Crisis Exposes Need For Genuine Authority

More than three years ago I commented on Cleveland bishop Anthony Pilla's final address as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivered in November 1998 at its annual fall meeting in Washington.

He complained about Catholics who "are unwilling to accept a role for authority in the church. They endlessly debate the decisions of their pastors on issues great and small, extraordinary and routine. They appear to live either in a past or in a future of their own imagining, but not in the present [circumstances] in which their pastors must make these decisions."

Like many others in the church today, Pilla implied that criticisms of the way certain figures in the hierarchy do their jobs are tantamount to challenges against the very idea of ecclesial authority; but such is not the case.

Of course there are difficult people in many parishes and dioceses who contribute far more than their share of weight to the crosses that hard-working pastors and bishops might normally bear. Such individuals seem never to be satisfied, and they act as if no one in authority can ever do anything right. But they are the exception, not the rule, among Catholics who have serious concerns about the way authority is exercised in the church today.

No responsible critic of ecclesial authority - on the left, the right, or the broad center - has any wish to replace authority with disorder and chaos. On the contrary, what critics want is a church that functions more effectively. They desire only the success of the mission originally received from Jesus. Of course there are differences of opinion within the church about the nature of its mission priorities and about the best way to achieve them.

The question is not whether authority has any role in the church. Rather, the pertinent questions are: who exercises that authority, how do they exercise it, and how were they selected in the first place?

Who among the most pastorally active members of the church really believes that over the last two decades, the best-qualified priests have consistently been appointed to the hierarchy? Or that bishops have been selected primarily for their pastoral aptitude and experience as reflected in the confidence and respect they enjoy from the pastoral ministers of their dioceses? Or that there has been no discernible change in the quality of membership in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in comparison with the conference bodies of the 1970s and 1980s?

There was so much good in Pilla's final address to his brother bishops almost four years ago, particularly his strong emphasis on the importance of developing and encouraging lay leadership in the church. But those gifted lay ministers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, have a right to the kind of pastoral leadership they can trust and respect, and which is in turn capable of trusting and respecting them - and of acting justly toward them as well.

This means a type of leadership who sees authority as a gift to be shared rather than a power to be coveted and wielded to control people's thinking and behavior by threats and punishments. Such a leader ministers collaboratively, welcomes dialogue (real dialogue, not the kind that simply waits for the other person to stop talking so that the "correct" answer can then be given). Such a leader is open to ideas that differ from his own, is not quick to censor or marginalize people who may oppose him on some issues, is comfortable with and respectful of competent, self-assured women, and is at ease with himself and especially with his own sexuality.

This is not the profile of a perfect and thus unattainable leader. It is the profile of a healthy human being who also may have the gift of leadership. A church that had consistently recruited its bishops from such a pool of talent would not now be confronting the sort of crisis of credibility that it faces today. One pollster (Peter Hart) declared that he has never seen such a drastic erosion of support for a leadership body in all his years in the business.

Catholics, like any other group of healthy people, hunger for genuine authority; but they reject its counterfeit, authoritarianism. In this current terrible crisis, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago, is all the more sorely missed.


Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

Having myself been a member of the Catholic church's clerical system for close to a quarter-century as seminarian and parish priest, I heartily concur with Richard McBrien's analysis of the leadership problem in today's church.

Pope John Paul II grew up in a church in Poland that was in a survival mode during World War II against the Nazis and for decades afterwards against the Communist regime in place in that country. When he was selected pope by the cardinals of the church, he brought that "survival" mentality to the papacy. Essential to this survival mentality is unquestioned loyalty and obedience to authority. It worked in Poland because of the circumstances there. But when Pope John II began to employ that same mentality to the "church universal" - with all its differing circumstances, political cultural, economic, etc, -- it could not guarantee the same success.

For close to three decades now, church authority has been exercised in this "authoritarian style." The pope has visited many different people and cultures across the globe; but more often than not, his time in these countries has been an exercise of monologue, not honest dialogue. His tolerance of Cardinal Ratzinger's hard tactics against any dissent of the "faithful" indicates, more than the pope's own speeches, that dissent is to be eradicated, and unquestioned loyalty and obedience is the only approved response to the proclamations and decisions of church authorities.

McBrien's comments on the pope's and the Curia's selection of bishops is true to the mark. Only those candidates whose obedience to papal directives has been total and uncompromising will be promoted to episcopal positions of governance. It matters little whether these candidates are otherwise competent in areas such as pastoral experience, theology, scripture, or even whether they are known and respected by the people of the diocese to which they are appointed.

The healthy requirements for leadership proposed above my McBrien are completely dismissed when the pope and the Vatican bureaucrats are operating out of their "survival" perception of the church's position in the world in governing the church and selecting its bishops. No wonder the failure of Catholic leadership is today so public. Not even the "church" can keep its secrets forever!

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