The recent revelations of corruption, abuse and neglect within the Catholic Church hierarchy have been a trial for every American Catholic. Abuse victims and their families have suffered unspeakably. Next to them, the greatest sufferers have surely been our innocent American clergymen, who bear the brunt of the shame, contempt, and anger directed at the church every day.
A great majority of our clergymen share our outrage at clerical abuse. Priests all suffer for the sins of their brothers. Married deacons see their own children and grandchildren in the faces of the victims.
To Catholics, our American clergy is an essential link in a living chain of witnesses stretching back to the Apostles. Nearly all of us have had our faith shaped by at least one priest or deacon who showed us what it means to live the Gospel. Today we are experiencing a crisis of trust in our bishops. It is not, as far as I can see, a crisis of trust in the majority of our clergymen.
The clergy is therefore in a position to restore our trust in the bishops. But first it would have to have a say in who those bishops are.
Today the pope, acting through the Roman Curia, has exclusive authority to choose American bishops. The Curia often imports a bishop unknown to the local clergy. For his next post, he may be shuffled around again to another distant diocese. It has not always been this way. Centuries of saints would be shocked to see local churches so passive in the selection of their own bishops.
My faith as a Catholic requires unity with the bishop of Rome. My faith has nothing to do with the workings of the 21st-century Roman bureaucracy, of which I was blissfully ignorant until last month. Now Americans have been shown a small sample of the backbiting, sycophantism, self-dealing and rank corruption within this Renaissance court.
We have just learned that Theodore McCarrick, a former American cardinal accused of sexual misconduct, reportedly spent decades helping to funnel some $120 million “charitable” dollars to Vatican agencies and curial bureaucrats (via the Papal Foundation, which he co-founded), with minimal paper trail and often zero accounting. This included a $25 million “emergency” grant last year while Archbishop McCarrick allegedly knew the Vatican was investigating him for sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, the McCarrick case has caused among the Curia a series of public hissy fits and mutual recriminations without (so far) a single evidentiary document produced by either side. In the latest, a high-ranking cardinal has admitted that the Vatican knew over a decade ago of the rumors about then Cardinal McCarrick’s habit of sexual abuse. Rather than investigate those rumors, the Vatican merely “requested” that he keep a low public profile “in order to avoid new rumors.”
What would happen to any American clergyman who tried to run a parish the way these men run the Holy See?
Last week, the head of the curial office that appoints bishops finally commented on Archbishop McCarrick’s rise through the ranks. He said, “It must be understood that the decisions taken by the Supreme Pontiff are based on the information” that the Curia provides him and “are the object of a prudential judgment which is not infallible.” Thank you, Rome.
I know good and holy men who work for the Curia. I hope they will forgive me for saying that they do not appear to be setting the tone these days. Too many curial officials appear to embody everything that anti-Catholic prejudices have long taught many of our fellow Americans to fear.
An authoritarian foreign clique flaunts its sovereign immunity in American courts. Wealthy old men in Italy roll their eyes at American puritanism and wink at peccadilloes that we call sexual abuse. A secretive clerical aristocracy designs a church governance system that minimizes transparency and accountability for American crimes against Americans.
But the priests and deacons of this country can remind our fellow citizens that the Roman Catholic Church is much more than the Roman Curia. They can seize the initiative before political or legal pressure forces some more painful and destructive set of reforms. They can reclaim their rightful share in our church’s governance.
Our American priests and deacons should be picking their own bishops. If they think so, too, then they should tell our current bishops, who can regain some credibility by demanding this of Rome. When each incumbent bishop reaches retirement, his own clergy can elect his successor. West Virginia and Washington, D.C., would be great places to begin immediately.
Rome will of course always retain the right to veto our clergy’s choice. But the American laity deserve to know who that choice was. And if Rome does veto, we will want to know why.
Those who make decisions in our church should have to live with their consequences. Our clergymen are more or less stuck in their own diocese. They know that their own life’s happiness will always be tied to their local church’s well-being. The same was true of bishops throughout much of Catholic history. It ought to be more true today.
The temptations to ambition and careerism are simply too great under the current system. At worst, a serial predator enjoys repeated fresh starts in new surroundings while his successors clean up the wreckage. At best, even a good man flown into a new diocese is tempted to feel that the messes he inherits are not his problem and that the messes he leaves behind will be someone else’s.
If our bishops need to be diocesan C.E.O.s adept at risk management, so be it. But surely an entire diocese can produce one C.E.O. with the heart of a pastor. And who would know best where to find such a man: our own clergy or the Roman courtiers who elevated Archbishop McCarrick?
We have now seen that bishops who see themselves as an elite class above their brother clergymen will always seek to point the finger of accountability at anyone but themselves. Someone needs to find us shepherds who smell more like the sheep. Our clergymen know that smell. If they cannot reform the ranks of our chief shepherds, it is inexcusably naïve to expect that Rome will.
This change should transcend all the unfortunate liberal-conservative divisions in American Catholicism. The bywords of Francis’s papacy have been synodality, decentralization, accompaniment, pastoral care. And it was Joseph Ratzinger who, in 1970 and again in 2000, openly criticized the excessive Roman centralization of the bishop-selection process and called for the diocesan church to recover its communal agency in that process.
These calls for reform in church governance structures have gone unheard in our country. Now the time is ripe and the reform is overdue. It will happen only when the clergy and laity alike demand it. If bishops should be pastors, let pastors choose our bishops.
This article was originally published in The New York Times.