America’s Catholic Bishops

Short of the Pope himself, there is no one who can challenge the Catholic bishop for leadership or power in the American church today

The ecclesiastical condition of America is still in infancy; the will of the Bishop is the only law." When a German-American Benedictine monk wrote these words to Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1852 he had good reason for his judgment. Within a few short decades after the founding of the American Catholic hierarchy in 1789, the control of the bishops was complete. They had quelled lay revolts, brought their priests to heel, and fixed the character of American Catholicism for many years to come. Speaking of his immigrant flock in the middle of the nineteenth century, Archbishop John Hughes of New York put the matter bluntly: "I had to knead them up into one dough, to be leavened by the spirit of Catholic faith and Catholic union."

Kneaded they were, and one dough they became. Not until the Second Vatican Council did a new yeast begin to take hold. By that time the immigrants were long dead, and their children's children were beginning to resist the firm fingers of their spiritual bakers. Some, in fact, now want to change the whole recipe: it is not the Catholic masses who require kneading, but the bishops themselves.

Ironically, it was the Council which broke the unquestioned grip of the American bishops. They went to Rome in 1962 as comparatively obscure figures on the stage of world Catholicism. They were known to come from the richest Catholic Church in the world, and a few, like Cardinal Spellman of New York and Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, had an international reputation for financial genius. Beyond that, no one knew much about the American bishops, especially where they stood on such crucial issues as religious liberty, ecumenism, and the place of Scripture in the Church. By the end of the Council in 1965, however, they had as a body made their mark. In one critical vote after another they came down overwhelmingly on the side of the progressive majority. That outcome proved they are capable of moving with a liberal tide. In the eyes of those Catholics eager for change in the Church, that was their glory. They showed they could move.

This is no small matter in the American Church today. Within his own diocese a bishop is close to being a sovereign lord. He bears ultimate responsibility for the teaching of Church doctrine, the allocation of funds, the construction of buildings and churches, the assignment of clerical personnel, and the spiritual well-being of his people. Short of the Pope himself, there is no one who can challenge him for leadership or power. The extent of this power can be gathered from a few elementary statistics. The 260 American bishops control an empire of nearly 14,000 schools, 600 seminaries, 18,000 parishes, 950 hospitals, and 260 orphanages.

Serving them are close to 36,000 diocesan priests, 23,000 priest members of religious orders, 12,000 brothers, 180,000 nuns, and thousands of lay employees. No one has been able to determine the financial assets of the American Church (a closely guarded secret), but a minimum reasonable estimate would exceed the $10 billion mark. A major shift in the political or social stance of a bishop can have enormous Church and community impact. A decision by the bishops to close the parochial elementary schools and concentrate on secondary schools, for instance, would immediately have a profound effect on the public school system. A decision, already taken by many bishops, to insert nondiscrimination clauses into diocesan building contracts can exert significant leverage on a local construction industry. A decision to allow nuns to expand their activities beyond education to, say, poverty work (a move being pressed by many religious orders) could make a great difference in civic poverty programs. In short, quite apart from any moral or spiritual influence, the hard fact that the bishops control so much material wealth and so many priests, brothers, and nuns means that even the slightest shifting of priorities and viewpoint will send shock waves through both Church and community. It is hardly surprising in this light that the evidence of new directions in hierarchical thinking which emerged during the Council should have elicited such extraordinary interest, especially among Catholics themselves.

But if the bishops showed they could move, they also showed that they move much like the rest of mankind, by first looking cautiously about to see where the rest of the herd is going. And that was their undoing. The price they paid for their moment of fame at the Council was the destruction of a deeply ingrained myth: that the Catholic bishop is a wise, omnipotent, resplendent figure, inevitably learned, courageous, and visionary. Not quite. As a result of the intense public exposure they received, the bishops came out of the Council cut down to ordinary size. They would henceforth be judged by a relentless kind of human logic. Since they voted progressively at the Council, they would be expected to act progressively once they got back home. To their great distress, they discovered they would be openly criticized when they failed. "Put up or shut up" is the suitably descriptive phrase here; and that is of course an American, not a Roman, phrase.

ince the Council, the bishops have neither shut up nor quite put up. This might have been expected. The sheer size of the Church hinders rapid change, fruitful discussion, and meaningful experimentation. The bishops must cope with many diocesan priests who resist change, who themselves have a vested interest in the old ways, with religious orders whose traditions and constitutions rule out rapid adaptations, with countless lay people easily shocked by a sudden departure from the kind of polity and piety they grew up with. As other administrators discovered long ago, power in itself is not sufficient to bring about quick change. Entrenched institutions and bureaucracies, within the Church as much as outside, have their own forms of passive resistance, often fully as effective as outright revolt. Then, too, the bureaucracy of the Church is by no means always an efficient bureaucracy. Few priest-administrators are given specialized administrative education; most remain only talented amateurs. At best, then, a bishop has at his disposal very crude instruments of change. Pope John XXIII's reported remark about life in the Vatican, "I'm in a bag here," could well be said by many bishops of their own dioceses.

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