Episcopal Accountability & the "Reverse Caiaphas" Policy

Yesterday, I wrote about the news that Bishop Robert Finn had resigned as the Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph. I mentioned that the accountability of bishops is especially important when it comes to the issue of clergy sex abuse, but that issue does not exhaust the issue: Bishops can fail in many ways, as can we all, but they are in positions of leadership, with enormous power over the people they are supposed to serve. How can and should the Church deal with bishops who are simply not working out?

There is not doubt that changes must be made. Today we live under what one friend calls the “reverse Caiaphas” policy. Caiaphas, the high priest, said that it was better for one man to die that the whole people might be saved. Today, when it comes to the accountability of bishops, the default position is that it is better for the people to die so that one man might be saved.

First, I should note that most bishops do just fine. Some may be more pro-active than others. In some dioceses, there is a sense of vibrancy and activity and in others not much is going on, but instances of actual failed leadership are few. Not to put too fine a point on it, but whatever one thinks of the leadership of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone or St. Paul Archbishop John Nienstedt, they are the only two bishops in the country who have people taking out full page ads asking for their removal, or otherwise writing letters to the pope, the nuncio, and the Congregation for Bishops. There are 270 active bishops in the United States, so having two that have not managed to be a good fit for their dioceses is not such a high rate.

I will stipulate that there could be a circumstance in which a bishop is unpopular for a variety of reasons, but that such unpopularity is a necessary price to pay because he inherited a real mess, but a mess in which people were invested, and in trying to clean things up, feathers will be ruffled. That emphatically is not the case in either San Francisco or St. Paul, but the possibility exists. Nor should anyone fail to acknowledge that removing a bishop should always be an act of last resort. But, what are the intermediate steps that should and might exist that could serve as avenues of first or second resort?

The most important change that needs to take place in the U.S. hierarchy and most likely in other countries too is a change in attitude. Bishops, like all ministers of the Gospel, are sent to serve, not to be served. In his daily homilies and important public talks, Pope Francis repeatedly has sought to remind the members of the hierarchy that they should be gentle, humble, avoid worldliness, and accompany their people with love and mercy, and not just any love and mercy but the Lord Jesus’ love and mercy. One wishes hearing such admonitions from the pope’s mouth would be enough, but it is no secret that more than a few U.S. bishops are less than enthusiastic about this pope.

The second attitudinal change is related but different. One hears in Rome and elsewhere that removing a bishop would be an insult to the dignity of the episcopate. This turns the issue upside down. If there is a bishop who, through some character or moral flaw, has proven himself incapable of leading his diocese, how is the dignity of the episcopate enhanced by keeping him there, making more of a mess? Our conservative friends often speak about the importance of ordained ministry, which we can all agree is important, but they seek to hold it out in such a way that priests and bishops are seen not just as different but better. This confuses an order with a caste. It leaves them unable to answer a simple question: If a bishop is removed from office and dedicates the rest of his life to priestly ministry, how is that such a horrible thing? I thought priestly ministry was important?

None of this is theoretical. A few years back, a priest friend of mine in the south went on a presbyteral retreat. The retreat was led by Archbishop Eugene Marino, who had resigned his post as Archbishop of Atlanta after it was learned he was engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a woman. He went on to serve as a chaplain at a hospital and had rediscovered his priesthood. My friend said it was one of the most powerful retreats he had ever been on. Where was the insult to the dignity of the episcopate in this story of grace and renewal?

There are structural changes the Church can make that would serve to provide greater accountability. For much of the Church’s history, the decisions of a bishop could be appealed to his metropolitan archbishop, and the decisions of the metropolitans could be appealed to another metropolitan or to a national or regional body of metropolitans. The system was undone not by any decision the Church made but by the disruption in the Church’s life caused by Napoleon. In those tumultuous years, appeals to Rome became the norm. Today, the only vestige of the earlier system is that a bishop’s judicial decisions can be appealed to the metropolitan, and the decisions of a marriage tribunal are automatically reviewed by the metropolitan tribunal. But, only about ten percent of any bishop’s decisions are judicial. The other 90% are administrative, and if any appeal is sought from those, the appeal must be sent to Rome.

Just as the Holy Father has introduced a new body, the Council of Cardinals, to advise him, the Church could bring back the earlier system of appeal to metropolitans for all administrative decisions. How would that change things? If a bishop knew his decisions were open to expedited review by someone nearby, he might be more inclined to try and work things out amicably within his own diocese, or to consult with the other bishops about an especially problematic situation, in advance. It would not guarantee there would be no mistakes, but it would start to put flesh on the idea of episcopal collegiality articulated at Vatican II.

Vatican II, in both Lumen Gentium and Christus Dominus, re-balanced the structure of the Church after Vatican I. The earlier Council had made it seem like bishops were merely branch managers of the pope, and one still sees vestiges of that attitude when a bishop says he serves at the pleasure of the pope, or he is responsible only to the pope, or would only forfeit his office if the pope instructs him to do so. Vatican II established that the bishop is the Vicar of Christ in the local Church, his authority, and therefore his responsibilities, are of divine right, not borrowed from the pope. This recalibration was not only theologically more sound, it stemmed the creeping monarchism of the papacy. Alas, some men took this teaching to exalt themselves, instead of their sense of service. They forgot that as a bishop they are not only accountable to God but in an important way, they are accountable to the local Church.

Returning the office of metropolitan to its pre-Napoleon role would not solve every problem, to be sure, but it would be a step in implementing the collegiality of which Vatican II spoke so clearly and which has so fitfully been engaged. The changes would not be immediate but, over time, the clerical culture would change. And it would help end the “reverse Caiaphas” policy we have today.




Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here