America Comment

American bishops should ditch the lawyers

(CNS photo/Billy Nguyen, The Catholic Virginian)

The Church, I was always told when I was in training, was a family. Recently this claim is looking less credible than ever.

How would you feel if your father and mother refused to speak to you without a lawyer present, or refused to write to you without their letter first being vetted by lawyers? Indeed, when families have recourse to lawyers it is a sign that family life has irretrievably broken down. The family life of the Church is in an analogous situation. What sort of family is it where parents and children do not communicate and where the parents defensively close off the channels of communication?

People with concerns about child protection wanted to speak to their pastors. Instead they met not fathers, but corporate bosses. When the bishops make statements, it is clear that they have all been “lawyered” as they say in America: gone through with a fine-toothed comb so that the risk of being sued is eliminated. Trouble is, the lawyers remove any trace of humanity too.

The bishops, our overseers, exist to care for the flock. This foundational aspect of their mission seems to have become obscured. Instead we have the sad sight of the bishops seemingly caring only for the episcopal caste, and seeing the needs of the flock as an existential threat to their power and privilege.

In America, ever since the time of the late Cardinal Spellman, and perhaps long before that, bishops have been celebrities, friends of the powerful, big players, important men, with huge staffs and massive apparatuses of government at their disposal. The pastor has become the head of a powerful corporate machine, and in so doing has ceased to be a pastor. With so much power to protect, was it surprising that the bishops (not all of them, I know) decided, perhaps not consciously, to sacrifice the interests of complainants and victims rather than suffer any risk to their own position?

So what then is to be done? As many commentators have already seen, the bishops in America, and probably elsewhere as well, need to divest themselves of power and privilege, and be prepared to act as men who are not above the flock but in the midst of the flock. This means the end of dioceses run as giant corporations. It means being willing to speak without lawyers vetting what is said first, and being willing to be with people without lawyers present. And if this means that the Church loses all its money, that too could be the start of renewal.

But the first stage necessary for any renewal is this: get rid of the lawyers. Let’s have a conversation without them. That is the way, the only way, families can work.