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Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results

by James Hitchcock
This article originally appeared in Catholic World Report, May 1995

A young man applies to study for the priesthood and is interviewed by a committee whose chairman, a high-ranking diocesan official, asks him his "feelings" about the ordination of women. The candidate replies that the matter has been settled by the Holy Father. The chairman replies, "We're not asking what the Pope thinks. We want to know how you feel about it". The young man states simply that he accepts the Church's teaching on the matter. He is subsequently informed that the committee has found him unsuitable for the priesthood. An indirect appeal to the bishop of the diocese brings the response that all candidates must be recommended by the screening committee.
 
** In another diocese a young man enrolled in the seminary finds that a feminist nun has much influence in approving candidates for ordination and that she has identified him as "insensitive to the needs of women". Once again an indirect appeal to the bishop brings the response that he will not "interfere" in the workings of the seminary and that the candidate must somehow gain the nun's support in order to qualify for ordination.
 
** In two dioceses bishops hire lay editors for their diocesan newspapers -- men known to be conservative in Church matters. But as the new editors try to bring their respective papers into line with official Church teachings, protests mount, and before long both are removed from their posts.
 
** Two dioceses introduce sex-education programs that deviate from Catholic teaching on important points, bringing protests from parents. In both cases new bishops promote the directors of the respective programs to even more important positions in the local hierarchy.
 
** A lay woman is appointed "pastoral minister" in a parish where no priest is available. She soon begins wearing priestly vestments while conducting Communion services and openly announces her desire to be ordained.
 
** A bishop issues a pastoral letter on the state of women in the Church that, while stopping short of calling for their ordination, employs an unwavering feminist perspective that describes women as systematically oppressed by both Church and society.
 
** A bishop appoints as his diocese's chief representative on "women's issues" a woman known to be critical of Catholic teaching not only concerning the ordination of women but of celibacy and various aspects of sexual morality as well. She openly talks about having "enlightened" local priests on these matters. Complaints to the bishop are ignored.
 


Mere matters of opinion?
Many worse vignettes could be collected to show the precarious state of American Catholicism. What makes these items especially significant is that in each case the problems occurred under bishops known to be "conservative" and identified as part of John Paul II's "counter-reformation" or "restoration".
 
The inadequacy of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" for ecclesiastical issues has often been acknowledged, but they have become so convenient that, if properly understood, they are as useful as any for briefly indicating the divisions that now plague the Church. Yet the casual way in which these divisions are accepted itself ought to be shocking, indicating as it does that questions of fundamental belief have been easily relegated to the status of mere partisan opinions, on which Catholics may legitimately take different positions.
 
With very few exceptions "conservative" bishops do not go beyond what is strictly mandated by official Church teaching or policy. Almost all of them permit altar girls in their dioceses, and some did so even before Rome authorized the practice. Almost none is a strong devotee of the Latin Mass.
 
Enshrining "liberal" and "conservative" -- even with respect to bishops -- in effect means giving legitimacy to positions that actively diverge from one or another official Church teaching, which are reduced to opinions or matters of taste, almost to matters of temperament -- some people move faster than others and are more comfortable with change.
 
Although it has not been recognized, the roots of liberalism among American bishops actually date to the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council, when legendary episcopal giants like Cardinal Francis I. Spellman of New York were still in office. With few exceptions such prelates themselves showed signs of post-conciliar confusion. Often they did little to clarify this confusion for others, or they acted in what seemed like quixotic and inconsistent ways, imposing strong sanctions against certain kinds of devi-ations while blandly tolerat-ing others which were even worse.
 
The Council and the crisis
The great failure of the older generation of bishops was their failure to gain control of the post-conciliar process of education. All over the United States interpreters of "renewal" arose to skew the meaning of the Council in numerous ways, a process that only grew worse over time. Few indeed were the bishops who attempted -- even in their own dioceses, much less nationally -- to establish an authentic program of education in the "new Church".
 
