An Open Letter to America’s Bishops

From June 14 to June 20 the U.S. bishops will gather in Denver behind closed doors for a meeting of extraordinary importance. The “special assembly” of the hierarchy will weigh alternative approaches to the crisis now gripping American Catholicism—a crisis which, though greatly intensified by the sex-abuse scandal, involves many problems and issues besides the sexual delinquency of some priests. The bishops face three options—along with the virtually unthinkable option of doing nothing. These are a plenary council for the Church in the United States, a regional synod, and unspecified new initiatives by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The debate in Denver will set the stage for a decisive vote at the USCCB meeting in November in Washington. In anticipation of these crucial deliberations, Crisis is publishing an open letter to the bishops by Russell Shaw, a writer who has observed Church affairs at close hand for many years.

Your Eminences and Your Excellencies—my brothers in Christ:

Although unsought advice, like the common cold, can be as unpleasant to receive as it is easy to give, the Second Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law say we laypeople can and should tell our pastors what we think about “things which pertain to the good of the Church” (Lumen Gentium, 37). Unfortunately, despite this official endorsement, the absence of the processes and structures for expressing public opinion that Vatican II also called for makes that a lot easier to say than to do. But if ever there was a time for it, surely it’s now, in the midst of the most serious crisis the Church in the United States has faced.

Some of you may recall that I was press secretary of your bishops’ conference from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Those also were difficult times, and one reason was that the bishops of those days made things worse by usually refusing to admit the fact. Most of them were likable, decent men, yet they were overly fond of a form of euphoric rhetoric that I eventually came to think of as “happy talk.”

Faced with theologians who challenged Church doctrine, defecting priests, ferocious feminist nuns, growing religious illiteracy, and countless other troubles, many of those bishops chose to see such things as the growing pains of renewal. On the whole, they insisted, we were on the right track; everything would turn out for the best. Pope John XXIII’s words about “prophets of doom” profoundly shaped their thinking, mostly for the worse.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering whether the bishops of that era took the same resolutely upbeat view of priestly sex abuse. In any event, we now know that prophets of doom are sometimes right. And although the abuse scandal has pretty much driven euphoria from your own repertoire, something just as bad may be taking its place. I mean the suggestion that you may soon be able to put this nasty episode behind you and return to business as usual. If that’s the conventional wisdom in Denver, the crisis of American Catholicism will become even worse, even more destructive, than it already is. Business as usual isn’t the answer.

Catholic Anger

One thing that rules it out is the deep-seated anger and mistrust so many Catholics harbor toward you. No doubt people are generally polite and deferential to you face-to-face. And even if that weren’t so, many of you spend much of your time in chanceries where your staff keeps your critics at bay. But the anger and mistrust are out there anyway, as the sad case of Bishop O’Brien of Phoenix suggests. The jury, it seems, just didn’t believe what he said under oath.

I could illustrate this problem of anger and mistrust by quoting from some of the vicious anti-episcopal screeds I’ve seen. The people who circulate this body of Internet samizdat are cheerfully poisoning the view many Catholics have of you and destroying the sense of community in the Church. But let me cite a less inflammatory, and therefore in some ways more disturbing, case. Over lunch a Catholic attorney spoke to me of his anger like this:

I live and work in a largely non-Catholic, even anti- Catholic, environment. In this setting I consider it my job to be an exemplary representative of the Church—a kind of living testimony to Catholic beliefs and values. With all my faults, I work pretty hard at it, too. But time and again the authorities have pulled the rug out from under me. The sex- abuse scandal isn’t the whole of it, but it’s made things far worse. Really, I ask you—how can you put a good face on being a Catholic in the eyes of people who are at best suspicious of the Church when you’ve got something like that hanging over your head?

This man is the kind of layperson the Church desperately needs and says it wants. He is trying seriously to be a confessor of the Faith in his secular environment. But the pratfalls of the hierarchical Church make this extremely difficult role even harder. Is it any wonder he’s angry?

A former government official, a convert to Catholicism, sounds another common theme. The bishops, he told me, have surrendered their authority as teachers to “dissenting theologians, Catholic university presidents, and the media.” If that persists, warned this former Protestant, the college of bishops will end up as something like a “Protestant advisory board” rather than an assembly of vicars of Christ.

In Denver, you’ll discuss how to respond together to the present crisis. Perhaps it will help if I speak of the crisis itself. While what I’m going to say has probably already occurred to you, saying it again is a way of keeping the big picture in view.

