Whenever we run articles by George Ripon on Catholica they invariably draw a large readership. Perhaps that is because they reflect what many in the pews, or who have recently left the pews, are thinking. Is his an articulate voice for the majority today who feel severely let down by our episcopal leaders? In his commentary today — which was written before Pope Benedict's recent Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland — George seeks to articulate the challenges he sees the bishops facing from the perspective of an ordinary pewsitter and elder in the average Australian suburban parish.
Continuing to reflect on the ongoing problems in our Church I thought I might write something on Bishops, or the Episcopate and where it fits and what role it plays in the Church today. I often see our bishops as the meat in the sandwich, between Rome on the one hand and the people on the other. Appointed by Rome with no real local consultation the Vatican expects them to ensure that the remaining faithful continue to "Pay, Pray and Obey". In recent times the term "branch managers" for Rome has been applied to them. This turns Rome into a notional business organisation, which is sad. On the other side of the coin, what does a regional bishop do for the people? With, in Melbourne some 70 parishes in his area, most week-ends there will be Confirmation at a local school. Formal visits to parishes are now few and far between so parishioners don't often get the opportunity to meet the local bishop to hear reports and ask questions about what is going on in the diocese or in the church world-wide.
What does Rome do with the Ad Limina Reports?
Bishops are required to make an "Ad Limina" visit to Rome every five years and present a written report on the state of their diocese (or presumably, region). I have never seen one of these reports. Mind you I have never sought one. However with bishops from many areas around the world reporting on the growing shortage of priests over the last thirty years the question is, how does Rome respond? Does anyone even listen? With a variety of, possible solutions worthy of investigation the silence is deafening. I have in other articles expressed the view that bishops should be elected by the people or at least that the people should have a major role in the process. Can you see people-elected bishops going to Rome and being fobbed off on a serious problem that has been around for over a quarter of a century, I think not. Here I had a wicked thought: How many of our present incumbents would have got a guernsey had their appointment been subject to popular scrutiny? I can think of a few who could have missed out!!.
Here I thought it would be appropriate to have a look at how our bishops are appointed. This involves the Papal Nuncio, Rome's man in the particular country. I had the benefit of an article in The Tablet on 12/12/2009 headed "Discreet charm of the Nuncio", an interesting read which is only available online to subscribers to The Tablet. English and polite, it starts with a description of a dapper cleric dressed in Archbishop's cassock and zucchetto socialising at ease at Christmas embassy receptions. This is Archbishop Faustino Sainz Muñoz, Nuncio to England, Wales and Scotland. One of his main jobs is to oversee the process (known as a "terna") under which names for episcopal appointments are submitted to Rome. On the assumption that a similar process applies here I will work through The Tablet article. A pool of names appears, no indication as to whence but probably from other bishops and very senior and important church dignitaries, certainly not the people. Much work is done to whittle down the list to three (in the UK) after which the names go to Rome.
Here I found a note of dissent, for the recent appointment of a new Archbishop of Westminster (Primate of England and Wales) recently the Rome Congregation of Bishops wanted to ignore the terna and make a separate decision, However the Nuncio prevailed. I thought, is there no limit to Rome's obsession to take more power and control. Could it be that some in Rome had in mind an external appointment from overseas. For Vincent Nicholls, who was subsequently appointed to Westminster, following in the shoes of great men like John Heenan, Basil Hume and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, I felt a concern as I read his comments to reporters in Rome on 1 Feb. including that "people cannot judge the new translations simply by reading them because the texts are meant for public proclamation in the solemnity of the liturgy". He did admit that the pathway ahead was not going to be easy and here I agree and for the moment maintain my optimism.
Politely expressed by The Tablet is the Nuncio's role as a bridge between Rome and Britain. He reports regularly to the Holy See and conveys responses to the UK bishops. Reading between the lines the meaning is clear, if a bishop says or does anything out of line with Rome he will cop it quick and smart. In the church today disagreement will not be tolerated. We get back time and again to the reality that bishops appointed by Rome are required to toe the party line and not rock the boat, which gets me back to one of my pet themes the election of bishops by the people. Sounds almost heretical.