The result was that, over the next decades, Church officials on all levels -- from bishops themselves to kindergarten teachers -- were systematically inducted into a view of "renewal" that was increasingly at odds with official teaching and with the actual words of the Council. By 1975, if not before, the Church in the United States had lost perhaps the majority of its "middle management" to stronger or milder degrees of dissent, as most bishops watched passively and even approvingly.
 
The storm of dissent that followed the birth-control encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 was a crucial moment whose opportunities were quickly lost. Apparently the American bishops made a collective decision that they would not try systematically to educate their people in the teachings of the encyclical, and dissent thereby gained immense credibility. (The issue was shrewdly exploited by certain theologians precisely because it had direct relevance to most lay people.)
 
Common sense would have dictated that, faced with massive dissent from official teachings, bishops would have made every effort to identify the core of Catholics, clerical and lay, who accepted those teaching, given them every encouragement, and used that core as a base from which to reach out to others. Instead the American bishops seem to have made the collective decision almost to ignore such people, who were soon left to fend for themselves, as practically all pastoral efforts were turned toward those who dissented. Now, however, the purpose of those pastoral efforts was not to bring back lost sheep but to re-examine the very concept of being "lost", opening the possibility that the lost sheep were in fact the new leaders of the flock.
 
In deciding not to support Humanae Vitae except verbally, the American bishops made the fundamental strategic mistake which has been the undoing of liberal Protestantism. For over a century liberal Protestantism has steadily surrendered Christian positions deemed incredible by a particular historical age, the better to protect the core of the faith. But in each generation, more such surrenders are demanded, until there is finally nothing left, and surrender itself becomes the chief expectation which liberals must meet.
 
Thus by giving up on birth control, the bishops of 1968 probably thought they were preserving their credibility on other questions. But inevitably there has been a steady erosion of every distinctively Catholic moral position. Finally in 1995 a survey showed that a solid majority of Catholics do not accept the Church's teaching about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The strategy of tolerating selective dissent can only have such results, and the area of dissent can only continue to widen.
 


The phantom renewal
In an episode that still remains mysterious, through most of the 1970s the Holy See appointed bishops in the United States who were at least tolerant of dissent and in some cases personally sympathetic to it, a pattern of appointments that continued several years into the pontificate of John Paul II.
 
Beginning around 1980 this pattern seemed to be reversed, as word circulated that the men being made bishops were orthodox, tough-minded, and charged with the task of salvaging authentic Catholicism from the near-chaos of spurious "renewal". Conservatives were buoyed by this new spirit for most of the decade, and only toward its end did it begin to dawn on informed people that somehow the promised counter-reformation was not taking place.
 
In dioceses where a conservative bishop has followed a conservative predecessor, there have usually been few problems. However, such cases have been rare, because during the 1970s it was clearly Vatican policy to replace conservative bishops with liberal ones. Hence the only solidly conservative dioceses are those whose ordinaries happened to be in office from prior to 1970 well into the 1980s.
 
In the largest number of dioceses, therefore, conservative bishops have followed bishops who either were themselves liberal or were tolerant of liberalism, and in perhaps a majority of those cases the conservative bishop has not seriously disturbed the situation that he inherited.
 


The perils of moving cautiously
The dynamics of this process are easy to comprehend. Whatever his intentions, a new bishop quickly discovers how tightly the liberals control the diocesan machinery -- the school office, the priests' senate, the office of social justice, and other bureaus -- and he realizes that dislodging such people will be no easy task and will be unpleasant.
 
He thus resolves to proceed slowly, until he has a firm understanding of the situation, comes to know his personnel, and devises an effective strategy. Very quickly he is pressed by conservatives, mainly lay people, about abuses, but he declines even to admit that these are abuses, pending the time when he can see a way of correcting them.
 
But time rapidly passes. Soon the bishop realizes that, while he had entered his see with some apprehension over the problems he would face, his tenure has in fact been pleasant. At some point his chancellor may say something like, "Candidly, bishop, there were people here who expected the worst when you were appointed, but everyone is pleasantly surprised. You have confounded your critics".
 
