Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Stories about the bishops' gathering in St. Louis will, of course, be coming fast and furious over the next few days. I won't be linking to them all, but you can keep up with the reports and commentary by regularly clicking on the Poynter Abuse Tracker link

The theme will, of course, be the ultimate powerlessness of the laity on this score, and others.

Oh, and you're surprised? Guess you don't know how the Church works. When it comes to administration, bishops are it. The property is mostly in their name (unless, as has been done in a couple of dioceses, it's transferred down to entitities like the parish or school itself in an attempt to minimize diocesan assets in order to minimize what they can hand over in a legal settlement) and no matter how many lay employees you have, they all serve at the bishop's pleasure and their decisions are all ultimately subject to his approval, implicit or explicit.

This is just how it works, it's always how it's been, and it's a knotty problem for all sides. It's a problem for "conservatives" (forgive me for using the term, forgive me for putting it in quotes, but as much as I despise these labels, they're the most convenient shorthand right now) who want to uphold tradition, who are comfortable with the concept of Bishops in Charge, but who are extremely uncomfortable with what bishops are doing. So what's the solution? Better bishops is all they can hope for, because arguing for more non-clerical power doesn't really fit their vision of Church.

It's a problem for "liberals," too because as much as they may say they want more lay involvement in the real decision-making of the Church, many of them really don't - just like political liberals who say they would die for diversity - unless that diversity means inclusion of conservative voices, etc. Catholic liberals want lay power unless the laity in question are fighting against their diocese's bizarre "abuse prevention" program being inflicted on their children (as in Boston) or they are asking to pray the rosary before Mass (as happens in lots of places). So, in the end, the most the liberals can hope for is bishops who walk to their party line and will use their power to squelch unpleasantness.

Here's our conundrum, really. I think that most Catholics are at a real loss how to solve this particular problem and the attendant problems it raises. Most Catholics see the need for a structure with more checks and balances, with less opportunity for unbridled, insular clericalism to reign, but at the same time, most Catholics, no matter what "side" they're on, are flummoxed by this because, quite frankly and with all due respect, they see what's happened to so many Protestant bodies, with their divisions and now institutionalized infighting, not over administrative, but over doctrinal issues, and are afraid that that is what more (real) power given to non-clerics means.

Does it?

Update:As noted in the NYTimes today.

And as the recent dispute over Mr. Keating's provocative remarks likening the bishops to the Mafia makes clear, the bishops still have all the power — to reassign or remove priests, to ignore or carry out the new policies, to withhold or release information about abusers. The only power the board has is to make the recalcitrant bishops look bad.

"This board works for the bishops, it's in the employ of the bishops and to some degree beholden to the bishops," said R. Scott Appleby, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and director of the university's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. "The only recourse it has to influence the bishops who don't choose to comply is to go to the media, in effect to go to the Catholic laity and report who is not complying."

This week, when the bishops reconvene in St. Louis, much of their discussion will go on behind closed doors, including what could be their most telling interchange. On Thursday, in a St. Louis conference center, at least three members of the review board are to face off with more than 250 bishops to try to allay the bishops' concerns about the board's work, board members and church officials say.

In the history of the Catholic Church, never before has a group of bishops subjected their operations to lay oversight, Mr. Appleby said. "That's unprecedented, and they're doing so, frankly, not out of some theology of an empowered laity, but because they're under political, legal and financial pressure," he said.


Michael reflects on the same question today.