Do we need bishops?
Before another look at this I asked myself, Do we need bishops at all?. Some will say, of course we do because we have always had them, others would I suspect, say, good question. In Australia, the Uniting Church, the Baptist Church and the Churches of Christ function well without bishops, and there are other smaller traditions in the same boat. Catholics Anglicans and Lutherans still have bishops. In our case lay managers could do a lot of the administration work in the present regions, Parish priests could deal with Confirmation and lead, as required pilgrimages to the holy places. Savings could be effected on international travel and accommodation costs by abolishing ad limina visits. We are not there yet but the day will come when the whole structure will need to be simplified.
Meanwhile, back to our election of bishops. I have written about this before and agree that setting up a system would be complicated but the principle is important. The people must have a say in the selection of their spiritual leaders, imposition from above is no longer acceptable. We could learn something from the Anglicans where, for the election of an Archbishop, a threefold process is set up. The "House of Bishops", the "House of Clergy" and the "House of Laity". To succeed the candidate must get the required majority in each house. It can get messy and and long-winded but it is democratic. Here I can hear the age old cry, "The Catholic Church is not a democracy". This is still used by those who live in the past and never want to change anything. I suspect that the words are written bold on the corridor walls in the Vatican. While important matters of faith and doctrine could never be put to the vote there is plenty of scope for community choice in many other areas. Nothing in the Acts of the Apostles suggests that Peter made all the decisions.
The way things are there is no immediate hope of popularly elected bishops but that should not prevent discussion. In a region of say 70 parishes each parish could nominate 2 or 3 delegates to form an electoral college with the local clergy. When a vacancy arose the wheels would be set in motion, Experienced parish clergy, not too young and not too old would be encouraged to nominate. As an alternative all registered catholic voters in the region could participate. Voting would be controlled by an independent auditing firm. Admittedly work would need to be done to set up the system but anything would be an improvement on what we have now with many appointments going to priests in safe diocesan desk jobs, some with little or no parish experience. That's a subject for more detailed consideration on another day.
I do have sympathy for the present generation of bishops. They must find themselves between a rock and a hard place! Rome expects conformity and obedience and the people need to be heard and above all they need priests. So I propose to review the present situation and consider ways in which bishops could better serve the people. Pope Paul VI signed his documents:
Paul, Bishop. Servant of the Servants of God
For our bishops a thought:
James, Bishop, Servant of the People of God
Who, or what, is a bishop? What is he expected to do?
Let's start with a question, who or what is a bishop? Well, male celibate and ordained a priest. By some criteria, not always clear, he is promoted to the Episcopate for oversight of a diocese or a region. He confirms young people, visits parishes, goes to Rome and attends the national bishops conference twice a year. There are, I am sure, other duties. In using the term bishop I include Archbishops and Cardinals, who are still bishops. B16 is the Bishop of Rome.
To make the points where I believe that our bishops could have done more I propose to reflect on three areas of major concern in the Church today. First is sexual abuse; the second the shortage of priests; and the third the new Mass translations. As indicated I am focusing on the role of bishops in these matters.
On the abuse problem: looking back it's hard to identify the point at which it surfaced so I am going to select the mid-eighties. What many saw as a few bad apples who could be weeded out, quickly exploded into a major disaster still rocking the Church. So some 25 years ago our bishops started getting reports of abuse by clergy. So what did they do? Initially seeing the numbers as minimal and the problems as minor, priests were given a slap on the wrist and moved to another parish with a promise to be good. We know now that there is no real cure. So major soul searching and examination of conscience for our bishops. Could much more have been done to hear the victims and hand the offenders over to the civil authorities? There can only be one answer now even without hindsight. With regular reports, ad limina visits, Papal Nuncio reports end of course world wide media, Rome must have known early on how serious the problem was. How did B16, then Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith respond? Was there immediate advice to all bishops to report all criminal allegations to the civil authorities and fully co-operate with investigations. Or was the "Good Name" of the Church put first with denial and cover up? We need truthful answers (no spin) including from the Bishop of Rome.
