A few weeks ago, after the meeting of U.S. Bishop’s in Baltimore, I received an email from a friend. He was distressed and angry that the Vatican had intervened and asked the U.S. Bishops not to develop specific recommendations for how to handle malfeasance among their ranks. The Vatican asked them to wait until a meeting of the heads of the various bishop’s conferences from across the world that will take place in Rome this coming February. While my friend understood that it was perhaps better to deal with the issue of malfeasance on the part of bishops on a worldwide basis, he didn’t understand why the U.S. Bishops didn’t at least discuss the issue, without coming up with specific recommendations. Frankly, I think my friend has a right to be angry. At a minimum our bishops should have discussed this issue in a public forum. Once again, our bishops have failed to provide leadership at a critical time in our church—most specifically the church in the United States. And as a result more people are heading to the door on their way out of the church.
While I understand and respect people’s decision to leave—or at least take a break from our church—I would like to suggest that, from my perspective, they are leaving the church for the wrong reasons. Certainly our bishops have been a disappointment, but they are only a small part of our church. More important for us as Catholics is that we know and believe in Jesus Christ and his message of love, peace, care, and compassion. More important are the sacraments and especially the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. More important is our belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God that speaks to our lives today. And more important is our belief that whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to Christ. These are the things that define and maintain our church.
Our church is much bigger and much better than the members of the hierarchy who have ill-served it. Yes, these men have had a very big and a very bad impact on our church. BUT, they are just a small part of our church. While their actions and their inaction have been and are very public and very problematic, they are just a small part of the church. From this perspective, I would like to suggest that it is the organization of our church, most specifically the hierarchy, and not our church, that people should be upset about. Catholics went through one crisis of faith when they discovered they couldn’t necessarily trust priests who ministered to them. We are now going through another as it becomes clear that many bishops have not fulfilled their duty to hold abusers and their enablers accountable. People have a right to be angry, disappointed, and upset about this.
The words transparency, openness, and honesty are much in vogue lately. Their high fashion status, though, doesn’t diminish their importance or necessity. In regard to our church, they call our bishops to a high standard of accountability. Certainly for some time now our leaders have failed to meet this standard. For this they need to confess their failings, repent, and establish clear standards of accountability. And they need to work with others, most especially the laity, to do this, and thus to provide the leadership we deserve. If they can’t do this, or are unwilling to do this, then they shouldn’t be surprised if people simply stop paying attention to them.
This year, as we celebrate the great Feast of Christmas, I extend a welcome to all those who, despite their discouragement, disappointment, and anger, will join us for worship at The Basilica as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The many and diverse people who fill our church are a visible reminder that we have a big God, and so we need a big church. A church that is much bigger and much better than our bishops. This Christmas especially, this is something for which I am particularly grateful.