Bishop Accountability
  A New Future for the Church

By Fr. Ray Schroth, S.J.
Speech given at a meeting of the Voice of the Faithful in Rockville Centre NY
November 14, 2002

Last month (Oct.12) the American correspondent for the British Catholic weekly, the London Tablet declared that “with the Dallas Charter the purely sexual aspect of the crisis had effectively ended.” By that he did not mean that we should all shut up and go home. He meant rather that, for a number of reasons – like press and public vigilance, the testimony of victims, a shift in the church’s cultural climate – sexual abuse of the scale of the major offenders was no longer possible in the church.

Today, as the bishops close their meeting in Washington, we may still be too close to the events to put the turmoil of the last few years in perspective. In a comprehensive survey of 10 diocese, USA Today (Nov. 11) concludes that now very few of the accused priests – about 900 over 40 years, or one percent of the 25, 616 in service since 1965 – have any access to children. And Tuesday’s New York Times reports that the bishops are turning their attention to other issues, like abortion, immigration and Iraq. And Bishop Wilton D. Gregory has warned his brother bishops to beware of “false prophets,” “even among the baptized,” who would “strike the shepherd and scatter the flock.”

Are these remarks meant as reassurance that once the offending priests have been punished – now after receiving a fair trial – that the American church can go back to being its old self, its familiar structures intact? If that is what they believe, I respectfully suggest that the bishops, collectively, are as blind today as they were in Dallas six months ago.

In his preface to Hans Kung’s Structures of the Church (1963) published after the Second Session of the Vatican Council, Boston Cardinal Richard J. Cushing reminds us that the church’s structures have been both given by Christ and conditioned by history, that the church is not a static entity but a dynamic organism, the Body of Christ and the People of God, still, as Saint Paul says in Colossians and Ephesians, in the process of being built.

In his foreword to the English edition, Kung rejoices in the recently published Constitution on the Church, where he finds the arguments of his book confirmed: the laity is not an appendage of the church, it is the church; ecclesiastical office is not dominion but service of the community; the Papal office is not absolute power but, in union with the college of bishops, selfless pastoral care.

At least that is the way it’s supposed to be.

The word “to serve” appears 1360 times in the Scriptures, most distinctively when Jesus in parables instructs his apostles – and by extension, today’s priests, bishops, and lay leadership – on the fundamental nature of their role. What does an ancient image of leadership have to do with our collective attempt to lead the church today? When a good book is finally written about what has happened to the American church in the last decade, the story should begin a hundred years ago when the Catholic church as a specifically American community was coming into its own, with population power centers in the big cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, led by a hierarchy that was more political than pastoral setting the patterns – solidifying the structures – that, sometimes to its disadvantage, remain intact today.

Some would begin in the 5th century and trace all our woes to Saint Augustine’s alleged negative attitude toward sex, and then jump to the 10th century imposition of celibacy, which was enforced not to make priests more available to their flocks but to prevent them from passing church property on to their children.

Obviously sexual attitudes – including the exclusion of women from the priesthood and thus from the central leadership; the resulting insulated, all male clubhouse atmosphere of clerical culture; the possible sexual immaturity of men who entered the hot-house seminaries of the mid-20th century; and the apparent increase of openly homosexual seminarians and priests – are relevant to the current crisis. But this crisis is not primarily about sex. It is a case study of sick and/or sinful priests. But also of failed leadership – of popes, cardinals, and bishops so limited by the church’s hierarchical structures that they lost the memory of Jesus’ last words to Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”

Meanwhile, what began as a Louisiana scandal has become, within 20 years, the battleground on which the progressive and conservative Catholics have fought for their vision of the future of the church. The conservatives see this sexual acting-out as the natural consequence of Vatican II’s opening the windows to modernity, letting Marx, Darwin and above all, Freud blow in.

The advantage of Thomistic moral philosophy, taught in Catholic colleges until the1960s, was its moral clarity. The social sciences were seen as the camel’s head in the tent, introducing ambiguity, a watered-down sense of personal responsibility, an implied invitation, even for vowed religious, to experiment. Progressive Catholics, on the other hand, attribute the scandal to the corrupting influence of the clerical culture: bishops are chosen for their doctrinal purity (which means absolute opposition to contraception, to changing the celibacy requirement, to ordaining women, or to allowing abortion under any circumstances). This means new bishops are, with a few exceptions, above all company men, short on both independent judgment and imagination. Thus, the scandal is not about sex but power.

Let us put this charge in a broader perspective. First, Garry Wills has pointed out that when Lord Acton said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely he was talking specifically about the church. But, let us be careful. We should not conclude that the majority of diocesan priests lie in bed at night planning the next day’s move that will ingratiate them with the bishop so they can be named a monsignor. As a university priest who is occasionally able to take a parish call, I hold in awe those many parish priests, who, like good shepherds, give their whole lives for their parishioners. I am sure some of them are here tonight.

