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

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.

That an uninspiring group of bishops should elicit mild affection is not really odd. They are very little different from other Catholics. The charge frequently heard among Catholic intellectuals these days, that the bishops are out of touch with their own people, is only partially true. They are indeed badly out of touch with intellectuals, with young priests and laymen, and with most of the theologians. But they are consummately attuned to the great middle range of American Catholics, those whose main interest is in "getting ahead," enjoying the fruits of affluence, and living conventionally Catholic religious lives. Most bishops give these Catholics exactly what they want. They reassure them that the Council did not destroy that old-time Catholicism of the rosary, novenas, and indulgences (though it may have). They exhort them about civil rights and the need for world peace (just enough to bring to bear a gentle pressure, but not enough to hit any middle-class Catholic in the pocketbook or shake his patriotism). Above all, they present an image of the Church which exudes stability and wisdom in the face of a nation ravaged by LSD, pornography, teen-age sex parties, crime in the streets, and secularistic materialism. When a bishop departs from this script, the outrage of the people can be incredibly nasty.

f the American bishops have any genius then, it lies in their ability to keep the overwhelming majority of Catholics happy. They don't push their people beyond their most minimal moral, civic, and religious capacities, and the people thank them with money—and affectionate indifference. Were it not for the intellectuals and activists, an American bishop could live a fairly pleasant life these days. But the latter are demanding of the bishops a far higher standard of outspoken leadership, sensitivity to cultural and technological change, intellectual and moral guts, than the bishops seem able by temperament and training to reach or even aspire to. This pressure is being applied in a way the bishops find particularly bothersome, by public criticism and exposure. Naturally this kind of prodding irritates the bishops, very few of whom have taken the trouble to attempt even talking at any length to those they consider subverters of "legitimate authority." And naturally, too, when the bishops respond with suspicion and hostility, the charges against them are all the more stridently (and sometimes unfairly) delivered. The few bishops who do take the trouble to talk with the more agitated reformers find that it doesn't take much to calm their intellectual critics; just a modest show of interest and receptivity makes an immense difference.

Archbishop John F. Dearden of Detroit is unusually popular among Catholic intellectuals. This is not because he has been particularly dramatic in reforming his archdiocese (he hasn't); or because he is considered a maverick by the other bishops (he isn't: they just elected him president of the American Bishops' Conference); or because he is himself an intellectual (there is no special evidence to indicate it). His great virtue is that he has shown he will talk to everyone and listen to them, even if he doesn't do everything asked of him. As one of the first bishops to bring together groups of priests, laymen, and nuns for extended open discussions, he set a standard which few others have approached. That this is not the general rule among the bishops is unfortunate for everyone concerned, the bishops as much as the people. Yet so long as the majority of Catholics don't crave any dramatic reforms, or bishops different from what they are used to, the intellectuals and activists can probably be safely ignored in the daily round of church management. Since so many of the sharpest critics are laymen without money or a large popular following, the margin of safety for the bishops is all the greater.

They cannot so easily ignore the rising complaints of their own priests; nor can they long remain unresponsive to recent figures showing a significant decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The two trends are not unrelated. One result of the Council was to bring into the open the discontent of many priests with the law of celibacy, with their almost total lack of rights in relationship with their bishop, with the way their talents and desires are given short shrift in diocesan job assignments, and with their subservience to pastors who are too often elderly, paternalistic, and tyrannical. More than a few priests have now begun to notice how limited their personal freedom is, and to complain about it. How could they have failed to notice this before? They had received a type of seminary training designed to make them overlook such things, and for that matter, to make them bless their lack of rights as an incomparable way to holiness.

The Council made them see otherwise, and the harsh treatment received by priests like Father William DuBay in Los Angeles and Father Daniel Berrigan in New York served only to dramatize their many grievances. A survey made in 1966 by a Jesuit sociologist, Father Joseph Fichter, revealed some pertinent data: 62 percent of American curates believe that diocesan priests should freedom of choice between marriage and celibacy; 90 percent want grievance committees to which they can bring complaints; over 50 percent feel there is little or no communication between them and their bishops, and some 60 percent judge that their bishop shows little personal interest in them; 31 percent would probably marry if permitted to do so; and while 94 percent favored a diocesan senate of priests, only 28 percent reported the existence of one in their diocese.

It would be a mistake to see in these figures any evidence that there will be a mass defection from priesthood. But it is the kind of evidence which, as it becomes more generally known, effectively drives away a great number of potential priests, leads many seminarians to quit before ordination, and leaves many of those already priests a good deal less than enthusiastic about their work and role. Some bishops immediately complained about Father Fichter's survey, calling it misleading and those surveyed unrepresentative. Few priests challenged his data.

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