The National Catholic Review
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The bishops of the United States walked a tightrope in Dallas as they tried, during their annual spring meeting on June 13-15, to accommodate four different cultural matrices. Under the glare of the media lights representing the many publics they hoped to address, the bishops acted firmly, if not definitively. But despite the bishops’ conclusions, many observers were left confused. An attempt to understand why they acted as they did requires an analysis of the cultures in which they participate. Underlying the bishops’ deliberations rest four particular cultures: clerical, episcopal, Vatican and American. The delicate balance they sought to maintain required them to try to satisfy the exigencies of each of these worlds.

The Clerical Culture

The clerical culture, as maligned as it has been in recent monthsoften justly so, when it relies on secrecy, cronyism and unjust protectionismis a way of life from which no bishop is ever far. After all, bishops are first and foremost priests, and all have been elevated to their present positions from the ranks of the priesthood. Having achieved the rank of bishop, archbishop or cardinal, a prelate may now appear to be willing to offer up the priesthood (or more accurately, priests) as a sacrificial lamb to divert attention from his own culpability. Nevertheless, each must deal on a daily basis with those who remain in their former ranks, the priests. Every bishop, whether he is thought of favorably among his clergy as a brother priest and mentor to whom his charges can come with problems without fear of harsh treatment, or whether he is known as a tough boss whom a troubled priest approaches only as a last resort, deals regularly with priests. As such, bishops wish to strengthen the confraternity of the priesthood and never appear too far removed from it.

In the instance of a one strike, you’re out policy, implementation will fall to the bishops, even though they have the capable guidance of boards composed largely of laypersons. The bishop will be the one who removes a priest from active ministry. One may hope that each bishop will personally deliver the difficult news that now lies in store for a number of priestshow many, no one seems to knowwho have been anxiously waiting for the second shoe to drop. In some cases, it may be a relief to a bishop to have the backing of the national conference if he must remove a priest who has long been a worry. But in other cases it means telling a reliable and apparently rehabilitated co-worker (and perhaps a friend) that his public ministry is ended and, further, that he is about to enter a clerical limbo where he will still be a priest but will be permitted few, if any, vestiges of that office. The situation requires a resolution of a number of issues for which the bishop undoubtedly will need to take responsibility, such as providing income, health insurance and retirement benefits.

Beyond these material needs, a departing priest will require some direction, whether he elects to apply for laicization or chooses to remain a nonfunctioning priest who has surrendered all public symbols and functions of ministry. In the former case, bishops should assist the transition by offering personal and employment counseling. In the latter, the question of where the priest will go must be answered. Although the transition will be difficult, an aged priest may consent to finish out his years in the confines of a monastery. But a priest in his 40’s or 50’s is unlikely to find that option attractive, not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with monastic life, but simply because he does not have a vocation to be a monk. Living in seclusion among virtual strangers, even welcoming onesprobably in a location geographically and emotionally far from one’s previous world of work, family and friendsmay hardly be appealing, although it is better than a jail sentence. While it may provide some anonymity, it may also exacerbate loneliness and disconnectedness, conditions that may well have contributed to his moral and legal breach in the first place. What middle-aged man, stripped of all public markers of priesthood, would opt for such a life? It is a resolution that bishops may see as compassionate and as a way of salvaging the ontological character of the priesthood, but those offered such a resolution may interpret it as a harsh life sentence. As those responsible for the governance of the church, bishops face wrenching personnel decisions or, rather, post-Dallas implementations.

The Episcopal Culture

Bishops face these actions because they are bishops. The episcopacy is the second culture in which they live. As bishops, they enjoy privilege and responsibility not shared by priests. Upon ordination to the episcopacy, they gain membership in an elite body that includes the power reserved for those who govern, the responsibility to make difficult decisions, an enhanced public profile and deference (which is now harder to come by). Sometimes the elevation and insulation of the office lead to insensitivity, arrogance or self-distancing. To prevent such an evolutionfrom serving to being servedmost bishops keep in touch with both laity and priests. Despite this, they often operate independently of the priests whom they must supervise and the laity whom they serve. Further, they act without consulting their brother bishops, leaving the sometimes correct impression that the bishops, as a body, have no unified policy or plan.

