Dallas Has a New Bishop-Elect. So What?

By Jeffrey Weiss
Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
March 9, 2007

Nobody knows exactly what the new man will do not even Bishop Kevin Farrell, named to the position Tuesday by Pope Benedict XVI.

Bishop Farrell takes official control May 1 and faces a long wish list from local Catholics, and from non-Catholics who would like to add a bishop's support to their favorite cause.

But no matter what he decides to do, what influence does any bishop wield in 2007, when people seem more focused on Britney Spears' hair and the latest vote on American Idol than on any spiritual teachers?

Recent experience just to the west, in the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, indicates how dramatic the difference can be between one bishop and the next. In July 2005, Bishop Kevin Vann succeeded Bishop Joseph Delaney, whose tenure was marred by revelations about several sexually abusive priests.

Seven months after taking over, Bishop Vann told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "The challenging thing for me is, all my life, I have always tried to respect my predecessor wherever I've been. But I can't defend the indefensible."

A day after saying that, Bishop Vann was the featured celebrant at a local Mass. And he didn't duck the reactions to his statement.

"When I walked in the back of the church that night, guess where Bishop Vann was?" asked Jean Frie, a member of a parish in North Richland Hills. "He was standing in the back in his regular black suit, accessible. He wasn't getting robed up, separate from the people. He was right there."

Ms. Frie is area coordinator for Voice of the Faithful, a national lay Catholic organization created in response to the sex abuse scandal. Any bishop needs to work these days to regain the trust of regular Catholics, she said.

"I think the younger bishops know that," she said.

Powerful position

On paper, the bishop has a powerful job. He places the priests, determines how the money is spent, approves all instructional material, creates or closes parishes and schools, and can be the most public spokesman for Catholicism in his area. A bishop can even decide who gets to be buried in Catholic cemeteries.

Surveys say that even many Catholics who consider themselves faithful feel free to disagree with the pope. Catholic clergy face a particularly uphill battle against the lingering taint of the priest sex abuse scandal. And in a diocese with almost a million Catholics, most won't get much face time with the man at the top.

"A very small percentage of Catholics could name a bishop outside their immediate city, and a great number of Catholics could not name the bishop in their own diocese," said Timothy Muldoon, director of The Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College.

A bishop's power, however, is comparable to a CEO's. Employees who may not know the name of the top boss will feel the effects of his decisions.

A bishop can decide if anyone even another bishop is welcome to speak at a church in his jurisdiction. He can decree the physical design of churches. He can decide to excommunicate members or to deny them sacraments of the church. And some practices followed by one bishop may not match those in another diocese.

Unless the bishop is caught committing a crime or in a public violation of essential church teachings, the Vatican rarely steps in. And for faithful Catholics, the bishop is more than just another boss; he's an important representative of Christ on Earth.

Tricky to measure

But power is not the same as influence. Can a bishop change people's behaviors? Can he affect their spiritual lives?

That's hard to measure, said Mike Sullivan, vice president of the traditionalist Catholics United for the Faith, a national lay organization.

"You can't quantify the results for a spiritual reality," he said. "We can't assess it the way we assess how good a quarterback is on whatever team we follow."

But he said that a new bishop can make a visible difference: In Denver, where Archbishop Charles Chaput took over in 1997, the number of religious orders and the total membership in those orders has increased, Mr. Sullivan said.

The Boston Archdiocese offers more evidence that members pay attention to who is in charge. Boston's former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, took much of the blame for mishandling abusive priests under his supervision. A story in last week's Boston Globe detailed the falloff in donations under Cardinal Law and a steady rebuilding of the donations since Cardinal Sean O'Malley took over in 2003.

Some experts say that another measure of influence is the number of men in the diocese who are seeking to become priests. One study indicates that the beliefs of the bishop matter, said Andrew Yuengert, an economics professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

"What I found was that bishops who seemed to be more traditional seemed to have higher numbers of ordinances," he said.

A bishop is the most visible priest in a diocese, so his "sales pitch" is important to young men who are being asked to commit their lives to the priesthood. A bishop who emphasizes the uniquely religious aspects of the job may be more effective than a bishop whose vision of the priesthood leans more toward sanctified social work, Dr. Yuengert said.

'Making a difference'

How far does the bishop's influence reach beyond the clergy? The high-profile head of the Los Angeles archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony, commissioned a survey of clergy and particularly active local Catholics in 2004.

The poll asked whether Cardinal Mahony was doing a good job and examined the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the man who has headed the archdiocese since 1985.

His overall rating was pretty positive 68 percent rated him as good or excellent.

Considering he's one of the most public of American Catholics, and a frequent spokesman on social justice issues, it's not surprising that the survey also gave him high marks for his ability to get his message out on those topics.

But the survey reflects the limits to a bishop's influence, even among the most faithful of his flock: Only 27 percent gave him the highest rating for leading people to faith, 26 percent gave him the highest rating for strengthening people in their faith, and 27 percent said he was very effective in promoting devotional practices.

There's a lot more competition for people's attention these days than in earlier generations, said Mr. Muldoon of Boston College. And Pope Benedict seems aware of the need for a bishop to be able to talk about more than theology, based on the men he's appointed to be bishops, he said.

"He's found guys he sees as capable of speaking to the issues you'll see in The Dallas Morning News and on CNN and in the International Herald Tribune, as much as what you'd find in the code of canon law and the curial texts," he said.

When it comes to assessing the potential power and influence of a local bishop, count Ms. Frie of North Richland Hills as a believer.

Scandal and illness had limited the effectiveness of her previous bishop, she said. But Bishop Vann has people talking.

"I'm hearing things all over, that our bishop is reaching out to people," she said. "He is making a difference."



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.