The mess in San Francisco

by Michael Sean Winters

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The decision by some prominent Catholics in San Francisco to take out a full-page ad in that city's major newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, calling on Pope Francis to remove Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, is deeply regrettable. Full disclosure: A couple of weeks ago, a friend in San Francisco familiar with the plan to take out the ad called and asked my advice, and I encouraged her not to do so.

Why is it a mistake? The issue of the accountability of bishops is a difficult one. Most of the discussion in recent years has focused on this issue through the lens of the clergy sex abuse crisis. Bishop after bishop was seen to have mishandled charges of child sex abuse by members of the clergy. This was galling, to be sure. Since the adoption by the U.S. bishops of the Dallas Charter on child protection, which set forth the promise of the bishops not to tolerate clergy sex abuse, and the explicit means for fulfilling that promise, such dereliction of responsibility is worse than galling. This is why there has been such a clamor for the removal of Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn. It is not just that Finn violated the civil law, which he did. He violated the Dallas Charter and thus questioned the commitment of the bishops to keep their own promises. He should have resigned the day he pleaded guilty for failing to report an instance of clergy sex abuse. The good people of Kansas City -- and the whole country and, indeed, the world -- are still waiting for the Holy See to remove him.

No one has charged Archbishop Cordileone with failing to live up to the Dallas Charter. The complainants who took out the full-page ad charge that he has fostered "an atmosphere of division and intolerance." This is a grave charge indeed, but it is important, actually vital, to distinguish such a charge from the charge of violating the Dallas Charter and failing to protect children. The stain of clergy sex abuse is unique in the life of the Church in recent years. No issue has done more to wound the Church and compromise the bishops' spiritual authority. But if tomorrow, every bishop really did live out the promises of the Dallas Charter, and most do, there would still be bishops who are not up to the job. What is to be done about such cases?

No bishop is going to please everyone in his diocese. In 2003, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap, took the reins of the archdiocese of Boston. It is hard to imagine a more difficult assignment. It is even harder to imagine a better bishop. Even those who disagree with O'Malley on this issue or that will grant that he is one of the holiest men in the hierarchy, without guile, a pastor who not only has the smell of the sheep but whose intelligence and managerial competence is demonstrable. That archdiocese has turned around in every way that a diocese can be turned around: Vocations are on the rise, the number of children attending Catholic schools in Boston is on the rise, accounts that had not been balanced for decades are finally in the black, the voice of the Church is listened to, not spurned, even if people do not always agree with what the Church has to say.

Yet I can remember hearing a diocesan priest tell me back in the early days of Cardinal O'Malley's tenure tell me, "You know he is a lousy manager." I replied that I did not know that and walked away. This priest had never lived or worked with O'Malley in the Virgin Islands, or in Fall River, or in Palm Beach, the three dioceses in which O'Malley had served previously. Others complained that O'Malley, as a bishop, should not continue to wear his Franciscan habit. Others complained about this or that.

I will stipulate that Archbishop Cordileone is no Cardinal O'Malley. I will also stipulate that I agree with the people who took out the ad that Archbishop Cordileone has made a series of bad decisions. I will also stipulate that, from the reports I receive, there is "an atmosphere of division and intolerance" in San Francisco, and this was foreseeable given the archbishop's decisions and style of governance. But adopting the methods of a modern political campaign is not the way to address these issues. Giving a heckler's veto to the disgruntled is not helpful. Our Scriptures are filled with stories of the people of God rebelling against their spiritual leaders, and we call those leaders prophets.

Having said all that, the Holy See has a problem on its hands. In the waning days of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, a series of prominent appointments were made, including the appointment of Archbishop Cordileone to San Francisco, that were deeply regrettable. At the time, there were three Americans on the Congregation for Bishops: Cardinal William Levada, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and Cardinal Raymond Burke. The last two had a deeply skewed sense of the type of leadership the Church in the United States needed, and a string of culture warrior bishops were appointed to prominent sees. In the case of the Sam Francisco appointment, they waited until Cardinal Levada, who had served as archbishop of San Francisco before becoming prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was in the hospital to push through +Cordileone. The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, did not know what he should have known or did not act on what he knew and let the appointment go through. Pope Benedict signed off. It was a mistake.