Second, status and power are good if we use them for service. The corrupting element, however, is not that once I have been made a dean, senator, or bishop, I accept a gift of a grandfather’s clock, or buy a beach front condo where I can entertain a new set of friends. It is in the little trade-offs made along the way, where I smother my convictions, keep quiet on the right of Catholic families to follow their own consciences in planning the size of their families, mute my righteous anger over civilian dead in an unjust war, so that when I get power – later – then I can speak out and “do good.”

Alas, the virtue of courage, like all virtues, needs practice. Otherwise it dies. I couldn’t help thinking of this moral dilemma recently while reading a Washington Post article by the brilliant young "Catholic Style" section writer, Hank Stuever, on the Atlantic City Miss America pageant. He says, “Miss America must always be in the perfect zone, which is part of why America doesn’t want to hang out with her anymore. She lies. She doesn’t tell lies, but she doesn’t tell truths, either. She pads her resume. She doesn’t curse, she doesn’t go anywhere unescorted. She can’t really talk about her boyfriend, or sex. When the subject matter is dicey, or political, or enters a religious realm beyond an Oprah-style spirituality, Miss America seems unable to choose sides. Actually, she can say whatever she wants, but a contestant knows she can’t do that and win. In that way, she’s either not very American, or more American than we care to acknowledge. She’s a kept woman, a groomed and exotic animal.”

Applying this warning to ourselves, we must, as Paul says, speak the truth in love. And our love should give us the courage to speak – and to critically examine what the leadership does in our names. In June, the press and public considered the Dallas Charter positively in that at last the victims had been heard. But soon other voices rose. The bishops had attempted to deal with only one aspect of the crime. They had punished the accused priests as if they were street corner drug dealers, but ignored the circumstances, the social structures, that bred the crime.

To what degree are the structures of the church – and by structures we mean, broadly, the way the church is organized – really ours to change? Return to Cardinal Cushing’s distinction between those given by Christ and those evolved over time. Strictly speaking, Jesus himself in his lifetime, created none of the structures which we see today. He clearly recognized Peter as the leader of his followers in anticipation of the arrival of the kingdom which he preached. But Peter was not a pope or bishop of Rome. The papacy, as a centralized, Roman monarchical authority, did not evolve for several centuries.

In the New Testament, in Acts and the epistles, we see the laying on of hands, the selection of a variety of leaders, from an apostle, to bishops, to deacons. We see the beginnings of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist – but we have moved a long way from the upper room of the last supper and the common meals of the early Christians to the new $189 million cathedral in Los Angeles, which is to be financed by the $50,000 celebrity “cremains” crypts in the basement.

Second perhaps only to love, forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, but the form of the sacrament of penance has evolved from what was in the middle ages a once-in-a-lifetime event to the devotional daily confessions of some religious in our own century, to the group penance services popular a few years ago, to the often empty “reconciliation” rooms of today.

We don’t know if, how or when the apostles were “ordained” priests or bishops, although bishops emerged as leaders, considered successors of the apostles, in the first generation. But as Paul’s letter to Timothy attests, they were not like our bishops. The bishop, Paul says, must be non-violent in his own home, married only once, not a drunkard, not in love with money, and able to control his own children. Otherwise how can he control the church?

We look at how all these things have changed, and one theme stands out.
Change in itself is neither good nor bad; we must look at each change’s impact and ask how it has affected the goal of the church: to bring all to salvation through an encounter with Jesus Christ. In the context of perpetual change, what is our source of continuity and truth? In the last chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus tells us at great length that he must die. He will send his Spirit who will remain in us, the church, and remind us what Jesus has told us about the Father. We must have confidence that the Spirit will speak through every member.

Garry Wills’ two books, Papal Sin and Why I Am A Catholic, remind us that the screwed-up mess he describes is not the essence of the church. We are all the church, and, as in a family, if there is a mess, it is our job to clean it up. Where do we start? We start with the structure, indeed, with canon law, particularly as it applies to parish life.

On the grass roots level perhaps the greatest source of disaffection among those who used to be “faithful” is the desiccation of parish life. Recently I went to another city to baptize the second son of a friend, only to learn the night before the baptism that my friend had stopped going to mass. His excuse was familiar: boring sermons, a waste of time, no connection between the mass and his daily life. We talked as friends late into the night. I said the mass’ primary purpose, for me, was to get us out of ourselves, to focus on the needs of the world. So we went to early Sunday mass together. And, alas, he was right. In a large church the parishioners stood as far apart as they could get. Because of the murky PA system the words of the pastor’s homily, which was not well prepared, reverberated off the walls and missed our ears.

