Managers or Shepherds? The Bishops' Two Meetings

On Sept. 8, just after this issue of the Register goes to press, the leadership of the American Bishops' conference planned to meet with a group of dynamic, faithful, zealous Catholics responsible for many of the hopeful initiatives in the Church today.

Yet the meeting is not unalloyed good news. In fact, several prominent invited guests did not attend, expressing private misgivings about the whole approach.

The event is an opportune moment for Catholic leaders across the country, whether in local chancery offices or in parishes, to look again at what does — and does not — contribute to genuine renewal in the Church.

A little history. In July the Boston Globe broke the story that a “secret” meeting had been held between the leaders of the American Bishops' conference and prominent lay Catholics.

The purpose was to think broadly about the future of the Church in the United States. The Register subsequently reported that the list of participants included some very prominent theological dissenters.

The meeting caused minor outrage among prominent Catholics — Deal Hudson of Crisis, Philip Lawler of Catholic World News and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things were among those who expressed their dismay. The message apparently got through, and so began the idea for a second meeting with the episcopal conference leadership, this time with those known for their fidelity to the magisterium. Our executive editor, Tom Hoopes, planned to attend the meeting.

Much good can come from episcopal collaboration with lay leadership, and those attending the meeting will have much to contribute to broad thinking about the future of the Church in the United States. In fact, many of those attending the meeting are the future.

Yet there is something a little awry about bishops meeting with different groups that appear to represent, on the one hand, Catholics in full communion with the Church and on the other, dissenters.

The whole process smothers the evangelical task of the bishops in management techniques.

The press, using the conventional but imprecise categories, cast it as bishops meeting first with liberals, then with conservatives.

Good managers do meet with different groups, making sure that all opinions are heard. But good management strategy is not always good evangelization. Meeting first with this group and then with that group suggests a kind of openness to all views and implies a type of equality between all participants. Cardinal Avery Dulles recently rejected that approach forthrightly.

“Anyone seeking to reform the Church must share the Church's faith and accept the essentials of her mission,” Cardinal Dulles wrote in First Things. “The Church cannot take seriously the reforms advocated by those who deny that Christ was Son of God and Redeemer, who assert that the Scriptures teach error or who hold that the Church should not require orthodoxy on the part of her members. Proposals coming from a perspective alien to Christian faith should be treated with the utmost suspicion if not dismissed as unworthy of consideration.”

There is no equality between those who dissent from Church teaching and those who assent to it.

The latter do not represent an interest group within the Church but are the faithful of the Church.

The former are obstacles to the mission of the Church.

They are within the sheepfold as lost sheep or, to the extent that they actively promote dissent and lead others into it, they are, it must be said, wolves.

Perhaps the bishops did meet with the dissenters in an attempt to “go after the lost sheep.” That motive would be laudable.

But it does the shepherds no credit to assume a certain equality between the sheep who have strayed and those who have stayed — or, worse, to be equally open to the wolves as to the sheep.

In the Divine Office later this month all priests will read daily for two solid weeks St. Augustine's sober sermon on the duties of shepherds. He notes that the shepherd lives “between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves.” He adds, with more than a hint of frustration, that the “sheep moreover are insolent.”

It was not easy in St. Augustine's time to be a bishop, and it certainly is not easy today. We priests, not to mention the lay faithful, are all too often insolent. And the robbers and wolves are not lacking.

But I remain uneasy about the general approach that animated the Sept. 8 meeting.

The flock, in the end, cannot be managed as much as it must be led. The shepherd certainly has to go after lost sheep, not to affirm them as they choose their own paths, but rather to carry them firmly and gently back to the fold. And the shepherd has to be on guard against wolves.

Large corporations and associations need good managers. The Church therefore needs good managers. But the Church is not only, and not primarily, a corporation or association.

The Church needs evangelists more than managers. And to evangelize requires, in the first instance, to draw a clear distinction between what the Gospel is and what is opposed to it. The meetings of this past summer confused rather than clarified that distinction.

Father Raymond J. de Souza writes from Kingston, Ontario.