After decades of left v. right, is it now bishops v. everybody else?

After decades of left v. right, is it now bishops v. everybody else?

After decades of left v. right, is it now bishops v. everybody else?

Pope Francis arrives at the annual Bishops' Conference in the Synod hall at the Vatican, Monday, May 21, 2018. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

Not so long ago, most of the fights that mattered in Catholicism broke left v. right, but more and more today it seems to be bishops v. everybody else.

News Analysis

ROME – Moments of great crisis generally affect institutions in multiple ways, some of which are immediately evident and others that take longer to discern. Amid the clerical abuse scandals currently rocking Catholicism, it’s worth asking if one such long-term result is playing out before our eyes.

To wit, are we seeing a redefinition of the traditional left/right divides in the Church because the focus of popular complaint is no longer really teaching, one of the three traditional duties of a bishop, but rather governing?

Recently I sat down with a senior Church leader who was musing on criticism of the bishops of late, which he said at times seems reminiscent of Congregationalism – the idea that it’s the lay congregation, not the clerical caste, that exercises real power over Church affairs.

“Basically, they just want us to be Greek Orthodox priests and keep the thurible full,” this leader said. “Otherwise, they want us to get out of the way.”

Looking around, one understands the reaction. There’s a cohort of Catholic laity today, often wealthy and influential, who seem increasingly bold about clashing with bishops over governance questions. The recent dust-up within the Papal Foundation over funding of a Roman hospital a good case in point.

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At one level, it seems almost silly to say that the left v. right divide is diminishing, given all the ways in which the Pope Francis era seems to have brought those tensions to the surface and given them a turbo-charge. From the death penalty and immigration to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, it’s not as if progressives and traditionalists aren’t going at it hammer and tong every day.

Even within the abuse crisis, liberal and conservative Catholics often propose very different diagnoses of the problem. For the left, it’s often about mandatory celibacy and the exclusion of women from leadership; for the right, the chief culprit is often an excessive tolerance of homosexuality within the clerical ranks.

So no, the ideological clash that has defined Catholic debate since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) isn’t about to disappear. The question is whether those questions will continue to set the agenda.

Traditionally speaking, the Church holds that bishops possess three munera, meaning “duty” or “responsibility.” A bishop is to be priest, prophet and king in the imitation of Christ, which practically means he is to sanctify, teach and govern.

For most of the post-Vatican II era, the controversial part of that formula has been teaching. Few Catholic thinkers or activists questioned a bishop’s right to make personnel assignments or to oversee budgets, but they did vigorously contest various elements of their teaching, from birth control and women priests on the left to inter-religious détente and the limits of a “just war” on the right.

In general, the Catholic right has been more sympathetic to the bishops, but it’s an open question whether that’s because they accepted their teaching authority on principle or because they simply liked what they heard most of the time.

Amid the abuse scandals, however, the focus has shifted. The questions that matter today are why it should be exclusively up to a bishop where a priest serves, and whether he should remain in ministry; whether bishops can be truly trusted to exercise sound fiscal oversight; why bishops get to decide which church records are made public, when, and why; and, in general, whether the practice of styling bishops as the ultimate decision-makers has served the Church well.

There aren’t clear left/right answers to any of those questions.

In addition, the dissolution of the liberal/conservative divide has also been accelerated by the realization that being on the left or the right has almost no relationship with the propensity to abuse. That point has been driven home of late by Chile, where two highly prominent priests – one a hero of the anti-Pinochet days, another a minister to the country’s wealthy conservative elite – have both been laicized after convictions for serial sexual abuse.

All this isn’t really good news for the bishops, since as long as the fault lines broke left v. right over politics, they could count on about half the Catholic laity to be on their side. Now that it more often breaks bishops v. everybody else on governance, it’s hard to know who, exactly, their natural allies might be.

In fairness, most bishops long ago made a healthy distinction between “governance” and “management.” Yes, it’s ultimately their responsibility to exercise oversight, but in a thousand ways they’ve turned over management to others, most often laity – and, in a surprising number of cases, women. (Consider the proliferation of female chancellors of dioceses in America, for instance.)

Bishops with well-administered dioceses almost always will tell you that they do shockingly little of the actual administration themselves, having learned to appoint competent people to the right jobs and then to stay out of their way.

What seems to be at stake today, however, isn’t just management but governance – should the bishops be the ultimate authority in a diocese, or does that system need to be deconstructed in favor of checks and balances to prevent the sort of tragic, even criminal, failures brought to light by the abuse scandals?

For most bishops, governance is a red-line issue, and they can be expected to defend it. As the saying goes, now they may just find out who their real friends are.

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