Friday, February 22, 2019

Catholic bishops and the "action plan" - wrongly focused

Yesterday Pope Francis presented an "action plan" to a summit meeting of bishops, for combating the sexual abuse of children by priests.  I find it woefully inadequate, a mere re-hash of concepts and proposals advanced many years ago, with no new thinking.  I fear it will be completely useless, because it's focused on the wrong problem.  Priests, in general, are a reflection of those who select, train and ordain them - the bishops;  and it's among the Church's bishops that the solution to the problem must be sought.

I wrote some years ago about the problem of "organization men", and how bishops were selected all too often from among such individuals.  That's not the entire problem.  The organization of the Church as such has effectively removed much of their everyday authority and responsibility from bishops, by submerging them in minutiae.  If they're trapped at their desks, reading reports, signing documents, and shuffling papers, they can't be out there among the people of God, seeing at first hand, up close and personal, how they're living and the nature of the problems that confront them.  They can't be in the trenches with their priests, seeing the difficulties they face in "tending the flock of God".  They're cut off, isolated, from that reality - and it shows in the way the clergy child sex abuse scandal has been handled.  All too often, the knee-jerk response from bishops has been to circle the wagons and defend the institution of the Church, rather than the victims of the abuse.  It's almost as if the latter had become an afterthought, a mere irritation compared to the real issue.

Until the 20th century, most bishops in most dioceses had to spend a lot of time on the road, traveling from one end of their see to the other.  In the process, they had plenty of time to spend in parish rectories and the homes of the faithful.  They couldn't help but notice what was going on there.  In the same way, they visited institutions in their diocese much more often - convents, monasteries, schools, etc.  They could keep their fingers on the pulse of activity far more routinely than they do today, where every visit is scheduled weeks or months in advance, usually highly scripted, and time-managed to such an extent that there's little or no opportunity for the bishop to "manage by walking around" and see things for himself.  The advent of technology - travel by train, car and aircraft, the telephone, fax and e-mail, business administration machines and programs - made it easier to travel, but also made such travel less necessary, in that much can be done remotely that previously had to be done in person.  It's been a two-edged sword.

Because of their more office-bound, sedentary, "managed" day-to-day existence, bishops have in all too many cases lost focus on the pastoral aspects of their ministry.  They're glorified (you should pardon the expression) managers rather than apostles, business executives rather than shepherds of the flock, bureaucrats rather than pastors.  They tolerate, even accept this changed role, one that many of their predecessors would regard with horror as not just un-pastoral, but actively anti-pastoral.  As a result, they don't share the day-to-day problems and burdens of their priests, and all too quickly forget what they experienced of them during their own pastoral careers.

In their famous book, "The Peter Principle", Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull point out:

Most hierarchies are nowadays so cumbered with rules and traditions, and so bound in by public laws, that even high employees do not have to lead anyone anywhere, in the sense of pointing out the direction and setting the pace.  They simply follow precedents, obey regulations, and move at the head of the crowd.  Such employees lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship.

In my opinion, that perfectly describes what far too many bishops had become by the time the clergy sex abuse scandal reared its evil, predatory head.  They were no longer leaders.  They had become mere figureheads - and far too many of them were content to remain figureheads.  Even worse, as has since become clear, some of them - including some in very senior positions - were active participants in that evil, even as they put on a holy public face and pretended to participate in finding remedies for it.  I honestly don't know whether that sin can be forgiven, even by God.  I suspect it cannot.

This is a major reason why the problem of clergy child sex abuse became so serious.  The bishops abdicated their primary responsibility to their clergy, who are officially defined as their "co-workers" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 893).  All too often, priests were (and still are) treated not as valued co-workers, but as unruly subordinates who have to be kept under the bishop's thumb, distrusted unless they constantly "suck up" to the powers that be.  That's why so many priests, including myself, were so angry at the initial measures enacted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to deal with the crisis.  They treated all priests with suspicion, as criminals until proven innocent.  This was completely unacceptable.  It still is.

That's why I don't believe that a conference of bishops is the right vehicle to study the problem of clergy child sex abuse, or find solutions to it.  Many of the bishops taking part in it are guilty of precisely the failings described here.  They will not be able to come up with any effective solutions, precisely because they are not effective bishops.

That's how I see it, anyway.  Others may differ.



WhatIfWeAllCared? said...

Yes, a hands-on approach is better, But, what about the native children abused in Canada (for example)??

Unknown said...

