"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, July 08, 2005

Can the U.S. bishops see all their tongues?

Everybody knows about the sex scandals that have been rocking the American Catholic Church for quite some time now. And it's not only priests abusing minors. Over the last three years, the Vatican has forced half-a-dozen US bishops to resign on account of their own sexual improprieties. Two of them had been carrying on with married women; the other four had been dallying with seminarians, ex-seminarians, or would-be seminarians. And that's aside from Cardinal Law's voluntary resignation for his inexcusable negligence in handling the priestly perverts under his authority in the Boston archdiocese. The bishops as a body only did something about all this when the media exposure created a PR disaster and the civil lawsuits created a financial disaster. Commendably, if a few decades late, the sex-abuse policies governing priests and lay employees have been made very tough. But what are the bishops doing to police themselves and address the root causes of the problem?

Not much, really. Since bishops are severally sovereign in their own dioceses, the US Bishops' Conference has no formal, juridical authority to discipline them. That falls to the Vatican, which for several reasons can only do so much and was rather out of touch until quite recently. The previous president of the conference, Wilton Gregory, handled a nearly impossible task well given the constraints under which he had to operate. But it's not nearly enough. One might expect that the USCCB would at least reform its public face by electing a successor who would force the sort of collective self-examination that, in turn, would prompt a step or two further toward radical reform. Alas, no such luck.

Take a look at the Diocese of Spokane. It has been so burned by the sex scandals over the last decade that it has just been forced, by past and pending civil actions, to file for Federal bankruptcy protection. Vocations in the diocese hover near zero even as several large parishes lack resident pastors. And the theologians at Gonzaga University are not required to take the mandatum, i.e., a promise of orthodoxy in teaching and publication that is required by the Pope's apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990). Yet who has just been elected President of the USCCB? The Bishop of Spokane, William Skylstad.

Upon getting such news, all I could say was what the French know so well: the more things change, the more they stay the same. But something more disquieting is manifest here, and something simply has to be said about it.

The bishops as a whole just don't seem aware of the message the election of their new conference president is sending. By tradition, Skylstad was the presumptive candidate for president because he had been elected vice-president when Gregory was elected president. Some bishops saw fit to break with tradition and vote for somebody better suited to doing what must be done. But not enough so voted: Skylstad got in by a comfortable, though far from unanimous, margin. That tells me that, even though some bishops get it, the majority don't. They don't get that many of us who know and care enough about the Church to know and care about this election hear its result as the bishops saying "business as usual" even as they proclaim otherwise. And that betokens an entrenched unwillingness to acknowledge and confront what truly subtends the American Church's enormous problems.

In future entries I'll delve more into those problems. For now, I'll just conclude by noting that the US bishops have now proven themselves corrupt as a body. Although many are good men as individuals, they are simply not capable at this time of acting collectively so as to make the reforms that are necessary if the problems are going to be tackled at the necessary depth.
blog comments powered by Disqus