The Bishops on the River Kwai. (Viewpoint)

By Kennedy, Eugene | National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Bishops on the River Kwai. (Viewpoint)


Kennedy, Eugene, National Catholic Reporter


In the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai," Alec Guinness plays a captured British officer who feels he is triumphing over his Japanese captors by leading his men in building a railroad bridge, losing himself in the details so he no longer sees the larger purpose of the structure in transporting the enemy. He loses his life trying to save the bridge from destruction by British forces.

The bishops in Dallas followed the same script, moving as warily as prisoners of war beneath the media guard towers. They were absorbed in lashing a bridge together out of laws across what they hoped to use to make their escape from the priest sex abuse scandal. The best of these bishops understood clearly that they were being closely observed and they passed the word along: Look busy. As obsessively as the Guinness character, they focused on the details, blocking out a view of what they were building or how it would be used.

They used laws and regulations to strap their structure together, innocent of how they were revealing their confusion of authority with authoritarianism. The latter, a characteristic of hierarchical style, means to control, while authority, from the Latin augere, means to make able to grow, to create.

But they needed to get control and to raise this hierarchical structure before the river swept them away. Like the movie's prisoners of war, they were "happy in their work," that is, comfortable with obsessing in public about words--"I direct your attention to the word credible in line 100"--lashed together into a trestle of laws of which they would be proud no matter what it signified, how it would be used.

It was poignant to observe them obsessing about individual slats and struts, not questioning whether their intricate legal structure was fit for the reign of God. They missed the irony of their establishing a "Charter for the Protection of Children." They missed the incongruity of their need for a legal entity to remind them that protecting children is fundamental to Catholicism.

They just kept handing laws up the ladder, not asking about what happened in the priesthood--and how could it have happened--that priests and other church personnel are regarded as so potentially dangerous to children that they were setting up legal commissions to oversee them. …

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