Most of us Catholics find ourselves very confused these days about the enigmatic and conflicting signals we are getting from our bishops. We are convinced that our bishops are basically good intelligent men who sincerely want to promote the values of the Gospel. They surely don't approve of serious faults in their priests, nor do they defend the scandalous abuse of children. Yet over the years so many of them have fostered policies of secrecy that have allowed their young people to be sexually abused by priests without taking definite effective steps to stop the abuse. They knew that such abuse was not only very sinful, but also a serious criminal offense. Yet they paid millions of dollars, not to get at the root of the problem, but to cover up the problem. They transferred the abusers to other parishes, thereby allowing such unconscionable conduct to continue! It is hard to fathom such an evident contradiction!
Equally disturbing is the contrasting manner in which the bishops treated their healthy, mature priests. While they went to great lengths to get psychological and financial help for their emotionally disturbed priest abusers, protecting them from civil punishment and making little or no attempt to have them dismissed from the priesthood, they acted in exactly the opposite way with their good priests.
To those priests who fell in love and wanted to marry, who were healthy and psychologically mature, the bishops were absolutely cruel. Those men were immediately dismissed from the priesthood. They were forbidden to say Mass or wear their clerical garb. They were barred from any positions in Catholic institutions. All their years of training and pastoral experience, all the good they had done and the esteem in which their people held them : all that counted for nothinmg! They were immediately removed from the active priesthood and in most cases given littlew or no financial help in order to make the difficult transition to lay life.
It is such an unfathomable contradiction! Why were our bishops, who are basically sincere men, so manifestly unkind? Why such cruel treatment to men who were open and honest, men who had the integrity to admit that they could no longer be celibate? By what logic did the bishops deprive their Catholic people of the care and services of pastoral, zealous priests while at the same time inflicting on the parishioners those sick men who were likely to keep abusing their children? Catholics cannot help but wonder: What possible excuse could Christian leaders give for such unchristian behavior?
The tragic answer of course is that our bishops were deferring to the Vatican's adamant stand on mandatory celibacy. Both the Vatican and our bishops, at a time when there is a frightful shortage of priests, are willing to support a human, arbitrary discipline, a law that has driven away thousands of our best priests and severely inhibited young men from entering the priesthood. The bishops constantly urge prayers for more vocations, but they never challenged the Vatican on this outmoded law that is driving away vocations.
Those good priests who continue the struggle to be celibate find themselves in a frightful bind. They live and work in a culture that is saturated with sexual temptations and have absolutely no healthy outlet for the pressures of their own sexual feelings. The church had warned them, from the earliest years of training, that any release of that pressure was not only a serious sin but also a violation of their promise of celibacy. They were to be closely involved in the lives and struggles of their parishioners; but there was to be no physical or emotional intimacy with any of them.
Most dedicated priests experience an aching loneliness in their lives. The old camaraderie with fellow priests used to offer some emotional support, but even that has all but vanished. Clerical get-togethers after Confirmation ceremonies or Forty Hours devotions are now few and far between. When they do occur, most priests have to rush away early for other duties. Due in great part to the terrible shortage of priests (a 40% decrease since the 1950s), conscientious priests are severely overworked : often to the point of exhaustion. They find it difficult even to arrange time for a day off with a friend. National polls reveal that loneliness is the primary reason why men leave the priesthood. Good, compassionate men, they are available all day long to share the struggles and heartaches of their people; but very often there is no one to listen to them.
Bishops, I'm sure, are not unaware of these great pressures that their priests are enduring, nor are the majority of them unsympathetic to their priests' suffering. Yet they continue their exasperating silence. They continue to dismiss good men from the priesthood when there are parishes in their dioceses without a single resident priest. Fr. John O'Malley, S.J., hinted at the answer to this enigma in America magazine (5/27/02): "The problem is not that bishops...were not doing their jobs as they understood them...according to the best lights of their consciences; but there was something amiss in the way they understood their jobs, something amiss in their consciences collectively."
THE GREATER OBEDIENCE
Regrettably, our bishops have forgotten a fundamental principle of moral theology : the principle that when two duties conflict, persons must follow what they determine in their conscience to be the higher duty. At that moment of conflict, the lesser duty is no longer binding on them!... True obedience, in other words, is obedience to the higher duty. I don't know any theologian who would disagree with this principle; being an honorable person means making noble choices even when such choices are painful.
Bishops obviously are no exceptions to this universal moral law. Even though the Vatican makes bishops-elect swear an oath of loyalty to the pope before they can be consecrated, an oath to uphold all the decisions of the Vatican under pain of serious sin, they are not exempt from the supreme law: the salvation of souls! So whenever any Vatican policy becomes a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel or to the spiritual welfare of people, the bishops are bound in conscience to follow the higher duty. Like everyone else, they must do this even though they suffer the displeasure and censure of the Vatican.
This certainly seems obvious to any right-thinking person. Obedience to God and to the Gospel is the supreme duty, the true and ultimate obedience. No person with a rightly formed conscience would ever question this. Yet our bishops have either forgotten this higher duty or they have ignored it. They have accounted the Vatican's antiquated law of celibacy as more important than the desperate need in hundreds of dioceses for priests to celebrate the Eucharist. They have allowed children to be continually molested rather than to face the displeasure of the Vatican by forcing such offenders to be dismissed from the priesthood. They have followed lock-step the Vatican's truly unchristian policies of secrecy and deception.
It's hard to believe our bishops would choose to ignore this basic moral principle. The sad truth is they have. They live in fear! : fear of displeasing the Vatican, a fear so debilitating that they would rather ignore their loyalty to Jesus and to the Gospel than to face the displeasure of the pope or (more ignoble still!) to risk their chance of climbing higher on the church career ladder. They excuse this moral cowardice in the same way that the Nazi commandants excused their murder of millions of innocent people: they are "just obeying orders." It is no wonder that they have suffered such a loss of credibility even among the most devout Catholics.
THE NEED FOR COURAGE
How I wish that just one of our diocesan bishops would have the courage to be true to the Gospel! For just one to take as his ideal the motto of the great Cardinal Merry del Val: "Give me souls! Take everything else!" Just one bishop to say with all his heart, "Take your honors and Vatican approval; take your larger dioceses and Cardinal's hat; just give me souls and whatever is good for their welfare!"
It would not involve a schism as some might fear. It would not be a denial of faith nor a repudiation of the authority of the pope. It would simply be a matter of putting first things first, of making a necessary adjustment in the local church for the salvation of souls : the supreme law! Such an adjustment would eventually give other bishops the courage to do the same, until the law of the church would change in order to follow the practice in the church, as has happened in the past. The bishop could write a very respectful letter of explanation to the pope. He could say:
""Your holiness, I am writing this open letter so that you and the people of my diocese will understand what I am about to do. I am about to ordain ten exemplary married men to the priesthood (or call back ten married priests who are just longing to serve). I am doing this in order to staff the ten parishes in my diocese that no longer have a resident priest.
"I am sure you will understand, your holiness, because you yourself have not interfered with those bishops in Africa and South America who have priests serving in their dioceses who are living in common law marriage. It is clear that you understand that the salvation of souls is the supreme law, much higher than any church discipline of mandatory celibacy. May God continue to bless you in your difficult tasks."