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

t has not always been this way. The first bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore, saw immediately that the Church in America would have to be different. Toward the end of the eighteenth century he wrote that "the Church as an institution-in-law in Europe had to become in the new nation merely another private corporation... In a sense, the whole history of the Church in the United States has been the gracious accepting of that change, a constant adaptation to that life in a new and secular environment." He did his part in making that adaptation possible, giving unusual freedom to both laity and clergy in order that the internal life of the Church could, so far as possible, reflect the American democratic temper. Others, like Bishops England in Charleston, Cheverus in Boston, Hughes in New York, Ireland in St. Paul, and Gibbons in Baltimore, brought some degree of distinction to the Church during the nineteenth century, the great century of immigrant growth.

Yet outstanding bishops like these have been few and far between. The system for appointing bishops is designed to ensure that only the safest possible priests have a chance to win the favor of Rome, which makes all the choices. Through an elaborate, secretive system of biennial recommendations, the names of potential bishops are forwarded to the papacy by those currently holding office. The present system, laid down by Rome in 1916, specifies the type of priest most suitable for recommendation: "The candidates should be mature, but not too old; of good judgment, tried in actual service; of learning, sound and above the ordinary; devoted to the Holy See; especially noted for rectitude and piety. Besides, attention should be paid to the candidate's executive ability, financial condition, character, and state of health. In a word, the question is whether he has all the qualities which are required in an excellent pastor, so that he may rule the people of God with success and edification." This is a perfect formula for what the bishops have by and large been: solid, respectable, pious citizens, accomplished administrators, good with figures, sound enough of mind and limb to withstand the rigors of an endless round of ceremonial occasions and bureaucratic routine (they live a long life; their average age is sixty-two). The fact that all recommendations are channeled to Rome through the apostolic delegate in Washington—at present a reactionary, Egidio Vagnozzi—hardly helps matters. His influence is thought to be heavily responsible for the conservative cast of those bishops pointed in recent years.

Inevitably, such a system ensures that few mavericks will slip through the tight-meshed ecclesiastical net. It is almost inconceivable that a priest who made a public name for himself as a picketer, as an imaginative innovator, as an opponent of corrupt politics, as a known advocate of "controversial" church or public policies would pass muster. The bishops might well support such a priest in all these things; they just wouldn't recommend him to Rome to be one of them. Not surprisingly, those elevated to the episcopacy are often unknown at the outset to the great mass of Catholics. They are, as a rule, drawn from deep within the administrative structure, many in fact having spent much of their priestly lives doing office rather than pastoral work. One needs little insight into the sociology of large institutions to guess the net result: those finally appointed as bishops are likely to be highly congenial to those already in office, domesticated to traditional priorities and routines, and out of touch with grass-roots opinion, especially lay opinion.

The rarity with which the bishops dispute each other publicly is a tribute to the homogenizing effectiveness of the recommendation and appointment procedure. Though the American people are divided on the Vietnamese war, not one bishop has opposed it. Not one has appeared on a picket line. Not one has ever been accused of heresy, or even more vaguely, of being a "radical" (whether of the right or left, whether politically or theologically). A few, like Bishops Wright in Pittsburgh, Primeau in Manchester, New Hampshire, Buswell in Pueblo, Colorado, Helmsing in Kansas City, Missouri, and Cardinal Ritter in St. Louis have come close, on occasion, to establishing themselves as heroes among the Progressives. But not one has ever quite made it, primarily because of a sporadic and inconsistent record. On the right, Cardinals McIntyre and Spellman have come as close as any to heroic stature as reactionaries. But of late, even they have made some progressive gestures, just enough to disappoint their followers and confuse some of their liberal opponents.

he composite picture which emerges here is actually a familiar one. It is a portrait of the managerial class in American business, with ecclesiastical overtones. Those who reach the top do so because they have proved their loyalty, their ability to stay securely within the bounds of the prevailing institutional wisdom, and their adeptness at surmounting one after another hurdle in the competitive apprentice system. Just as it is rare for an American company president to have an academic history, the same is equally true in the hierarchy. And it is just as unimaginable that an American bishop would have a background in radical politics or social reform as it is for a president of General Motors. With few exceptions, the present bishops were trained exclusively in Catholic schools, spent most of their working life exclusively in Catholic bureaucracies, and find their close friends in predominantly ecclesiastical circles. They are consummate models of the successful American organization man, bred by and for the hierarchical apparatus.

The first bishop, John Carroll, was elected by his priests. Another early bishop, John England of Charleston, established a consultative senate of representative priests and laity. Bearing in mind the American business establishment, try to guess what became of these democratic innovations. Correct; they died, and almost overnight. Imagine what the response of the bishops was in the early days of the American Church when the laity claimed the right to have a say in ecclesiastical policies and finances. Right again; they set about stamping out such presumptuous demands. More recently, the slowness with which the American bishops have taken up the Council's demand for a greater lay voice in the Church, and the unwillingness of the bishops to consider open elections to choose their successors, can best be compared with the perennial reaction in the American business community toward proposals that workers have a share in the rights and responsibilities of management. In a word: no—a nicely put, flattering "no," to be sure, accompanied by token gestures of concern and respect. But no Catholic in his right mind could fail to see where the power lies, and where it will, with only the smallest modifications, continue to lie. A thousand gestures toward sharing have not added up to one important act of doing so. To paraphrase Lord Acton: all power perpetuates itself, and absolute power perpetuates itself absolutely.

Perhaps many of those who are not Catholics would prefer to think of the bishops in terms of the original form of Acton's phrase: absolute power corrupts absolutely. They may also wonder why there are not more movements afoot to "throw the rascals out." The answer is obvious enough: they are not rascals. They are mild men, soft-spoken, full of goodwill, conciliatory in their impulses. Their very lack of flamboyant personality, their resolutely middle-of-the-road piety and policy, and their inconspicuousness all tend to deflate even their sharpest critics. Beyond that, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics retain a consistently good image of their bishops. It is an image fostered by most of the Catholic press, by priests and teaching nuns (most of whom would never dare utter a public word of reproach or complaint), and by a Catholic theology which presents the bishop as a semi-deity.

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