Chapter 18: Standoff
Robert Blair Kaiser's summary of last week's chapter: In the last chapter, we saw Cardinal Mahony face off against Cardinal McCarrick on a nationally televised panel discussion, led by America's most thoughtful host, Bill Moyers, about the upcoming national synod. The discussion heats up when Mahony says the convention must get gavel-to-gavel coverage on television. To McCarrick's challenge, Mahony says, 'TV will make it possible for the people to be there. If the people are there, and if the people like what they see happening, they will say, "Yes, this is my Church." They will want to own it. When they do, many of those folks who left it in disgust will come back, and, I hope, attract a great many new people, too, who will want to be a part of a people's Church in America, fully American, and fully Catholic, too. A people's Church.' Two panelists on the right challenge Mahony on that. One says, 'This sounds like the communist people's Republic of China.' Moyers is puzzled. He says to Mahony, 'You want an American Catholic Church that is also loyal to the pope?' Mahony says, 'Bill, I don't think you understand autochthony.' Now here's Chapter Eighteen...
Chapter 18: Standoff
FROM MARCH 17 TO MARCH 20, 2009, the American bishops met for their quadrennial retreat at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, an exclusive oasis in the Arizona desert, expensively landscaped with hundreds of palm and banana trees, an occasional saguaro cactus, and a thousand flowering plants—yellow birds of paradise, begonias, chaparral sage, and red yucca.
The Phoenician boasted nine heated swimming pools including a 165-foot water slide, a twenty-seven-hole championship golf course, twelve tennis courts, a bowling green and a croquet lawn. It had a health center with a gym, professional fitness trainers, a meditation center, and a spa. Some of the best chefs in the world presided over the Phoenician's eleven restaurants, most of which had spectacular views of the desert and the mountains that surrounded the resort—built at a cost of almost a billion dollars, money stolen from investors in a savings and loan run by an entrepreneur who went to prison for his crimes. It was now owned and operated by some oil sheiks from Dubai.
The word "retreat" was a cover. At the Phoenician, the bishops did what they had been doing at some of America's finest resorts for decades: they kicked off their meeting with a grand St. Patrick's Day banquet, then spent three days gossiping in the sun, eating well, drinking well and (many of them) playing eighteen holes every day. They attended a mid-morning Mass at nine every morning, then hit the links. They held one business meeting at 11:00 AM on March 20—where they voted down a proposal by Cardinal Mahony that the Catholics in every diocese in America elect a single delegate—with full voting rights—to accompany his ordinary to the Fourth Council of Baltimore.
Under the direction of USCCB President George Niederaurer, the bishops followed Robert's Rules of order to amend Mahony's proposal. In its redrafted form, the proposal called for each ordinary to select a delegate of his own choosing. He could bring a priest or a nun or a layperson, anyone but another bishop, to Baltimore. But that delegate would be a mere observer, with no voting rights.
That proposal won by a huge show of hands. Someone later estimated four out of five bishops voted aye. At that point, Mahony rose to address his colleagues, and Niederaurer, a former classmate of Mahony in the seminary at Camarillo and someone who halfway sympathized with Mahony's new cause, gave him the floor. "You want to come up here, Roger?"
Mahony said he didn't need a mike, stayed in his seat, and proceeded to give voice to his disappointment—and put his own twist on the bishops' vote. "Gentlemen," he said, "I am gratified by this decision to bring some other perspectives to Baltimore. I'd like to think this decision will bring some fresh air, too. I see this move as a step—a baby step, but nevertheless a step toward a people's Church in America." That drew some negative murmurs from his fellow bishops.
Mahony ignored them and continued. "For the entire history of this body, dating back to 1917, we've been seen as the high and mighty spokesmen for an exclusive clerical club. We do what we do out of our own private, and largely secret, considerations. Often enough, we've been more worried about what Rome thinks than what our people think. Rome has even demanded the right to approve, or disapprove, whatever we do. And we've let Rome have its way. To me, this has been a very unpleasant kind of political arrangement that makes us hugely unaccountable to the people we're vowed to serve. And most of you have long recognized another real flaw in this system. We cannot make any rules that are canonically binding on any particular bishop. Bishops who don't like what we've decided can thumb their noses at us."
From off to Mahony's left, someone guffawed. It was Ignatius Dreedle, the group's bad boy from Buffalo Tooth, Nebraska, who had derided and dismissed every element of the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and young People, and had given the bishops' Lay Review Board none of the cooperation it needed in order to do its job.
Mahony acknowledged the outburst with nothing more than a wry, resigned smile, like a teacher who had long ago decided to ignore the class clown. He went on. "I won't say I am not disappointed by your vote this morning. I am disappointed. We need a real metanoia, and not only a change in the way we think, but a change in the way we feel. We need to rid ourselves of what I can only call a bad habit—of continuing to impose our top-down rule in a bottom-up kind of world.
