You don't have to be a weatherman to understand that the Bishops' Commission to investigate the sex abuse scandal recently hit a cold front on the shoulder of New York's Cardinal Edward Egan. His refusal to provide Mass for or places at a papal knights' dinner for its members may be the rudest but most revealing turndown of worthy visitors since a young couple were told that there was no room for them at the inn.
Cardinal Egan does not, of course, care how his action is received by this group or by any constituency in America. His spoke to be heard in Rome by the Pope whose approval is of supreme importance to him as he makes his bid to succeed the departed Cardinal Law as the sole ecclesiastical kingmaker in the American Church.
This refusal of hospitality to the group chaired by former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating is nonetheless a synthesis of all the blundering responses of the bishops to the worst scandal in American Catholic experience. Such behavior leads both conservative and liberal Catholics to the melancholy conclusion that their bishops still "don't get it."
The bishops remain on the outside of a moment of truth in which their inability to understand the ongoing pain of the sexually violated, their unwillingness to ask hard questions about its causes, their timid steps lest they trip on the hem of their ecclesiastical careers, and their almost total dependence on lawyers and insurers for hardball tactics to safeguard institutional assets, reveal their perception of this crisis as an agenda item to be processed rather than human suffering to be healed.
Still, this unattended agony waited for Cardinal Egan's pre-emptive strike against the bishops' own committee for truly grandiose symbolization. New York's archbishop acted as if it were his Church as he decreed that these visiting Catholics were not to have easy access to the Eucharist in his archdiocese, read kingdom.
This is not only hubris, it is heresy, for the Catholic Church is not the possession of any bishop or even the Pope. It is not, theologically speaking, property at all but rather, as ordinary Catholics understand, a living People of God. During this long year of tumult, Catholics have made clear their appreciation that they, rather than the buildings or the bishops, are the Church.
That is what the bishops "don't get" so they miss the hundred proof hauteur in the Egan style they imitate by trying to keep their people at bay and obedient at the same time. Giving the impression that the Church is an ecclesiastical Cosa Nostra, they won't let their people examine the financial records of their donations and many refuse to meet with or to allow such moderate Catholic groups as Voice of The Faithful to convene in the Church buildings these same people paid for. They treat their people as if they were demonstrators violating private property rather than Catholics standing on their own ground and their own right to be heard by the men who are, in fact, only temporary administrators of their Church.
These bishops cling to the ecclesiastical heights of hierarchy, from which they look down at their people far below. They have tried to control everything from the top, so high up that they could not hear the cries of the sexually wounded, the anguished voices of their people, or identify the game being played on the field below. No wonder so many Catholics feel that their bishops do not know what the score is.
These people's faith in Catholicism as a religion remains strong but their confidence in its institutional leaders has been severely, and perhaps irreparably, damaged. What the bishops show no sign of "getting" is that their people are genuinely and justifiably angry at them, as one woman told me in Lexington, Kentucky, "for breaking faith with us and doing nothing so far to repair it."
Cardinal Egan's brush-off of the bishops' commission, making sacrilege of the sacraments by using them as a weapon against its members only deepens this profound anger of Catholics towards their prelates for revealing, in repeatedly bungling the sex abuse crisis, that they apparently value their property and how they play in Rome more than their people.
As many Catholics see it, their bishops have had more chances than Saddam Hussein to come clean and have not done so. They have regrettably come to a conclusion they never dreamed they would reach: There will be no healing for this weeping wound in Catholic life until all the bishops follow Cardinal Law's example and resign from the offices that they have protected better than they have their flocks..