First of all, this isn’t a crisis about sex abuse. Or at least not about sex abuse in isolation from everything else. True, we wouldn’t be having this particular crisis had there been no scandal. But our Church would be in crisis just the same. If anything good has come out of this miserable affair, it is that it’s forced us to confront a problem that has been festering for years.

The problem is best described, I think, as an acute and far-reaching spiritual crisis bordering on spiritual collapse.

In the United States, it’s closely linked to cultural assimilation. Consider something said many years ago by Rev. Edward McGlynn, a headstrong priest who was in frequent hot water with the hierarchy in the late 19th century: “I am not a Roman Catholic. I am an American Catholic.” Here was a man ahead of his time! These days it isn’t just a few exhibitionist priests who say that but vast numbers of ordinary Catholics who act it out.

Santayana to Kerry

Farsighted people have understood the implications of assimilation for a long time. Back in 1916 George Santayana published an article in The New Republic with the provocative title, “The Alleged Catholic Danger.” Not to worry, he assured liberals who then were fretting over the rise in Catholic numbers and political influence (very much as Samuel Huntington fretted in Foreign Policy a few months ago over Hispanic immigration in the United States)—there was no danger from that source. American secular values could be counted on to act as a “solvent” that would undo the distinctiveness of Catholics.

Santayana was a bright man. Currently we’re watching the symbolic culmination of the solvent process as an unblushingly pro-abortion Catholic politician seeks the presidency on the ticket of one of the two major parties. This scenario has been a nightmare for some of us ever since the Cuomo years. Now the nightmare is real.

I hope Senator John Kerry’s candidacy will have a large place in your deliberations in Denver. You need to frame a response to its challenge—to you and to the Church—well before November. When I told a politically sophisticated friend that some bishops take the view that although pro- choice Catholic politicians shouldn’t receive Communion, no effort should be made to prevent them, on the assumption that they’re in good faith, he replied: “If any bishop thinks Senator Kerry is in good faith on this matter, he’s the only person in the country who does.”

From a spiritual perspective, what’s at stake in the Kerry candidacy isn’t only an election—nothing you say or do will affect its outcome much either way—but your credibility as pastors and teachers. As during the weeks and months after Humanae Vitae, people now are watching to see what you will do, and they’ll draw their own conclusions from that. Are you serious when you say certain doctrines of faith and morals involve a binding obligation for Catholics, such that rejecting them severs communion with the Church? Unlike the people certain that excommunication is the answer, I don’t know exactly what you should do. But I do know that neither silence nor high-flown words without deeds will suffice.

All About Sex

In the wake of the abuse scandal, Catholics also are asking if the bishops are serious about the Church’s doctrine on sexuality. The evidence that some bishops in the past tolerated egregious misbehavior by priests has fostered a widespread suspicion that your adherence to Church teaching amounts to little more than lip service. I am sure you will vigorously deny that, but this, too, calls for more than words on your part.

Excuse me for telling a story I’ve told before. Back in the 1970s I was present at a conversation between one of the most powerful leaders of the Church in the United States and a prominent Catholic theologian. The theologian railed against Catholic teaching on sexual morality and insisted it had to change. After listening to him in silence, the powerful churchman merely replied, “Give it time, give it time.”

Meanwhile, of course, the sexual revolution swept all before it. In a review of Peter Steinfels’s book on the present crisis, Garry Wills called the change in thinking and practice about sex “one of the great axial shifts in history, of the kind that reorient entire cultures.” Wills is right—although, unlike him, I don’t conclude that it’s the Church that must change. Indeed, the Catholic Church, though here and there visibly wobbly on sex, is one of the few institutions that hasn’t completely lost its bearings on this subject.

Apparently it was in hopes of correcting the wobbliness that eight of you called for a plenary council—an idea now supported, it seems, by many more of your number. Although I applaud this initiative, the sex-abuse scandal obliges one to recognize that wobbling about sex may be only a symptom of a wider spiritual hollowing-out that has gone a long way toward turning our community of faith into an empty shell.

This is hard to say without sounding smarmy or superior. We’re all sinners, of course. But many American Catholics give every appearance of sinning complacently, as if they’d had moral lobotomies that robbed them of a realistic sense of guilt.

Surely that’s the case with many abusive priests. At times in the last half-century, a not- inconsiderable number of men whom we’d been taught to consider our Church’s best and brightest abused their priesthood itself, treating it as a comfortable occupation, a source of prestige and authority, and a cover for gross self- indulgence. And a not-inconsiderable number of bishops knew about it and, for bad reasons, put up with it. (One also suspects that criminal abuse of minors may be only part of the story of sexual dereliction by priests, though hardly anybody wants to talk about that.)

