Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The problem of bad bishops

Let's be clear about it: the Catholic Church in the United States is plagued with many bishops who are just plain bad. Several have turned out to be sexual offenders. Quite a few have been guilty of shifting pederast priests around so they could offend again in new places. Quite a few have little loyalty to the Magisterium, preferring a more convenient faith of their own invention, instead. Quite a few have done everything they could, seemingly, to kill vocations and drive the most dedicated Catholics out of their dioceses.

Enduring such malfeasance would try the patience of any people in any age, but it is especially galling in the U.S. because of our democratic political heritage, and may be precipitating an eruption of anticlericalism that this country has never seen.

Precisely because they're Americans, American Catholics are used to being able to take action when power is being abused in their secular lives. The right to petition the government for redress of grievances was written into our Constitution from the start. If Americans have a corrupt Congressman, they can work to get him out of office. If their boss is tyrannical, they're often able to express their objections to such behavior to higher-ups. If a co-worker is making unwelcome advances, they can file a complaint. The ability to strike back effectively at bad guys is one of the best safety valves in American public life. People who know can do this are far less likely to explode in disorderly and dangerous resistance.

But American Catholics have no option for such redress when it comes to their bishops. There is no mechanism for effective action against a bishop, except the long and tortuous road of asking Rome to intervene. And Rome has seemed mighty reluctant to intervene. Instead of actively policing the bishops and making them toe the line, Rome appears to sit back and wait for complaints to come in, and then look into it -- after a few more years go by.

And this has its price: the bishops too often act like evil prefects in a really bad boarding school -- secure in their license to bend the rules to their liking and to harrass, intimidate, and bully those who oppose them; and secure in the knowledge that if one of the little people gets uppity enough to complain to the headmaster, then that timid, complacent man will hem and haw and ultimately do nothing except to urge the victims to try to get along better with the bullies.

That approach works badly outside the Church, and it works badly inside it, too. It's terribly demoralizing to anyone who takes the teachings of the Church seriously to see their own bishop flout those teachings, year after year and decade after decade, and insist that everyone else flout them too -- and then to see that the ultimate authority in Rome will take no action to correct the situation. If anyone's still wondering why so many Catholics have left their Church, this is a darn good place to start looking.

When things reach a breaking point (and I think they're very close to it now), American Catholics will demand a voice in selecting their bishops, and an effective means of promptly removing bishops who have gone bad. And if they don't get it, some will take action to seize it -- and things will then get very messy indeed.

It's all very well to say that these men are successors to the Apostles, for so they are, but it is not a sufficient reason to just pray and remain passive. Judas was an Apostle, too, you know. And some of our bishops are his successors.