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The Atlantic Monthly | April 1967
he ecclesiastical condition of America is still in infancy; the will of the Bishop is the only law." When a German-American Benedictine monk wrote these words to Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1852 he had good reason for his judgment. Within a few short decades after the founding of the American Catholic hierarchy in 1789, the control of the bishops was complete. They had quelled lay revolts, brought their priests to heel, and fixed the character of American Catholicism for many years to come. Speaking of his immigrant flock in the middle of the nineteenth century, Archbishop John Hughes of New York put the matter bluntly: "I had to knead them up into one dough, to be leavened by the spirit of Catholic faith and Catholic union."
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
by Daniel Callahan
Kneaded they were, and one dough they became. Not until the Second Vatican Council did a new yeast begin to take hold. By that time the immigrants were long dead, and their children's children were beginning to resist the firm fingers of their spiritual bakers. Some, in fact, now want to change the whole recipe: it is not the Catholic masses who require kneading, but the bishops themselves.
Ironically, it was the Council which broke the unquestioned grip of the American bishops. They went to Rome in 1962 as comparatively obscure figures on the stage of world Catholicism. They were known to come from the richest Catholic Church in the world, and a few, like Cardinal Spellman of New York and Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, had an international reputation for financial genius. Beyond that, no one knew much about the American bishops, especially where they stood on such crucial issues as religious liberty, ecumenism, and the place of Scripture in the Church. By the end of the Council in 1965, however, they had as a body made their mark. In one critical vote after another they came down overwhelmingly on the side of the progressive majority. That outcome proved they are capable of moving with a liberal tide. In the eyes of those Catholics eager for change in the Church, that was their glory. They showed they could move.
This is no small matter in the American Church today. Within his own diocese a bishop is close to being a sovereign lord. He bears ultimate responsibility for the teaching of Church doctrine, the allocation of funds, the construction of buildings and churches, the assignment of clerical personnel, and the spiritual well-being of his people. Short of the Pope himself, there is no one who can challenge him for leadership or power. The extent of this power can be gathered from a few elementary statistics. The 260 American bishops control an empire of nearly 14,000 schools, 600 seminaries, 18,000 parishes, 950 hospitals, and 260 orphanages.
Serving them are close to 36,000 diocesan priests, 23,000 priest members of religious orders, 12,000 brothers, 180,000 nuns, and thousands of lay employees. No one has been able to determine the financial assets of the American Church (a closely guarded secret), but a minimum reasonable estimate would exceed the $10 billion mark. A major shift in the political or social stance of a bishop can have enormous Church and community impact. A decision by the bishops to close the parochial elementary schools and concentrate on secondary schools, for instance, would immediately have a profound effect on the public school system. A decision, already taken by many bishops, to insert nondiscrimination clauses into diocesan building contracts can exert significant leverage on a local construction industry. A decision to allow nuns to expand their activities beyond education to, say, poverty work (a move being pressed by many religious orders) could make a great difference in civic poverty programs. In short, quite apart from any moral or spiritual influence, the hard fact that the bishops control so much material wealth and so many priests, brothers, and nuns means that even the slightest shifting of priorities and viewpoint will send shock waves through both Church and community. It is hardly surprising in this light that the evidence of new directions in hierarchical thinking which emerged during the Council should have elicited such extraordinary interest, especially among Catholics themselves.
But if the bishops showed they could move, they also showed that they move much like the rest of mankind, by first looking cautiously about to see where the rest of the herd is going. And that was their undoing. The price they paid for their moment of fame at the Council was the destruction of a deeply ingrained myth: that the Catholic bishop is a wise, omnipotent, resplendent figure, inevitably learned, courageous, and visionary. Not quite. As a result of the intense public exposure they received, the bishops came out of the Council cut down to ordinary size. They would henceforth be judged by a relentless kind of human logic. Since they voted progressively at the Council, they would be expected to act progressively once they got back home. To their great distress, they discovered they would be openly criticized when they failed. "Put up or shut up" is the suitably descriptive phrase here; and that is of course an American, not a Roman, phrase.
