The Sex-Abuse Crisis and Culture Change in the Church

COMMENTARY: Building on the day of prayer and reflection at this year’s fall assembly of the U.S. bishops, might the ‘Crisis of 2018’ prompt salutary shift away from a corporate model of episcopal leadership?

Screenshot of USCCB time of adoration
Screenshot of USCCB time of adoration (photo: JD Flynn / Twitter)

The U.S. bishops began their annual plenary meeting in Baltimore with a day devoted to prayer and reflection, a departure from the customary practice prompted by the 2018 “summer of shame.”

But why should beginning the annual meeting with a period of prayer and recollection be a departure from the norm? Might the “Crisis of 2018” prompt a revisiting of clerical culture, at least as it touches upon how bishops exercise their governance in common?

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the preacher for the bishops’ Mass Nov. 12, will have material ready at hand, given the readings. St. Paul writes to Titus about the qualities required of a bishop, with a specified list of virtues:

For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy and self-controlled, holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents (Titus 1:7-9).

The Gospel passage from Luke 17 includes the warning of the Lord Jesus that it would be “better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”

Those are the readings of the day, not particularly chosen for the bishops’ reflection, but would it not be salutary if meetings of bishops were nourished on Scriptures such as these?

A frequent criticism leveled at the bishops in light of the multifarious abuse scandals is that they have (mis)governed more like executives of a business or managers of a club rather than shepherds of a flock, or fathers of a spiritual family, or pastors of a Church.

Pope Francis has identified “clericalism” as a key factor in the crisis. It’s an ambiguous term that means different things in different mouths, but it must certainly include regarding priestly or episcopal service as a club to be joined rather than a sacrificial service to be offered.

And for a long time that attitude was present, perhaps even on occasion prevalent. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, a key architect of the bishops’ conference in its formative years after Vatican II, would phone priests newly appointed as bishops and congratulate them: “Welcome to the club!”

I was present when the late Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was discussing with a certain archbishop that he ought to be a cardinal in the “next batch,” not unlike an exclusive country club executive might discuss the prospects of a new member being admitted.

The plenary meeting of the USCCB is tainted by aspects of that way of thinking. Its ethos is that of an annual general meeting of a corporation, with ranks of suited regional managers conducting the business at hand. The corridors are lined with vendors who desire that their clients be kept happy and so various worthy apostolates, and publishers and seminaries, and universities invite bishops to their hospitality suites, complete with cocktails flowing and canapés on offer. It’s not entirely a surprise that the meetings evolved this way; when Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit was establishing the norms for the conference in the late 1960s, he turned to corporate-management consultants for the blueprint.

There are, to be sure, rooms set up as chapels for Mass and one where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and it is genuinely edifying to see the piety of bishops at prayer, in adoration and going to confession. But the high-end-hotel environment remains worldly, not ecclesial.

The scandal is not that anything immoral is taking place, but, rather, that few are scandalized that the place itself does not evoke that evangelical “temperance” that St. Paul recommends to Titus.

How might the annual bishops’ plenary help to shift episcopal culture away from corporate or club-like behavior? Herewith four suggestions that build upon what the bishops are beginning to do.

Scripture and silence. The bishops’ meetings include the principal plenary sessions, around which are scheduled numerous committee meetings, in between which are the full slate of receptions. The bishop is run off his feet going from one to the other, attempting to snatch moments of conversation with his brother bishops on the run.

A time for meditation on Scripture and silence — as this meeting will include — would not only be a welcome limit to the frenetic schedule, but would change the character of the meetings themselves. In future, a day of recollection might be the norm, or perhaps times of recollection could be included each day.

Simplicity of surroundings. The shift toward being shepherds listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd together will be greatly advanced by the common retreat all the bishops will make together next January, at the suggestion of Pope Francis.

Bishops customarily make their annual retreats in regional groups at that time of year anyway, but doing it altogether is a dramatic step — one that required a papal intervention. And it was obvious that the bishops could not gather in a luxury hotel, so they have chosen to go to Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.

The simpler surroundings of a religious house should become the norm. Bishops have business to get done, but it is always the “business” of the Gospel, and it is best done in ecclesial surroundings, with the greater simplicity that they offer.

Seminaries and retreat houses offer fewer creature comforts, but generally they are comfortable and hardly penitential. Those bishops who already live simply will find it no great difficulty; those who live lavishly will find it a suggestive correction. All of them will be reminded that they are not regional managers of Catholic Inc., but pastors whose mission is not to mimic the world, but to help their people convert it.

Sobriety in food and drink. The bishops’ meeting is not by any stretch a sybaritic session of the International Olympic Committee or FIFA, nor is it an annual corporate bacchanal. Drunkenness or gluttony are not apparent. But there is a lot of food and drink, and sobriety does not only mean avoiding sinful indulgence.

The old joke is that a bishop need never again have a bad meal. True enough, but maybe the plenary meeting might be an occasion of restrained consumption. It would not be entirely untoward to have a fast day, with one bread-and-water meal and no alcohol served for the entire day.

Soutanes not suits. It makes a difference how people dress for work. The bishops in plenary meeting wear suits, looking en masse like a convention of undertakers, albeit with the pectoral crosses tucked into their jackets.

The recent synod of bishops in Rome offered a different model, with bishops wearing their soutanes, or cassocks, trimmed out in purple. The full filettata with sash and skullcap is not necessary; a simple black cassock would do, as, say, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger used to wear to work each day.

This would be a bit delicate at the moment, as Pope Francis has let it be known that he prefers the worldly business suit to the ecclesial cassock in his presence, which used to be strict protocol for clerics. But the new corporate model has only been enforced at meetings of the council of cardinals — with the praiseworthy exception of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who wears his Franciscan habit — and the synod of bishops proceeded according to the older style.

The Church, better than others, knows the value of vesture in shaping how we think and act. It is, indeed, one of the most prominent manifestations of culture. Changing one’s clothes is easier than changing a culture, but the former is a powerful means to changing the latter.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

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