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Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results | by James Hitchcock

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Editor's note:
This article originally appeared in Catholic World Report, May 1995–exactly ten years ago. While much has transpired since then–not the least the election of a new pope–I think this article is well worth revisiting, for reasons that I hope are clear upon reading (or rereading) it in 2005.

A young man applies to study for the priesthood and is interviewed by a committee whose chairman, a high-ranking diocesan official, asks him his "feelings" about the ordination of women. The candidate replies that the matter has been settled by the Holy Father. The chairman replies, "We're not asking what the Pope thinks. We want to know how you feel about it". The young man states simply that he accepts the Church's teaching on the matter. He is subsequently informed that the committee has found him unsuitable for the priesthood. An indirect appeal to the bishop of the diocese brings the response that all candidates must be recommended by the screening committee.

** In another diocese a young man enrolled in the seminary finds that a feminist nun has much influence in approving candidates for ordination and that she has identified him as "insensitive to the needs of women". Once again an indirect appeal to the bishop brings the response that he will not "interfere" in the workings of the seminary and that the candidate must somehow gain the nun's support in order to qualify for ordination.

** In two dioceses bishops hire lay editors for their diocesan newspapers -- men known to be conservative in Church matters. But as the new editors try to bring their respective papers into line with official Church teachings, protests mount, and before long both are removed from their posts.

** Two dioceses introduce sex-education programs that deviate from Catholic teaching on important points, bringing protests from parents. In both cases new bishops promote the directors of the respective programs to even more important positions in the local hierarchy.

** A lay woman is appointed "pastoral minister" in a parish where no priest is available. She soon begins wearing priestly vestments while conducting Communion services and openly announces her desire to be ordained.

** A bishop issues a pastoral letter on the state of women in the Church that, while stopping short of calling for their ordination, employs an unwavering feminist perspective that describes women as systematically oppressed by both Church and society.

** A bishop appoints as his diocese's chief representative on "women's issues" a woman known to be critical of Catholic teaching not only concerning the ordination of women but of celibacy and various aspects of sexual morality as well. She openly talks about having "enlightened" local priests on these matters. Complaints to the bishop are ignored.

Mere matters of opinion?

Many worse vignettes could be collected to show the precarious state of American Catholicism. What makes these items especially significant is that in each case the problems occurred under bishops known to be "conservative" and identified as part of John Paul II's "counter-reformation" or "restoration".

The inadequacy of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" for ecclesiastical issues has often been acknowledged, but they have become so convenient that, if properly understood, they are as useful as any for briefly indicating the divisions that now plague the Church. Yet the casual way in which these divisions are accepted itself ought to be shocking, indicating as it does that questions of fundamental belief have been easily relegated to the status of mere partisan opinions, on which Catholics may legitimately take different positions.

With very few exceptions "conservative" bishops do not go beyond what is strictly mandated by official Church teaching or policy. Almost all of them permit altar girls in their dioceses, and some did so even before Rome authorized the practice. Almost none is a strong devotee of the Latin Mass.

Enshrining "liberal" and "conservative" -- even with respect to bishops -- in effect means giving legitimacy to positions that actively diverge from one or another official Church teaching, which are reduced to opinions or matters of taste, almost to matters of temperament -- some people move faster than others and are more comfortable with change.

Although it has not been recognized, the roots of liberalism among American bishops actually date to the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council, when legendary episcopal giants like Cardinal Francis I. Spellman of New York were still in office. With few exceptions such prelates themselves showed signs of post-conciliar confusion. Often they did little to clarify this confusion for others, or they acted in what seemed like quixotic and inconsistent ways, imposing strong sanctions against certain kinds of devi-ations while blandly tolerat-ing others which were even worse.

The Council and the crisis

The great failure of the older generation of bishops was their failure to gain control of the post-conciliar process of education. All over the United States interpreters of "renewal" arose to skew the meaning of the Council in numerous ways, a process that only grew worse over time. Few indeed were the bishops who attempted -- even in their own dioceses, much less nationally -- to establish an authentic program of education in the "new Church".

The result was that, over the next decades, Church officials on all levels -- from bishops themselves to kindergarten teachers -- were systematically inducted into a view of "renewal" that was increasingly at odds with official teaching and with the actual words of the Council. By 1975, if not before, the Church in the United States had lost perhaps the majority of its "middle management" to stronger or milder degrees of dissent, as most bishops watched passively and even approvingly.

The storm of dissent that followed the birth-control encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 was a crucial moment whose opportunities were quickly lost. Apparently the American bishops made a collective decision that they would not try systematically to educate their people in the teachings of the encyclical, and dissent thereby gained immense credibility. (The issue was shrewdly exploited by certain theologians precisely because it had direct relevance to most lay people.)

Common sense would have dictated that, faced with massive dissent from official teachings, bishops would have made every effort to identify the core of Catholics, clerical and lay, who accepted those teaching, given them every encouragement, and used that core as a base from which to reach out to others. Instead the American bishops seem to have made the collective decision almost to ignore such people, who were soon left to fend for themselves, as practically all pastoral efforts were turned toward those who dissented. Now, however, the purpose of those pastoral efforts was not to bring back lost sheep but to re-examine the very concept of being "lost", opening the possibility that the lost sheep were in fact the new leaders of the flock.