Given such reinforcement, it would be a determined bishop indeed who would proceed to make the sweeping changes necessary for authentic renewal. Human beings are capable of finding endless excuses for putting off unpleasant tasks, and the bishop tells himself that he must have the freedom to accomplish his mission in his own way and in his own time.
 
Meanwhile, however, the conservatives in the diocese, who had perhaps always been unrealistic in their expectations, are becoming increasingly impatient. Of necessity, given his unwillingness to act, the bishop finds himself defending things that he knows are indefensible, and he also finds himself becoming annoyed at the people who seem not to understand his problems and who demand that he act instantly. At some point his chancellor may smile wryly and say, "Now, bishop, you can see what we have had to put up with from those people all these years".
 
Step by step, through a process that is largely unconscious until almost completed, the bishop is recruited as an ally by the very people whose practices he was supposed to correct. Unless he is cynical, he cannot continue to defend things that he knows are wrong, hence he eventually comes to believe that alleged abuses are not abuses at all and that the problems in the diocese stem from those who "do not accept the reforms of Vatican II". To the degree that the bishop has a lingering bad conscience over his failure to act where action is needed, his discomfort is projected onto his conservative critics.
 
The strategy of waiting a decent interval before acting has things to recommend it. But it is worth noting that it runs counter to established management practice in government and industry, where each new chief executive has his "hundred days" or his "honeymoon", during which he makes sweeping changes of personnel in order to install people who accept his own agenda. An administrator who continues in office people suspected to be out of sympathy with his objectives is rarely offered gratitude. Instead his inaction is correctly sensed as weakness, and his subordinates begin acting accordingly.
 
The liberal bishops appointed during the 1970s invariably followed that practice, replacing conservatives in the chancery office with their own people. But many conservative bishops have not seen fit to do the reverse, presumably in the belief that administrative continuity insures the peace of the diocese. Thus old policies continue almost unaltered under the new regime. (In one diocese a conservative bishop continued in office his predecessor's vicar general, and a local priest observes: "Everyone knows it is far more dangerous to offend the vicar general than to offend the bishop".)
 


Clericalism on the rise
None of this is understandable without recognizing a fact that has been systematically obscured for three decades -- the post-conciliar Church is more clerical than it used to be, not less.
 
In many ways the clericalism of the pre-conciliar Church was tempered by the very legalism that liberals denounce -- priests and bishops had authority that was carefully circumscribed by Canon Law, and they were not free, for the most part, to act capriciously. In the "open", anti-legalistic Church, however, clergy are often free to impose their own theologies, their own liturgies, their own moralities, their own ecclesiologies, on defenseless parishes, since there is no effective way by which the authenticity of renewal can be judged, nor any effective way by which priests can be made to conform to Church law. The Church is also more clerical now because a large number of lay people have in effect been inducted into the ranks of the clergy, as diocesan or parish bureaucrats.
 
One of the great mistakes made even by the "old" bishops of the conciliar period was to accept the notion of professionalism almost without quibble. Thus bishops can usually be intimidated into silence by the reminder that they lack the professional credentials to judge the work of educators, canonists, or liturgists. These professionals soon after the Council organized themselves into national bodies that in effect control the terms of the discussion. In many dioceses there is an endless parade of speeches and workshops in which certified "experts" are imported to speak to local people. Usually the bishop, even if conservative, makes at least a token appearance at such gatherings and gives them his formal blessing. Seldom does he attempt to stop them or even seriously to moderate them.
 
When they acknowledge the obvious evidence that Catholics reject official teachings on a large scale, bishops usually point to the secular culture as the cause (for the decline of religious vocations, for example). And rarely do they seem to recognize that official Church organs -- the schools, the Catholic press, officially sponsored conferences, even the pulpit -- have themselves been the most effective channels for disseminating dissent. Since the Council, Catholics have, in a sense, been reprogrammed into a new kind of faith, and against this new program formal reiterations of official teachings make little headway.
 
