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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

#416: The Pope Leads—Will the Bishops Follow?

The U.S. Bishops are at a fork in the road—is it splitting them up?

A little more than one year since the election of Pope Francis, many things have changed--but perhaps too many things have stayed the same.

Two weekends ago I completed four sessions of a parish retreat on “The Francis Effect.” Many participants expressed the feeling that the experience filled them with hope, which made me appreciate just how powerful the new pope’s impact has been.  After a decade-long decline in the public image and reputation of the Catholic Church, Francis has accomplished a dramatic turnaround.  Little more than a year ago the Church’s public standing was the lowest it had been since before Vatican Council II (1962-1965).  Now its standing is at its highest point in nearly 50 years--that is, since the time of the Council itself.

Francis has accomplished this by calling for and initiating a change in church culture, but others must follow suit and lead at the national and local levels.  A change of the top will mean nothing if it does not “trickle down.”

Francis himself has been very clear about what this change requires if we are to create a truly missionary spirit in the Church (see CrossCurrents #408 and #409 in the archives).

But events of the last few weeks suggest that if Francis has brought us to a fork in the road, only some of the U.S. Bishops are going his way.  Three recent events suggest that while some bishops take Francis’ mandate to heart, others are struggling to grasp it or are even continuing on their own course.

Following Francis: John L. Allen Jr.’s recent Boston Globe piece detailed how Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley and 8 other bishops staged a three day visit to the U.S.-Mexican border to urge reform of the “broken” U.S. immigration system.

In this they are, of course, following the footsteps and priorities of Francis, by putting their focus on the poor and the social injustices of current public policy.

Calling O’Malley “the American Francis,” Allen asserts: “the Catholic push for immigrant rights already had its global ambassador in Francis, and now it has found a domestic face in O’Malley.”

O’Malley and his fellow bishops celebrated Mass (distributing Communion “to outstretched hands from the Mexican side of the border through slats in eight 20-foot-high security fence”), held a news conference on immigration reform, and visited and interviewed people on both sides of the border.

Allen sees in all this “the emergence of immigration reform as a top shelf Catholic concern”--but he also hints that O’Malley &Company are not typical of the U.S. hierarchy is a whole:

In terms of church politics, one could perhaps style the other prelates who made up the delegation as well-meaning social justice types who don’t really flex much muscle in the Church.  That’s why O’Malley’s presence was vital, because nobody would say that about him.

This invites the inference that, among other bishops who do “flex much muscle” in the Church, immigration reform may not have the same priority, and that this was reflected by their absence.  This echoes a quiet theme running beneath the surface ever since Francis was elected: while Francis immediately became admired and beloved by people everywhere, he may not have enjoyed the same kind of enthusiastic support from all his bishops

That surely seemed possible in the case of Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who finally succumbed to popular pressure and announced he would leave his brand spanking new $2.2 million mansion after just three months, sell it, and donate the proceeds to charity.  He publicly apologized for the decision to move in but declined to take questions.

This case offers clear evidence that the people “get” Francis more easily than many of his bishops.  Gregory’s apology followed strong public pressure to give up the mansion from parishioners were well aware of the pope’s call to reject the “idolatry of money” and avoid “insidious worldliness” within the Church.  One such parishioner put the pope’s cause bluntly:

He [Gregory] is the person we follow locally, he sets the mood.  He sets the example for all of us to follow.  If he is choosing to use a gift so personally, what does that tell the people sitting in the pews?

Gregory himself acknowledged the impact of Francis by saying:

He’s called us to live more simply.  He also has encouraged Bishops to grow closer to their people, to listen to their people.

The key difference, of course, is that while laypeople got the message in the first week of Francis’ papacy, it took Gregory more than a year.

But even that is too quick for some bishops, it appears, for that same week in early April also included a story out of Ohio that sounded so 2012, so pre-Francis.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, it seems, has added new contract language that spells out specific ways teachers in Archdiocesan schools could lose their jobs.  The list includes public support for positions contrary to the church teaching on issues like abortion, artificial insemination, and “homosexual lifestyles.” It also includes forbidden behaviors--such as unwed pregnancies.

It appears the new language is designed to protect the Diocese from wrongful termination lawsuits, and a diocesan spokesperson attempted to minimize its significance by saying that it merely “clarifies what is expected of all of our teachers.” This comes in the wake of several lawsuits that the Diocese lost in recent years.

On the one hand, it is understandable that the Church, functioning as an employer, would want to protect itself from liability.  On the other hand, it appears that no other U.S. diocese uses such language. 

Of course, the problem of exposure to wrongful termination only arises when employees are terminated.  So this begs the question: must someone who voices an opinion contrary to official teaching be terminated?  Must someone who becomes pregnant while unmarried be terminated?

My own impression is that the instinct to terminate in such instances represents the kind of judgmentalism that Francis has been preaching against.  Underlying such judgmentalism is the notion that church workers ought to be perfect in both their opinions and their behavior.  There are several problems of this outlook.

First, it is contrary to church teaching to require that anyone be, in practice, perfect.  Our common expectation, rather, is that we are all sinners, and therefore we must be prepared to forgive and accept one another.  Since the beginning of Christianity, the real standard it has been: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Second, some would argue that this is not about sin but about scandal: that teachers taking a controversial positions or caught in compromise behavior create a scandal that undermines church teaching and credibility.

Two points here: contemporary American culture is not so easily scandalized (e.g., unwed pregnancy has long since lost its stigma), and the institutional church risks inviting the label “hypocrisy” if it sets itself as the arbiter of scandal in the wake of the sex abuse crisis.  Simply put, the American hierarchy abdicated the moral high ground long ago.

Third, there is a long history of those taking issue with church officials being vindicated in the long run.

In the 13th century, Etienne Tempier, the Bishop of Paris, issued condemnations of more than a dozen teachings by one of his professors at the University of Paris, which at that time was a church-owned school (thus the professor was a church employee). 

The professor in question?  Saint Thomas Aquinas, who in 1879 was declared the Church’s “official” theologian.  Bishop Tempier disappeared into the obscurity of history, while Aquinas achieved greatness. 
The lesson: conformity to official church positions does not guarantee of either greatness or sanctity, and opposition does not prove the opposite.  Imagine if the Diocese of Paris had acted to fire Thomas Aquinas for his positions!

The spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati tried to defend the new contract by saying:

The contract requires that if you’re going to represent the Catholic Church as a teacher, you’re not going to publicly oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church.

 Sounds perfectly logical. But that logic has not governed our history. Someone should get the man a good history of Catholicism--one that includes the 13th century.

It remains to be seen if the U.S. hierarchy will wholeheartedly join Pope Francis as he sets a new course for the Church as a missionary presence in the world.  But those who choose their own path, and continue to present the institutional church as authoritarian, judgmental, and hypocritical, will end up being neither followers nor leaders.

  © Bernard  F. Swain PhD 2014


  1. I applaud Pope Francis for changing the direction of the Catholic Church...but slowly...in his year. What I would like for him to do is to take some dramatic action to advance the role of women in the church and end the institutional dominance by men. For example, appoint a woman as a Cardinal and then another and another. Shawn M.Donovan

  2. It may turn out that the greatest substantive change of the 'Francis effect' will follow from his rehabilitation and honoring of Gustavo Gutierrez OP.