“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” H. L. Mencken
Mencken’s statement is, of course, caustic and not meant to be taken literally. Still if their social media postings are to be believed, many Catholics wish they could at least spit on their hands and hoist a black flag against a seemingly feckless leadership. As they process the terrible Grand Jury report out of Pennsylvania, and read the mostly unsatisfying public statements that have dribbled forth from bishops around the country, what Catholics keep saying, with a mounting sense of anger and frustration is “they just don’t get it.”
Most of the statements have been received as underwhelming. When a bishop says he is appalled and enjoins us all to fast and pray and participate in penitential rites, it seems like fairly weak sauce: yes, any sane human being would be appalled, and we haven’t really needed bishops to call us to prayer; layfolk have been making that call since the McCarrick story broke, over a month ago.
In his “Letter to the People of God” Pope Francis emphasized the culpability of the clerical culture (both ordained and lay) in permitting a twisted and corrupted vein of evil to become so enlarged and poisonous amid the Body of Christ. He equally emphasized the need for lay participation in the penances that must be offered in atonement, throughout the church. In response Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh tweeted, “Perhaps most important thing about pope’s letter is that it doesn’t blame & expel…but calls for repentance & conversion of whole ecclesial body…”
Well, yes, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the Mystical Body of Christ, “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it,” (1 Corinthians 12:26), but the letter was received by many with yet another sigh of frustration, perhaps because the Holy Father moved too hastily to that point of common penitence before recognizing that yes, there are specific blames to be assigned and yes, there are specific expulsions to be made that are neither unreasonable nor unmerciful.
Missing from Pope Francis’ letter was any mention of bishops, any recognition that by the inhumane, sometimes criminally negligent responses to the abuses perpetrated by their priests, and by their dishonest cover-ups, some must own a particular and stated blame for the severe wounds inflicted upon the Body of Christ through the destruction of innocence — the very definition of Christ’s own Passion.
These are wounds that will echo in Eternity through the loss of countless souls whose faith has been crushed; both justice and accountability can only be served by the swift removal of some bishops from their exalted and powerful offices.
Absent that blame, absent those removals, the laity will remain convinced that “the hierarchy does not get it”; it will be impossible to regain their trust. Right now, in case anyone doubts it, trust in our leadership is at a nadir most of us would not have imagined even a year ago.
All have sinned, all must confess and do penance? Yes, of course — this writer conceded as much (and called for prayer and penance) nearly two weeks before the Grand Jury report was released. But the laity are within their rights to demand thorough confessions and sincere expressions of contrition from their bishops. Many of us are already taking on the heavy work of penitence; we’re praying, fasting, making sacrifices, and we’re wondering of our leadership, “And where are you? What penances are you undertaking, and then, Sirs, what actions will you be taking to excise this vein of corruption, rethink your failing structures, and become the shepherds you are supposed to be?
Among themselves, the laity continue to ask, “What can be done, what can we do to affect change?” Speaking to America Magazine, Fr. Mark Horak, S.J. is blunt: “There isn’t a whole lot you can do because lay people are not in positions of power in the church,” he said. “Basically you’re outsiders, and the only way you can influence is as an outsider.” Encouragingly, he adds, “Fortunately there are lots of people throughout history who are outsiders who have made great changes through persistence and firm pressure.”
Indeed. Never forget the persistence and firm — nay, unrelenting — pressure successfully brought upon a pope by a laywoman known as Catherine of Siena.
We need to stand up, ask questions, demand accountability and the inclusion of layfolk on investigative panels and as seminary formentors, sooner rather than later. We must also, perhaps, be ready to recommend creative and practical action to a leadership seemingly stumped as to how they can possibly regain our shattered trust. Recently, this writer has offered a few suggestions to the bishops:
1) Schedule a nationwide Holy Hour of Repentance, with Benediction — a penitential hour observed simultaneously, around the country, with the leadership in full view on their knees. Follow it up with regular hours of reparation, or other local action, monthly.
2) Hire an administrative team of business-minded layfolk to oversee as much as possible within each diocese in order to free up bishops to get out of their offices and, as Pope Francis has said, take on the “smell of the sheep.” Freeing the bishops from the separate and stultifying boardrooms as much as possible might save their vocations and their souls. One of the worst-received communiques released by a bishop came this week, from Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin who admitted that, as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh, he had become “aware of incidents of sexual abuse when they were reported to the diocese.” But that such matters were outside his purview, that, “My responsibilities…did not include clergy assignments or clergy misconduct, but rather other administrative duties such as budgets, property, diocesan staff, working with consultative groups, etc”.
Administrative duties should never preclude action to protect innocence. As Jacob Marley eventually learned, and told old Scrooge, “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.”
One final suggestion: Open up your mansions.
Some bishops do live humbly, either in rectories, converted convents, or small apartments — Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Pope Francis come to mind — but many bishops take residence in sprawling mansions or multi-storied living spaces more suited to princes than shepherds. At one time in our history, the mansions had a purpose — to the larger society, they said, “Catholic pennies built all this; respect that and imagine what they can do for the coffers of your township, or your union, or your political party.”
Those purposes no longer relevant, these residences look like ostentatious statements of clerical excess and privilege. This is a good time to consider giving up the largest part of those spaces to the people of the diocese in the same way that a shepherd shares a field with the sheep, or a father opens up his house to his children. A bishop might create an apartment in one corner of the building – or a top floor — and allow the rest of the house to be used by the people, as a meeting place for prayer, for continuing adult formation, for the gathering and fellowship of deacons and their wives; as a social facility for the elderly. What a healthy thing for a bishop to live not separate but among the people he is meant to serve.
Of course, if a residence is large enough and has a bit of property to it, a bishop might want to go full-on sacrificial and use the mansion to establish a monastic house of prayer in the diocese, because the presence of contemplative religious, praying every day for a diocese and the people within it, will speed healing like almost nothing else.
Plus, everybody loves nuns. You can’t go wrong by bringing in nuns (contemplative or active) to address a problem.
Bishops, don’t wait until your gathering in November to (in the Roman Catholic way) “begin to talk about” taking action. More investigations are coming, we all know that. The laity are only going to get more frustrated, as they unfold. Take meaningful steps now, so at your meeting you have real action-items in place to show us.
In this way you will make a start in restoring the trust of the laity. Real, observable action will also help out the hard-working priests who are already being put upon, unjustly facing physical attacks and suffering emotional abuse for the sins of past priests and current bishops.