The American and Catholic Understanding of the Episcopacy

First of all, happy St. Nicholas’ Day.  Totally forgot to mention that this morning.

Second, John Allen wrote a worthwhile article on the legal troubles which faced Cardinal Michele Giordano.  He uses this example to illustrate the difference between the American and Catholic understanding of what it is to be a Church leader:

The typical American take-away is that the Giordano saga illustrates a lack of accountability at senior levels of the church, since a cardinal who obviously made some dubious choices never lost his job.

In the Vatican, however, the perspective was different. I remember talking to senior officials in both the Congregation for Bishops and the Secretariat of State throughout the Giordano drama, and while some suspected Giordano might be the victim of an anti-clerical vendetta, even those who regarded him as guilty weren’t interested in coming to his rescue. The message was that he’s going to have to stay put and clean up his own mess.

In other words, the Vatican version of accountability was to allow Giordano to stew in his own juices, rather than getting him off the hook by arranging a face-saving resignation.

Not only was that a tactical calculation to deny Giordano a soft landing, but it also reflects the official theology of the episcopal office. In theory, a bishop is not supposed to be like a CEO or a sports coach, who gets fired for poor performance. He’s more comparable to the father of a family, and policy-makers stepped in this “pater familias” view of the bishops’ role would say that the right course of action when times get tough is not to walk away, but to “man up” and make things right.

Obviously one can debate the wisdom of that perspective, and there can be times when the good of the diocesan family requires that the bishop hit the road – the case of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston is perhaps the best-known recent example.

Nonetheless, the Giordano story illustrates a key insight into Vatican psychology, one that sometimes is obscured by differing cultural assumptions. When the Vatican refuses to sack a bishop, it’s not always about the absence of accountability, but rather a different view of what holding him accountable means.

Knowing that will not make very real debates over accountability disappear, but it might at least avoid the pitfall of mistaken assumptions about motives on either side of the equation.

Allen’s point is a good one.  We should seek the conversion and reform of the bad bishops themselves, rather than simply their replacement (although, at times, that’s our best bet, as he concedes).

This point also dovetails nicely with this morning’s post, because all of this is related to the Catholic understanding of the New Covenant priesthood, and particularly the episcopacy. Bishops are chosen by God through the Church, and are priests forever according to the Order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4).  Even defrocked priests remain priests in some sense, just as a man who leaves or abuses his kids remains, in some unchanging sense, their father. In both cases, there are extreme cases in which a priest or a dad needs to be separated from his kids.

But this is much more rare than “firings for poor performance,” along the model of the CEO, coach …. or Protestant pastor.  The fact is, the American model (even what we Catholics in America tend to desire the Vatican to do) is one rooted, as much as anything, in a Protestant understanding of the nature of the episcopal and pastoral offices.  I know a fair number of stories of pastors fired for poor performance, particularly over things like poor management of finances.  From a Catholic perspective, this is almost unthinkable, like firing your dad for paying the rent late.

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