Collegiality, collusion, collectivity and clericalism

Back from the dead! It has been a busy time. I am about to fly to Australia (in a few hours actually) to sneak in some holiday before taking up a new role in the monastery, that of bursar. If the new job does not kill me I suppose it will make me stronger. But there has been so little time to read, let alone write.

The Cardinal McCarrick affair is growing louder in the media. Christopher Altieri raises a point that merits pushing further: the failure is not just McCarrick’s but that of the American bishops as a body. How could no other bishop not have known? And knowing, how could they have kept silence? The denials just do not ring true. For many they may be true but such is the deficit the Catholic hierarchy suffers at the moment that few will believe them. After all, in England we had a similar case, that of Bishop Conry and his long-standing relationship with a mistress. It was very well known in ecclesiastical circles, even from his days in Rome apparently. Yet he was promoted anyway. Did any bishop protest at the time? The Conry case has one essential difference: his sin was with a woman, so a collective sigh of relief that it was not a minor encouraged silence.

Cardinal McCarrick

Sadly such an attitude about non-criminal breaches of celibacy only renders more secure those who breach celibacy criminally. Silence and the turning of a blind eye become entrenched and normalized, rationalized as a defence of the Church from scandal. But it is a pyrrhic defence: the rot grows deeper and the scandal all the greater when it is finally uncovered. Even more, the Church, or rather its hierarchy, emerges looking morally compromised, hypocritical, lacking authority to speak on the matters it should be speaking authoritatively. It is interesting to remember that Bishop Conry, who mistress was a married woman, was noted for rarely if ever preaching or writing about sexual morality as set forth in the Church’s teaching. I guess he wanted to avoid being a hypocrite. In fact he doubled his offence anyway by neglecting his duty and furthering the decline of Catholic witness in this country.

Bishop Conry

Surely such scandals should be leading us to examine the conciliar teaching on episcopal collegiality. Doctrinally it is a white elephant… or is it a red herring? Bishops have a collegial magisterium when they gather in council or synods, not in bishops’ conferences. The role and status of the papal and conciliar magisterium are well enough established in the tradition. In practice the bishops’ conferences have often been a vehicle by which an organized faction imposes its will on other bishops, punishing them in subtle ways if they do not fall into line.

This is a travesty of collegiality, surely?  It is even more so when a conference, no doubt informally and off the record, colludes to keep silence about a scandalously wayward member of the conference. It might sound a little hyperbolic to liken this to the mafia’s omerta, but it is not that far off. For some bishops, maybe, there is a degree of self-interest involved, a desire not to queer the pitch of their careers. Notice how certain bishops sound off about removing mandatory clerical celibacy now that they are retired. Did they know about Conry, I wonder?

Maybe it is time to think of collegiality more in terms of the Westminster principle of cabinet collective responsibility in government. At the moment only half if this principle seems to apply, namely that all in the cabinet (read, bishops’ conference) must abide by its collective decision even if they disagree with it. If a cabinet member cannot abide by it or support it publicly he or she must resign. The flip side, perhaps seen for the first time in episcopal circles with the Chilean bishops a few weeks ago, is that if a no-confidence motion is passed against the prime minister as a result of some crisis or other the entire government must resign. This is a rushed explanation of it but the substance is clear enough: collective responsibility means the body stands or falls together.

If this were the case more often in the Church, perhaps more bishops might take action to correct a scandalous brother bishop. And doing so, would not such bishops only enhance their authority and voice rather than diminish it?

Ultimately the shepherds of the flock are responsible not to the bishops’ conference, nor even to the pope, but to the Lord, before whom they must render an account of their stewardship on judgment day. From those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded.

It strikes me that the travesty of collegiality that has prevailed in many places is the real clericalism in the Church today. Clericalism has little to do, if anything, with collars and cassocks and a preference for Latin. It has to do with an attitude of self-interest, self-importance and self-preservation in clerics both great and small. It is when Father thinks he knows better than the universal Church and its tradition when it comes to the liturgy or moral theology. The gross failure of the shepherds as a body (exceptions exist of course!) to teach the truths of Humanae Vitae, for example, in any but a token, formal way is inextricably linked to the crisis in sexual morality today in the Church and in society. If secular society, and a society-infected Church, would not listen to but rather ridicule them for such “backward” teaching, then better to keep silence and thus the world’s regard. Sad to say, they never won the world’s regard, only its wafer-thin tolerance.

So both the McCarrick and the Conry affairs place in sharp focus the nakedness of collegiality, the true nature of clericalism, and the glaring need for a true collective responsibility in our bishops’ conferences today, notable exceptions notwithstanding. Pope Francis might do well to encourage more bishops’ conferences to resign when their failures come to light. Then collegiality might begin to look helpful. At the moment it seems very much part of the problem.

Time to fly. Pax

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  1. Very succinct Fr Hugh. Such a shame that there are still bad apples hanging on the tree as well as in the barrel. In the Lord’s time .

  2. Safe travels Father and enjoy a much deserved vacation.

    As for the Church’s hierarchy—this is just one more nail in the coffin. A nail that is so difficult to fend off while attempting to fight for the Church’s legitimacy against the growing tide of both atheism as well as those brothers and sisters in Christ who have long vilified the Catholic Chruch…sigh

  3. I feel teal anger that the clerisy that has alternately bullied, patronised and sneered at faithful Catholicism and its adherents have been exposed to be men such as these.


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