I Have This Image in My Head

By Tom Fox
National Catholic
Downloaded June 14, 2003

Two stories caught my interest in The New York Times this morning and while, at first glance they might appear distant and unrelated, I saw within them similar and unsettling themes.

In the first, the Times reported that for the third night Tehran University students had gone to the streets to protest the way the clerics of Iran were ruling the country.

The second, written in preparation for the US bishops' meeting in St. Louis June 19-21, offered an assessment of the uneven way the bishops had responded in the past year to their own directives to clean up the clergy sex abuse scandal, which has plagued the church and eroded its credibility.

In both stories, clerics, for different reasons, were portrayed as intransigent, acting out of self-interest and unable to adapt to changing circumstances. In both stories, the clerics appeared reacting to events in ways that might extend their power, if not authority, in the short run, while eroding it in the long run.

Both stories depicted the clerics as failing to grasp the severity of the situation or the meaning of the moment.

In recent years Iran has witnessed a fledgling democratic movement among students and middle-class Iranians. They have lived in an autocratic, religious-directed Islamic state since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Those protesting at considerable risk want basic freedoms. They are also asking for a more participatory government and one in which a wider segment of society has a voice.

The clerics, meanwhile, instead of addressing the roots of the unrest or entering into serious discussions with those agitating for change have resisted the attacks on their leadership or authority. Instead of self-reflection, they are quick to blame outside forces, seeing only the CIA behind the growing movement for change.

No doubt, the CIA would like to see the students' movement grow and would like to see a change in government in Iran. However, anyone who has followed the Iranian story for the past two decades has watched a nation gaining in disillusionment. While the Ayatollahs may not yet have lost their grip on power, their authority has been discredited by their heavy-handed and autocratic and ultimately self-serving ways. One senses their days are numbered.

In the other story, the Times reports on the intransigence of another set of clerics who, for very different reasons and with very different means, are also resisting change.

One year ago, under enormous public pressure, the US bishops adopted a national policy aimed at trying to clean up the two-decade-old clergy sexual abuse scandal. They enacted sweeping sex abuse policies and set up watchdog commissions whose purpose it was to see that the bishops uphold their own policies.

The Times reported that many of these same bishops are now resisting and even, at times, obstructing the work of the very commissions they established.

Stated the Times: "the bishops of California, led by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, met in private and unanimously passed a resolution saying they would not fill out the surveys for a study that the American bishops themselves had commissioned to assess the extent of the abuse problem in the church."

In New York, Cardinal Edward M. Egan told a council of priests that he would not reveal the names of priests accused of abuse or how their cases had been resolved.

In each case, under further public pressure, the bishops eventually agreed to release the information.

Wider underlying issues here involve governance, power sharing and the closed culture in which the bishops run the church. Their intransigence to change, their resistance to share information, their continued stone-walling of conversations aimed at increasing lay involvement in church governance have compounded the bishops' problems and have eroded further their credibility.

Voice of the Faithful is a lay organization that has pressed the bishops to open the church's accounting and decision-making to laypeople.

On that platform it has grown to 180 affiliates across the nation. The Times article reported that eight bishops have banned the group from meeting on church property in their dioceses, but one of them, Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, reversed his prohibition on May 1, saying he found the group members to be sincere and loyal Catholics.

In Philadelphia, where Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua will soon retire, the Voice of the Faithful chapter sent a letter to the pope's representative in Washington, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, in March. They invited the apostolic nuncio to "communicate with members of the Church in Philadelphia as you prepare to make your recommendation" to succeed the cardinal. The chapter said it never got a response.

As with the Muslim clerics, it seems many Catholic clerics still do not understand that times have changed and autocratic structures are ultimately self-defeating. This is especially the case in an age when education is widespread and laypeople have entered professional roles in all other aspects of society.

As a longtime watcher of the Catholic Church, I know a lot more about its structures than I do about Islamic state-run governments. We are talking about apples and oranges here. No Catholic bishops have, in recent times, ordered the executions of religious dissenters. Yet, reasonable people will likely see common themes in the two situations.

I have this image in my head. The U.S. bishops are all huddled together in the middle of a large pond of quicksand and they are sinking slowly, knees disappearing, waists disappearing . And around the pond, at the edges are crowds of laypeople standing with ropes, ready to throw for the rescue. "No, we don't need your help. We don't need your help," the bishops shout back. And so they continue to sink.

Today's Times articles give the impression that autocratic clerics in both the Middle East and our own church are sinking. What's not yet clear is whether their intransigence will continue and will eventually take their institutions down with them.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.