But as worthy as the sentiment is, no amount of seething will fix the problem. It persists because there are no simple solutions.
A (too) modest proposal
Writing in First Things, Father Thomas Berg recommends five things bishops can do immediately if they're serious:
- Be unambiguous in your embrace of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality—and teach it.
- Create a culture in which laity and clergy can come to you personally with concerns—without fear of reprisal.
- Foster priestly fraternity.
- Be transparent, vulnerable, and accountable.
- Establish an independent watchdog to monitor the public and private behavior of clergy.
For example, the legacy of the last round of abuse scandals in the early 2000s is a so-called "child protection" regime that exists in most dioceses: background checks and policies put into place meant to catch abusers based upon a past history of infraction. These regimes are prudent. But let's be honest, weeding out bad actors is, more or less, an act of liability reduction (i.e., prevention of lawsuits) rather than true reform. What's more, the overwhelming majority of those subject to this regime (well over 95% of all background checks, I surmise) are lay Catholic volunteers and employees. Sorry, but that's not where the bad apples were.
The problem with the hierarchy is a systemic corruption, the likes of which we've not seen since the days preceding the Reformation, when lay investiture, simony, and the selling of indulgences were endemic alongside poor catechesis and a lack of well-formed priests. The Council of Trent and Saint Charles Borromeo reacted boldly with a total, top-down reform of clerical formation and the introduction of the modern seminary system.
The time for such bold action is again upon us. The corruption of unchecked power is absolutely clear. Bishops, once appointed to their dioceses, have very little oversight or requirement for transparency. Applying the tools of modern "good governance"—reporting standards, trustee panels, etc.—ignore the fundamental role of the bishop as chief shepherd and teacher of his diocese.
Dealing with problems at their roots
The way to both reduce corruption and renew the Office of Bishop is through a radical change to the diocesan structure and the selection and formation process for bishops.
Most US dioceses are too large to pastor. This is true in three ways: the extent of the territory, the size of the Catholic population within it, and the missionary/charitable need of the diocese. Anecdotally, in many US dioceses, a bishop cannot visit every parish at least once each year. Many bring in ringers and retired bishops to help with confirmations, too. We American Catholics have simply come to accept that we'll rarely see our bishops, let alone learn to know and love them. This shouldn't be normal.
As a result of these challenges, dioceses are forced to create large and complicated bureaucratic structures to professionalize the Church's pastoral operations. There's nothing per se wrong with these structures, or with adopting "best practices" from a secular corporate sphere. However, all of this transforms a bishop's role from pastor to executive manager. His chancery becomes his constituency and flock.
This all necessarily changes a bishop's focus and saps the limits of his time. He rarely has time to consider his whole diocesan territory—not just the Catholic population—as the focus of his pastoral attention. As a result, large, mature, and professionally managed dioceses mask the reality that most of America is still "mission territory." Most Americans are not Catholic. Most do not know the truth of the Gospel or approach the sacraments. Is this a problem that keeps bishops up at night and wakes them in the morning? It should be.
But if we're to suddenly break apart every US diocese into three or four smaller units, then we'd need more bishops. On balance, this would be a good problem to have. However, the system for selecting and forming bishops has to go, too. It's based largely on "who you know" and inculcating yourself to current bishops and the Roman Curia. Private lists are made of potentials who meet certain loose criteria—some canonical, some academic, and some cultural. For all the attention (rightly) paid to structuring and standardizing priestly formation, there is still no set formation process for bishops. And so the whole thing takes on a quasi-game-like attitude of patronage and the boys' club.
A radical but practical solution
Here's a simple, radical, but practical solution: Let's establish in the United States a standing, monastic seminary for the formation of prelates. We have unmatched resources in the American Church to pick a location (perhaps near one of our existing Catholic institutions), to bring to bear the best and brightest of our bishops—Chaput, Barron, and many others—and to endow a program that takes the formation of new bishops quite seriously.
The structure should be monastic, that is, the seminary should be a standing community, with a habit and ritual of prayer and liturgy, together with work that is guided towards the discernment and formation of good pastors. Discernment is important. Not all men have the necessary virtues to be good pastors, let alone of a diocese. More will have the ambition, but that's largely what's gotten us into trouble. Discernment requires keen eyes that can prayerfully examine and judge who is called to the Office of Bishop and who is not. In the Western Church, the Holy Father will still make the final call, but imagine if he could select from men who have already been prayerfully and seriously vetted.
What's more, the monastic seminary should have a deep, intense period of serious formation. This would not just be about "theological chops," although those are necessary; but it would emphasize mainly the virtues of thinking, acting, living, praying—embracing the habits necessary to be a wise and humble pastor. The guiding orientation would have to be toward a missionary zeal for the souls of a diocese. (Bishop Barron has recently outlined something like this at the parish level.) In this context, Father Berg's ideas for reform could find a practical, penetrating expression in the formation given to new bishops.
Admittedly, these suggestions for reform are raw and would be difficult to execute quickly. But they're not without some solid precedent. It's time we begin to creatively challenge and change the thinking about these things at the highest levels in the Church. And, moreover, that we offer realistic, considered, and achievable solutions that address the root of her problems—in solidarity with the magisterium, our tradition, and the saints—at least in addition to our anger, and ideally as a fruit of its righteousness.