While I am here dealing with bishops and abuse by diocesan priests I note recent new reports of widespread abuse in Holland and Germany by Salesians and Jesuits. So Institutes of Religious Life are not without problems. Ironically a call by the German Justice Minister for a greater Church response to abuse claims was met by an angry response from the Chair of the Bishops Conference Robert Zollitsch. He demanded an apology within 24 hours and made a complaint to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In Ireland in spite of the damning Murphy and Ryan Reports a recent news item suggested that the Papal Nuncio was refusing to co-operate with further official Enquiries, So even today, in 2010, there are high ranking clergy who have still not got the message.
The second area where I see the need for episcopal soul searching is the shortage of priests: The signs started about twenty five years ago with a dramatic drop in vocations. Bishops would have been the first to know particularly those close to the regional seminaries. Again Rome would have been put in the picture early on. So what happened? On the positive side, nothing — even now, in 2010. Rome still requires governance by male celibate clergy, even when they can't provide them. On the negative side bishops were instructed to double up the existing parishes giving priests as they got older, responsibility for a neighbouring priestless parish. It was called "partnership" to make it sound progressive. I recall the following from memory without written material in front of me. Some two years ago a petition, signed by many was addressed to the our Bishops' Conference regarding the priest shortage. The request was to consider the abolition of celibacy thus allowing priests to marry and also the option of asking ex-priests now married to consider a return to ministry. It also asked for a sensitive and realistic review of the role of woman in the Church. The Conference response was that the matters raised were outside the Bishops' competence to deal with. This meant that Rome, always in control would never agree.
In my view the great unforgivable failure of our bishops was the recent meek acceptance of the new English Mass translations. How an educated body like our bishops could have done this is beyond me. Again I suspect under "ORDERS from Rome". My letter of 1 Dec. last, to our Bishops Conference, recently published on Catholica, remains unanswered. To his credit I did get a reply from Archbishop Mark Coleridge to a letter I wrote following the Perth seminar. Maybe enough has, for the moment, been said on this subject.
The "collegiality" of bishops...
Here we get to what I see as the crunch: Collegiality. This is defined in the Vatican letter on the "Dogmatic Constitution of the Church" signed by Paul VI, Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God, 21 Nov. 1964. Article 22 — and following, deals with "Collegiality" the doctrine which in good English joins the world bishops with the Pope in governance of the Church. The first paragraph at 22 states this clearly. As with many Vatican documents it goes on (and on) to assert the overall right of the Pontiff to be in control at all times. Nevertheless it's there and I see it as very relevant to the situation we have today in the Church. Primus inter pares (first among equals) describes how things should be between the world bishops and the Pope. Opinions expressed by bishops should be heard and respected and not ignored. A footnote to Article 22 refers to the establishment of a world-wide Episcopal Synod by Paul VI by motu proprio (Sept. 15. 1965), an international Bishops Conference — hopefully with teeth. Is this still in existence or is it another casualty of the rejection of Vatican II?
Now to the future and I suspect the very near future. As I see it the sex-abuse chickens are homing in to roost at the Vatican at a great rate of knots. It's abundantly clear now that Rome knew very early on how serious the problem was. Yet discretion and Cover-up for the "Good Name" of the Institution prevailed for far too long. With the internet and international media calling for answers, problems can no longer be swept under carpets, even ornate Vatican ones. Rumours on the grapevine of major change can only in my view be about change in Rome. Are we going to see a metanoia with B16 publicly acknowledging the Church's failure to respond to the scandal of clergy abuse?
So here is a challenge to bishops world-wide. Grit your teeth, gird your loins, assert collegiality and demand that B16 and the Curia do the right thing. Sackcloth and ashes may be required in large quantities. And while you are at it: stop messing about and do what has to be done to get us the priests we desperately need. So as to concentrate on the important matters, abandon the trivial pursuit nonsense involving the Mass translations. We simply don't need them. Perhaps like Job 42:2-6 I have said enough (for the moment) and I rest my case.
George Ripon 16/01/10
What are your thoughts on this commentary?