If Pope Francis had done nothing except remove Cardinals Rigali and Burke from the Congregation for Bishops, that would have been enough to make me his biggest fan. But Archbishop Cordileone is not the first bishop to be appointed who is ill-suited to a given diocese, or even ill-suited to episcopal ministry, and he won't be the last. The question for the Holy See is how to address such situations in a way that is appropriate to the Church, not to the reigning political methodologies of a given country.

On the issue of clergy sex abuse, the still young commission led by Cardinal O'Malley is not on the Vatican organizational chart. They answer directly to the pope. That is key. As we have seen, first in the U.S. and now elsewhere, too many clerics are invested in protecting each other for the normal channels of Church governance to work. The Congregation for Bishops is ill-suited to question its previous decisions. It is altogether right that in cases of a lack of accountability by bishops in clergy sex abuse cases, a group made up largely of laypeople is involved in assessing those situations.

Perhaps a similar mixed lay-clerical body should be established to examine charges of bad governance that do not involve clergy sex abuse. Perhaps nuncios should have a formal body of advisers, clergy and lay, to assess such situations and devise solutions short of removing a bishop. I do not know who, if anyone, has spoken to Archbishop Cordileone in a spirit of fraternal correction. I do not know if they have said anything and been rebuffed. But unless the Church sets up some kind of oversight procedure, people will turn to the methods they know, such as full-page ads, which may be counterproductive and may or may not reflect the feelings of large numbers of the faithful, but which will allow the frustrations people feel to be aired.

The Holy See also must re-examine the process by which it appoints new bishops. Too many bishops in this country got there on the strength of their tenure serving at a desk in Rome. Too few bishops have extensive pastoral experience working in parishes or with the poor. Some priests who once worked in Rome have turned out to be great bishops. Others, not so much. But the process would benefit if it reintegrated some of the older procedures that were used in this country before we first received an apostolic delegate in 1893.

Previously, when a diocese became vacant, the first terna, or list of three candidates, was drawn up by the clergy of the diocese. Then, a second terna by all the suffragan bishops in the province was drawn up. In the case of an archdiocese, all the other archbishops worked up a terna. All these were sent to the Propaganda Fide, which would then advise the pope on whom to select. Rarely, until the 20th century, was a man appointed who had not been on these ternas. Such a procedure would introduce a certain conservatism into the process, but the Congregation for Bishops would have more information on hand in making their final recommendation to the pope, and the system would be more resistant to arbitrariness or scheming.

The case in Kansas City is, to my mind, an easy call. No bishop can lead his diocese when he would be unable to be hired as a Sunday school teacher because he would fail the background check. The case in San Francisco is far different and far more difficult. (The case in St. Paul, Minn., falls somewhere between the two.) Still, there is no walk of life in which no provision exists for the fact that sometimes people are put in positions of responsibility for which they turn out to be ill-suited.

A final thought. I do not know why God permits these problems to afflict his Church any more than I know why God permits hurricanes or earthquakes. We must believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church. We must recall, too, that no one, even Christ, gets to Easter without first enduring Good Friday. My deepest hope and prayer is that Archbishop Cordileone would reach out to those he has alienated and find a way to repair his relationship with his own flock. Alas, the statements coming from the chancery since the ad was announced do not indicate such a conciliatory approach is likely. But none of us can forget that the Spirit of the Lord is present in the Church at this very moment and that these challenges call all of us to a deeper sense of faith. These challenges also call the leaders of the Church to an examination of what it means to be accountable.

In an interview published at Vatican Insider last year, Archbishop Charles Scicluna said: "Bishops are accountable to God and to their local churches, and I think it has to be very clear under this policy of the Holy See that child protection is an integral part of pastoral stewardship." The accountability to the local church has no means of being examined today, no way of addressing its absence. Except in extreme instances like failing to protect children, bad pastoral stewardship can go unpunished, and even in cases of failing to protect children the issue of accountability has not been adequately addressed.

I do not pretend to know the answer. I know any managerial answer will be insufficient unless there is a conversion of hearts. But the Holy See must start examining these complicated issues of accountability, and the examination must extend beyond issues of child endangerment. A century ago, most people in the pews would not encounter anything their bishop did or said. In our media age, that has changed. The means for evaluating, guiding, and when necessary disciplining bishops must be devised or the Church can look forward to increased polarization and more examples of "an atmosphere of division and intolerance."

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