Rocking the Bishops

The Spirit Moves at the Catholic Conference

DALLAS—On the opening day of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last week, the Dallas Morning News rocked the house with a lengthy investigation of child abuse in the church. Under a headline that read, "Two Thirds of Bishops Let Accused Priests Work," the paper featured 111 mug shots and rap sheets. As the men in black shuffled past a battery of cameras, the scene took on the look of a massive perp walk.

But in the end, the real story was not about crime—or even how to mete out punishment. The American Catholic church is opening itself up to the modern world, and one sign of this new mood is the power shift that was evident in palpable ways at the conference.

  • Bishops ceded some jealously guarded power to civil authorities.
  • Bishops shared the podium with some of their harshest critics.
  • Left and right Catholic factions united in condemning church leaders for their handling of the crisis.
  • The bishops subjected themselves to the kind of lay oversight that has never occurred in the American church.

Despite the fact that the Vatican has to approve the new norms the bishops know that they are being scrutinized by even higher powers: the faithful they love and the media they hate.

Largely because of this crisis, the stage has been set for the kind of debate about church governance that has not occurred since Vatican II in the early 1960s. This discussion will probably not take place before the election of a new pope, but that will happen sooner than the disappearance of the scandal. The most likely outcome of such a process is a change in the character of the American church. Some power will devolve to local bishops—and even to the laity.

Just how big a gun the bishops felt at their heads was evident in the crucial question of how to deal with bishops who protected predatory priests. Bishop Wilton Gregory, chair of the conference, has said that only the pope can fire these diocesan officials. That's precisely what Frank Keating intends to propose. "It should be done," said Keating, the governor of Oklahoma, who was picked to head the board that the bishops established to deal with allegations of abuse by priests. "If someone obscures, absolves, obstructs, or hides that criminal act, arguably they are obstructing justice or are accessories to the crime." Keating has the political clout, and—as a hard-line death penalty enforcer who once authorized the execution of a prisoner despite pleas from the pope—he has the will to put pressure on the Vatican. As this former G-man vowed, in essence, to put cuffs on some church leaders if necessary, Bishop Gregory smiled broadly.

Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, widely regarded as a liberal, spoke passionately about the need to confront the larger issues that formed the context for this scandal. At the bishops' fall meeting in Washington, Sullivan said,""We ought to look at the selection of bishops, how we involve the laity, and who gets to be ordained," alluding to the exclusion of women and married men without stating a position on those issues. The alternative to that approach was voiced by the conservative cardinal Francis George of Chicago. "We can't operate as a Protestant church," one that works within "our secularized, self-righteous, and decadent culture," George said. His vote was for a much smaller but more faithful Roman Catholic Church. Yet the real power at this conference lay with bishops—and with laity—who are much more open to change.

This crisis marks "a shift from bishops setting the agenda to the people setting it," says Mary Hunt, co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. "The bishops have met alone for the last time." Hunt and her compatriots have formed "Catholic-base communities," where they celebrate mass without priests. Voice of the Faithful, the new Catholic lay movement that sprang up in Boston just this January, is sweeping parishes across the nation. It openly proposes to "shape structural change in the church," while not yet taking on doctrinal issue. The group has criticized the bishops for setting up a board to monitor abuse with no independence from their authority.

At the conference, an event occurred that most Catholics probably thought they would never see. Bishops at their own national meeting were joined at a press conference by members of a group formed to represent abuse victims. "This isn't about a few mixed-up priests," said Mark Serrano of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "It's about bishops keeping felons in the priesthood." Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, one of the many leaders to whom he referred, sat next to him, staring stonily forward.

"I'm starting to feel sorry for the bishops," said Tom Fox, publisher of the progressive National Catholic Reporter. It was a remarkable statement from a member of Call to Action, the 26-year-old liberal movement for reform in the church, and a sign of how much the spirit moved in Dallas.

But before anyone gets the idea that the Age of Aquarius has dawned in the church of Rome, consider the tenacity of the Catholic right.

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