It struck me as a metaphor for the whole church – words, meant to be saving words, lost in technological noise. But the parishioners seemed to like him. They knew him, bore with his dull homily, and chuckled at his humor. At communion I could see his face. He is a sweet, Irish man in his seventies with jet black hair. According to the bulletin, he has a lively parish, with guest lectures. This is the church, both weak and strong. But if there is to be excitement, it must come not from the pastor but from the congregation. Perhaps lay ownership and control of parishes is the answer.

In the New York Daily News (May 13, 2002) columnist Pete Hamill proposed a return to the early 19th century structure called trusteeism, where the laity planned the parish, bought the land, built the church, hired the pastor, monitored him, and fired him when he went against their will. Trusteeism emerged from a series of historical circumstances: prelates like Archbishop John Carroll, who insisted that American bishops, including himself, be elected by the priests; civil law which mandated trusteeships; national parishes, particularly German and Polish, who brought over the European traditions of the lay people establishing and directing the parish; visionaries like John England, bishop of Charleston, South Carolina (1821-1842), sent from Ireland, who arrived with a diocesan constitution, modeled on the American constitution, ready to propose to his flock. His parishes governed themselves through periodic conventions where elected delegates of clergy and lay people discussed the region’s problems.

But trusteeism didn’t last. Lay people had the same managerial vices as priests, a lust for power and control. Trustee elections were not truly democratic, only the pew holders (the middle class parishioners who had bought their own pews) could vote; the ordinary parishioners stood in the back of the church or in the balcony. Trusteeism was rooted in ethnic identity and ethnic hostility – an Irish parish would reject a French or Polish priest. In Philadelphia in the 1820s, trustee elections to control the cathedral led to riots in the streets. Eventually, the American urban church became predominantly Irish, and New York’s Irish Archbishop John Hughes used Irish respect for their clergy to crush the trustee movement in the 1830s by comparing his trustee critics to British oppressors.

I polled a half dozen historians, theologians and a canon lawyer on whether trusteeism would work today. The answer – the structure, no; the idea, yes.

The basic idea was that lay persons are truly responsible for the parish and should have more than a consultative voice in its direction. Obviously, parish councils are the closest contemporary equivalent to trustees. Canon 536 decrees that a council is to be established in every parish, that the pastor presides, the bishops set the norms of governance, and that the lay voice is consultative. Father has the last word. Restrictive, yes. But, depending on the atmosphere in the parish, a potentially marvelous opportunity for the laity to assume the responsibilities rightly theirs, through baptism and confirmation.

Fordham historian theologian, Msgr. Thomas Shelley, points to St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village as an ideal parish. The pastor, Fr. Aldo J. Tos (72), began with the determination to follow Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s advice that, without violating the norms, the laity should, in effect, have “deliberative” power; so his leadership style depends on shared prayer and listening. His 600 registered parishioners elect the 12-member council; together they plan intellectual and service programs and talk openly together about the matters which form the basis of the present crisis – “sexuality, ministry, and power.” Canon 537 calls for a financial council to “administer the parish goods.” At St. Joseph’s its 8 volunteer members, under the direction of a parish manager-administrator, a retired CEO who gives it several days a week, all have financial skills. Father Tos says he would be a fool not to follow their advice.

Why should the laity have more control? First, what they own they will want to nourish. Second, they would free the priest for the work for which he has been trained – liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care. Third, as overseers, they could protect an imprudent priest from his own indiscretions. Would Archbishop Weakland have paid bribery to his extortionist friend if a lay manager controlled his funds? As New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer pointed out in Commonweal recently, the monsignor in Queens who stashed $1.8 million in a secret bank account and gave $700,000 to three ex-convict pals could not have done it if he had a finance council – as canon law required.

If it seems that bishops have been appointed for their ability to raise and manage money and their conservative orthodoxy, if we put finances in lay hands perhaps we could select bishops for their theological knowledge, pastoral skills, and moral courage. When the time comes to close parishes and schools, the laity, in a position to face fiscal reality, would make the tough decision and take the heat. Ironically, the bishops, many of whom are canon lawyers, drew up guidelines in Dallas which violated basic norms of Canon 1728, which spells out the rights of the accused person in an ecclesiastical hearing. They defined sexual abuse so broadly that the alleged victims’ subjective feelings, even when there has been no personal contact with the accused, are enough to provide so-called “credible” evidence of an offense. Rev. John P. Beal, of the Catholic University of America, suggests that after decades of dismissing accusations against priests, the authorities have swung to the other extreme.