In deciding not to support Humanae Vitae except verbally, the American bishops made the fundamental strategic mistake which has been the undoing of liberal Protestantism. For over a century liberal Protestantism has steadily surrendered Christian positions deemed incredible by a particular historical age, the better to protect the core of the faith. But in each generation, more such surrenders are demanded, until there is finally nothing left, and surrender itself becomes the chief expectation which liberals must meet.

Thus by giving up on birth control, the bishops of 1968 probably thought they were preserving their credibility on other questions. But inevitably there has been a steady erosion of every distinctively Catholic moral position. Finally in 1995 a survey showed that a solid majority of Catholics do not accept the Church's teaching about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The strategy of tolerating selective dissent can only have such results, and the area of dissent can only continue to widen.

The phantom renewal

In an episode that still remains mysterious, through most of the 1970s the Holy See appointed bishops in the United States who were at least tolerant of dissent and in some cases personally sympathetic to it, a pattern of appointments that continued several years into the pontificate of John Paul II.

Beginning around 1980 this pattern seemed to be reversed, as word circulated that the men being made bishops were orthodox, tough-minded, and charged with the task of salvaging authentic Catholicism from the near-chaos of spurious "renewal". Conservatives were buoyed by this new spirit for most of the decade, and only toward its end did it begin to dawn on informed people that somehow the promised counter-reformation was not taking place.

In dioceses where a conservative bishop has followed a conservative predecessor, there have usually been few problems. However, such cases have been rare, because during the 1970s it was clearly Vatican policy to replace conservative bishops with liberal ones. Hence the only solidly conservative dioceses are those whose ordinaries happened to be in office from prior to 1970 well into the 1980s.

In the largest number of dioceses, therefore, conservative bishops have followed bishops who either were themselves liberal or were tolerant of liberalism, and in perhaps a majority of those cases the conservative bishop has not seriously disturbed the situation that he inherited.

The perils of moving cautiously

The dynamics of this process are easy to comprehend. Whatever his intentions, a new bishop quickly discovers how tightly the liberals control the diocesan machinery -- the school office, the priests' senate, the office of social justice, and other bureaus -- and he realizes that dislodging such people will be no easy task and will be unpleasant.

He thus resolves to proceed slowly, until he has a firm understanding of the situation, comes to know his personnel, and devises an effective strategy. Very quickly he is pressed by conservatives, mainly lay people, about abuses, but he declines even to admit that these are abuses, pending the time when he can see a way of correcting them.

But time rapidly passes. Soon the bishop realizes that, while he had entered his see with some apprehension over the problems he would face, his tenure has in fact been pleasant. At some point his chancellor may say something like, "Candidly, bishop, there were people here who expected the worst when you were appointed, but everyone is pleasantly surprised. You have confounded your critics".

Given such reinforcement, it would be a determined bishop indeed who would proceed to make the sweeping changes necessary for authentic renewal. Human beings are capable of finding endless excuses for putting off unpleasant tasks, and the bishop tells himself that he must have the freedom to accomplish his mission in his own way and in his own time.

Meanwhile, however, the conservatives in the diocese, who had perhaps always been unrealistic in their expectations, are becoming increasingly impatient. Of necessity, given his unwillingness to act, the bishop finds himself defending things that he knows are indefensible, and he also finds himself becoming annoyed at the people who seem not to understand his problems and who demand that he act instantly. At some point his chancellor may smile wryly and say, "Now, bishop, you can see what we have had to put up with from those people all these years".

Step by step, through a process that is largely unconscious until almost completed, the bishop is recruited as an ally by the very people whose practices he was supposed to correct. Unless he is cynical, he cannot continue to defend things that he knows are wrong, hence he eventually comes to believe that alleged abuses are not abuses at all and that the problems in the diocese stem from those who "do not accept the reforms of Vatican II". To the degree that the bishop has a lingering bad conscience over his failure to act where action is needed, his discomfort is projected onto his conservative critics.

The strategy of waiting a decent interval before acting has things to recommend it. But it is worth noting that it runs counter to established management practice in government and industry, where each new chief executive has his "hundred days" or his "honeymoon", during which he makes sweeping changes of personnel in order to install people who accept his own agenda. An administrator who continues in office people suspected to be out of sympathy with his objectives is rarely offered gratitude. Instead his inaction is correctly sensed as weakness, and his subordinates begin acting accordingly.

The liberal bishops appointed during the 1970s invariably followed that practice, replacing conservatives in the chancery office with their own people. But many conservative bishops have not seen fit to do the reverse, presumably in the belief that administrative continuity insures the peace of the diocese. Thus old policies continue almost unaltered under the new regime. (In one diocese a conservative bishop continued in office his predecessor's vicar general, and a local priest observes: "Everyone knows it is far more dangerous to offend the vicar general than to offend the bishop".)

Part 2 of "Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results"


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