In the aftermath of the Dallas conference of bishops, it's now clear: there are two kinds of American Catholic bishops, and they divide more or less into two camps, with each group emphasizing a different philosophy and style.

The first type advocates the virtues of ancient, unchanging truths, not the latest PR or pop culture styles. In general, such bishops were appointed by Pope John Paul II, not for their public leadership qualities but for their ability to manage church structure. These bishops' primary loyalty is to the church, which means that, in a way, they view priests as their "children."

The other type of bishop believes in participatory democracy, that the church is a community of equals. This type of bishop is oriented toward the virtues of the 21st century, with its messy way of working out truth. Some of these bishops were appointed by Pope Paul VI, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, at a time when "social justice" and "pastoral ministry" were buzzwords in Catholicism. Others have backgrounds in parish life, or are used to dealing with the public.

“These two worlds are competing with one another,” says the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Council. “There’s a theological struggle, and the bishops are trying to find their way through it.”

The pro-tradition view is clearly personified in Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose diocese is at the center of the storm, and Cardinal John Egan of New York, also in the midst of allegations of shielding priest perpetrators. These bishops’ primary loyalty is to the church, and to the Pope.

But lesser-known bishops also adhere to this vision. Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., for instance, argued that the bishops should insert into the document the word "credible" when alluding to accusations against priests. Suggesting that the bishops were putting themselves into a position of "ratting out our priests," he also argued that Catholic canon law is much older than even the U.S. Constitution--and should therefore be considered more important by the bishops.

And Bishop Raymond Burke of the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisc., added a small but telling amendment in describing the role of lay-driven diocesan review boards. The original document said these boards would “assess allegations.” Burke changed the wording to “will assist the Diocesan Bishop in assessing.”

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy view was exemplified in Archbishop Bishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the chairman of the Sexual Abuse Committee, who invited prominent laypeople to address the bishops on Thursday morning, and who pushed for a National Review Board comprised of laity to produce an annual report of dioceses’ compliance with the new rules. Early in his career, Flynn served as an associate pastor, pastor, high school teacher, retreat master, and spiritual leader in several various assignments in the Diocese of Albany.

Another example is Archbishop John Vlazny, of Portland, Ore., who rose in the midst of a heated discussion over whether bishops were willing to turn in priests to the authorities to say, “I think we’ve learned that our internal investigations are somewhat suspect.” Like Flynn, Vlazny served as associate pastor in five parishes in the Chicago archdiocese between 1962 and 1979. Yet another example was Bishop John Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn., who told the bishops they’d been “blinded” in their dealing with the crisis. “We tried to deal honestly, but we dealt passively,” he said. “And we failed.”

Silva believes that, for now, the pro-tradition view prevails. “The male hierarchical structure can be very harsh because it’s the one in power and they’ll punish those who dissent,” Silva says. How do they do it? Silva says dissenting bishops are permitted much less voice and influence and are generally not allowed to move to larger and more influential dioceses.

Even so, it seems reasonable to say that the pro-laity group won an important battle at Dallas, though it is certainly the first of many to come.

And that is not inconsequential, since the church is now faced with a completely different landscape from the one it faced even a year ago. Until now, the church has promoted and fostered pro-tradition leaders for their fiscal or bureaucratic skills, men who were above all loyal to Pope John Paul II. In the wake of the crisis, however, many Catholics have begun to realize what a difficult time the bishops may have solving it--because many of these bishops don't have the skills the present situation demands.

For instance, insiders say that as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., Egan had kept a tight rein on spending. A canon lawyer, he was later chosen for the New York position because the archdiocese needed to clean up its messy finances. But New York is the world’s media capital. In the midst of a scandal of this magnitude, the church needs a voluble personality with a flair for television--preferably a cab ride across town from the networks. The church had that personality in the late Cardinal John O’Connor, who was widely--and happily--quoted, as he sparred with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, among many others. Egan, definitely not that kind of personality, has been absent from most television appearances.

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