The late Ronald Knox was thought to have a sterling wit, but I’ve never found anything of his as funny as a proposal attributed to his brother, Wilfred: like Ronald, before the latter’s conversion, an Anglican clergyman. Wilfred Knox was also a theologian and, as the story goes, once proposed a two-volume study of Christian ethics. The first volume would be entitled, Respect for the Clergy. The second volume would be styled more simply: Other Virtues. I laugh, or at least smile, every time I run across that tale, and I expect most Catholics would, too. Which is a good thing, because our amusement reflects that distinctive Catholic combination of a profound respect for the ordained ministry of the Church and a cheerful skepticism about the sillier aspects of clerical culture. That instinct – reverence without sycophancy – has stood the Church in America in good stead ever since what Father Richard Neuhaus called the “Long Lent of 2002″ brought the Church’s ordained ministry under the microscope of public scrutiny. Some of that scrutiny was biased and unfair; some of it was even vicious. But if the intent of the biased, the unfair, and the vicious was to promote a contempt for their priests among the people of the Catholic Church, that intention fizzled. The overwhelming majority of Catholics in America know that the overwhelming majority of their priests are men living virtuous lives of self-sacrifice.
At the same time, however, the Long Lent of 2002 has left a residue of deep, and in some cases, smoldering, lay discontent with the Church’s episcopal leadership. Catholics have understood that a scandal of clerical sexual misconduct became a crisis of enormous (and, in financial terms, still untold) proportions because of the failures of bishops: failures that were theological as well as managerial. Some, perhaps many, bishops believe that this reaction is unfair, that the entire episcopate is being maligned for the malfeasance of a few. There is perhaps some truth in that complaint, but until the bishops of the United States show a far greater capacity for self-correction than they’ve shown to date, lay discontent will continue. And it will likely grow.
That discontent, which often focuses on inept administration, has already taken some unhelpful forms. The Boston-based Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, while identifying some real problems in Church governance, has addressed those problems with proposals that would, in effect, turn the Catholic Church in America into another liberal Protestant denomination. And even the most well-intentioned initiatives toward the reform of diocesan governance (and there are some out there) must contend with the fact that changes in management structures and processes will only take the Church so far. Indeed, any such reforms must clearly protect the bishop’s authority as governor of his local Church while freeing him to be the apostle – the evangelical witness – he was ordained to be. That’s a tall order, but not an impossible one.
Whether that tall order will be filled is one of the great questions of U.S. Catholic life today. The actuarial tables dictate that the episcopal leadership of American Catholicism will change, dramatically, over the next several years. Two American cardinals are already beyond the retirement age of 75; one cardinal will turn 75 this month, and another will turn 75 next year. In addition, two more metropolitan archbishops will reach 75 in 2006. Five dioceses currently have no bishop; six have a bishop who is past 75; and in five more, the bishop will turn 75 this year. A major transition is, clearly, at hand. The new apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, will play a large role in guiding this transition; so, obviously, will Pope Benedict XVI, who has thus far demonstrated, in the main, a very hands-on approach to episcopal appointments.
There are great possibilities here: the Church in the United States has a greater opportunity to be the “Church in the modern world” that Vatican II envisioned than perhaps any other local church on earth. Seizing that opportunity, however, requires a dramatically different kind of episcopal leadership than the style that helped bring us the Long Lent of 2002.