A Church in Search of Followers

By Paul Elie
The New York Times
Downloaded June 23, 2003

Four years ago, to prepare for the third millennium, Pope John Paul II led the Roman Catholic Church in a year of repentance for the sins of Catholics through the ages. The efforts at contrition were, inevitably, limited and flawed; but the image of the white-clad pope asking for forgiveness was indelible, and it seemed possible that the process would give rise to a spirit of metanoia, or conversion of heart, in the church worldwide.

It hasn't turned out that way. One year ago, after months of horrifying news reports, the 300 or so Catholic bishops in the United States met in Dallas and promised to deal thoroughly and publicly with the problem of priestly sexual abuse. Since then, many of us have looked for signs of metanoia. We are still looking.

To us, the year after Dallas has been more dispiriting than the year before it. For all the public apologies, the high-level discussions, the back-and-forth between chancery and district attorney's office, there has been surprisingly little visible contrition from the bishops. Despite their efforts at their meeting in St. Louis, which ended Saturday, the bishops actually have less credibility now than a year ago. The opportunity for conversion of heart seems to have passed.

Or has it? When the bishops released a statement on sexual abuse in Dallas - grounded in the promise that any proven sexual abuser would be removed from the ministry - it was hoped that a process of healing would begin. But among Catholics I know, something other than healing has taken place. The mood has changed from anger to astonishment, from dismay to heartsickness, as bishops have brought their habits of evasion to the process: resisting the police, the state, the lay review board they appointed, and the movement of parishioners that arose to call them to account.

At a time when the nation is troubled by terrorism and war, the bishops have been preoccupied with questions of whether a bishop scheming to avoid criminal charges is sheltering his diocese's assets or merely protecting himself; whether one diocese may sue another for passing on predator priests; and to what extent a sitting archbishop is obligated to answer subpoenas.

The crisis of priestly sexual abuse, in short, has exposed a crisis of leadership. Yet can it really be said that the past year has been more dispiriting for the believer than the year before it, in which many hundreds of instances of abuse were brought to light, several bishops resigned in disgrace, an accused priest was shot by his accuser and Cardinal Bernard Law, under fire in Boston, hid behind a bunker of secular legalese?

Yes, it can. Because the developments of the year before Dallas, though appalling, were no great surprise to most of us. We all knew - some of us firsthand - that there are priests who are sexual predators. We knew the bishops to be a controlling and self-righteous lot, determined to deal with problems in their own fashion and at their own pace. And since we were familiar with their characteristic worldview - in which the church, represented by the bishops, is in pitched battle with the crass forces of modernity - we weren't surprised when they recast themselves as the defendants in a show trial conducted by the impious American press.

So we were prepared for scandal. And we were relieved, even grateful, when the problem was dragged out into the open; we wished we'd done more to expose the problem ourselves. What we weren't prepared for was the bishops' hardness of heart after the problem was in plain sight and they had pledged to deal with it.

Once their strategy of denial had failed, we expected the bishops, struck by the pathos of the situation, to frankly admit their wrongdoing. Why shouldn't we have? The church's new catechism - a project overseen by Cardinal Law - is eloquent on the virtues of admitting one's sins: "Through such an admission, man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible."

No doubt, good things have happened in the past year. Cardinal Law resigned as archbishop of Boston. The national review board has gone about its work, though not without strife (last week its chairman, Frank Keating, resigned). Stricter sexual-abuse policies have been drafted. Communication between clergy and lay people has improved.

Yet even the most devout of Catholics would recognize these steps as necessary but not sufficient, the spasms of an institution struggling to find its footing. As important as they are, they are characterized by what they lack: the penitential spirit, for so long so basic to Catholicism that it could be satirized as "Catholic guilt."

Of course, it may be that a conversion of heart will come about in time - that the church's leadership, which urges its people to look beyond the news cycle, is changing, albeit slowly, before our eyes. But in the meantime, in their drive to protect their dioceses' worldly assets, the bishops are squandering the church's only asset of any value: its claim to fidelity to Christ and the Gospel.

It is commonplace to attribute the troubles of the church in this country to a lack of genuine leaders among the bishops. Voice of the Faithful, the movement of lay Catholics that emerged during the scandal, has made a point of declaring that Catholics have a right to good leadership. The absence of leadership is real, especially when the pope - a leader, whatever one thinks of him - is ill.

Unfortunately, leadership cannot be brought about through agitation. Nor can it be asserted through power of office. It is a character trait that can only be hoped for, cultivated, respected and admired - or feared - when it does come along.

In the recent past, when the church has had a crisis of leadership, there has emerged a bishop or cadre of bishops who are willing to break from the larger group and restore the church to its senses: Dutch bishops decrying the Nazi deportations of Jews during World War II; Archbishop Oscar Romero reversing decades of church policy in El Salvador in order to denounce the government and champion the poor.

This time, lay people have taken the lead in addressing a problem directly, expecting the bishops eventually to join with them. It has worked, to some degree. In St. Louis, for example, the bishops finally agreed to cooperate with researchers performing a survey about sexual abuse. But it is a sad day for the church when mere compliance is cause for celebration.

The Catholic tradition takes as its starting point the stubbornness of human nature, and goes on to stress the possibility, indeed the necessity, of conversion, urging the believer to be open always to an authentic change of heart. History suggests that change in the church usually follows on the death of a pope or other prominent figure. When Pope Pius XII died, for example, his successor, Pope John XXIII, called for the "opening of the windows" that was Vatican II. Alas, the present crisis will probably pass only with the passing of the current bishops and the installation of bishops who know better than to follow in their footsteps.

For the time being, it is likely that the bishops will keep going along the path they and their counselors have marked. As they return to their home dioceses and the Catholics they supposedly lead, we hope they keep in mind that the church doesn't need leaders so much as followers - that its leader lived a long time ago and walked a very different path, and that their job is to make his leadership known today, not through crisis management but through faithful example. At this point, they may have no other choice.


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