2016-06-30
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.

Or take Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. He’s a brilliant thinker who went straight from seminary to graduate school, taught philosophy, and then alternated between heading his order (the Oblates of Mary Immaculate) and teaching, until he was sent to Rome to be the Vicar General of his order there. When he returned from Rome, he held a position at the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture, where he met Cardinal Law while earning his doctorate. Twelve years ago he was appointed bishop of Yakima, Wash., moving later to Portland, Ore., and from there to Chicago.

George possesses multiple degrees. But he does not possess knowledge of parish life--which would be helpful in dealing with an important, sprawling, archdiocese with an unruly laity like Chicago. In this way, he is quite different from Chicago's late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, revered for his pastoral and leadership skills and his mediating role between the U.S. hierarchy and the Vatican. Bernardin oversaw the drafting and passage of the landmark 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, which criticized the building of nuclear weapons.

It’s unlikely, for instance, that Bernardin would have described the media as “communist spies” as George did on Sunday in his first public appearance after the bishops’ conference.

It is that kind of bumbling remark that shows how difficult the task ahead, winning the trust of the laity, may be.

Others see it differently, of course. Helen Hull Hitchcock, president of the conservative Women for Faith and Family, worries that the pro-laity camp is winning. She cites as evidence the first morning of the meeting, when two laypeople--R. Scott Appleby, an American Catholic expert from the University of Notre Dame, and Margaret Steinfels, editor of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal--gave the bishops a tongue-lashing.

Appleby described the sex abuse crisis as a "disaster." He said some bishops have "behaved atrociously," "marked by arrogance, lack of repentance, and repeated failure to be collegial." He said the laity believe the underlying scandal is the behavior of bishops--"even NOW, after all the sorry revelations."

He accused them of being infected with "unchecked power." He called members of the hierarchy, "including those at the center of the storm"--clearly a reference to Law--"unrepentant and even defiant, blaming the culture, the media, or their...opponents for the disgrace that has been visited upon them."

Hitchcock--to put it mildly--wasn’t pleased.

“He has an agenda, and that agenda is to eradicate the distinction between the hierarchy and the laity,” she says. “This is a radical idea. I was very puzzled by his being selected to speak.”

Hitchcock worries that the bishops’ sloppy, sometimes criminal, response to sex abuse for the last 20 years will now be used as ammunition by liberals who want to democratize the church--who want to make it a primarily lay-driven church.

“There is a radically different vision of what happened at the Second Vatican Council, between people who think like the pope, and those who believe the purpose of the Second Vatican Council was to turn the church on its head,” she says. “That’s what we heard between the lines of Appleby’s speech, that now finally, we’ll put into effect the radical reforms intended by Vatican II, namely to unseat the hierarchy from power.”

On Saturday, as the conference ended, the bishops dragged their luggage to the hotel lobby on their way to the airport. A few seemed willing to reveal their thoughts. Asked if he thinks some of the bishops should resign, Bishop Victor Balke, of Crookston, Minn.

, said, “I wonder if some resignations would have enabled us to go beyond the anger more quickly...It could have been a self-purification process.”

Archbishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., on the other hand, said in a rush on his way to a car: “I feel like I can go back to Connecticut and face the laity.”

Which vision will lead the bishops forward? Those who view anyone outside their world as suspect, or those who want to open church governance to everyone? At this point, no one truly knows. And: are they up to the task? Hitchcock says that some of the bishops “definitely are--others are less so.”

Silva, a priest who knows many of the prelates well, had a different reaction. Asked if he thought they would be able to lead their church through the crisis, he smiled thinly. Then he shook his head “no.”

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