Bishops judge that their disciplinary powers cannot be exercised sweepingly, and there are agencies over which they have little control, such as Catholic colleges. But, short of actually imposing sanctions on dissenters, bishops can at least publicly contradict them, which they also seldom do. Thus even if the local Catholic college is a center of organized dissent, the bishop almost always attends its major public ceremonies, where he invariably expresses gratitude that the diocese enjoys such a vibrant center of Catholic learning. Catholics who wonder if what they are hearing from those channels is authentic Catholic teaching will seldom be enlightened by the bishop. To all appearances the bishop and the local dissenters share the same faith.
 
By contrast there is no such thing as "lay opinion", since lay people are divided dozens of different ways. Even if there were, there is no established organ through which lay opinion could be expressed.
 
Thus when a bishop enters a diocese he already knows that he does not have to pay attention to aggrieved lay people, while he does have to defer to his priests' senate or to the religious communities in the diocese. For all practical purposes, when it comes to the bishop's formulation of administrative policies, such groups are the Church. Put another way, authoritarian pre-conciliar bishops were free to disregard clerical or religious sensibilities if they chose, while modern bishops are not. In neither case does the laity have an effective voice, nor does priest or religious who is outside the "mainstream" of local organized clericalism.
 

The unspoken compromise
What precisely bishops fear is not clear. Sometimes they probably feel constrained by the scarcity of personnel; priests and religious are in short supply, and the bishop cannot afford to offend the few he has. But this is a self-perpetuating problem since, as we noted above, conservative young men are sometimes discouraged or actually prevented from becoming priests by the existing diocesan bureaucracy.
 
In some ways having a liberal diocese presided over by a bishop known to be conservative is better for the liberal cause than having a bishop of their own, since the conservative bishop gives a mantle of respectability to liberal policies. Complaining laity can be even more easily dismissed, on the grounds that "even our conservative bishop does not make them happy". Often there is an unspoken compromise -- the bishop says inspiringly orthodox things on public occasions, even as diocesan policies move in quite different directions.
 
Conservative lay people find it practically impossible to make a credible stand for orthodoxy in a liberal diocese, precisely because their opinions are defined as merely that -- opinions. Although the Pope and the bishop may both state orthodox teachings clearly, in particular situations the bishop seldom allows himself to identify lapses from that orthodoxy. Thus conservative lay people protesting diocesan practices always come to be regarded as cranks, since the bishop himself does not recognize the abuses they see.
 

Allies in the media
For all their talk of "pluralism", liberals understand very well that a Church divided against itself cannot stand, which is why, wherever they are in power, they move relentlessly to push conservatives to the margins of the community, a move with which conservative bishops sometimes cooperate.

Indispensable to the success of the liberal strategy have been the media. Before the Council was even over liberals were using the media's insatiable appetite for religious controversy, their uniformly liberal viewpoint, their eagerness to publicize internal Church conflicts in such a way as to force bishop's hands. The strategy has continued unabated over thirty years, to the point where the threat of hostile media often need not even be uttered -- everyone is fully aware of it at all times.

Bishops notorious for their tough authoritarianism were, soon after the Council, intimidated into silence by the unfamiliar experience of being pilloried in the media. It was a lesson the next generation of bishops learned all too well, and often bishops now seem motivated primarily out of fear of unfavorable publicity if, for example, a key diocesan official is replaced.
 
Conservative secular journalists have cynically invented the "Strange New Respect Award", which the media bestow on conservative public figures willing to betray their principles. Every bishop, whether or not he hankers after the award, knows that it exists. (Thus in one diocese a bishop with a national reputation for conservatism before he was appointed now enjoys regular encomia from the local media, even as he actively cooperates in portraying conservative Catholics as unbalanced fanatics.)
 
There are elements in American culture, notably the expectation that bishops and other "community leaders" will be affable men who "fit in" with the local scene, that strongly reinforce the natural human tendency to avoid hard decisions. Particular conditions in a given diocese do the same. No doubt also the Holy See has sometimes been disappointed at the inaction of men it has appointed. It is not possible to understand the phenomenon of the inactive bishop, however, without understanding that the Vatican also bears its share of the responsibility.
 