Of course it's ineffective, it's supposed to be. Being a good shepherd and protecting his flock from wolves is hard work. Pope Francis is much more interested in lecturing us about climate change. My bet is that he's been pushed into 'doing something' as congregations (and their contributions!) continue to dwindle and the lawyer bills skyrocket.

Silent Draco said...

That same hierarchy is responsible for the screening panels that intercept, er, 'interview' and assess candidates for the seminary, then recommend who goes forward. The bishops need to suspend these panels immediately; my guess is that a number of predators and enablers are ensconced there, and each needs a special meeting with the Office of the Inquisition. There are those on these panels now and in the past who allowed the predators entry and gave them cover. At most, it should be the bishop, the parish priest, dean of the seminary, the recommender (if not his pastor), and the candidate, IMHO.

Points about the bureaucracy are very pertinent. Although it sounds counterproductive, they each need an auxiliary bishop to handle some of the admin load, and smite the excess reporting with the shepherd's crook. Get out to the parishes, hospitals, schools and seminary, and make surprise or short-advance visits.

Old NFO said...

The failures will continue until the Catholic church melts down completely... Then and ONLY then will they actually do the right thing.

HMS Defiant said...

I watched NIS, the Navy and Congress treat all officers as criminals after Tailhook. It took them a little time to realize that only aviators went to that show and played largely with willing girls and the ones that claimed ignorance were of little concern to me.
I lost any respect for the church and its priest-kings when I was 14. What the Church did to unwed mothers and little girls raped was not lost on me at a tender age and as I used to deliver the Newport Daily News and read the articles of Mi-Li I didn't fail to read about the utter corruption of the Catholic Church whose school I was attending.

Paul, Dammit! said...

Very well written, Peter.

The penchant for yanking younger, enthusiastic, conservative and outspoken priests out of pastoral roles is also telling. The latin mass in my area is not quite conducted in a barn in secret, but it might as well be.

One interesting corollary is that there are a few younger priests joining the US military as reservist chaplains. I suspect it's a relief to be able to do their job without having a bunch of moldy hippies and the Perfumed Princes in Pink forbidding them from actually doing what priests do.
There might still be a Catholic church in 50 years, but I don't believe they can fix themselves at this point without use of force. If the CDF wasn't run by a bunch of effeminate geldings, communists and perverts thanks to Francis' corruption of the leadership, a solution involving sharp knives and clean consciences could perhaps be found.

TheOtherSean said...

Crowd-funding a mercenary force to conquer the Vatican and put its occupants to the sword seems more and more appealing every day.

McChuck said...

The money lenders cannot and will not cleanse the temple themselves.

John Prigent said...

It isn't just the famous Peter Principle that applies here. Organised religion suffers the sam fate as any other organisation with a large bureaucracy - advancement goes to those who play politics, not to those who want to serve their congrgegations/electors/customers. The ethos is the same whether you're looking at churches or mosques, national or local government elected members or 'civil servants', massive charities, or any large commercial organisation. The bigger it is, the less common sense applies - and actual commitment to service is lacking at the top. Unfortunately self-interest replaces it.

Tom Grey said...

The 800 lb gorilla you fail to note is homosexuality.

Active, legal, same-sex sex among consenting adult priests, in violation only of their chastity vows.

Until the Vatican is removing gay bishops for legal sexual relations, the rot is increasing.
The mostly male abused child victims are not as prevalent as the young adult males abused / seduced by their senior gay clergy.

Pope Francis is barely starting to talk about it. More priests are openly talking about it -- but the laity doesn't see personnel movement based on it, yet.

The sclerotic bureaucracy issues are greatly compounded by the homo-mafia that is hugely influential in the Vatican.

Ray - SoCal said...

Recommended at another site:

Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church Paperback – March 10, 2015

Technomad said...

Judging from what I have read about the problems they uncovered in Pennsylvania, this has been a growing problem for a very long time. Some of the cases they discussed in Pennsylvania were 70+ years old.

ASM826 said...

The Church as we know it, the one we grew up in, is dying. It will not be possible to continue it with (what is supposed to be) a celibate priesthood. It will not be possible to continue it with a culture of clericalism that elevates the priests and bishops to some lofty state above that of us mere mortals. It will not be possible to continue it when there aren't enough priests to staff the parishes. It will not be possible to continue it when there aren't enough people contributing enough money to keep the lights on and the roof repaired.

So change is coming. Whatever the Church will look like in a century will be very different. They can participate in that change or be swept away by it.