ince the Council, the bishops have neither shut up nor quite put up. This might have been expected. The sheer size of the Church hinders rapid change, fruitful discussion, and meaningful experimentation. The bishops must cope with many diocesan priests who resist change, who themselves have a vested interest in the old ways, with religious orders whose traditions and constitutions rule out rapid adaptations, with countless lay people easily shocked by a sudden departure from the kind of polity and piety they grew up with. As other administrators discovered long ago, power in itself is not sufficient to bring about quick change. Entrenched institutions and bureaucracies, within the Church as much as outside, have their own forms of passive resistance, often fully as effective as outright revolt. Then, too, the bureaucracy of the Church is by no means always an efficient bureaucracy. Few priest-administrators are given specialized administrative education; most remain only talented amateurs. At best, then, a bishop has at his disposal very crude instruments of change. Pope John XXIII's reported remark about life in the Vatican, "I'm in a bag here," could well be said by many bishops of their own dioceses.
At the same time, many bishops who might accept the idea of reform begin to balk when they see some of its implications unfold under their noses. They would have trouble enough if they had a single-minded zeal to change policies and practices. But few show such zeal; more often they are ambivalent, hesitant, and quick to panic, especially when they feel their authority is being threatened. Even during the last triumphal years of the Council, some telltale clues were there for all to see. In 1964 and 1965, for instance, the bishop of Mobile-Birmingham, Thomas J. Toolen, forbade priests and nuns to take part in the march on Selma (they marched anyway); Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles silenced three of his priests for speaking on race problems from the pulpit; Father Daniel Berrigan was ousted from New York by his Jesuit superiors for his public opposition to the Vietnamese war (as rumor had it, because of the displeasure of some members of the New York hierarchy); Bishop Edward J. Maginn of Albany stepped on Father Bonaventure O'Brien, a Franciscan from Siena College, for complaining too loudly about Negro slums in Albany; Bishop Bernard J. Topel dressed down a group of Catholic journalists in 1965, calling the previous year "a year of shame." The "shame" was that some Catholic newspapers had dared to criticize the bishops. The prize instance of repressive silliness came shortly after the close of the Council. After receiving obscure complaints from obscure persons, Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati ordered a local convent of nuns, the Glenmary Sisters, to get to bed by 10 P.M., to have their reading matter approved in advance, and to cease inviting lay people to eat with them.
Yet in the aftermath of the Council one diocese after another has slowly set about establishing clerical senates to give priests a greater voice in diocesan affairs, laymen have been added to school boards, lay-clerical commissions have been established to foster better relationships with Protestants and Jews. If some bishops have silenced their priests for speaking out on social issues, others have defended the right of their priests to do so.
our figures in particular symbolize the American bishops' ambivalence: Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis, Archbishop John P. Cody of Chicago, Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans, and Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. During the Council, Cardinal Ritter, by his vigorous speeches and interventions, almost became the darling of American progressives. Even before the last session ended he had set in motion ambitious, widely praised plans for a strong follow-up in his own archdiocese. Yet within the past eight months he has disciplined three of his priests, each identified with liberal causes in St. Louis. In Chicago, Archbishop Cody has won favor for retiring elderly, ineffective pastors, disfavor for his authoritarian administrative manner (retiring some of the pastors without prior notice or discussion), praise for allowing his priests to form a consultative organization and blame for his ambiguous handling of the Chicago racial tensions. As Archbishop of New Orleans Philip M. Hannan has gained the respect of local integrationists for his offer to help the public school system in the face of a growing segregationist private school system. The same man horrified many during the Council by his energetic efforts to induce the assembled fathers to endorse defensive nuclear warfare. The Cardinal Spellman who was a major obstacle to the nationalistically anti-Jewish bishops of the Middle East during the Council debate on the Jews is the same Cardinal Spellman who has said concerning the Vietnamese war, "My country right or wrong."
At first glance, it is difficult to see a pattern here. As a body, the American hierarchy does not lend itself to easy labeling as "liberal" or "conservative," reactionary" or "progressive." Nor, for that matter, is it much easier to apply labels to most of the bishops individually. Only a handful have established any kind of public reputation for anything, either within or outside the Catholic Church. Cardinal Spellman has made a name for himself over the years by his many public controversies, his violent opposition to federal school bills which did not include parochial school aid, and by his well-publicized visits to American servicemen abroad. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's florid style gained him a large following as a popular writer and TV personality. Cardinal Cushing of Boston has a name as an engaging, sometimes baffling person. He is a lifetime member of the NAACP, active in Protestant- Catholic discussions, a close friend of the Kennedy family's. He is also the cardinal who once warmly commended the founder of the John Birch Society. When he later attacked the society, and later still retracted his attack, he only confirmed the guess of many that he acts more on impulse than on coherent policy.