The Vatican role
Italians can almost be said to have invented diplomacy. It was an art that came to perfection in Italy during the Renaissance, none practicing it more skillfully than the papacy itself. That venerable tradition has continued into the present and, despite being sometimes denounced by liberals as a form of centralized control, it often serves liberal interests in the Church.
 
The art of diplomacy can be defined simply as the attempt to gain one's objectives by skillful manipulation of one's opponents, through strategies that those opponents often do not even comprehend until they are accomplished. But if war is indeed the continuation of diplomacy by other means, then the frequency of wars in human history shows how often diplomacy fails.
 
Diplomacy tends to be especially ineffective in situations where ideology rules, where contending parties have beliefs that they consider matters of principle and about which they have passionate convictions, where they see nothing less than the entire well-being of the world at stake. That is the situation in the Church today involving contending groups who sharply disagree about morality, doctrine, and the nature of the Church itself.
 
Over the centuries the Holy See has often had to resort to diplomacy because it lacked military and political power. ("How many divisions does the pope have?") Such diplomacy even had to be used in internal Church matters, where secular governments exercised a strong influence over the appointment of bishops, for example.
 
It is ironic, therefore, and discouraging, that in the modern democratic era, when the Church enjoys the blessings of complete independence from political control, such diplomacy still seems necessary, now often concentrated on internal ecclesiastical matters. It appears, for example, that the pope is not free simply to appoint bishops as he sees fit, but that an elaborate process of consultation, of checks and balances, takes place, after which successful candidates are often people who have no highly placed enemies.
 
The Holy See now appears to treat national episcopal conferences, and the numerous religious orders, almost as foreign powers. Scrupulous correctness is observed at all times, formal verbiage masks barely hidden disagreements, and above all potential "incidents" are avoided. Conservative Catholics cannot be encouraged to take strong stands for orthodoxy at the local level, just as a government cannot permit its citizens living in foreign countries to offend local laws. (Thus liberals complained bitterly for ten years about the Holy See's appearing to listen to complaints from conservative American Catholics -- whereupon the Holy See appears to have stopped listening to those complaints.)
 
This endemic practice of diplomacy within the Church has yielded small results. Abuses have been tolerated not for the sake of unity but merely for the appearance of unity, which itself soon becomes an overriding concern.
 

Style over substance
As the Vatican began appointing apparently more conservative bishops after 1980, it also appears to have developed a profile of an ideal bishop that describes a majority of John Paul II's appointments -- personally orthodox and pious but low-keyed, cautious, and "non-confrontational". By inference the Vatican's strategy for reforming dioceses is to appoint bishops who will act with such caution and skill that change will come about in time -- without people even being fully aware of it. Entrenched liberal elements will not resist, nor will the media interfere, because they do not even understand what is happening.
 
But in an environment governed by ideology this scenario really cannot play itself out. Liberals are quick to notice even small "backward" steps by their bishop, and they test him by relentlessly pushing ahead with their agenda, so that he must either confront them or surrender. Even if this were not the case, the strategy of painless, uncontroversial, almost unnoticed reform is one that even the most brilliant diplomat would have trouble effecting.
 
Thus conservative bishops who prove to be disappointments in their dioceses often are so because they were chosen by the Holy See for certain personal qualities that were bound to produce that result. The ancient maxim, "suaviter in modo, fortiter in re" -- "smoothly in manner, firmly in substance" -- easily degenerates into a preoccupation with "modus" at the expense of "res".
 
Once appointed, a conservative bishop finds other obstacles besides those in the diocese itself. Despite fifteen years of episcopal appointments by John Paul II, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops remained essentially a liberal body in which determined conservatives have difficulty merely staving off serious defeats, much less winning substantial victories. Once again it requires a particularly resolute kind of man to accept the status of a defined minority within a body that seems to place great importance on the spirit of belonging. If nothing else, a new bishop is likely to discover quickly that he will be consistently on the losing side unless he moderates his positions substantially.
 
