is finally stepping back to see how the Council fits in with tradition. Bishop Clark repeatedly references Vatican II to justify the expansion of lay ministry in the Church. However, many theologians today, including the Holy Father, have spoken repeatedly on how the ideas held by the progressive thinkers are more aligned with a ?hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture? rather than continuity and tradition. In this book, one can see that Bishop Clark subscribes to the former hermeneutic.

Throughout Forward in Hope, Bishop Clark frequently brings up the ?frustrations? felt by the lay ministers in his diocese. These frustrations frequently involve the fact that they are not allowed to take on an even greater role in pastoral care and the liturgy. This is especially evident in the five essays sandwiched between the chapters of this book. Although the bishop brings up the frustrations of lay people, these very frustrations are more likely felt by the bishop, who appears to be hiding behind these lay people in order to air his own grievances against the Church.

Take for example the issue of lay preaching which Bishop Clark discusses at length a few times in the book. Here is what the bishop says beginning on page 43: ?Some church-goers who say they are insulted by the poor homilies given by some priests are baffled that the lay minister is not permitted to preach except under stringently defined circumstances.? To the untrained eye, the bishop is merely relaying the opinions of the lay people in his diocese. However, those familiar with this bishop and his governance of the Diocese of Rochester know the full story. Compare this frustration that the laity can?t preach with this statement about the Bishop in the Diocese?s official newspaper, the Catholic Courier: ?Although he?s pleased that several women are now running diocesan parishes as pastoral administrators, he expressed frustration that Church law still bars them from giving homilies.? It?s painfully clear that the bishop included this frustration given by the ?church-goers? for a reason; and that reason is that the frustrations of the church-goers are his frustrations as well.

Another item which stands out in Forward in Hope is Bishop Clark?s inability, and perhaps even unwillingness to give consideration to viewpoints other than his own. The Bishop engages in a lot of lip service, claiming that he understands why certain leaders and laypersons disagree with him on the topic of lay ministry, but it is evident that he does not really care what they think on the subject. For example, here is how the bishop handled a situation when some priests in the diocese disagreed with his move to install laypeople to lead and govern parishes as ?pastoral administrators?: ?This has caused discomfort to a few priests. I understand the reasons for this discomfort, but have proceeded anyway because I sincerely believe that a majority of priests do not share these feelings.? (87) Does this ?proceeded anyway? approach sound like the actions of a man who is pastoral and considerate of the opinions of other people? Bishop Clark admits in his book that he has difficulty understanding those who do not think like himself. At least he’s honest about this. Here is what he wrote on page 25: ?I have to say that I am really challenged in terms of trying to understand people who want nothing to change, when life assures us over and over that everything changes.?

One message that is truly shocking in Forward in Hope is that is acceptable for a bishop to dissent from Church norms and laws whenever he thinks it is for the good of the faithful. This is a very dangerous idea, for it places one?s individual opinions ahead of the law of the Church. How can one leader ignore 2,000 years of Church tradition? The bishop appears to think that disobedience to the Church is OK, and this is no more evident than when he says ?In some ways it?s much easier to simply ?follow the rules.? There won?t be many questions, and will be clear and simple. But what do we risk in living that way?? (32) What do we risk? Perhaps the bishop should ask this question to the people who formed a schismatic community in Rochester called “Spiritus Christi.” The people of the former Corpus Christi parish decided to not follow the rules, and they may have put their immortal souls at risk. It is certainly a most dangerous precedent that the bishop is encouraging in his book. However, if one looks at how Europeans disobeyed the Church in order to get Communion in the hand permitted by indult, perhaps Bishop Clark is encouraging a similar type of disobedience in the hopes of getting lay ecclesial ministry accepted by the Church.

To summarize, Forward in Hope is an airing of grievances against the Roman Catholic Church from a leader who is frustrated by the Church?s unwillingness to comply with his personal opinions on Church life and governance. This book is nothing more than a blueprint for encouraging dissent, and an attempt to advance a theology concerning the “priesthood of the faithful” which has already been clearly defined by the Catholic Church. Ecclesiae de Mysterio, which deals with the topic of lay participation in the Church, speaks very negatively of exactly what the bishop is attempting to do through this book: ?This is not the place to develop the theological and pastoral richness of the role of the lay faithful in the Church which has already been amply treated in the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici.? It is wholly inappropriate to carry out the type of experimentation that has gone on in Rochester for over 30 years, and which is being encouraged and outlined in this book. Then again, this Bishop is not the biggest fan of playing by the rules, for as he wrote, ?what do we risk in living that way??

Bishop Clark is required to submit his retirement to Rome in July of 2012.

Next up: Bishop Clark on obedience. (You already got a sneak preview of what this article is going to look like)

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5 Responses to “Backward In Obedience: A Book Review of Bishop Matthew Clark’s “Forward In Hope””

  1. Nice work, Dr. K. Be sure to post it on Amazon.

  2. avatar Mike says:

    Dr. K.,

    Excellent!

    I've just one small nit to pick. Your assertion that "The rule of individual conscience is no more in the Roman Catholic Church" strikes me as just a bit too strong.

    As I tell my kids in religious ed, we are all obligated to follow our consciences, but we are also obligated to form – or educate – them properly.

    And, as the CCC says, our consciences have to be taught or "guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church."

  3. avatar Anonymous says:

    Why not send a copy of this book to the Vatican?

  4. avatar Dr. K says:

    "Why not send a copy of this book to the Vatican?"

    If one would be willing to pay for a copy. I'm not. There is plenty in this book that would raise an eyebrow or two over at the CDWDS and CDF.

    ~Dr. K

  5. avatar RochChaCha says:

    Dr. K,

    Great review. Looking forward to the upcoming topics you will be discussing related to this book. As I read it, I was certain that the Bishop was twisting the true intentions of the Church vis-?-vis his interpretation of Vatican II, Canon Law, Lumen Gentum, etc.

    I admit I read this book with a skeptical eye to begin with, but after reading it, the Bishop lead me to beleive that he was not being honest with how he really felt. Toward the end of the book he states clearly that his is in full agreement with the Church that women should not be ordained priests, but throughout this entire book, the Bishop basically endorses the 'parallel hierarchy' that you mention.

    Bottom line is that the Bishop has been misleading in the book, and if you look at what is really happening in the parishes throughout Rochester, it is evident that he is attempting to bench the priests in favor of lay administrators. Very very disturbing to read this from our Bishop.


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