There are some who say that we, lay people, should not criticize bishops. They say that the bishop is a vicar of Christ and it isn’t to up to us, but only for the Pope and other bishops. (That of course ignores the long history of reforms and episcopal house-cleanings that were initiated by laypeople, including emperors and other civil authorities.) I get the impression that had these people lived at the time of the Borgia popes—men who openly kept mistresses, engaged in public debauchery, and plundered the Church as if it were their own private treasury … in other words, acted like the Clinton White House—they would have engaged in the same defensive “it’s not our business” pleading. In fact, they would have sounded—and sound now—a lot like the Alleluia chorus of Clinton supporters who said presidential perjury and adultery are none of our business.
In a perfect world, we would not raise our voices in criticism of our Fathers. They would be either completely virtuous men or, failing that, their brother bishops would remonstrate with them in private. Unfortunately, we know that we don’t live in a perfect world. As the past year has seen, the bishops do not show themselves to have the capacity to police themselves and it has only been through the work of those willing to criticize them that the depths of the Scandal has even been exposed.
In 2000, my Catholic World Report magazine ran an article called “The Gay Priest Problem”. In one key paragraph, the author, Fr. Paul Shaughnessy, points out the reason why we can’t rely on the bishops to take care of the problem.
I define as corrupt, in a sociological sense, any institution that has lost the capacity to mend itself on its own initiative and by its own resources, an institution that is unable to uncover and expel its own miscreants. It is in this sense that the principal reason why the action necessary to solve the gay problem won’t be taken is that the episcopacy in the United States is corrupt, and the same is true of the majority of religious orders. It is important to stress that this is a sociological claim, not a moral one.
And because the bishops protect one another from the “glare of the awful Roman monster,” the Vatican is often the last to know of a bishop’s transgressions. Even then, there are some in the Vatican who are part of the corrupt machinery that protects those it considers one of its own.
To be sure, there is a line between criticism of a bishop and disdain for his office. I can say that a man is the “worst-still serving bishop in the US,” but Christian obedience and respect for his office hold that, were I living in his diocese, I would respect his pronouncements on matters of faith and morals and give him religious assent on other matters. So when the US bishops’ conference (the bishops themselves, not the bureaucracy) speaks on the issue of war with Iraq, I carefully consider its statements, comparing my hopefully well-formed conscience against them in order to make my decisions on the issue.
But, as with the Borgia popes, I would have to weigh the bishop’s public personal failings against his office to ask myself, “Is the man speaking as a vicar of Christ or as the one who showed disdain for the welfare of molested children?” Not every decision by some bishops is made with a view to the mind and heart of Jesus Christ as we have seen and I have to take that into account.
And so, as a lay Catholic and a journalist, is it my role to pretend the problem doesn’t exist? Should I not point out failings where I see them? Because if I do not speak, who will? Without a chorus of voices speaking out against the corruption in the Church—which all this surely is—there is no doubt in my mind that nothing would change and the rot would remain.