American Catholics are furious. The rage has been building all summer, ever since the news broke concerning the alleged sexual predations of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Then a Pennsylvania grand jury released evidence of appallingly widespread abuse across six Pennsylvania dioceses, spanning 70 years, bolstering the argument that bishops have functioned for years as enablers, covering things up and playing things down, as known offenders are moved to fresh locations where they can find new victims.
To some, the way forward seems obvious if not easy. The Church needs better bishops. Many Catholic laymen are calling for mass resignations, pointing out that there is a precedent for this. The objective, as some see it, should not be simply to weed out the obviously-guilty-and-corrupt from the episcopacy. Rather, we need to replace our petty bureaucratic functionaries with virtuous and inspired spiritual leaders. Some would like to see the bishops in more populist garb, abandoning their oversized desks and cushy armchairs to preach on street corners and work in soup kitchens.
The appeal of this vision is obvious. But to my mind, a spate of glossy photo spreads — bishops kissing babies, hugging convicts, posing with oversized ladles — is borderline grotesque. After so many years of hypocrisy and posturing, couldn’t we all use a break from that kind of performative piety? I’d be content with uninspired bureaucrat-bishops, so long as they were decent and competent. Unfortunately, even that is starting to seem like a pretty tall order.
Catholicism will always need some priests, because it is a sacramental faith. In the 21st century though, it’s mostly going to be the task of Catholic laity to preserve and perpetuate their faith for future generations. Ordained men cannot be expected to do it all, both because they are too compromised, and because they are too few.
Catholic bishops are deeply unsympathetic figures nowadays (for good reason), but we should still appreciate that the expectations placed on them can be fairly ridiculous. In the first place, American dioceses are way too big. In some, the bishop is officially responsible for the spiritual guidance of literally millions of souls. How much oversight can we really expect under those circumstances?
Next, we should consider that the bishops are expected to stand as unifying institutional figures in a Church that is internally riven by factions. Across decades of sweeping cultural change, Catholicism has avoided schism through a kind of a de facto compromise between its liberal and conservative camps: Formal teachings stay consistent, but on the ground widespread laxity ensures that dissenters can move comfortably within Catholic parishes and institutions. This arrangement has never really satisfied anyone, but the present crisis illustrates just how dangerous it can be. It’s hard to maintain high standards for clergy when entrenched hypocrisy is actually part of the Church’s institutional strategy. Enforcing discipline also becomes prohibitively difficult when most of the would-be enforcers have skeletons in their own closets. Almost no one really wants the Church to schism, so the hierarchy tends to downplay the seriousness of these disagreements. But insofar as bishops are de facto expected to be professional image-managers, it’s hardly surprising they end up papering over some other ugly things.
As if this weren’t enough, it seems there are still Catholics who actually want their bishops to offer guidance on a whole range of social and spiritual questions. As a writer, I’m occasionally bemused by a query from some pious Catholic, who wants to know what, if anything, the American bishops have said about a political issue that I am addressing. Quite frankly, I never know. I am aware that the United States Catholic Council of Bishops periodically issues statements on affairs of state, but why would I read them? These are bishops. I don’t expect them to have nuanced views on immigration or Social Security reform.
Still, I can understand why some Catholics want their bishops to be leading public figures. The world is certainly troubled enough, and in principle it can be perfectly healthy for religious patriarchs to play a role in influencing matters of state. Catholics also rightly feel that our wealth of philosophical and historical resources ought to be brought to bear on difficult questions about poverty, social justice, immigration, racial reconciliation, military ethics, and the environment. Someone should do the work of extending that rich tradition for the benefit of present generations. Why not the bishops? They have fancier clothes and bigger platforms than the rest of us, and when bishops assume a leading public role, ordinary Catholics get the reassuring feeling that their Church is still powerful and globally significant, as it has been across so much of Western history. Rome may not have much political clout anymore, but in this day and age, media attention seems almost as good.
For the bishops themselves though, it evidently has not been good. Tinkering in politics is hazardous enough for inky wretches like me, who can at least count on being pilloried when we say idiotic things in the public square. For men of modest political understanding and high ecclesial office, media attention inevitably comes with tremendous temptations. When they succumb to those temptations, their entire flock may end up paying a heavy price.
The prudent course for most prelates, I suspect, is to embrace the workaday task of keeping the lights on in their local schools and parishes. That is the daily grind for many or most bishops, and there’s no reason for the laity to disparage it. Someone has to ensure that the books are balanced and the parishes staffed; ordinarily that someone should be the bishop. Occasionally a particular prelate may have a real role to play in the political realm, but most will serve the Church better by staying at home and seeing to it that the faithful have access to sacraments, and that their clergy aren’t sexual predators.
Since bishops aren’t elected, ordinary Catholics have no direct control over their selection or behavior. What we can do is stop encouraging destructive trends. Don’t demand guidance from your bishops except in matters immediately related to diocesan affairs. More importantly, we can save our bishops from the scourge of mission creep simply by expanding our own sense of mission. Whenever Catholics start demanding to know why their Church isn’t doing a particular thing, I encourage them to consider whether there’s any actual reason why ordained men are needed to accomplish the task. If not, work on it yourself. America is still a pretty free country, and ordinary Catholics can certainly kiss babies, embrace convicts, and mine the Catholic tradition for salient political insights. We can even preach on street corners, if we have a mind.
This is a dark hour for Catholics, but we don’t have to feel helpless just because we feel betrayed. Our children will remember the principles that we have taught them, regardless of the faith or perfidy of our prelates.