Bishop Accountability

Cultures, Codes and Publics

By Chester Gillis
America, Vol. 187 No. 3
July 29, 2002

The bishops of the United States walked a tightrope in Dallas as they tried, during their annual spring meeting on June 13-15, to accommodate four different cultural matrices. Under the glare of the media lights representing the many publics they hoped to address, the bishops acted firmly, if not definitively. But despite the bishops’ conclusions, many observers were left confused. An attempt to understand why they acted as they did requires an analysis of the cultures in which they participate. Underlying the bishops’ deliberations rest four particular cultures: clerical, episcopal, Vatican and American. The delicate balance they sought to maintain required them to try to satisfy the exigencies of each of these worlds.

The Clerical Culture

The clerical culture, as maligned as it has been in recent months—often justly so, when it relies on secrecy, cronyism and unjust protectionism—is a way of life from which no bishop is ever far. After all, bishops are first and foremost priests, and all have been elevated to their present positions from the ranks of the priesthood. Having achieved the rank of bishop, archbishop or cardinal, a prelate may now appear to be willing to offer up the priesthood (or more accurately, priests) as a sacrificial lamb to divert attention from his own culpability. Nevertheless, each must deal on a daily basis with those who remain in their former ranks, the priests. Every bishop, whether he is thought of favorably among his clergy as a brother priest and mentor to whom his charges can come with problems without fear of harsh treatment, or whether he is known as a tough boss whom a troubled priest approaches only as a last resort, deals regularly with priests. As such, bishops wish to strengthen the confraternity of the priesthood and never appear too far removed from it.

In the instance of a “one strike, you’re out” policy, implementation will fall to the bishops, even though they have the capable guidance of boards composed largely of laypersons. The bishop will be the one who removes a priest from active ministry. One may hope that each bishop will personally deliver the difficult news that now lies in store for a number of priests—how many, no one seems to know—who have been anxiously waiting for the second shoe to drop. In some cases, it may be a relief to a bishop to have the backing of the national conference if he must remove a priest who has long been a worry. But in other cases it means telling a reliable and apparently rehabilitated co-worker (and perhaps a friend) that his public ministry is ended and, further, that he is about to enter a clerical limbo where he will still be a priest but will be permitted few, if any, vestiges of that office. The situation requires a resolution of a number of issues for which the bishop undoubtedly will need to take responsibility, such as providing income, health insurance and retirement benefits.

Beyond these material needs, a departing priest will require some direction, whether he elects to apply for laicization or chooses to remain a nonfunctioning priest who has surrendered all public symbols and functions of ministry. In the former case, bishops should assist the transition by offering personal and employment counseling. In the latter, the question of where the priest will go must be answered. Although the transition will be difficult, an aged priest may consent to finish out his years in the confines of a monastery. But a priest in his 40’s or 50’s is unlikely to find that option attractive, not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with monastic life, but simply because he does not have a vocation to be a monk. Living in seclusion among virtual strangers, even welcoming ones—probably in a location geographically and emotionally far from one’s previous world of work, family and friends—may hardly be appealing, although it is better than a jail sentence. While it may provide some anonymity, it may also exacerbate loneliness and disconnectedness, conditions that may well have contributed to his moral and legal breach in the first place. What middle-aged man, stripped of all public markers of priesthood, would opt for such a life? It is a resolution that bishops may see as compassionate and as a way of salvaging the ontological character of the priesthood, but those offered such a resolution may interpret it as a harsh life sentence. As those responsible for the governance of the church, bishops face wrenching personnel decisions or, rather, post-Dallas implementations.

The Episcopal Culture

Bishops face these actions because they are bishops. The episcopacy is the second culture in which they live. As bishops, they enjoy privilege and responsibility not shared by priests. Upon ordination to the episcopacy, they gain membership in an elite body that includes the power reserved for those who govern, the responsibility to make difficult decisions, an enhanced public profile and deference (which is now harder to come by). Sometimes the elevation and insulation of the office lead to insensitivity, arrogance or self-distancing. To prevent such an evolution—from serving to being served—most bishops keep in touch with both laity and priests. Despite this, they often operate independently of the priests whom they must supervise and the laity whom they serve. Further, they act without consulting their brother bishops, leaving the sometimes correct impression that the bishops, as a body, have no unified policy or plan.

Within the context of the sexual abuse crisis, this independence has resulted in actions or inactions by some bishops that have harmed children and families and have severely damaged the credibility of the hierarchy as a group. Unchecked either by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or by Rome, and often after consultation with experts, bishops retained abusers in priestly ministry—with tragic consequences. But those consequences affected victims and their families, not the bishops themselves. To date, most bishops, even if they have been egregiously irresponsible, have not felt the sting of accountability before the law.

