The Bishops are Back

When Vatican officials were preparing for this past year’s ad limina visits by the American bishops, they likely expected a somewhat weary, if not despondent, group to show up in Rome.

After all, just two years after being battered by the scandal of priestly sexual abuse and their own gross mismanagement of the same, it would have been understandable if the American episcopate was looking for some quiet time away from the hurly-burly of the national spotlight.

 It didn’t turn out that way. To the contrary, surely one of the biggest religious news stories of 2004 had to be headlined “The Bishops Are Back.”

Far from licking their wounds off in the corner of American public life, the U.S. bishops unapologetically entered the hothouse of presidential politics in defense of the right to life.

It was not supposed to turn out this way. That it did is encouraging news indeed.

It’s not that the sexual-abuse scandal has been put in the past. The aftermath of the scandal in Boston has plunged the archdiocese into a $10 million deficit as collections have dropped off precipitously. The Diocese of Orange just signed a settlement that is even larger than the $85 million one in Boston. And as the lawsuits, depositions and disclosures rumble along in Los Angeles, Catholics are bracing themselves for another round of sordid revelations.

All that was supposed to mean that the bishops would no longer be a force in American public life. Their witness on matters public, from pro-life to poverty, would be discounted as their credibility lay in tatters. It would be another five or 10 years before the bishops would be able to speak prophetically and teach authoritatively on any issue. And on anything to do with sex, well, it would be at least a generation before anyone would listen.

Yet, it turned out that in 2004, the American bishops played a decisive role in turning the presidential candidacy of Sen. John Kerry into a teaching moment about Catholics in public life. It was no mean accomplishment.

Several bishops, relating their private consultations with Vatican officials during the ad limina meetings, reported that it was the Americans pushing Rome to take a “harder line” against Catholic politicians who consistently promoted abortion. There were disagreements between American bishops, to be sure, but that ad limina discussions examined whether the Americans were going too far was an unexpected development.

What caused this turn of events? Four factors suggest themselves as key in the bishops’ reinvigorated public witness in 2004.

First: the power of individual initiative in the Internet age. The challenge to pro-abortion politicians emerged on the national scene as the result of Archbishop Raymond Burke’s decision to bar certain politicians from receiving holy Communion just before he moved from La Crosse to St. Louis. Within days, the relevant documents from La Crosse were readily available on websites, and bishops all over the country were being asked whether they agreed or disagreed.

A national debate no longer requires national institutions to take the initiative. Neither the major media nor the bishops’ conference had the abortion/Communion question on the agenda at the end of 2003. That an individual bishop can break into the national conversation this way is an encouraging development — especially for those bishops who face unfriendly mainstream media on the local scene.

Second: The disciplinary law of the Church can be a powerful means of teaching. The origin of the sexual-abuse fiasco was that the existing disciplinary laws of the Church were not fully used against priestly malefactors. But after a generation or two in which the disciplinary canons were allowed to fall into quasi-desuetude, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that people still cared enough about them to get excited. Imagine — a national debate over whether Canon 915 barred pro-abortion politicians from holy Communion!

The goal of all Church discipline is the conversion of souls — a process that first requires true doctrine to be known. The experience of 2004 showed that the Code of Canon Law is, in fact, a powerful arrow in the bishop’s teaching quiver.

Third: bishops at prayer. The bishops’ conference meeting in June in Denver was structured more like a retreat than a board meeting. Not a few bishops commented on how effective the format was, and several commented on how moving it was to stand in line with brother bishops for confession and to kneel together in Eucharistic adoration. The bishops, like any other fraternity, need to reinforce the bonds of unity in order to enable bold common action. The bonds of unity between bishops are primarily spiritual — holy orders and a common mission as witnesses — and nourishing those can only lead to great unity and greater courage. The Denver statement was the fruit of common prayer.

Four: courage. The decision to speak up requires, first, a decision to speak up. It takes courage, and it was displayed in spades this year. In October, when Archbishop Charles Chaput clarified Catholic teaching through the pages of The New York Times, he knew he would be criticized. This blast from Times columnist Maureen Dowd delivered the expected low blow: “Some of the bishops — the shepherds of a church whose hierarchy bungled the crisis involving molestation and rape of so many young boys by tolerating it, covering it up, enabling it, excusing it and paying hush money — are still debating whether John Kerry should be allowed to receive Communion.”

Dowd was playing to the expected story line of 2004. If the bishops speak up, hurl the sexual-abuse mess at them and they will shut up. But it didn’t work, and it didn’t work only because many bishops refused to play along. That took courage.

Dowd, in that same column, was incredulous that the bishops would be so “embryo-centric” to turn their back on one of their own. Her puzzlement was understandable. For only the third time, a Catholic was nominated for president, and in the course of the campaign, he was told repeatedly by bishops that they would not consent to appear with him in public. During his hometown nominating convention, the archbishop of Boston left town — not that he had been invited to the convention, anyway. On the campaign trail, Kerry’s staff had to call ahead to Catholic parishes inquiring whether the candidate would be welcome should he want to attend Mass.

Quibble with this or that decision, but the collective response by the Catholic Church in the United States to the challenge of 2004 was robust. A year ago, that was not a certain thing. Two years ago, it would have been thought almost impossible.

It happened.

The bishops are back.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

writes from Kingston, Ontario.

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