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Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

From the Editor’s Desk

I can’t say for certain what I would do today if I were a bishop.

What once was a grand and honorable station in life has become beleaguered, suspect and the object of derision, as our lead story notes. Unfairly? In some respects, certainly.

There are good bishops doing terrific work for the church. In terms of the wider culture, there are bishops having a substantial effect despite the general erosion of credibility. One example -- the enlightened action of Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on education funding -- is pointed out in the editorial on Page 24.

The difficulty in figuring out what to do, I think, arises out of how the office has been construed. The bishops have also put themselves into a very difficult situation by the decisions they’ve made in the course of the sex abuse crisis.

One of the elephants in the living room as far as the current scandal goes is the changed nature of the bishops’ conference in the United States. The office of bishop in the pre-Vatican II world, operated, as Fr. Richard McBrien puts it in his book, Catholicism, as “more a jurisdictional than a sacramental reality.”

That model began to shift significantly with Vatican II, the reform council of the 1960s, which would mark the change from bishops holding all ministries to themselves to a sharing of those ministries with the wider church. Bishops went from being solely delegates of the pope to operating out of a broader sense of pastoral leadership. For a time after the council that change meant that bishops worked in greater collaboration with other bishops, with lay people and with other conferences.

The collaboration seemed to expand in interesting and vital directions until the late 1990s. Then in November 2000 the bishops completed a reorganization of their conference. One of the most significant changes was the diminished role of lay people. No longer could a layperson serve as a full member of a conference committee. They could serve as consultants, with a voice but not a vote. I recall one archbishop, during a discussion of the reorganization, saying in effect: “This is a bishops’ conference, not a laypersons’ conference!”

He was, of course, correct. It is a bishops’ conference. But the fact that bishops feel they have to assert their distinctiveness and authority by reviving old exclusions and reconstructing old walls between themselves and the rest of the church is a sad testimonial on the state of things.

~ ~ ~

Do all bishops do that? No, particularly not in their own dioceses. But there is a corporate identity to the group we call the U.S. bishops. I first covered a meeting of the bishops in the mid-1980s and over the years, appointment after appointment, watched a dramatic remaking of the character and nature of the conference. Sr. Sharon Euart, in an analysis delivered in 2000 to a meeting of the Canon Law Society of America, described the change. “There seems to be a shift in the agenda of the conference today away from an emphasis on social service and issues of social justice … toward an emphasis on ecclesial and ecclesiastical issues.”

It is a fitting symbolism that the bishops in June spent significant time discussing the possibility of the first nationwide “plenary council” in more than a century. A hundred years ago bishops could justifiably consider themselves “the church.” It is telling that in the year 2003, the bishops would find nothing wrong with discussing the possibility of a plenary behind closed doors, shut off from the rest of the church, as if they constituted the whole church. Is there some sort of circle being completed?

~ ~ ~

All along the timeline of the 18-year sex abuse scandal (with the past year as a possible exception), the bishops have consistently made decisions that removed them from the experience of the people they were supposed to be serving. Too often they opted for remaining bound up in a tight little circle of ecclesiastical elites and legal experts.

It is tough to be imaginative, to take the measure of the problem, if you won’t allow yourself to break out of that circle, to talk with some of the best and brightest in the community.

In conversations with Catholics around the country, but especially in the Boston area, the overwhelming response to the crisis is frustration. Many of those who have become the most active in groups like Voice of the Faithful, as far as I can tell, are not necessarily the activists involved in the disputes over liturgy or ordination of women or other, as the bishops call them, “neuralgic” issues. They are, in many ways, among the Catholic intellectual and professional elite. They are doctors and lawyers and academics and business people, many extremely successful, who have spent their adult lives solving problems of all sorts and moving on to the next challenge. They have jammed schedules and constant demands on their time, talent and money. Groups would kill to have them volunteer.

Then the sex abuse crisis hits the scene. And they find it maddeningly frustrating that, in the case of the church, they are essentially unwanted. They have offered their expertise, their time, their organization. Few will talk to them. They are forbidden to meet in some dioceses, treated as if they -- and not the bishops who have sheltered abusers and ignored the victims -- are betraying the church.

~ ~ ~

While many bishops understandably argued at their meeting in June that they’ve taken enormous strides in dealing with the problem, the breach between the bishops and the rest of the church will take far more attention if they want to repair the connection. If they are honest with themselves they will admit that most of the steps taken have been forced on them, that many still are only grudgingly giving up information that is essential to understanding the deeper causes of the problem. They might realize, as the discussion of the possible plenary shows, that bishops are still too willing to relegate the laity to the kiddy table during discussions of issues that will have an effect on the whole church. I can’t say what I’d do today if I were a bishop, but I hope my first impulse would be to widen the circle of discussion, to discover why I might trust Catholics who have remained loyal despite the sometimes despicable behavior of their leaders, and to invite them in for long and honest talks about how we might proceed together.

~ ~ ~

In this space on June 6, I placed Cardinal Francis Arinze as a graduation speaker at the wrong university. The head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, he spoke at Georgetown University.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

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