"This is a world that doesn't much like hierarchy of any kind, but does have a great respect for authority, the kind of authority that is fashioned by a consensus, and by the consent of the governed. To get that kind of authority, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We're Americans. Over the course of our nation's history, our elected leaders in America have learned how to come to a consensus on some of the great issues that have faced us as a nation. And how to win the consent of the governed, who, in the end, almost always come up with solutions that work—which has generally meant solutions that are fair as far as they go. Americans fought a war over slavery, and we fought another kind of battle over the civil rights of all of our citizens, a battle that continues to rage. The fight for liberty and justice in America never ends. But when will the fight begin for liberty and justice in our Church? When have we ever worried about our accountability to the people of God?"
More murmurs from the crowd. "This is nonsense," cried Dreedle. Others shouted him down.
"Let Roger speak!" said Archbishop Niederaurer.
"As many of you are aware," said Mahony, "I've been thinking very hard about the need for inculturating the gospel in the United States. I look forward to some deep discussions at the Fourth Council of Baltimore on just exactly how we can do that. Some of my advisors insist we need three branches of Church governance to bring that off, a legislative branch, a judicial branch, and an executive branch. I look forward to hearing your opinions about that—in Baltimore, not now. I am sure we will work out something that answers the needs of our American Catholic Church at this time. But I'd like to bring all the people of God into our deliberations. If all the people cannot be there in the flesh, then we can give them a virtual presence there. That means a Council that is open to the press. And so, with George's permission, I am going to offer another proposal for your consideration. That we let the print press into the Council—and the broadcast media as well."
"Second the motion!" cried Paul Bootkoski, bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey.
"Moved and seconded," said Niederaurer. "Discussion?"
No one spoke up. The last vote had told the bishops where the power in this body resided. Certainly not with Mahony. What need to talk about it? They were going to vote him down again, no matter what. Niederaurer picked up his gavel, ready to call for a vote.
Mahony leaned over to one of his supporters, Leonard Paul Blair, bishop of Toledo. "I don't think we're going to win this one either."
Blair whispered, "I agree. What were you thinking of anyway, bringing the issue to a vote so quickly?" He shouted to the chair, "Table the motion!" According to Robert's Rules of order, that did it. Mahony's motion was put aside, for now at least. Maybe there would be other innings.
Niederaurer, knowing many had tee times starting at 12:30, adjourned the meeting. And the bishops moved off to lunch.
Mahony opened his laptop, got online immediately (the whole resort had wireless connections to the Internet), and started tapping out an e-mail message to Nick Pike.
PIKE DIDN'T TAKE THE NEWS WELL. Just before 1:00 PM on March 20, he was reading Mahony's e-mail from Phoenix, and groaning over it just as Rackham was wheeling into the back room office in the campaign headquarters.
"What?" demanded Rackham.
"Note from Roger in Phoenix. Four out of five bishops just voted down his proposal."
"To bring elected delegates to Baltimore?"
Pike was all gloom. "yes."
"Just like that, huh?" Rackham snapped his fingers.
"Well, they decided they may bring delegates—but need not. It'll be up to each bishop—to bring his own appointed delegate, as an observer. "
Rackham mulled that for a moment. "Well," he said, "that's some progress."
Pike measured an inch with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. "Very little. Each bishop will bring his own lackey."
"With some exceptions," said Rackham. "Remember, almost every diocese in California has a campaign going—for the people to elect their own delegate for Baltimore. A dozen other dioceses around the country are doing that, too."
Pike shook his head. "So we will have maybe a dozen or two delegates in Baltimore—presumably, but not necessarily, on our side. And most of the bishops and their appointees on the other side."
"We need more support than that."
"Yes. Makes me feel a little silly. We've got a national campaign headquarters here." He waved toward the large empty room of their Wilshire Boulevard storefront. "And no real campaign." He nodded toward the screen of his laptop. "And, to make things worse, Roger says they tabled his proposal to allow the press into the Baltimore meetings."
"Shit," said Rackham. "We need the press there."
"The press will be there," said Pike. "But they'll be on the outside looking in. That'll make our job ten times harder."
"Or maybe it will piss off the press. Put 'em on our side. The press could help us."
"Your lips to God's ears, Ted."
"Maybe," said Rackham, "the Holy Spirit will think of something."
Pike, who was in no laughing mood, laughed. "Ted, you don't even believe in the Holy Spirit."
"Well," he said with one of his rare smiles, "if She comes to the rescue here, I could believe in Her."
Pike shook his head. "You're too much. let's go to lunch. I'm buying."
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©2009Robert Blair Kaiser