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

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.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In