Not-Getting-It Department (Episcopal Division)

by Phyllis Zagano

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The saga continues. You may recall the bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., judged guilty of knowingly failing to report suspected child sexual abuse, was sentenced to two years' probation with conditions.

But when the bishop -- Robert Finn -- resigned last month, he had a few calendar items the high-ups approved: diaconal and priestly ordinations.

Say what?

Yes, it is true. The Not-Getting-It Department (Episcopal Division) met in person or in cyberspace and said to Finn: Sure, go ahead, ordain your deacons and priests.

Who, you ask? As it happened, Carlo Maria Vigano, the 74-year-old apostolic nuncio to the United States, gave the green light for Finn to do the ordinations. It was Finn's friend, neighbor, and now administrator of Finn's old diocese, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who came up with the plan, citing scheduling conflicts preventing his doing the ordinations. In fact, Naumann has sent Finn the required permission letters for each ordination.

The idea that it is OK for a disgraced bishop -- even though he may be a very nice guy -- to ordain men for his former diocese sends, shall we say, the wrong message.

You see, Finn, while still a bishop, has no authority to ordain anyone. He can, of course, get in line and impose hands along with the priests and bishops at any ordination, but he cannot be the principal ordaining bishop on his own accord.

Yet Finn plans to do just that. He has the proper permissions, but he also has both feet firmly planted in the Not-Getting-It Department. His was an abject failure of leadership that he plans to continue beyond his tenure.

Nothing says "who cares" more to the long-suffering people of Finn's diocese than to have a convicted criminal ordain more priests. This is not a great moment in ecclesiology. It is not fair to the new priests, it is not fair to the diocese, and it is not fair to the church at large.

It is not that hard to fix. The scheduling conflict for the diaconal ordinations went away when the man from Naumann's diocese asked for a postponement. The priestly ordinations are still on track, but the May 23 ordinations are scheduled for two churches 22 miles apart. Did anyone think of combining the ceremonies?

St. Michael the Archangel, where Naumann is scheduled to ordain his four priests, seats 1,200 people. There are seven men for Finn's old diocese. If ordained together at St. Michael's, each new priest would be able to have 40 or 50 guests, with seats to spare for every pastoral minister, deacon, and priest from each diocese who could make the event, plus the Knights of Columbus and anybody else who wanted to attend.

But say all concerned want to keep the Finn seven in their own diocese. Is there not a retired bishop somewhere who could manage the ceremonies? Or, since it seems to have been his idea, why not fly Vigano in from Washington? It takes less than three hours nonstop. And, so long as the pope approves, Vigano can employ his "universal jurisdiction," essentially papal authority, within the United States. He can ordain anybody.

That would solve the immediate problem for the ordinations, but it might not clear up the muddied waters roiled again by the incredibly -- let's face it -- dumb decision to allow Finn to ordain priests.

In fact, the episcopal bubble that surrounds this latest burp from the Midwestern U.S. hides the real question. How could these educated men not get it? Why would they not understand that no matter Finn's relationship with the future priests, the rest of the church is hurting and hurting deeply as the result of what happened -- and is still happening -- in Kansas City?

Wonder who is in charge here? Every bishop in the bubble is or seems to be quite old school. Every bishop in the bubble is or seems to be just waiting for Francis to fade from the scene. That is both the root of the problem and the real accident waiting to happen. The already-suffering people of God are in the middle, between old ways of thinking and the new reality, each speeding toward that bubble. The two will collide -- or maybe they already have.

As the bubble bursts, the people who hope and believe in the church suffer even more.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She will speak Sept. 19 in Philadelphia. Her newest books include Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate.]

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