What has not been named in this scandal, my priest friend says, is that the first one wounded in this is Jesus Christ, not the institution and not even the victims. It is the sacrament of holy orders that has been blasphemed, and this is greater even than the crimes against children and other innocents. For Jesus Christ is peculiarly present in the sacrament of the priest and in the priest's victims. In committing these crimes, the gravest sin involved in this blasphemy is therefore not abuse of children, horrible as that is. It is that such sin denies people access to Christ, grotesquely deforms our ability to see him, or blinds us to him altogether.
This diagnosis, though counterintuitive, is simply right, I think. Children are not the primary victims of these sins: Jesus Christ is. And he is so precisely because he is present both in the children and families wounded and in the sacrament of holy orders, which criminal priests and their protective bishops share.
This disconnect between the American bishops' conception of their office and the Holy Father's is, said my priest friend, quite clear and obvious to the Holy Father. My friend has been rereading the ad limina addresses John Paul gave to our bishops in the late nineties, and as you might expect, the Pope has a markedly different conception-what some of us might call a Catholic conception-of the ordained office as being a shepherd of souls, not a CEO of a large corporation.
But now the need for a more Traditional (mark that: "Traditional," not "reactionary" or "conservative," since these are also secular political categories that are not rooted in the Tradition) conception of the nature of holy orders as ordaining shepherds and not CEOs is suddenly making itself felt in exquisite ways to our bishops. And ironically, I find that my initial conception of what to do about things ("Replace defective Part A with functional Part B to fix administrative machinery") is remarkably closer to Bill Gates' than to the Holy Father's or my priest friend's.
"The first blunder," said Padre, "was to yank abusive priests out before they had the chance to face the people they'd hurt." He did not mean they should be left in place to harm more kids. Those priests (like Shanley or Geoghan) who did the crime should do the time.
And this explains very well, I think, why John Paul leaves the present crop of bishops in their jobs to endure and carry the cross they have created and laid on the shoulders of so many innocent people. My priest friend thinks that the Holy Father believes that this is the time when abusive American clergy are going to have to carry the cross they made for others so that the American Church (both laity and clergy) learn what the true nature of priesthood is supposed to be. Simply thinking in secular categories and treating this as an administrative machinery problem will not serve.
The problem here is the failure to grasp the nature of the sacrament, and yanking these bishops off the crosses they now occupy will only be another manifestation of such thinking. It will mean that abusers and the bishops who sheltered them don't really face the consequences of their actions and that they will be replaced by more people who have no more conception of the nature of their priestly office than their predecessors did.
I find this argument very compelling. So in the end I am forced to conclude that, despite the gravity of the crisis now engulfing the American Catholic Church, demands for the resignation of bishops who have so terribly and sinfully mismanaged the Church and permitted such terrible wounding of their flocks are not, in fact, the wisest approach (except, of course, in the case of actual criminal activity by the bishop).