CTSA: Accountability for bishops takes center stage

Los Angeles

Accountability for bishops again took center stage today at the Catholic Theological Society of America convention, with two speakers arguing that the church needs both stronger structures and changed attitudes to ensure that bishops are accountable to their local communities as well as to Rome.

Susan K. Wood of Marquette University observed that a bishop has three forms of authority: personal, collegial and communal. The latter two dimensions, she suggested, are under-developed in Catholicism on both the structural and cultural level.

In terms of structures, Wood cited policies of the American bishops on sharing financial statements and the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Both are worthy measures, she suggested, but because neither is compulsory, bishops are free to ignore them.

“Collegial structures of accountability need to be strengthened,” Wood said. “Compliance with the accountability structures established by the Conference must be required of the individual bishop.” Wood noted that a change in church law or an intervention by the pope would be necessary to accomplish this.

Wood also recommended that structures of accountability which are presently optional, such as a diocesan synod, diocesan pastoral council, and an episcopal council or “bishop’s cabinet,” be required as a matter of law.

At the level of episcopal culture, Wood argued for a “servant” model of leadership, based on a “group-oriented approach to analysis and decision making.” She observed, however, that “you can’t legislate servant leadership.” Instead, she said, it must be cultivated, in part by making it one of the criteria for the selection of new bishops.

Wood appealed to the model of the authority exercised by an abbot in a monastic community.

“An abbot … also enjoys personal authority and final authority, at the end of the day, even with consultative structures and a spirit of listening,” she said. Yet, she pointed out, an abbot “must live with the people he governs day in and day out, eat at the common table, and pray in concert with his fellow monks,” all of which creates an informal kind of “checks and balances.”

In that spirit, she said, it’s essential that a bishop “truly be in communion somehow with the people he governs,” and that he not “close down conversation prematurely on difficult and controverted issues.”

Cynthia Crysdale, an Episcopalian who teaches at Catholic University of America, drew on the work of Jesuit Bernard Lonergan to suggest that authority needs to be grounded in a sense of community.

Among other things, Crysdale suggested, hallmarks of leadership that acknowledges that authority is vested in the community include listening, an reasoned approach to issues, and a spirit of love.

“In a word,” she said, “perhaps the bishop’s primary task, the standard against which he should be held, is not orthodoxy – straight ideas – as much as it is ‘ortho-eros’ – honest desire.”

Lisa Sowle Cahill, a prominent theologian at Boston College, expressed appreciation for the spirit of these arguments, but some doubt about their practicality.

In many cases, she said from the floor, “the problem is that the bishops don’t see the local church as the primary framework of community within which they want credibility, and to which they feel accountable.” Instead, Cahill said, they often look to the Vatican, and she said that in her view the Vatican has “virtually no” incentive to require that bishops be more accountable to the local church.

As long as that is the case, she said, it’s arguably “ridiculous and naïve” to appeal to the bishops to implement stronger accountability measures, or to request changes in church law from Rome. In that light, she said, perhaps the civil courts and financial sanctions are more realistic measures.

In response, Wood conceded that bishops “belong to multiple communities,” and charged that “Rome is looking carefully at our conference and controlling what it does.” She contended that what’s necessary is a “change in culture,” which may begin, she said, with the question of how bishops are selected.

Cahill said that the situation “varies from bishop to bishop,” and that those bishops taking part in the CTSA convention “see themselves as accountable to the local church.”

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