Who's For Better Bishops?
This wasn't posted online, but I've received permission from my paper, The Tablet, to publish its lead editorial from this week's edition on the Synod of Bishops just concluded. It makes for thought-provoking reading.
LESS THAN GOD'S PEOPLE DESERVE-30-
The International Synod of Bishops of 2005 was a piece of business left over from the papacy of Pope John Paul II, and perhaps happened too soon to be regarded as characteristic of the emerging papacy of Benedict XVI. For many Catholics looking to their leaders for vision, courage and imagination in response to the problems the Church faces, its risk-averse message of “no change” will be a big disappointment. The problems remain, but seem further than ever from solution.
A clear message to come from the upheaval the Church inevitably went through earlier this year, with the death of the last Pope and the election of his successor, was that the mechanisms for international consultation and collaboration in the government of the world-wide Church were inadequate. Six months on, this synod seems to have been dominated by conservative curial officials, mostly cardinals and virtually all of them appointed by the previous Pope, who were determined to defend the status quo. They will be pleased with their work. But as a result the inadequacy of the synod’s rules and procedures is even more apparent. The synod ought not to be an extension of curial government, but a real check and balance to it, and a means for the voice of bishops from around the world, to be heard, honestly and clearly.
The central paradox of this synod’s deliberations is that, while it affirmed the centrality of the Eucharist in the spiritual life of Catholics, it failed to see the contradiction between that and, say, the growing shortage of priests resulting from mandatory celibacy, or the rules intended to stop divorced or remarried Catholics from receiving Holy Communion. A parish cannot make the Eucharist central to its life without a priest to say Mass. Divorced and remarried Catholics cannot make the Eucharist central to their lives if they are barred from it. In both cases the synod members seemed preoccupied with rule-keeping, as if that way lay salvation - notwithstanding Jesus’s warnings to the contrary. Yet Christ came to call sinners, not the pure, as he repeatedly reminded his disciples.
The resounding endorsement of the status quo by this synod is bound to provoke fundamental questions about the quality of leadership in the Catholic Church, not just in the Vatican but worldwide. There are clearly outstanding pastors among the bishops of the Church, but for too long and too often, safe but second-rate men have also been promoted: men whose mediocrity caused them to be perceived as safe by control-minded curial officials.
The instinct of the mediocre is to sweep problems under the carpet, and pretend all is well. The English and Welsh Church has done better in this respect than many, as a glance at the Irish situation makes startlingly clear. Scandal after scandal has been mismanaged by its safe but sorry bishops, to the extent that the entire authority and credibility of the Catholic Church itself is now in jeopardy.
Is that moral credibility likely to be regained, in Ireland or anywhere else, when church leaders at the synod tell those with Aids that their condition is their own fault and thus they ought not to be regarded as “sufferers”, as one contributor is reported to have said; or that divorced and remarried people should not be regarded as “suffering” from their exclusion from Communion as they have brought it on themselves, as another contributor suggested?
The Irish Government’s report into clerical child abuse in the diocese of Ferns, said to be the worst in the world but by no means unique in Ireland, is a searing indictment of a rule-bound culture of episcopal mismanagement, incompetence and fear of exposure. As at the recent synod, priority was given time and again to evading and avoiding problems rather than dealing with them. The damage that resulted is incalculable. The People of God are surely entitled to something better.