But it isn’t only the priests. The hollowing-out extends to the millions of lay Catholics who’ve adopted secular sexual mores. They don’t just break the Sixth and Ninth Commandments—Catholics have always done that—they do it on principle, as it were, persuaded that the lewd culture they belong to knows better than their Church. Certainly there are good people in the Church in America, but it appears that for many the name “Catholic” is merely a sociological name tag.

Money Is the Root

And a lot more than sex is involved. This is a religious body that has grown much too fond of money and its consolations. I’m sorry the settlements in abuse cases have put so much cash in the pockets of venal lawyers, but I can’t say I regret seeing the money go. On the whole, our Church is better off without it.

You don’t have to look far to see this aberration at work: pastors who fritter away funds on luxury items for their churches; religious orders that solicit donations by pushing superstitious devotions and sending cheesy religious trinkets through the mail; your own custom of holding meetings amid the fleshpots of commercial hotels, as if the bishops’ conference were a trade association having a bash. One wealthy parish I know rents the bell tower of its church to a telecommunications company as a cell-phone station.

Then there are the religious scams. Recently I got a piece of direct mail from a men’s religious order telling me I’d won $6,000 in a drawing I didn’t know I’d entered. “Payment approved” and “we promise” to pay, the notice declared. All I had to do was send back the form—oh, and enclose a check for the order if I felt so inclined.

Had I really won? Alas, no. The small print told me what I’d received was an entry form giving me one chance in 300,000. And the order might never have to pay up, since the real winner quite possibly wouldn’t bother to respond. Meanwhile, these religious with their vow of poverty stand to collect a nice piece of change from credulous souls tricked into believing they’ve won something and eager to show gratitude by sending a check.

Now I ask you, would you buy a used car from those clerics?

I’m not just compiling a gripe list. The point is this: A church in which things like this happen not rarely but regularly is a church in which the spirit of penance and mortification is in very poor shape. For a long time, my brothers in Christ, you’ve asked very little of Catholics, and spiritually speaking, very little is what you now get.

Isn’t there a link here with the decision after Vatican II virtually to do away with Friday abstinence and the Lenten fast? Yes, I know—these were very limited ascetical practices that often were performed quite superficially. But abolishing them—along with taking the “obligation” out of holy days when observing them would be inconvenient—was an assault on Catholics’ sense of themselves as a people called to stand apart from the remorseless secularizing of society taking place all around them.

I know you don’t like saying your predecessors made mistakes, but couldn’t you at least acknowledge that the circumstances of American Catholicism today call for a different approach? That is a prerequisite to restoring—or at least attempting to restore—what was foolishly thrown away in the past.

Weighing the Options

In Denver, you’ll weigh three options for addressing the crisis of our Church: a plenary council, a regional synod, and turning matters over to the USCCB. The first two require the approval of the pope. There are arguments for and against both. One sensible suggestion I’ve heard is to hold the synod first in order to set parameters for the larger, less manageable plenary council that would follow. I pray you make the right choice.

But I can’t offer you much encouragement for turning things over to the USCCB. Having served with the bishops’ conference for many years, I realize better than most that it has a necessary place and does important work. The sex-abuse scandal itself wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if the USCCB had had more authority to deal with it early in the game. But turning to it now for solutions to the overarching crisis of American Catholicism would risk bogging you down in a bureaucratic structure set in its ways. Seek creative new approaches instead.

One last word.

I sympathize with your desire to deliberate without being pressured by interest groups and the media. Outside pressure made your meeting in Dallas two years ago the embarrassing fiasco it was. But don’t equate desirable in-dependence of action with secretiveness about what you’re doing and why.

One clear lesson of the sex-abuse scandal is that self-serving secrecy on the part of pastors hurts the Church. Apparently realizing the truth of that, you’ve formally committed yourselves to transparency— about abuse. But transparency is something like pregnancy. Just as no one can be a little bit pregnant, so you can’t be a little bit transparent. The Church needs transparency across the board.

Your closed-door deliberations in Denver will have enormous consequences for us all. And even though you’re the pastors and teachers—and you need to act consistently as such—our Church isn’t exclusively yours. You have a serious duty to practice stringent accountability for your decisions to your brothers and sisters in the Faith.

Long before this crisis, John Henry Newman explained why the abuse of secrecy in religion is such a bad idea. The systematic withholding of information from the Catholic people, he warned, “in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition.” American Catholicism has plenty of both right now, and along with everything else you have to do behind those closed doors in Denver, I hope you find time to think about the implications of that.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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