The reasons for this are many, and the bishops heard some of them enumerated at the Dallas meeting by the University of Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby and by the editor of Commonweal, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. Bishops live in a culture of privilege and power that, when taken to extremes, conditions them to cling defensively to their office and to evade accountability or culpability. Such a mentality leaves others (namely priests) to pay for their crimes while they, the bishops, remain in office despite malfeasance.

The Vatican Culture

Bishops are accountable directly to the Vatican, which represents, yet again, a distinct culture. Rome views the world and the church through its own unique lens. Part of the composition of this culture is its legal code, canon law. Many bishops are canon lawyers, well versed in the arcane legal prescriptions that regulate the church. The vast majority of U.S. Catholics know little or nothing about canon law, and most of those who have had some encounter with church laws have done so in the painful context of marriage annulments. But canon law covers an extensive range of church practices, from sacramental validity to finances. The code includes an extensive section on priests and bishops, defining their relationship to the universal church, as represented by the Vatican, and to one another. In the current crisis, bishops need to attend to that portion of the code that pertains to priests’ rights within the church. The code limits the extent of the bishops’ power and provides for due process for priests facing accusations that, if substantiated, could result in their dismissal from the priesthood.

Dismissal from the priesthood or “laicization” (sometimes described in the press by the pejorative term “defrocking”) is not as easily accomplished as some Americans may imagine. By virtue of canons that protect the rights of priests in the face of unfounded accusations or against unsympathetic or unscrupulous bishops, Rome ensures that priests’ rights are protected. In the heat of the current crisis in the U.S. church, Rome has a particular interest in upholding due process for priests. Aware of these restrictions, the bishops knew that they could not act unilaterally and dismiss all priest perpetrators from the priesthood, even if the loud voices from the press and American Catholics urged them to do so. This left them the awkward maneuver of removing offending priests from all ministerial roles without laicizing them. The dual objective—to protect children and to restore confidence in the church—mandated that they remove all offenders, even those whose offenses may have been committed decades ago. The canonical restrictions that prevent bishops from dismissing a priest from the priesthood without following the canonical process that permits the priest to defend himself left only limited options for immediate action, for which Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, clamored. The bishops settled on a compromise by which they would strip offending priests from their ministry and all public markers that indicate priestly status, including title and clerical garb.

Nevertheless, they remain priests. This puzzles Americans and angers victims as well as many others, who are confounded that sex-abuse offenders retain their status as priests, even though stripped of all visible signs of their office. To explain this—something the bishops seem not to have done adequately either during their meeting or in news interviews immediately following it—requires a foray into the theology that to some degree underpins Vatican and clerical culture.

The term “vocation,” used with reference to the priesthood, is familiar to Americans. They understand that being a priest is not simply a job or a profession but a way of life. But people have trouble comprehending the church’s understanding that ordination to priesthood constitutes an “ontological” change in the man being ordained, that is, a change in being, not simply in roles. As the ordination ceremony makes clear, “he is a priest forever.” Ordination confers an indelible priestly character, which, as in the sacrament of marriage, can only be disavowed if for some reason the church determines that it was never valid in the first place. This means that priesthood cannot be removed by fiat. Even bereft of ministerial duties and trappings, priests remain priests. But laity and clergy alike then ask, what does it mean to be a priest who has no role or public identity as such? It will take more than a press briefing for the bishops to explain this to a confused public.

The American Culture

The most important audience the bishops addressed at their meeting sat before them, watched their deliberations on television, read about them in newspapers and magazines and heard reports of them on radio—the American Catholic public. The culture of the United States differs in significant ways from the previously described cultures, even though priests and bishops live within this culture and the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with the United States.

Much of this has to do with American society and culture, to which Catholics contribute and which affects them. America is democratic; Catholicism is not. Americans live in a pluralistic society that values tolerance of many views and practices, whereas the church holds moral and dogmatic positions that do not abide tolerance in beliefs or practices. Americans prize their independence; the church “takes care of” her children. Americans demand reasonable answers to difficult questions from their political leaders. The church asks them to accept some things on faith alone or on the sole basis of the authority vested in the church. It is no wonder that American Catholics who are conflicted about their identities as Catholics and as Americans sometimes find it difficult to be both.

In addition to Vatican laws that pertain to priests and bishops, Americans demand that they abide by the law of the land, which designates sexual abuse of a minor as a crime. They want criminal activity of priests and bishops punished. They will get half their wish when offending priests are sent into limbo or expelled altogether from the priesthood. The day of reckoning for bishops is under study; American eyes will remain on them until that study turns into action.

Chester Gillis is a theology professor and the chairperson of the theology department at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and the author of Roman Catholicism in America (Columbia Univ. Press, 1999).

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