Within the context of the sexual abuse crisis, this independence has resulted in actions or inactions by some bishops that have harmed children and families and have severely damaged the credibility of the hierarchy as a group. Unchecked either by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or by Rome, and often after consultation with experts, bishops retained abusers in priestly ministrywith tragic consequences. But those consequences affected victims and their families, not the bishops themselves. To date, most bishops, even if they have been egregiously irresponsible, have not felt the sting of accountability before the law.

The reasons for this are many, and the bishops heard some of them enumerated at the Dallas meeting by the University of Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby and by the editor of Commonweal, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. Bishops live in a culture of privilege and power that, when taken to extremes, conditions them to cling defensively to their office and to evade accountability or culpability. Such a mentality leaves others (namely priests) to pay for their crimes while they, the bishops, remain in office despite malfeasance.

The Vatican Culture

Bishops are accountable directly to the Vatican, which represents, yet again, a distinct culture. Rome views the world and the church through its own unique lens. Part of the composition of this culture is its legal code, canon law. Many bishops are canon lawyers, well versed in the arcane legal prescriptions that regulate the church. The vast majority of U.S. Catholics know little or nothing about canon law, and most of those who have had some encounter with church laws have done so in the painful context of marriage annulments. But canon law covers an extensive range of church practices, from sacramental validity to finances. The code includes an extensive section on priests and bishops, defining their relationship to the universal church, as represented by the Vatican, and to one another. In the current crisis, bishops need to attend to that portion of the code that pertains to priests’ rights within the church. The code limits the extent of the bishops’ power and provides for due process for priests facing accusations that, if substantiated, could result in their dismissal from the priesthood.

Dismissal from the priesthood or laicization (sometimes described in the press by the pejorative term defrocking) is not as easily accomplished as some Americans may imagine. By virtue of canons that protect the rights of priests in the face of unfounded accusations or against unsympathetic or unscrupulous bishops, Rome ensures that priests’ rights are protected. In the heat of the current crisis in the U.S. church, Rome has a particular interest in upholding due process for priests. Aware of these restrictions, the bishops knew that they could not act unilaterally and dismiss all priest perpetrators from the priesthood, even if the loud voices from the press and American Catholics urged them to do so. This left them the awkward maneuver of removing offending priests from all ministerial roles without laicizing them. The dual objectiveto protect children and to restore confidence in the churchmandated that they remove all offenders, even those whose offenses may have been committed decades ago. The canonical restrictions that prevent bishops from dismissing a priest from the priesthood without following the canonical process that permits the priest to defend himself left only limited options for immediate action, for which Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, clamored. The bishops settled on a compromise by which they would strip offending priests from their ministry and all public markers that indicate priestly status, including title and clerical garb.

Nevertheless, they remain priests. This puzzles Americans and angers victims as well as many others, who are confounded that sex-abuse offenders retain their status as priests, even though stripped of all visible signs of their office. To explain thissomething the bishops seem not to have done adequately either during their meeting or in news interviews immediately following itrequires a foray into the theology that to some degree underpins Vatican and clerical culture.

The term vocation, used with reference to the priesthood, is familiar to Americans. They understand that being a priest is not simply a job or a profession but a way of life. But people have trouble comprehending the church’s understanding that ordination to priesthood constitutes an ontological change in the man being ordained, that is, a change in being, not simply in roles. As the ordination ceremony makes clear, he is a priest forever. Ordination confers an indelible priestly character, which, as in the sacrament of marriage, can only be disavowed if for some reason the church determines that it was never valid in the first place. This means that priesthood cannot be removed by fiat. Even bereft of ministerial duties and trappings, priests remain priests. But laity and clergy alike then ask, what does it mean to be a priest who has no role or public identity as such? It will take more than a press briefing for the bishops to explain this to a confused public.

The American Culture

The most important audience the bishops addressed at their meeting sat before them, watched their deliberations on television, read about them in newspapers and magazines and heard reports of them on radiothe American Catholic public. The culture of the United States differs in significant ways from the previously described cultures, even though priests and bishops live within this culture and the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with the United States.

Much of this has to do with American society and culture, to which Catholics contribute and which affects them. America is democratic; Catholicism is not. Americans live in a pluralistic society that values tolerance of many views and practices, whereas the church holds moral and dogmatic positions that do not abide tolerance in beliefs or practices. Americans prize their independence; the church takes care of her children. Americans demand reasonable answers to difficult questions from their political leaders. The church asks them to accept some things on faith alone or on the sole basis of the authority vested in the church. It is no wonder that American Catholics who are conflicted about their identities as Catholics and as Americans sometimes find it difficult to be both.

