Bishops and the Beached Whale: They Wait for Signal from New Pope, but Bishops Need to Let Hierarchical Style Die

Article excerpt

"Edgartown, Mass., Jan. 17--Performing an autopsy is probably never a pleasant chore, but when the subject is a 55-foot whale on a winter beach in a biting northeast wind, it is even less like fun."

--The New York Times, Jan. 18

"If another pope came in, who is more flexible than John Paul II, they would support this right away."

--Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, October 1996, referring to his Common Ground Initiative, which had been criticized by Cardinals Bernard Law and

James Hickey

Pope Benedict XVI's first post-election signals, especially in sacking Fr. Thomas Reese, the Jesuit editor of America magazine, bring a mixture of reassurance and uncertainty to the world's harried bishops. Comfortably huddled for a quarter of a century in the enveloping shadow of John Paul II, they still squint somewhat anxiously into this new dawn. I was sure about what John Paul wanted; does this mean that Benedict expects the same of me? This longing not to be found wanting in the appraising eyes of a new pope intensifies the bishops' chronic uneasiness about how to function in a calling that now provides little of the comfort and even less of the respect that once trimmed their days as neatly as the red piping on their cassocks.

The bishops' worn down and worn-out condition is not, however, a direct effect of their mourning for John Paul II or their worry about pleasing Benedict XVI, although it is related to the programmatic expectations of both. Their anxiety is not, therefore, the fallout from the criticism and calls for resignation and/or indictment that have rained down on them since the clergy sex abuse crisis exploded in 2002. It is not even a reaction to the specter of bankruptcy that has recently appeared in American dioceses.

The stress fractures splintering their accustomed complacency radiate out from their belief that God had given them a clear mission through Pope John Paul II, and may have extended that mission through Benedict XVI. The mission? To maintain the landmark status of hierarchical structure in the age of tear-downs and to make any sacrifice and bear any burden to protect, defend and obey the hierarchical constitution of reality: In short, to breathe life into the beached whale of hierarchy.

Convinced that carrying out papal programs is absolutely the right thing for the church and certainly the right thing for themselves, they can accept each grueling day confidently if, at its end, their fidelity to the task wins them the papal approval that is the sustaining grace in their storm-tossed lives. Implementing the late pope's hierarchical restoration was enormously reassuring to them and now it seems that Benedict, known to dislike "the church from below," may expect them to redouble their struggles. Or will he, despite the authoritarian flex in his dismissal of Reese, remember his championing of collegiality at Vatican II?

Meanwhile the bishops ache from their earnest efforts to refresh and free the whale. The leviathan of hierarchy, however, hears what neither they, Pope John Paul nor perhaps Benedict XVI have heard--a cry from within itself: "Keep your rendezvous with death on this beach and, if prevented here, seek it on another."

The dream/nightmare

"How are you doing?" I recently asked a good-natured, hard-working bishop as he patted his neck with a handkerchief after a long ceremony. "Three years, four months and 15 days," he responded, noting, in the way an old con might, the amount of hard time that would tick off slowly until he could retire. Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley's recent anguished confession that death would be a blessed deliverance from the nonstop tension of the contemporary shepherd's life reveals how many of these good men long to lay their robes down one last time on the vesting case and walk out of the sacristy for good.

If they do not condemn one of the myriad injustices of the day, they are chided for failing to speak in the public forum and are compared to bishops who remained silent under fascism. …