Beyond a few celebrities like this, it is doubtful that most non-Catholics know much about the American bishops. There are probably few Catholics who know more. Though the bishops are the unchallenged spiritual leaders of some 46 million Roman Catholics, they turn out to be astonishingly inconspicuous as personalities. To their own people, they are neither special heroes nor notable villains, neither inspiring leaders nor feared tyrants. When they speak, which is rarely, it is usually in the language of undistinguished goodwill and fervent aspirations. The late Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans was cursed by Catholic segregationists when he began integrating the Catholic schools during the mid-fifties. More recently, Archbishop Cody was vilified by some of his anti-integration flock in suburban Chicago. When Fulton J. Sheen was installed as Bishop of Rochester, New York, late in 1966, he was met at the airport by nearly a thousand enthusiastic fans. Emotional displays of this kind, either pro or con, are exceedingly rare. On occasion, of course, the American bishops issue general statements, sometimes in strong language. In November of 1966, for instance, they sharply denounced the increasing federal participation in birth control programs. Their statement occasioned bitter protest among many non-Catholics and a heated denial by a number of federal agencies of the bishops' charge that these programs are or would be coercive. Yet hardly anyone seemed to notice the limp response among American Catholics to the words of their supposed religious guides. A few Catholics were outraged at the bishops' statement (pointing out the total lack of evidence to back up their charge of coercion), but most simply failed to respond in any way at all. The bishops might as well have been talking to themselves.
Possibly the only area in which they receive enthusiastic support is in their dedication to the parochial school system. This also happens, though, to be one of the few causes which they support with a full-fledged publicity drive and systematic organizational work (the same can hardly be said of their work for peace or the eradication of poverty). To judge by the obsequious attention lavished upon bishops during Catholic ceremonial occasions—the eager attempts to shake their hands or to kiss their rings—or by the frequency with which their pictures appear in the diocesan newspapers, one might easily be led to imagine them as charismatic figures among their people. It doesn't happen to work out this way. The bishops' theological and symbolic role as wise, dominant shepherds is not matched by their actual power to shape opinion or command a special loyalty on issues going beyond the narrowest matters of Church law and ritual. The hierarchy has shouted against federal and state birth control programs; public opinion surveys show that nearly 60 percent of American Catholics favor such programs. None of the strong episcopal statements favoring racial justice have managed to make the slightest dent in the adamantly white ethnic Catholic neighborhoods of Cicero, Illinois. They have called (rather vaguely, it must be said) for peace in Vietnam, but recent polls show more support for Administration policy among Catholics than among any other religious group.
The curious thing is that the bishops don't really seem to care. They appear remarkably content to remain quiet, benign figureheads among those they are supposed to guide and inspire, saving their major energies for administrative work well away from the public eye. Only a handful of Catholics could say where their own bishop stood on most issues. They could probably guess he was against sin and in favor of goodness. But how does he feel about this housing bill, or that school integration busing scheme, or about napalming villages in South Vietnam, or about what percentage of the American tax dollar should go to foreign aid? There is hardly a diocese in the country where one could come up with answers to such practical, immediate, important questions as these. Many Catholics would count it progress if their bishops took even the most outlandish positions on specific issues; it would at least indicate signs of life. The few bishops who do speak to concrete issues on occasion—Archbishop Lucey in San Antonio supporting efforts to unionize migrant workers, Archbishop McGucken in San Francisco calling on Governor Brown in the last days of his term to commute death sentences, Bishop Mussio in Steubenville, Ohio, protesting against right-to-work laws—are often lionized out of all proportion to the significance of their stand. But when the normal course is to do nothing, even the smallest action becomes news.
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.
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.
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.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1967; America's Catholic Bishops; Volume 219, No. 4; page 63.