Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pastoral Leadership of Bishops and the Exodus from the Catholic Church: Is There a Correlation?

In my previous posting about Eugene Kennedy's critique of John Allen's attempt to spin Cardinal Francis George as the U.S. Catholic bishops' "thinker-in-chief," I suggested that what perturbs me about Mr. Allen's (persistent) spin-doctoring when it comes to church officials is this: he does one somersault after another to  try to turn mediocre thinkers and mediocre shepherds of the flock into intellectual and pastoral giants.

And the Catholic community deserves better.  It deserves shepherds who both listen respectfully to their flocks, and who engage the surrounding culture thoughtfully, with intellectual and moral integrity, and yes, critically. 

And I don't think that is what we get nowadays, with a large number of our bishops.  Hence--I would argue--the ongoing mass exodus from the Catholic church at this point in time.

Another way to put my concern with spin-doctoring discussions of Catholic leaders like Cardinal George, which implicitly dumb down American Catholic theological discourse by treating the intellectually mediocre as if it's astute, is the following question:

Would different--would better--pastoral leadership stem the tide in the mass exodus of American Catholics from their church?  To my mind, the answer to that question is indubitably yes.  And so we need to be concerned when pastoral leaders who do not deserve high praise, because they are not conspicuously pastoral (and being thoughtful, theologically well-read, and willing to engage ideas respectfully if dialogically is part and parcel of being pastoral) are treated as paragons of pastoral (and intellectual) virtue.

Recently, Michael Sean Winters wrote a very good posting about the Boston archdiocese at his blog at NCR, which touches on some of these concerns.  In that posting, Winters notes the praiseworthy way in which Boston's chief shepherd, Cardinal O'Malley, has handled controversial public discussions of issues like same-sex marriage.  Though O'Malley makes his position (that is to say, the official Catholic magisterial position) on such issues crystal clear, he also tries to avoid demagoguery and iron-fisted imposition of positions peculiar to the Catholic church on the public square.  He tends, instead, to foster dialogue within the church and between the church and the culture at large.

Winters rightly applies this analysis to the ongoing mass exodus of many American Catholics from the church today.  Interestingly enough, he prefaces his discussion of O'Malley and the reversal (to a certain degree) of that exodus in the Boston archdiocese with the following throwaway line:

All bishops are understandably upset at the secularization of the culture and their powerlessness to affect it, even to stanch the bleeding within their own flock. 

I call this a throwaway line, since Winters' own good analysis and the conclusions he reaches subvert his claim that many bishops are powerless to stanch the bleeding within their own flock.  As Winters himself notes, O'Malley's model of leadership, which is "pastoral through and through," has resulted in increased donations to the church in Boston, higher numbers in local seminaries, and more respectful treatment of the official church in the local media.

How bishops behave has concrete effects on their flocks.  When bishops behave in conspicuously unpastoral ways, people respond by voting with their feet: they (and their checkbooks) leave the church.  When bishops begin to act like pastors, people think more carefully about leaving.

Bishops who expect to be taken seriously as shepherds have to listen carefully to and engage in respectful dialogue with their flock.  They have to respect the variety of political and other judgments--including theological and ethical ones--at which members of their flocks arrive, using their informed consciences, as they pray, study, read theology, and apply what the church has taught them to the issues confronting them in everyday life.  Even when bishops set a standard and call it "the" Catholic position on a given issue, they can continue to engage the members of their flock in critical dialogue about that particular standard, listening respectfully to the laity's own viewpoints about the issue in question--as they expect the laity to listen respectfully to their teaching as bishops.

And all that I've just said holds true for how bishops engage the public at large--academic communities, the media, and so forth.  Bishops do very decidedly have the ability to affect the ongoing mass exodus of American Catholics.  They have the ability to affect this exodus by choosing to be good shepherds.

Bishops who are good shepherds will begin to stanch the bleeding.  Those who continue to demagogue, lay down laws without engaging in respectful dialogue with their flocks, proffer shoddy intellectual justifications for their dictatorial approach to Catholic teaching, and seek to coerce the public square to accept their authority without engaging in intellectually compelling dialogue with members of the public square: these bishops will continue driving good Catholics away.

P.S. A quick reminder to readers that if you want to follow previous postings on a particular topic--e.g., Cardinal Francis George--you can click on the tags beneath a posting, and you'll then see a list of all previous postings that use that particular tag.

The graphic is Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese's depiction of the traditional Christian iconographic theme of the good shepherd.

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