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

I once spent an evening talking with a group of priests about the question of celibacy. Almost all expressed their unhappiness with the rigidity of the law. The next day I met their bishop and mentioned my conversation with them. He refused to believe I had heard any such talk, and in that gentle, kindly way bishops have, delicately suggested that laymen like myself should stop stirring up trouble.

Not long from now, though, he may believe it—when he discovers one day he can't fill parish vacancies, does not have enough manpower to cover educational, social, or military chaplaincies, and finds on his desk a pile of requests from his priests asking that they be allowed to return to the lay state. If he is truly a child of the system which made him a bishop, he will doubtless be tempted to explain away the facts before his eyes as symptomatic of worldliness creeping into the Church, as a sign of the corruption wrought by an unwise zeal for reform, as the final pernicious result of meddlesome laymen and disloyal priests venting their hostility toward authority. He well might, in other words, interpret his troubles only as a sign of the essential wisdom of his intransigence, and see his own God-given duty as that of holding on to the good and the true in the face of the anti-Christ. The attraction of this stance, with its flavor of holy martyrdom, should not be underestimated. It was a favorite among the conservative minority at the Council, as one vote after another went against them. It could well spread among the American bishops as their difficulties mount.

On the other hand, the bishops may decide the time has come to look, listen, and change. That they have gingerly but in so many ways taken some important steps toward change has to be underscored. The election in November of a liberal, Archbishop Dearden, as president of the American Bishops' Conference—itself a major move in the direction of greater episcopal unity and organization—was one of these steps. The man he defeated, Archbishop John J. Krol of Philadelphia, had been until that time one of the rising young conservative stars. The spreading establishment of priest and lay senates, permissiveness toward seminary reform, and growing ecumenical contacts are still other positive steps. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, never known as a liberal during his many years as auxiliary bishop of New York, has astonished everyone by the boldness of his moves as the new bishop of Rochester; surprises are still possible.

If the bishops are not yet fully alive, neither are they quite dead. They know the pressure is now on them, and that it is growing. No man in a position of authority easily gives up those habits of company loyalty, defensiveness, and isolation which got him the authority in the first place. But that is precisely what the bishops are being called upon to outgrow. No doubt many see this demand as posing a terrible dilemma. Yet it is hardly any more terrible than that felt by their critics. For how does one tell sincere, hardworking, well-motivated men they may be wrong? That they must run risks? That gradual progress is not fast enough? It still remains extraordinarily difficult to say these things charitably and productively in the American Catholic Church. But they are being said, sometimes in audible whispers, sometimes in outraged screams. How the bishops finally decide to respond in the months to come will, more than anything else, determine the future of the Church in America. At the moment, the issue is in doubt.

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