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 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.

Moreover, most American Catholics are American enough to have an excessive admiration for managerial accomplishments. The bishops have run a spectacularly successful church, one able to raise prodigious amounts of money, to build thousands of churches and schools, to command an organization of 59,000 priests and 180,000 nuns, and to bring their people from immigrant poverty to full political and social assimilation. The bishops hardly did all of these things alone, but they got much of the credit for it. If something went wrong within the Church, it was rarely the bishops who were blamed.

When a former president of Fordham University wrote a biography of Cardinal Spellman a few years ago, he made unmistakably clear that the Cardinal had made it "to the top" because he had been shrewd in cultivating the patronage of popes, skilled in making the right connections in Rome, and adept in the cultivation of influential friends. It was a portrait of unadorned ecclesiastical ambition, a classical American Catholic "success story." Did Catholics consider this kind of biographical treatment unflattering? Not at all. The book was a best seller and the cardinal more praised than ever. How did the cardinal himself feel about the book? Fine. It was, after all, an authorized, official biography written by a close friend.

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