The considerations that dictate such moderation are not insignificant, which is why the Holy See itself appears to value them highly. Bad publicity never helps the Church, especially when it highlights bitter internal divisions. Ideally the bishop should command the loyalty and respect of his whole diocese and not be a focus of controversy. The spirit of collegiality dictates that the NCCB not simply be disregarded.
 
But a disinterested secular student of Catholicism must conclude that few religions in the history of the world have placed more emphasis on doctrinal purity, liturgical correctness, and moral authenticity than has the Catholic Church. As someone has pointed out, the Anglican tradition has been that of tolerating almost endless degrees of liturgical and doctrinal diversity in order to avoid schism, while the Catholic tradition has been almost the reverse.
 
If at almost all times in the history of the Church, a concern for orthodoxy has been paramount, the contemporary Church has an eerie feel about it precisely because of the absence of that concern. At the diocesan and national levels it is possible to raise questions about pastoral strategy, administrative competence, economic feasibility, human sensitivity awareness of injusice, and numerous other things but never about orthodoxy. The very word, and its opposite -- "heresy" -- is seldom uttered, and even conservative bishops give the impression that they are embarrassed to be caught thinking in those terms. (Thus heterodox individuals may sometimes be removed from sensitive positions by giving reasons that everyone knows are spurious, and this brings even greater recrimination.)
 
Often episcopal inaction in the face of obvious abuses is explained by the principle of collegiality -- much as the bishop might like to act, he cannot do so unilaterally but only through consensus. But the inadequacy of that explanation can be exposed by the application of the Ku Klux Klan test -- if a priests' senate, for example, were controlled by overt racists, the bishop would act firmly and swiftly, without regard for protocol. When he chooses not to do so, it is because he does not believe that the issues (doctrinal purity, liturgical correctness, loyalty to the Holy See) are sufficiently important.
 

Heroic prudence?
The governing virtue in American episcopal circles at present appears to be prudence, which is a legitimate virtue but, it should be noted, a virtue that exists only in relation to other virtues. (As the poet Roy Campbell jibed about neo-classicism in literature, "I see the bit and bridle alright, but where's the bloody horse?") Prudence seeks to achieve goals in a way that does not violate other virtues. It is not simply a synonym for caution.
 
In the entire history of the Church probably not a single saint was ever canonized for the conspicuous virtue of prudence, and many were (from a worldly standpoint) quite imprudent. This applies to canonized bishops, many of whom were martyrs and almost all of whom were involved in severe conflicts of various kinds. (When Saint Charles Borromeo began to reform the diocese of Milan, the inmates of a particular monastery actually hired an assassin who shot at the bishop during Vespers.)
 
By the logic of prudence as it is now understood, the Church should not have canonized John Fisher, the only bishop who withstood Henry VIII, but instead Stephen Gardiner and Cuthbert Tunstal -- men who, although not devoid of principle, nonetheless managed to survive the ecclesiastical changes of three reigns. (Although the fact is well known that all but one Englishbishop conformed to Henry VIII in 1534, much less well known is the fact that in 1559 no English bishop conformed to Elizabeth I, and all were deposed, including Tunstall -- a fact that demonstrates the feasibility of thoroughly reforming a national hierarchy.)
 
Today's bishops may feel understandably discouraged at being asked to correct conditions that have gone unchecked for three decades, and whose roots are often traceable to precisely the generation of allegedly strong prelates at the time of the Council. But this illustrates a homey principle -- every problem, from a moral flaw to a leaky roof, merely gets worse if not addressed. Despite the claim that he is a rigidly counter-reforming pope, these problems are more intractable now than they were when John Paul II ascended the papal throne, and they will only continue to worsen if not addressed.
 
Of one American bishop a newspaper has said that he provoked more controversy during his first year in office than his predecessor did in twenty. While no one ought to welcome controversy for its own sake, the grim realities of the situation dictate that similar things will be said about any bishop who sincerely tries to fulfill his divine commission.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock


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