Bishops follow pope’s lead: This is news?

As America’s Catholic bishops gathered for , reported that their highest concern was not abortion, same-sex marriage, or the killing of Christians in the Middle East, but whether the great Vatican radar is tracking their every move — a fancy far more than a fact but a measure of their anxiety that the Really Big Brother is thinking about and making notes on them every day.

As America’s Catholic bishops gathered for their recent meeting in New OrleansThe New York Timesreported that their highest concern was not abortion, same-sex marriage, or the killing of Christians in the Middle East, but whether the great Vatican radar is tracking their every move — a fancy far more than a fact but a measure of their anxiety that the Really Big Brother is thinking about and making notes on them every day.

How could the pope not be checking on them constantly when these bishops are thinking about what he thinks about them all the time? Just when they thought they had mastered the art of pleasing popes like St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, along comes Pope Francis to throw them into turmoil about how to remake themselves in his image and likeness.

This concern about their image, according to veteran religious writer Michael Paulson, leaves them “revisiting both how they live and what they talk about in light of the new pope’s emphasis on personal humility and economic justice.”

This is no small challenge for these bishops, who were picked — as they always presumed, by following the game plan on which they inched their way, not too fast but not too slow, either, across the ecclesiastical chessboard — by behaving in just the passive, obedient way that previous popes set as the prime virtue in potential bishops.

It was a lot easier when these good men who wanted better jobs understood that if they were to be like the pope, they could never say anything to support women priests or optional celibacy. They also understood that their attitude toward the Second Vatican Council was to mirror the eagerness of John Paul II and Benedict to repeal it, bit by bit, until the church time-traveled back to the largely imagined glories of the First Vatican Council again.

Most of the bishops were, in fact, selected because they tried hard to be like these popes: loyal to the system; never questioning a papal whim, much less an order; and, should the pope ask them to jump, their only question would be, “How high?”

In the Sheehan/Kobler study of America’s Catholic bishops carried out at Loyola University Chicago, it was found that the principal motivation for these bright, ambitious men was that, at sunset, their actions and decisions of the completed day would be pleasing to and approved by the pope.

This internalized striving reassured these bishops that even if others criticized them, they were doing the right thing, and it would earn them papal approval. Such willingness to do what pleased those above them, whether they pleased themselves or not, was the kind of self-sacrifice Rome looked for in future bishops. By appointing such men, they strengthened the institution just as the appointment of obedient generals strengthens the military.

The late Dr. Milton Rakove, an old friend of mine, was an expert on Chicago politics and, to deepen his knowledge, he showed up at a ward office to volunteer his services one day.

“Who sent you?” the head of the office asked.

“Nobody sent me,” Milton replied.

“We don’t want nobody that nobody sent,” the boss quickly replied, turning him down.

That is about the way the congregation that makes bishops always operated. They knew what they wanted; they desired no exceptions, no matter how holy or how charismatic. Future bishops were to preach the creed, keep theologians in their place, and follow the playbook of orthodoxy, turning a hard eye and a cold shoulder toward anybody accused of “dissent,” a label so large that it could be applied to everyone from liberation theologians to those trying to bring pastoral understanding and support to the gay community.

Chance used to favor the bookkeeper, the numbers-cruncher, the “safe” man whose ideas of the church were mass-produced in the chancery factories from whose assembly lines future bishops rolled off in a make and model that never varied. These bishops lived in comfortable quarters, loved their monsignorial robes, and spent their days off with their mothers, preserving the golden haze of clerical culture’s high point. They knew just what to think and how to act to continue to serve the church in a fashion that made them feel highly approved.

They must have known that Pope Francis was trouble the minute he got on the bus with the other cardinals after he was elected. And then he rejected the papal apartments and bought a secondhand car that would delight environmentalists and/or junk men. When a reporter asked him about a priest accused of homosexuality, he answered, as naturally as a man who is a pastor by nature, “Who am I to judge?”

The bishops’ worry is not apparently about what the pastoral pope does or says. It is the dismay they feel at being expected to speak spontaneously like a Christian, to share the concern that lives in their hearts rather than lies dead in canon law books. Being a true Christian is all that the pope seems to expect, but nobody ever prepared the present bishops for that, and the thought never occurred to them spontaneously.

We must feel for these men trained to be one kind of bishop now searching for some way to become another. For this and other blessings already beyond counting, we may be grateful to the loving God who gave us Francis.

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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Lawrence Kohlberg proposed stages of reasoning in moral development, which may help us understand how we ourselves act, and empathise with how others may act. He posed various moral dilemmas, not so much for the answers given as to understand the reasoning. For example: The “Heinz Dilemma”: Is Heinz right to steal a drug he can’t afford, but which is the only drug available to save the life of his wife?
    Level 1. Pre-conventional Morality
    • Stage 1 – Obedience and Punishment
    The earliest stage of moral development is especially common in young children, but adults are also capable of expressing this type of reasoning. At this stage, children see rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a means to avoid punishment.
    • Stage 2 – Individualism and Exchange
    At this stage of moral development, children account for individual points of view and judge actions based on how they serve individual needs. In the Heinz dilemma, children argued that the best course of action was the choice that best-served Heinz’s needs. Reciprocity is possible at this point in moral development, but only if it serves one’s own interests.
    Level 2. Conventional Morality
    • Stage 3 – Interpersonal Relationships
    Often referred to as the “good boy-good girl” orientation, this stage of moral development is focused on living up to social expectations and roles. There is an emphasis on conformity, being “nice,” and consideration of how choices influence relationships.
    • Stage 4 – Maintaining Social Order
    At this stage of moral development, people begin to consider society as a whole when making judgments. The focus is on maintaining law and order by following the rules, doing one’s duty and respecting authority.
    Level 3. Post-conventional Morality
    • Stage 5 – Social Contract and Individual Rights
    At this stage, people begin to account for the differing values, opinions and beliefs of other people. Rules of law are important for maintaining a society, but members of the society should agree upon these standards.
    • Stage 6 – Universal Principles
    Kohlberg’s final level of moral reasoning is based upon universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules.
    On this kind of schema, can I see how I myself am developing, and perhaps struggling?
    Can I see how our church leaders are developing?
    Does it help understand Pope Francis?
    How does Kohlberg’s schema relate to Christian living?
    How can I, how can we as a parish, how can we as a church continue to grow in the Way?

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I guess this is the problem with people being involved in a hierarchy where the rule is that none should exist. When you are not directly at the coal face, then you don’t really have the experience to know where things are heading, or should head for that matter. I know it’s difficult to imagine a world where all are equal but isn’t this the very foundation of our religion? It’s time to get tough on the bishops – maybe they can elaborate on Pope Francis’ debate on priestly celibacy. You’ve polled parishioners before…maybe it’s time to poll bishops?

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