|Bishop Frank Dewane|
If you've found yourself wondering why it seems as though good and faithful bishops in the Church have fallen silent as of late, please consider that it could well be because they are busy facing down a veritable storm of dissent. Case in point: His Excellency Bishop Frank Joseph Dewane of Venice, Florida.
To fully appreciate Bishop Dewane's current situation, one must understand the context particular to the Diocese of Venice. It was formed in 1984 by dividing the enormous Diocese of Miami, and placed under the guidance of then Auxiliary Bishop John Joseph Nevins, who chose as his episcopal motto: "To Serve with Mercy" - a rather open indicator of his preferred style of leadership. He is reported to have presided over an "open diocese" and permitted his priests "substantial latitude" in the exercise of their duties while encouraging extensive ecumenical "interfaith" outreach. In other words, the now-famous "Spirit of Vatican II" was at the helm, steering the course for some 200,000 Catholic souls for more than 20 years. When Bishop Nevins reached retirement age in 2007, the reigns of power were given over to the considerably younger Bishop Dewane. He had been appointed Coadjutor Bishop the year before, and, within weeks of the appointment, was given a litmus test as to his loyalty to Church teaching and canon law: would he refuse communion to Catholic politicians who supported laws violating Catholic moral doctrine? After an initial flurry of reports that he would not refuse communion, newspapers were forced to print retractions: Bishop Dewane would be following the directive issued by the USCCB, and decide the matter on an individual basis. Though this judicious position seemed somewhat ambiguous, the message from the press was clear: he was expected to do nothing other than maintain the course set by his predecessor. Surprisingly, he decided to do his job instead.
Almost immediately, Bishop Dewane set about to reform the Diocese. He began dropping in unannounced at Mass in parishes under his care, and many pastors were roundly criticized for what had become commonplace liturgical deviations and outright abuses. Those who were not willing to follow the official rubrics were asked to leave, and new priests - many having to be brought in from outside the Diocese - were installed to replace them. He abolished the permanent diaconate program, and instructed that women were not to serve as "Eucharistic ministers", lectors or acolytes. He brought in priests from the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) to help him in establishing a Tridentine Latin Mass program, and required at least one parish in each region of the Diocese to offer at least one Traditional Latin Mass every Sunday. Parish councils - those hotbeds of progressive dissent - were swiftly dissolved, and the Diocesan Council of the laity created by Bishop Nevins was eliminated. Financial control of the Diocese was consolidated, and an annual audit of all parishes was mandated. Parishes were forbidden to use Church facilities for fundraising activities without prior diocesan approval. All religious education programs which violated or failed to uphold Church teaching were discontinued. In short, Bishop Dewane took proper control of his diocese, and intended to run it according to the mind of the Church.
As was to be expected, the progressive forces in the Diocese of Venice - which had enjoyed free reign for more than two decades under Bishop Nevins - were shocked at this sudden return to a more traditional form of governance under the motto: "Justice, Peace, and Joy", with great emphasis on the first of those terms. By 2010, his critics - composed not only of 1968-era parishioners, but also ex-priests and ex-nuns - were mounting organized protests against the Bishop. Despite this open dissent, however, the good Bishop continued to speak forcefully on issues of great societal importance, calling upon Catholics to remember their duty to engage their political leaders and bear witness to the Gospel in the public arena. In the Fall of 2012, leading up to an important round of local elections, he published a series of pastoral letters regarding four key areas: 1) the defense of human life; 2) the defense of religious liberty; 3) the defense of traditional marriage and the family; and, 4) the defense and protection of the poor and needy. In his introductory letter, he wrote:
As lay faithful, it is vitally important that your voices be heard. By voting for policy makers, all people can contribute to political solutions and legislative choices which will benefit the common good. This responsibility is so important that the Church teaches the lay faithful "never to relinquish their participation in public life." As with any election, candidates emphasize different topics as "the most important issue of the election." Given the times, a significant focus will be upon the deficit, job creation, debt and other economic issues. These topics should be considered by voters, but they are by no means the only focus of the upcoming election. At times, economic concerns are trumped by still more important issues - after all, people are more important than material goods. Violating the right to life, sanctity of marriage, religious freedom and the needs of the poor, involve intrinsic moral evils, which must never be supported by Catholics.
Tensions reached a new high this past January, when ten dissenting priests sent an anonymous letter to Pope Francis via the Apostolic Nuncio denouncing Bishop Dewane and demanding he be reprimanded and called to heel. Simultaneously, the Bishop has to face a frivolous lawsuit regarding a charge of sexual misconduct on the part of former parish volunteer. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is defending the Diocese, and has written a brief but comprehensive response in defense of Bishop Dewane.
Pray, gentle reader, for our good and faithful bishops. They are facing a raging tide of open dissent and public calumny of the worst kind, and need our heartfelt prayers to continue on undaunted in the defense of the Truth and the Light of the Gospel.