Two Litmus Tests for A Good Bishop -- And One Radical Question

It's probably dangerous to post comments on the current situation of the Church during this Summer of Shame and Scandal, because new charges and statements come out every hour it seems, and one is always on shifting ground.

As to the accusations of Archbishop ViganĂ² (read his whole 11-p. testimony at the bottom of the page here, if you haven't), the former Vatican Nuncio to the U.S.: they have the ring of truth -- so much so, that my heart actually lightened significantly in reading his memo, because I felt for the first time in a long time that at last the truth was, if not here, at least on course to come out.  I'm not for witch hunts or lynchings or denial of due process. But for the love of God --literally-- can we just once and for all have the full unvarnished truth? ViganĂ² may or may not be right in every particular; but he's credible. Let's find out. 

I don't have much to add to the rage and shame and cries for justice against priests who either abuse children or prey on adult seminarians, or superiors who looked the other way or covered up such things. I don't see why any policy beyond the 6th Commandment should be necessary for a professing Christian, and sexual sin ought to be confronted, confessed, repented, punished, and atoned for both civilly (where criminal) and in the order of grace -- including loss of office.

As long as we seem to be en route to a wholesale purification of the Church through a purging of its episcopacy and clergy, however, I wanted to offer three riffs on this excellent piece by Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington.  He offers six generalized problems in the episcopacy, all of which ring "right on" in my observations as a pew-sitter for 30+ years, and as someone who has worked in leadership in Church apostolates as both employee and volunteer in various capacities.

Do read his piece, because it's excellent and thorough, and what follows is offered as mere commentary on it.

In light of the first round of revelations of clerical abuse in the U.S. in the period 2000-2002, I lost almost all respect for the episcopacy for the reasons Msgr. Pope mentions above (and for another of my own described in point #2 here). But I also kept an eye peeled for examples (all too rare) of real, courageous -- dare I say manly?-- leadership. And I came to have two litmus tests for a good bishop.  This is NOT a list of what I think a good bishop ought to do.  It's just two litmus tests that I've found to be accurate in predicting whether a bishop will  be courageous and wise.

1. Do the priests of his diocese respect him? Do they testify of him that he knows them by name and has shown fatherly concern for their spiritual health and growth?  I have never met in person a diocesan priest who has ever had a personal conversation with his bishop except from time to time when he was summoned to the chancery office to be informed he was being transferred. I personally know a priest who had a nervous breakdown and was feeling ashamed and defeated and in need of some paternal care. His pastor literally begged the bishop to visit him or at least call him. Bupkes.  The priest recovered and is flourishing, and that bishop is long dead, but the priest will tell you there has been no improvement under two successors.

Why is this important?  Because dioceses are huge and bishops don't have the ability to "pastor" most of their flock. They pastor their flock through the priests whom they pastor, and the priests in turn pastor the flock.  A bishop who will not devote priority time to getting to know, form and care for the priests of his diocese (I include seminarians -- priests in formation), is a failure, full stop. It does not matter what else good might be going on in his diocese -- it will all be hollow if he is not attending to the spiritual health, formation, orthodoxy and morale of his men. (We see in our times why. You can be eloquent in defense of life, or running the greatest apostolates, but if your priests are living shabby lives behind your back or under your nose, your eloquent words won't hit hearts at all -- they'll just make people cynical, because they'll "know" the Church doesn't really mean it.)

The bishop should be meeting with his men regularly both formally and informally to hear what's going on in the parishes, to get their feedback and give them guidance. He should be offering retreats and ongoing formation instead of leaving them on their own to find retreats. In addition, he should be doing what's reported of Bishop Hebda (now of Minneapolis) when he was in NY:  ducking into the backs of parishes unannounced to see for himself what's being preached and how the people respond.

2. That first litmus test I suppose is valid at any time. The second might not be perennial, but it's vital for our time.  Does the bishop enthusiastically support the Courage apostolate in his diocese? If he does not, I know he is either a coward or dense -- a person who cannot read the signs of the times. The battle of our time is for chastity (and not because the Church is obsessed with sex, but because when the gift of sexuality is left untutored and undisciplined, it becomes sick and violent instead of life-giving), and those Christians who for whatever reason are not prepared to proclaim it are failing to give prophetic witness about the full beauty and dignity of each human person. They are failing to confront the times.

By emphasizing Courage I am not suggesting that people experiencing same-sex attractions ought particularly to be singled out for chastity lectures or that the bishop ought to be particularly worried about homosexuality as opposed to other violations of chastity, or still less that matters of sexuality take pride of place in the kerygma.  I am suggesting that of all people, homosexuals are the most preyed upon by the culture, the most lied to, used,  and abused -- and left for dead, including physically-- and a bishop who won't have the back of the "least of these" by standing with them when they try to live in the truth, is signaling he won't have anyone else's back, either.  (And if the bishop disparages Courage? Beware: he has a moral problem himself.)

A third riff is not a litmus test, but a question. I can't recall a time when Catholics haven't complained that their bishops see themselves as administrators and CEOs rather than pastors. My first litmus test is of a piece with that complaint.  My question is: do they have a choice as things now stand? Or is the vast bureaucracy of Catholic schools/hospitals/charities which a bishop is supposed to manage and fundraise for inherently corrupting in its current structure?  Perhaps a dismantling of the Catholic administrative state is as necessary for the purification of the Church as a disrupting of the administrative state generally is for the body politic.  Can we imagine a structure in which we did not expect a Cardinal to raise $200 million each year for Catholic Charities? Can we understand that expecting him to is probably inherently corrupting --of him as a man, and of the institutions themselves--for a whole host of reasons?

It's not just that fundraisers can be tempted to adjust themselves to wealthy donors who might not like to hear the bishop give a barn-burner of a homily about Humanae Vitae.  Or that hob-knobbing with wealthy donors might tempt a man away from the modest life of poverty of spirit.  It also means the bishop and the bishops conference pull punches for political reasons. Cardinals Dolan and Wuerl are always walking a fine line in NY and DC, respectively-- in order to prevent hostile city councils from shutting down their Catholic agencies. You can call them cowards if you like, but if you or I had thousands of moms and dads in our employ serving the poor in various capacities and one wrong move against the zeitgeist would get those agencies closed down by hostile targeted regulations, could you so easily say it was more important to take the bold stand than to keep on serving and supporting those poor and those families?

Or think of how during the fight against the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, the bishops took the tack of trying to carve out for their own specifically Catholic institutions a special exemption in the name of religious freedom. This was good in as far as it went (although I hate this "outlaw" approach, by which instead of arguing the truth as universal and good for all, we constantly ask to be exempt from rules that apply to the rest of society), but it seems not even to have occurred to the bishops to defend all citizens everywhere from an intrusive, unfair, unnecessary and vindictive regulation.  Their position only defended specifically Catholic apostolates -- Catholic religious, the Catholic schools and Catholic Charities, but not the private businessman in the pew. I think it's too easy to ascribe such things to cowardice; I think our current system is in itself corrupting -- in part because of the insularity Msgr. Pope describes, and in part because making bishops CEOs of Catholic Charities means asking them to think mostly in terms of how to protect those apostolates. Is that really the most important function of a bishop? Ought it to be any function at all?