Blame the Bishops?

In the face of the crisis, we need to restore our understanding of what – or Who – the Church really is.

The bishops have all gone home. The national attention is winding down. I’d like to spend the next few weeks ruminating over some “final” thoughts on this crisis.

It’s taken me a while to formulate my thinking on the situation. It’s been heartbreaking to see the Church I love dragged through the mud on the nightly news – and, worse yet, to realize that, to a certain extent, the negative attention has been warranted. The thought of even one priest abusing a child is sickening to me. The thought of such a priest being shuffled from parish to parish is enough to make me lose my lunch.

What happened? Who can we blame? The bishops? The gays? The celibacy? I want to explain it. I perhaps want to explain it away.

After serious reflection, I’ve come to agree with my friend Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, who says that the attempt to “explain away” the situation, to wrap it into a neat little package, does a disservice to the victims. We need to face, fearlessly, the state of the Church as it is, as this crisis reveals it to us. And we need to address it.

What is the state of the Church, the state that brought about this crisis?
I believe that we, from the bishops on down, have lost sight of the reality of the Catholic Church. We have come to see the Church as just another human agency -- another bureaucracy – to be managed and manipulated at will. We have tried to foist our own agendas onto her, or worse, to use her as an instrument for those agendas. At best, we have seen her as just one of many religious structures -- intermediaries which may or may not be helpful in leading people to Christ.

The Church is no such thing. She is a Divine reality -- the bride of Christ. She finds her authority, not in bishops and bureaucrats, but in Christ Himself, who created her and gives her identity. The Church is not just one of many possible intermediaries to Christ. The Church is Christ’s instrument of salvation. She is the result of His presence in the world. It is in that context that we need to discuss the various aspects of this crisis.

Let’s start with the bishops.

I have tremendous respect for the office of the bishop. I also have tremendous respect for many individual bishops. My own archbishop, Charles Chaput, I know personally to be a holy, faithful man and a wonderful shepherd to the Church here in Colorado.

I don’t know, and I honestly can’t imagine, what went on in the various dioceses where the scandalous reassignments occurred. Without that full information, I don’t feel qualified to directly criticize any individual bishop. ` Nevertheless, I have developed a strong suspicion that this crisis is primarily a crisis of leadership. The Church is meant to be the result of the encounter between the divine and the human. Christ leads His Church. The role of our leaders is to humbly follow His initiative, not to develop their own, apart from Him. The hierarchy is necessary, of course, to give form and structure to Christ’s Church -- to be a channel of grace through which He can work. In order to do that, our leaders must empty themselves -- of their own ideas, their own importance, their own agendas.

I have a gnawing suspicion that, among some bishops and those acting on their behalf, the quest for human power may have taken the place of the “divine emptying,” and the structures of bureaucracy may have blocked the flow of the divine graces. I suspect that some Church leaders may have turned to attorneys instead of turning to Christ. And I suspect that concern for protecting the reputation of the institution may have superceded concern for protecting the innocent.

I know that many bishops have fallen down on the job when it comes to supervising their diocesan seminaries. Like most young Catholics, I have known many young Catholic men who have entered various seminaries in the past 15 years. I’ve seen many of them come back out – horrified at what they saw in those houses of priestly formation. Again, we have always had wonderful, faith-filled seminaries as well. But the lax standards – theological and psychological -- at the poorly supervised houses have apparently released more than a few truly dangerous men into the ranks of the priesthood. And every time that happened, it happened on the watch of the presiding bishop.

We’ve heard a lot of mea culpas from the bishops in the past few weeks. I believe they were justified, and long overdue. I hope the promised changes will really happen.

But I’m also hoping for more. I’m hoping that the bishops – all bishops – will go back to the heart of the matter. I’m hoping they will turn their full attention to emptying themselves and become vessels of Christ’s grace. I’m hoping they will see themselves as instruments of His power, instead of executors of worldly power. I’m hoping they will turn to Him, instead of attorneys, to solve their problems. I’m hoping that they will concentrate on protecting His little ones, instead of protecting their own reputations.

We may not have the right to criticize our bishops in individual situations we don’t fully understand. But we do have the right to call our bishops to be unwavering, courageous, faithful vessels of Christ’s authority and Christ’s grace.

I think it’s time to call them to that.