In addition to Vatican laws that pertain to priests and bishops, Americans demand that they abide by the law of the land, which designates sexual abuse of a minor as a crime. They want criminal activity of priests and bishops punished. They will get half their wish when offending priests are sent into limbo or expelled altogether from the priesthood. The day of reckoning for bishops is under study; American eyes will remain on them until that study turns into action.

Chester Gillis is a theology professor and the chairperson of the theology department at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and the author of Roman

Comments

Lucy Fuchs | 1/29/2007 - 10:02am
Just when I thought I had heard all I wanted to hear about the sex scandals of the church, your July 29 issue brought new insights. I was impressed with “Cultures, Codes and Publics,” by Chester Gillis; “Collateral Damage,” by the Rev. J. Ronald Knott; as well as “An Echo of Bagpipes” by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M.

When I was a child, we talked of the Church Militant (the church on earth), the Church Suffering (the church in purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (the church in heaven). Perhaps for too long our church has been both too militant and too triumphant here on earth. Now we are clearly the church suffering. We are all sinners and all wounded people. What we need now is more humility as well as more forgiveness. We need to forgive all those who have offended others, including the abusing priests. We need to forgive all those church leaders who turned the other way. We need to forgive ourselves too. And we all need to try to make amends. Perhaps eventually we could be the Church Forgiving. Jesus was neither militant nor triumphant here on earth, but he was certainly suffering and forgiving.

Marcel Sylvestre, F.I.C. | 1/29/2007 - 9:46am
I found Chester Gillis’s “Cultures, Codes and Publics” (7/29) insightful, but I am still trying to recover from the second sentence of the second paragraph: “After all, bishops are first and foremost priests, and all have been elevated to their present positions from the ranks of the priesthood.” I much prefer Pope John Paul II’s view, as expressed in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (p. 14). After citing St. Augustine’s dictum “For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian,” he adds: “On further reflection, christianus has far greater significance than episcopus, even if the subject is Bishop of Rome.”

As long as bishops identify more strongly with their roles as dispensers of God’s grace than on the reality of their human condition, redeemed, like their fellow Christians, and called by baptism to be children of God, there will be an unwholesome cleavage between them and God’s people. Good bishops and archbishops identified so closely to their priestly caste that they became more intent on protecting the reputation of their little-brother priests than on safeguarding the dignity and wholeness of the “merely” baptized.

Charles Orloski | 8/3/2002 - 4:50pm
Is it really necessary to go on with more "things-to-do" lists. I favor more basic beginnings like remaining loyal to original Christian ideas and to hell with money and worldly power.

Charles N. Davis | 7/29/2002 - 1:52pm
Chester Gillis' article, "Cultures, Codes and Publics" [America, 7/29-8/5/02], described four different cultures that he said our bishops must accommodate – the clerical, episcopal, Vatican and American. In reading it, however, I was struck by three things: First, to this layperson, the attributes of the first three Church cultures all co-mingled and reinforced each other in ways that totally excluded the laity. Second, it was clear that the three Church cultures were at irreconcilable opposites with what the author called the "American" culture. And, third, there was no recognition by those living in the Church cultures that they had to reconcile with the culture of those whom they supposedly serve. That is, the culture of us laity – not so much "American" but what I would call a culture of family, marriage and committed relationships.

According to the author, the three Church cultures can sometimes include the following.

• The clerical culture can rely on secrecy, cronyism and unjust protectionism – this includes a willingness of a bishop to offer up the priesthood [or more accurately priests] as a sacrificial lamb to divert attention from his own culpability.

• The episcopal culture can lead to insensitivity, arrogance and self-distancing. Further, the bishops "act without consulting their brother bishops, leaving the sometimes correct impression that the bishops, as a body, have no unified policy or plan. . .Within the context of the sexual abuse crisis, this independence has resulted in actions or inactions by some bishops that have harmed children and families. . .But these consequences affected victims and their families, not the bishops themselves. . .Bishops live in a culture of privilege and power that, when taken to extremes, conditions them to cling defensively to their office and evade accountability or culpability."

• In the Vatican culture, bishops are accountable directly to Rome which views the world and the church through its own unique lens which is affected by Canon Law. Many bishops are canon lawyers; the vast majority of U.S. Catholics know little or nothing about canon law and most who do did so "in the painful context of marriage annulments."

