Hiding Behind Altars

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone “with a good reason for wanting to know” emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

“There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn’t know — for sure — who those 31 bishops were,” said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book, Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.

“The secret ballots were destroyed,” he noted. “These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they’ve voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there’s no way to do that.”

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

Of course, noted Shaw, few leaders of powerful institutions enjoy discussing their crucial decisions — let alone corporate or personal sins — in public. When Catholic insiders complain about “clericalism” they are confronting a problem that affects all hierarchies, from government to academia, from the Pentagon to Wall Street.

“It’s a kind of elitism, a way of thinking and behaving that assigns to the managerial class a superior status,” he said. “They are chiefs and everyone else is an Indian. They set the agenda. They always make the final decisions. They get to tell everyone else what to do.”

Of course, there’s truth in the old image that puts the pope at the top of an ecclesiastical pyramid, with ranks of clergy cascading down to the pews.

Catholicism is not a democracy and there are times when leaders must keep secrets. That’s “a truth,” said Shaw, but it is “not the only truth,” since the whole church is meant to be knit together in a Communion built on a “radical equality of dignity and rights.”

Part of what is happening, he explained, is that some bishops are protecting a “facade of unity” that hides their doctrinal disagreements with the Vatican. While Shaw believes the bishops are more united with Rome now than they where were about 25 years ago, some bishops may be pushing for more and more closed “executive” sessions as a subconscious way to protect themselves.

Take, for example, the brutal waves of scandal caused by the sexual abuse of children and teens by clergy. For several decades, argued Shaw, the bishops have been afraid to openly discuss “the causes of the dreadful mess — nasty things like homosexuality among priests, theological rationalizing on the subject of sex and the entrenched self-protectiveness of the old clericalist culture.”

That’s the kind of scandal that creates global headlines. But, for most Catholics, more commonplace forms of secrecy shape their lives at the local level, said Shaw.

Consider another story reported in Shaw’s book, about a woman who quietly confronted a priest after a Mass in which he omitted the creed. When he failed to acknowledge the error, she said, “Father, you teach your people to be disobedient when you disobey the Church.”

The offended priest was silent. Then he leaned forward and whispered, “You know what, honey? You’re full of it.” The priest walked away, giving the woman and her husband what appeared to be “the single-digit salute.”

Truth is, said Shaw, “clericalism is often alive and well at the local level. That’s the kind of secrecy and dishonesty that really cuts the heart of many local parishes, destroying any hope for real Communion there.”

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  • elkabrikir

    I rejoice to be so naive as to think our bishops would have been spared the “elitism” and “clericalism” described above.

    I always find it shocking and I hope I always will.

    I pray I never lose my love for those anointed with Holy Orders in the line of the Apostles.

    Truly, my heart would break if a shadow of cynicism crept into my love for our Pope. May the Holy Spirit continue to strengthen and guide him.

  • noelfitz

    I am sorry to read this article.

    Bishops and priests need our support. They have very difficult lives and are often under great stress.

    To say that “[t]The priest walked away, giving the woman and her husband what appeared to be “the single-digit salute” is very unfair to all the priests who are working hard to spread the kingdom.

    Recently my brother died and the priests in the hospital and the parish were absolutely wonderful. I am so grateful for their support and prayers.

    In Ireland the Creed is not said at all Masses, (eg week day ones, except major feasts).

    God bless,


    In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.

  • DonnaMaria

    Yes, most priests are great, and I think the majority of CE readers love and support their priests, and encourage our children to pray, discerning a call to religious life. However, we should be able to find out who the dissenters are. It is very frustrating when a pastor or bishop does not lead his flock–and just like abusive priests, dissenters who openly teach against our Holy Mother Church need to be weeded out, as they lead so many astray. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand, either.

    Noel, had the priest responded to his parishioner with a kind explanation, instead of arrogance and extreme rudeness, I’m sure she would have understood. His response is inexcusable! I don’t think this article is a blanket statement against priests! It calls attention to some problems which need to be addressed, so that we can avoid future scandals.

  • Mary Kochan

    Noel, condolences on the death of your brother.

    Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.

  • tarasz

    I take issue with a third-party report of a priest doing something awful. Isn’t that gossip? Even though it’s just relating a story in a book, we weren’t there, and we don’t know what happened.

    Let’s please not talk badly about our priests, even when it’s true. This article could have been complete without that story.

  • Warren Jewell

    tarasz, it is a story nearly as old as the Tridentine formulae. Titled ‘clericalism’, it won’t go away ignoring it.

    I think that overworked and overburdened pastors – i.e., most pastors – go ‘clerical’ at times. None is perfect and all get frustrated by yet more problems, burdens, work, etc. Think what they go through just to help keep their parish schools up and running. Such things as any parish finances, in collecting, accounting, etc., are their responsibility as their bishops require of them.

    But, this goes hand-in-hand with pew-dwellers just sitting there expecting to be catered-to without lifting a finger to help serve. And, this too is part-and-parcel of lack of catechesis, which would build vibrancy and vitality into parishes that a pastor could bank on and fall back upon as he needs to.

    Which, again, falls into the lap of the diocesan ordinary. He must teach: to raise up Catholics trained ‘mighty in spirit’ to their faith; and ‘powerful of purpose’ to service to the faith, the faithful and to God.

  • Daughter of the King

    I agree with tarasz about second hand stories. Unless you were one of the two parties involved you really don’t know what happened. Maybe the woman was one who was constantly ‘quietly’ nagging her priest about things he did wrong. Maybe he had had enough and just broke under the pressure of her constant demand for perfectionism with circumstances like lack of sleep from being up with a dying person all night. Or just found out some other stressing news which made missing the creed seems so insignificant. Who knows. Besides, saying the Creed at Mass is what is considered an accidental, it is not essential for the Mass to be valid. And maybe the priest had a lot on his mind that day and just forgot? I’ve seen it happen. I certainly didn’t go running to correct my pastor when Mass was over.

    I do know of some folks in my own parish who are ‘ultra conservatives’ I’ve been told (I’m new to the parish) and they pounce on the priest for every little thing. They’ll pounce “discretely” on any priest who enters their parish who does something they consider to be wrong, disobedient, etc. They are throns in the priests’ sides.

  • Grace Harman

    Little errors or omissions are not the major threat to our Faith.
    The BIG scandal is about some Bishops giving “wiggle room” to pro-abortion politicians and not speaking out against them even if they publicly receive Our Lord in Holy Communion -even though they openly support the slaughter of the helpless babies.
    If these babies had lived, many would be now paying into the social Security pool and it would not be as badly in jeopardy. 50 million deaths has a major impact on a nation. (But of course Congress having access to, and robbing the Trust Fund for other “pet projects” is also a major cause of the program’s problems.)
    Why wasn’t there a bigger outcry when Roe v. Wade was first decided? Why has it taken so long for (only some) Bishops to speak out? The baby is obviously human. It is clearly alive and growing. Life comes from God and not the State. Why can’t the Judges follow our Bill of Rights and protect these babies from murder? No one is safe if judges can just “declare” a group of people “non-persons”.