Institutional Sin, Institutional Consequences

What can one say to this horrific report on the abuse of children who were in the care of the institutional church in Ireland? Many Catholics have already said what I was thinking, feeling it with the disgust I feel. Rather than add another echo, let me offer a suggestion Liam and I discussed several years ago, but that I know won’t be considered. More than that, even some good Catholics will scratch their heads over it.

When the Cardinal Law scandal broke (and I label it for the archbishop because we all already knew some relatively few clergy abused children, teens, women, and men–the weak and vulnerable, in other words–the surprise was the cover-up, not the abuse itself, heinous as that was) one consequence I didn’t see discussed much would be retiring the “automatic” red hat for Boston. Let me outline the reasons:

First, among the early sees of Christendom, Rome was acknowledged as having stood the test of faith in the most bitter and aggressive persecutions. It might have been that those martyrdoms and that witness happened there in Rome because there was a sense the imperial capital of a pagan empire wanted to snuff out a danger to the system. It wasn’t part of the institution of Christ nor of the Holy Spirit that it had to be Rome. The strongest and most reliable witness might have come from Corinth, or Byzantium, or Alexandria, or anywhere Christians bravely kept the faith.

Roman Christians offered a faithful witness to others. They developed credibility to other churches.

I don’t know my church history deep enough to know the origin of cardinals associated with large or important cities. But Roman Catholics today seem to put a lot of faith and pride in that system. But is it a wholly artificial one? In other words, if the witness is about believers in a large, fruitful, flourishing, and faithful city, why do such cities so infrequently provide their own bishops?

If the witness is more about the man, is the large city church then more of a reward for success? A bishop moves through the ranks from seminary to presbyteral ordination to vicar general to auxiliary bishop to bishop to archbishop to cardinal. Is this the way the ancient bishops or the apostles intended? Is it even the best way?

Given the mobility of human beings, especially in the First World, isn’t the whole system of large cities irrelevant to the Church? Or is it about power, influence, recognition, and other good things, and other not-so-good things that land the prideful among us in a bad spot?

My sense is this: when significant scandal rocks a diocese, something members of that local church recognize and something confirmed by other churches, should that church continue to benefit from a certain stature? My argument would be no.

I submit the Archdiocese of Boston should have forfeited its stature as a metropolitan see, and its future bishops denied the red hat because the witness of faith was insufficient and inadequate. Portland, Maine or Hartford, Connecticut might be better choices for a red hat or metropolitan standing.

As for the Irish church, I wonder. This is a shameful moment, and perhaps it too has forfeited the credibility to have a cardinal, at least in any see city that cooperated with this abuse and cover-up. By my count, about eighty nations have at least one cardinal. So that means not every country is represented in the College of Cardinals. Would it be required that Ireland get a cardinal?

And while some might argue that the red hat or metropolitan standing benefits lay Catholics–and that’s not an insubstantial consideration–we might poll Catholics and ask if their scandal-ridden bishop deserves a vote for the next pope or preeminence among neighboring dioceses. I suspect this practice would sting certain hierarchs badly, especially if they had to turn in their red hat. It would sting many more bishops, knowing that the old system of power and prestige was not a guarantee for them, nor a cloak for wrongdoing. I suspect the rank-and-file laity wouldn’t give a rat if their bishop was arch or not, red hat, or held the gavel at important meetings.

So what do you think? Should Ireland lose a red hat? Should dioceses with saintly and faithful witness be elevated as examples of holiness for others to emulate? Or should it be all about numbers?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Institutional Sin, Institutional Consequences

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    If every city with a “right” to the cardinalate was denied it because of not bearing saintly and faithful witness to the gospel, there would be damned few cardinals.

    It’s all about politics and finances (to those who give much, much is expected in return) and any theologizing or pontificating otherwise is self-delusion.

  2. Jim McK says:

    I think you are looking at this upside down. The ecclesiastical career path is meant to select the “best” person for the job. Best may not mean most competent, prayerful, intelligent, moral or whatever. It may mean having the best relationship with peers, the nuncio, etc. The biggest city calls for the best person, as does the red hat. (again, best in someone’s eyes, not necessarily mine or yours)

    Some recent changes reflect this. Houston’s abp was made a cardinal because the best use of his talents was closer to the Hispanic community, reflecting a new emphasis in ministry in this country. St Louis, which used to be guaranteed a red hat, appears to have become instead a stepping stone to a red hat elsewhere.

    From this perspective, your question becomes more like “Is the best bishop in a small diocese?” The obvious reply would be “Why not put him in a larger one?” This actually follows scriptural advice, promoting those who have been faithful in little things to the larger post.

  3. Liam says:

    Well, if they are within the same province, perhaps. But the Catholic tradition for the bulk of the first millennium was that transferring sees more distantly was a kind of episcopal adultery.

    I was one of the numerous voices in Boston that practically begged the nuncio and elsewhere to spare Boston the red hat for the time being at least. That red hat had done much damage over the past century to the chancery culture begotten by it’s first holder and his successors.

    But then again, our system of sizing dioceses, choosing bishops, metropolitans and cardinals needs a significant overhaul – and, happily, an overhaul need not create any doctrinal conflict, because most of it is not doctrinal in nature.

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