Monday, June 23, 2003

Paul Elie in the NYTimes

In the recent past, when the church has had a crisis of leadership, there has emerged a bishop or cadre of bishops who are willing to break from the larger group and restore the church to its senses: Dutch bishops decrying the Nazi deportations of Jews during World War II; Archbishop Oscar Romero reversing decades of church policy in El Salvador in order to denounce the government and champion the poor.

This time, lay people have taken the lead in addressing a problem directly, expecting the bishops eventually to join with them. It has worked, to some degree. In St. Louis, for example, the bishops finally agreed to cooperate with researchers performing a survey about sexual abuse. But it is a sad day for the church when mere compliance is cause for celebration.

The Catholic tradition takes as its starting point the stubbornness of human nature, and goes on to stress the possibility, indeed the necessity, of conversion, urging the believer to be open always to an authentic change of heart. History suggests that change in the church usually follows on the death of a pope or other prominent figure. When Pope Pius XII died, for example, his successor, Pope John XXIII, called for the "opening of the windows" that was Vatican II. Alas, the present crisis will probably pass only with the passing of the current bishops and the installation of bishops who know better than to follow in their footsteps.

For the time being, it is likely that the bishops will keep going along the path they and their counselors have marked. As they return to their home dioceses and the Catholics they supposedly lead, we hope they keep in mind that the church doesn't need leaders so much as followers — that its leader lived a long time ago and walked a very different path, and that their job is to make his leadership known today, not through crisis management but through faithful example. At this point, they may have no other choice.