A lot has been written about Pope Francis’s goal of making the church more democratic, with less control by the Vatican and more power to individual bishops. In an ideal world, not only would the Vatican have less say in choosing bishops, but priests and laity would have a larger role in the selection of their leaders.
However, unless the institutional church actually reaches that goal, and power truly devolves to the grassroots, giving more autonomy to Catholic bishops might make things worse, not better, at least for progressive Catholics.
While Pope Francis’s appointments of often have elevated reformers to power, he cannot replace every powerful leader in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
And the bishops now leading U.S. Catholics skew conservative. Indeed, in 2014, one bishop speaking on background confided that only about a third of American bishops were totally on board with Francis’s agenda, about a quarter were definitely against, and the rest were still figuring out where they stood. Not much appears to have changed in the intervening years.
Consider, for example, Pope Francis’s approach to divorced and remarried Catholics who wish to practice their faith. The pope suggested that such Catholics, in certain circumstances, could receive Communion. In Germany, Argentina and Malta, Catholic bishops followed the pope’s advice. That did not happen here.
Like Nun on the Bus Sister Simone Campbell, I don’t expect the bishops “to get a brain transplant.” They largely are old and white and set in their doctrinal ways. But I did expect U.S. bishops to have a sense of balance about the issues they take on. Yes, we get it. We know that bishops oppose same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion. But surely, they could agree with the pope that other issues are just as, if not more, important?
Yet there is little to demonstrate that U.S. bishops have the pope’s back. For example, even though Francis has called protecting the planet a significant moral issue, we have not seen the bishops do “fortnights for the environment” the way their “fortnights for freedom” have for years inveighed against the birth control mandate in Obamacare.
During the 2016 election, American bishops largely did not attack candidate Donald Trump’s “build a wall” remarks with statements that backed up the Pope’s concerns about the fate of the people the wall would shut out.
As Washington D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl so aptly put it, immigration did not get to be a “raging issue” for the bishops until 2017, when they faced a president who intended to fulfill his campaign promises.
We do not have to go back in time to see examples of U.S. bishops behaving badly. This month, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who heads up the diocese of Springfield, Illinois, issued a “decree” concerning Catholics in same-sex marriages. The bishop did not mince words. He called such unions “objectively immoral.” He ordered his priests to never, ever, officiate or even offer any support to any same-sex marriage ceremony, and to deny Catholics living in same-sex unions the last rites, or a Catholic funeral, unless they had repented of their same-sex sins. He also stipulated that Mass-attending Catholics in same-sex unions should be denied Communion.
Oh, the bishop will let their kids attend Catholic school, but with the warning that they will be informed of their parents’ scandalous misconduct.
Then he has the gall to remind his followers that we must be “respectful” and “compassionate.” That’s like an ax murderer telling us to respect life.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, the head of DignityUSA, which advocates for LGBT Catholics, termed the edict “unchristian and demeaning… totally unworthy of our Catholic faith.”
One wonders whether the bishop ever treated any priest in his diocese who sexually abused minors with such disdain. Oh wait, we know what the bishop thought about priestly sex abuse. In 2007, he was an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, then wracked by its own abuse scandal and the lawsuits that followed. Paprocki blamed the victims for the church’s troubles, charging that “the principal force behind these attacks is none other than the devil.”
Paprocki did not lose his position. In 2010, he got a promotion.
Paprocki may be a particularly blatant example. But there were plenty of bishops, some of them who now are cardinals, who have shown a lack of compassion to the survivors of abuse by priests.
Bishops have kept investigative reporters busy from Boston to Minnesota and Los Angeles, and many other cities and dioceses in between. Sadly, the leaders of many dioceses looked the other way when they got reports of abusive priests, or tried to cover the scandal up, or fought victims in court when they sued for damages. They also lobbied against legislative efforts to make it easier to prosecute those who abuse children.
Keep in mind that bishops even now have great power over Catholics in their respective dioceses, including the power to throw them out of the church altogether. That’s an awesome responsibility, and one bishops could have used to send a very strong signal that pedophilia would not be tolerated in the church. Yet, I am not aware of a single bishop excommunicating any priest for his crimes. (Pope Francis has excommunicated a few pedophile priests.)
But after a Catholic sister and hospital administrator permitted physicians at a Catholic hospital to perform an abortion to save the life of the mother, she was harshly punished. When he found out what had happened, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead publicly declared the nun excommunicated. He only admitted her back into the church after she went to confession and agreed to resign from her post.
So, no. I’m not excited about the prospect of bishops in the U.S. having more power. In fact, the more I think about it, the prospect is actually pretty terrifying.
Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).