Catholic Bishops Shoot Themselves in the Foot--Again

Despite everything that's happened, they still hide behind legalisms when their only salvation is transparency.

June 22, 2003--It's obvious that former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating was a loose cannon on the committee that is supposed to supervise the compliance of the Catholic hierarchy with the Dallas Charter it enacted a year ago. It is understandable that he was shocked to discover the narrow and rigid defense mechanisms from civil and canon law behind which they try to hide the truth of the sex abuse mess and protect their own power and authority. Yet, as a politician he should have realized that his many outbursts against the bishops might weaken the work of the commission.

Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that some of the bishops managed to get themselves into a position where they appear to have driven Keating off the committee. One more cover-up, people are saying; one more abuse of power. It would appear, in fact, that the other members of the committee thought the governor was impeding their work. However, given the image some of the bishops have created for themselves, the Keating affair looks like one more dumb move by men determined to hold onto their illusion of power, no matter what the cost to their credibility.

Why did the bishops have to shoot themselves in the foot once again, especially with their annual meeting one year after Dallas about to happen? Why create a chance for another feeding frenzy?

While he may have been impolitic in comparing the bishops to the Mafia, Keating was not, as the Irish would say, all that far from wrong. Many of the bishops are still determined to hide as much as they can of the criminal behavior of some of their priests. Despite everything that has happened, they still hide behind legalisms (canonical and civil) when their only salvation lies in transparency. Many dioceses are cooperating fully with the committee and not deploying phalanxes of lawyers to fend them off. However, the underlying question remains: Do the bishops know what deep trouble they are in, how low their credibility is, and how much scandal--in the literal, moral, theological meaning of that word--they have created? Do they know how much they have embarrassed the laity, and how badly they have savaged the public image of the Church?

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I find myself wondering sometimes what many bishops consider their job description to be--not the theoretical and theological nature of their office, but the practical, day-to-day nature of their work. Do they understand that their most important role is to lead and to inspire the laity in the faith by their manner, their style, their public voice and deeds? Do they realize that they are Jesus' high priest in their diocese, and that when the laity see them they ought to be able to see the face of Jesus lurking dimly behind them? That is the charism of their office, in principle. In practice, they should strive to live up to that charism. Bishops are not a necessary evil in the Church. They are, or at least ought to be, a positive good.

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