Judging from the mail I have received, many priests believe that is possible. A former priest and long-time friend in Baltimore has sent me the Baltimore Sun’s story on Cardinal William T. Keeler’s publishing the names of 56 priests accused of anything – from rape to a massage – over 70 years, including the aged, sick, and dead. Where, my friend asks, is the forgiveness of Christ in this? The USA Today article profiles two priests removed from ministry, their reputations smeared, on the basis of a single vague, unproven allegation. Cardinal Avery Dulles warned at Dallas that the proposed norms would destroy the paternal and confidential relationship between priests and bishops. As a priest who has been a pastor for many years said to me, “No priest will ever confide in his bishop again.”

Realistically we know modest adjustments of existing structures will not solve our problems. But here a few suggestions that might help:

1. On the diocesan level, we could revive Archbishop John England’s early 19th century practice of the diocesan constitution, where his parishes governed themselves through periodic conventions and elected delegates of clergy and lay people to discuss the region’s problems.

2. Although bishops are ordained for life, there is no reason they cannot be limited, like superiors in religious orders, to a six-year term. When a term ends they may either go to another diocese or go back to work in the trenches, the way college deans return to teaching. This would free the bishops to get as many reforms as possible in a reasonable time, and perhaps free younger priests from some of the temptations of careerism.

3. The office of cardinal is not from divine law. Lay persons have been cardinals and could be cardinals again. With a stroke of his pen, the next pope could appoint 50 women cardinals and radically enrich the face and future of the church.

4. Women, I suspect, will be ordained only after the church has experimented more with married clergy. A married priesthood will work its way in through the third world countries where the idea of an unmarried male is neither understood nor accepted.

For the immediate future, in the west, celibacy can remain a creative institution if: priests are happy in meaningful and productive work; they pray to nurture their love; they have intimate friends, both men and women, in whom they may confide; they can trust their religious superiors to be intelligent, caring and just.

5. Candidates for the priesthood should be accepted after they have demonstrated their capacity for humble service by working with the poor in national or international agencies like the JVC or the Peace Corps. Seminarians should be educated on university campuses, where they can live in community. I think priests, both religious and diocesan, should also live together in community, and, like most men, commute to work. I know the old theory that priests give up a family. Period. But nothing – not prayer, not God, not the intellectual life – is a substitute for intimacy. Priests must have brothers who listen to the details of one another’s bad days, kid and praise each other, and yell STOP when a brother priest pursues a relationship with a man, woman, girl or boy which is headed for trouble.

Finally, what kind of future church may we hope for? In his reflection on the Council, Karl Rahner, in The Shape of the Church to Come (1972), says we must remain “Roman,” i.e. unified by the papacy, whose concrete form we may criticize – but not, he says, with mere “embittered allergy.” The church, he says, must be open, not a defensive sect preoccupied with orthodoxy. Certain dogmatic formulations, he says, remain subject to change: the form of the sacrament of penance; who may receive communion; the Sunday obligation; the stand toward the state’s penal laws on abortion; which parties or candidates a Catholic may support; to what degree heretical opinions separate us from the church.

It will be declericalized. A chess club, he says, is defined by its members, those who play chess. The hierarchy, the leadership, of the club is necessary in so far as it serves the club; but the hierarchy should not imagine that they play chess better than the members just because of their job.

It will be from the roots, built from below by basic communities formed by free association. They may exist parallel to established parishes, though not defined by territory but by their members’ commitment in service to one another. Early forms of this movement might include both Catholic and state college campus ministry communities, charismatic groups, and the “base communities” in Latin America formed through liberation theology. Today it could include the Voice of the Faithful.

Finally, says Rahner, the love which energizes these communities must overflow into a strong and personal commitment to social justice – not merely contributing money to charity, but by personally throwing one’s full self into protecting the environment and getting some economic justice for the Third World. Every church community, he suggests, should send three young persons a year to work with the poor in Latin America.

What do we say to all this? We can say, poor old Rahner was wrong. Thirty years have passed and his hopes have not been fulfilled. Or we can say, as he would, that thirty years is but the blink of an eye in the pageant of human history. After the Dallas meeting, I wrote in the Newark Star Ledger that the bishops should rent Yankee Stadium, put on plain gray robes, stage a great penance service, process to the altar, and place on it their resignations. Perhaps only some resignations would be accepted. But I mean this liturgy not as a humiliation but as a teaching act of humility and courage. It is a public dramatization of what penance – like baptism and the Eucharist – means: that we must die to ourselves if we are to be born again. We must allow some of the structures of the church to die, if all the faithful will rise again in hope.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is Jesuit Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. He is the media critic for the National Catholic Reporter and author of Fordham: A History and Memoir (Loyola Press).

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