• When these cultures collide with what the author calls the "American" culture – one that values tolerance and demands reasonable answers to difficult questions – Church leaders respond with "moral and dogmatic positions that do not abide tolerance in belief and practices. . .The church asks [us laity] to accept some things on faith alone or on the sole basis of the authority vested in the church."

Contrast the characteristics of the three Church cultures with the characteristics necessary to succeed in the best of the culture of family, marriage and committed relationships. To make intimate relationships work demands a high degree of mutual trust and respect based on dialogue, shared decision-making, acceptance of responsibility for one's own actions, and a commitment to foster independence and an assumption of greater responsibilities with those entrusted to one's care. Spouses and partners know that when hurts are inflicted, there must be initiatives to achieve reconciliation. Parents know, particularly with adolescents, that rules without cogent reason generate rebellion.

Now this family culture – which, to my mind, more closely resembles the culture of early Christianity than anything we see in any chancery – has evolved in Western civilization roughly over the last half century as women have succeeded in making us men realize that they too are co-equally created in God's image and likeness. And, if we want to co-exist in families, not only do we have to give up patriarchal attempts at domination, we damn well better both listen to and act on reasonable suggestions.

How to reconcile between the cultures? Some suggestions and a recommendation.

The suggestions come from Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatic

Charles Orloski | 8/3/2002 - 4:50pm
Is it really necessary to go on with more "things-to-do" lists. I favor more basic beginnings like remaining loyal to original Christian ideas and to hell with money and worldly power.

Charles N. Davis | 7/29/2002 - 1:52pm
Chester Gillis' article, "Cultures, Codes and Publics" [America, 7/29-8/5/02], described four different cultures that he said our bishops must accommodate – the clerical, episcopal, Vatican and American. In reading it, however, I was struck by three things: First, to this layperson, the attributes of the first three Church cultures all co-mingled and reinforced each other in ways that totally excluded the laity. Second, it was clear that the three Church cultures were at irreconcilable opposites with what the author called the "American" culture. And, third, there was no recognition by those living in the Church cultures that they had to reconcile with the culture of those whom they supposedly serve. That is, the culture of us laity – not so much "American" but what I would call a culture of family, marriage and committed relationships.

According to the author, the three Church cultures can sometimes include the following.

• The clerical culture can rely on secrecy, cronyism and unjust protectionism – this includes a willingness of a bishop to offer up the priesthood [or more accurately priests] as a sacrificial lamb to divert attention from his own culpability.

• The episcopal culture can lead to insensitivity, arrogance and self-distancing. Further, the bishops "act without consulting their brother bishops, leaving the sometimes correct impression that the bishops, as a body, have no unified policy or plan. . .Within the context of the sexual abuse crisis, this independence has resulted in actions or inactions by some bishops that have harmed children and families. . .But these consequences affected victims and their families, not the bishops themselves. . .Bishops live in a culture of privilege and power that, when taken to extremes, conditions them to cling defensively to their office and evade accountability or culpability."

• In the Vatican culture, bishops are accountable directly to Rome which views the world and the church through its own unique lens which is affected by Canon Law. Many bishops are canon lawyers; the vast majority of U.S. Catholics know little or nothing about canon law and most who do did so "in the painful context of marriage annulments."

• When these cultures collide with what the author calls the "American" culture – one that values tolerance and demands reasonable answers to difficult questions – Church leaders respond with "moral and dogmatic positions that do not abide tolerance in belief and practices. . .The church asks [us laity] to accept some things on faith alone or on the sole basis of the authority vested in the church."

Contrast the characteristics of the three Church cultures with the characteristics necessary to succeed in the best of the culture of family, marriage and committed relationships. To make intimate relationships work demands a high degree of mutual trust and respect based on dialogue, shared decision-making, acceptance of responsibility for one's own actions, and a commitment to foster independence and an assumption of greater responsibilities with those entrusted to one's care. Spouses and partners know that when hurts are inflicted, there must be initiatives to achieve reconciliation. Parents know, particularly with adolescents, that rules without cogent reason generate rebellion.

Now this family culture – which, to my mind, more closely resembles the culture of early Christianity than anything we see in any chancery – has evolved in Western civilization roughly over the last half century as women have succeeded in making us men realize that they too are co-equally created in God's image and likeness. And, if we want to co-exist in families, not only do we have to give up patriarchal attempts at domination, we damn well better both listen to and act on reasonable suggestions.

How to reconcile between the cultures? Some suggestions and a recommendation.

The suggestions come from Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatic