The downfall of a bishop, regardless of the reasons, hurts the Church and ought to be an occasion of regret for all Catholics. But how many people are using the present scandal to advance their personal agendas? Some on the left want to argue that celibacy should be jettisoned and that women priests would help solve the situation. On the other hand, many on the right are bragging that they’ve “been right all along” about the homosexual infiltration of the clergy.
The extremes, both on the left and right, meet on a common ground that’s more fundamentally dangerous for the Catholic faith than the pedophile scandal itself: They represent Catholic ideologues who consider bishops authoritative only when and if the bishops do their bidding.
To be Catholic means recognizing the authority of an ecclesiastical position, not a person. The sad spectacle of a cardinal on the cover of the daily newspaper covered in shame cannot cause us to lose respect for the office he holds.
Just as the Eucharist is still valid when celebrated by a sinful priest, so the authority of the office of bishop is not lost, though he may lose his personal moral authority. The ecclesial authority of a Catholic bishop isn’t based on popular opinion, or especially on opinion polls.
All of this points to the obvious fact that the Church is a hierarchal institution. Chains of command and authority run vertically rather than horizontally. When problems arise — no matter where they’re first addressed — they’ll only be solved when the Church decides to clean its own house.
What must happen now is a Vatican-directed reform of management practices, vocational screening, and seminary formation in the U.S. Church. This can be at least partially based on the expertise of lay people. But lay involvement should be understood as the use of genuine management expertise as opposed to changing the received teaching on faith and morals.
The individual Catholic may disagree strongly with this or that bishop; he may even think certain bishops are doing a bad job. But, that same Catholic who criticizes the opinions and performance of bishops must also know that the very existence of bishops is what keeps the hostile secular world from overwhelming the Church.
And anyone who foolishly weakens the power of the bishops also weakens the Church.
In the case where a bishop’s loss of credibility and moral integrity is so great that it damages the position he holds, then Rome itself must act. In doing this, the Vatican protects people of faith from the temptation to lose their faith.
The current scandal was created by bishops and priests more interested in preserving the reputation of the Church than protecting its children. The Vatican must now step in, or else the editorial board of the Boston Globe will dictate the reforms of the U.S. Church.