.- Nearly all U.S. bishops know by now that U.S. Catholics are experiencing crises of faith and confidence at a scale that far exceeds even the Church’s sexual abuse scandal in 2002. They were presented with data this week noting that the rate of Catholics defecting from the practice of the faith has risen dramatically in recent years, and they are reminded in their own dioceses that practicing Catholics, priests among them, are deeply discouraged of the last year, and struggling to trust.
But there is a disconnect between the work that bishops are doing this week in Baltimore to respond to those problems and the way that work is perceived by even faithful and engaged Catholics.
The mission of bishops is the salvation of souls. Their call is to proclaim the Gospel, to teach the faith, to celebrate the sacramental mysteries of grace, and to lead and coordinate the apostolic and evangelical work of priests, deacons, religious, and laity. Their ability to do those things convincingly and compellingly is hampered by the scandals of the last year.
But so is the ability of millions of other Catholics to do the work to which God has called them. Within the Church, the scandals have tainted the credibility of the bishops. Beyond the walls of the Church, the scandals have tainted the credibility of every Catholic who tries to explain, proclaim, or live the Gospel.
It is not the case that Catholic laity are the de facto moral superiors of their bishops. It is not the case that Catholic laity give consistent witness to the Gospel. It is not the case that laity are less likely to be motivated by the concerns of this world, less likely to engage in sexual immorality, less likely to live as they ought not.
But it is the case that bishops are uniquely public Catholic figures, and that the integrity of their actions is – fairly or unfairly- uniquely taken as a measure of the Gospel’s integrity.
None of that is new. What is new is the scope of their visibility in the social media era, and the degree to which the misconduct of some, and the broken ecclesial culture that fosters it, is manifestly clear to those who look toward it.
The problems occasioned by those realities are complex. Bishops this week, at the U.S. bishops’ conference meeting in Baltimore, are engaging in discussion about the nitty-gritty technical aspects of some of those problems. They are debating, or attempting to debate, the finer points of third-party reporting systems and investigative review processes.
Those debates, some observers have noted, are important, but they are also painful. They are wonky, bureaucratic, and themselves not untainted by the marks of ambition, petty politics, and some degree of impatience. But they are nonetheless important.
The bishops seem keen to reflect in these debates their contrition for the sins of their brothers, their apparent desire to be seen involving lay people in their processes, and to convey the urgency of their mandate. In the words of one observer, some of that rhetoric has a Clinton-esque quality, offered by bishops who want Catholics to know “We feel your pain.”
But despite episcopal efforts, many of which are sincere, conference staffers, along with lay and priest observers at the meeting, tell CNA consistently that, in their estimation, many bishops “still don’t get it.”
While the buzzwords among the bishops in the meeting are “transparency” and “lay involvement,” the buzzing among their closest lay and priestly collaborators is whether the bishops understand, as one staffer asked CNA, “just how bad things are.” What is it they are perceived not to understand?
In the first place, CNA is told, bishops seem not to understand how much Catholics would like questions about McCarrick to be answered, forthrightly, directly, and comprehensively, and by those in official positions of power, not by priests leaking their accounts of old emails and letters.
In the second place, priests and laity say they would like to hear bishops recognize directly the scandal of the Bransfield report, and of the subsequent revelation that despite promises of transparency, and perhaps even in good faith, the names of bishops who were given large gifts from Bransfield were omitted from the report filed with Congregation for Bishops.
While Lori himself has expressed contrition for the omission, Catholics are looking for a direct response to the ensuing scandal, and a commitment to be open about their own financial entanglements with bishops of dubious moral reputation. In fact, Catholic observers tell CNA on the whole that bishops will be forthcoming about other potential financial scandals before they are spread across the pages of America’s leading newspapers, rather than after.
But most especially, Catholics tell CNA, that what they hope bishops will “get” is just how difficult all this scandal has been. They are looking, they say, for genuine expressions of the bishops’ own pain, rather than the sense that the crisis is being managed. They are looking for bishops who are turning to the Lord for answers in humility.
Above all else, Catholics tell CNA, they are looking for leadership: for bishops who decry sexual immorality, privilege, careerism, and indifference among their brethren without ambiguity. They are looking for bishops who will be among them in their pain. They are looking for those who will insist upon the truth, no matter the cost. They are looking for leadership that begins and ends in the mysteries of the Eucharist.
They are not looking for politicians or crisis managers. They are looking, they say, for priests, prophets, and kings.
That is what they hope their bishops will understand. Whether they will find those things in Baltimore remains to be seen.