Monday, February 09, 2004

Clerical Secrecy

Sorry I've been away for so long. I've had a couple of important projects hanging over my head that I had to get finished up, or else.


A couple of weeks ago, Amy Welborn made some remarks about the different "level of communication" that exists amongst priests:

There is simply a different level of information and conversation among clerics. In other words, they say things to each other and know things that they don't, and never will, say to the rest of us.

Of course, there are some obvious ways in which Amy's statement is true. Obviously, anything revealed to me in the confessional, whether by priest or layperson, stays there. The seal of the confessional is "absolute and inviolable". Period. (Canon 983)

If I am unsure how to address a certain type of sin or fault in the confessional, I will go first to one of my brother priests (hopefully one older and wiser) to seek advice. Priests are going to have an understanding of the sacrament of confession, from the standpoint of confessor, that laypeople don't. But even this isn't absolute. I am fortunate to have several good friends who are prudent and thoughtful laymen, who take their faith and call to holiness seriously. I have, on occasion, sought their perspective on such matters.

Also, if I'm struggling with a difficult situation or person in my parish, I might "vent" about it with my brother priests in a way I wouldn't with my parishioners. In general, a priest doesn't and shouldn't air his gripes or misgivings about parishioners or parish problems with other parishioners. I should think the reason for that would be obvious.

On the other hand, I have, from time to time, gone to parishioners whom I've gotten to know and whose judgment I trust, and asked them things like "I seem to notice problem X in our parish. Do you see that? What do you think the problem is? How do you think we could fix it?"

I would hope that these sorts of things wouldn't particularly surprise anyone.

However, the idea that priests have a different "level of conversation" amongst themselves, combined with the fact that some bishops and diocesan personnel actively conspired to cover up clerical abuse, has led some to speculate that perhaps there is some sort of widespread "conspiracy" in the entire priesthood to cover up clerical malefactors. The blunt and simple response is that I, and the brother priests of my acquaintance, certainly weren't "in the know" about the abuse scandal and keeping that knowledge to themselves. No one ever sat me or my classmates down in the seminary and told us "OK, here's the real story about the Church (or priesthood), but you need to keep it to yourselves, and never ever tell laypeople about it." And no experience I ever had in seminary or beyond ever implicitly conveyed any idea like that to me.

Furthermore, nothing in my formation ever communicated the idea that "if you discover that a brother priest is involved in wrongdoing, you have to keep it secret, no matter what". If anything, the opposite was conveyed to us.

At Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where I completed my studies, seminarians have to do "peer evaluations" of one another at least twice during Theology. The thing that impressed me was how seriously the vast majority of the guys took them. Many men spent long hours thinking and praying over them. And I was further impressed at how forthright and insightful those evaluations were. My classmates were quite candid about my shortcomings, and the comments in peer evaluations were the source of many long, difficult, but often fruitful discussions. If a man's classmates thought he was unfit for the priesthood, they would say so, and give reasons. And the seminary Formation Committee took those evaluations seriously. I knew several men during the course of my formation who were asked to leave the seminary because they had bad peer reviews.

Furthermore, when the time came during our final year of Theology to submit our petitions for Orders, we were all charged very strictly by the Rector that if we had any knowledge about a seminarian petitioning for Orders, bearing upon his fitness for ordination, we had the most serious obligation to report that information to the Rector.

My point in explaining the above is that everything in my formation taught me and my classmates precisely that problems were not to be hidden or swept under the rug.

How does that play out today, now that I am ordained? Well, again, at least among the priests of my own generation, we feel perhaps even more betrayed by the bishops' cover-ups and shufflings of priest-predators than many laypeople. That's because such behavior by bishops is a failure to live up to their reponsibility to shepherd and be spiritual fathers to their priests. Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Second Vatican Council's document on the life and ministry of priests, teaches that the "burden of sanctifying their priests" falls particularly on the "bishop's shoulders." A bishop who looks the other way at clerical misconduct is woefully neglectful of his duty to sanctify his priests, not to mention his duty to protect the faithful.

And that, as I see it, is the crux of the matter. It seems to me that the scandal, apart from some bishops' seemingly obstinate refusal to recognize sin (or even criminality) for what it is, is the result of a wholesale failure of fraternal correction. If I'm going off in the wrong direction or doing something dumb, I want my brother priests to tell me. I want them to come to me and say "Johansen, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Luckily, I have brother priests who will do that for me. For that matter, I want my parishioners to do the same. But what we see, over and over again, in Boston, Phoenix, Cleveland, and elsewhere, is that no one seems to have done that with the bishops. There seems to have been a total failure of bishops to exercise fraternal correction of one another.

There's an old saying: Once you become a bishop, you never have a bad meal, and no one ever tells you the truth. It appears that this lack of truth-telling has applied to bishops amongst themselves as well. And it seems to me that part of the explanation for this is an exaggerated and mistaken exercise of collegiality. Now, collegiality among bishops is important. In fact, it is essential. Bishops have a duty to work together to advance the work of the universal Church, and to take care for the Church beyond the boundaries of their own dioceses. The documents of Vatican II, particularly Christus Dominus and Lumen Gentium, have a lot of important things to say about collegiality. But they have even more to say about the bishop's primary role of Teaching, Sanctifying, and Governing. And the bishops have a responsibilty to do that for one another as well as for us.

It seems as though collegiality, in the U.S., has devolved into the attitude "Never ever say anything critical about or to another bishop." But this attitude is simply insupportable either in Scripture or Tradition. St. Paul recognized St. Peter's office as Head of the Apostolic College, but he didn't shy away from calling Peter to account when he began to waver on a matter of settled doctrine (Galatians 2:11-14). St. Augustine and the other Church Fathers frequently corrected brother bishops on matters of church teaching or discipline. It's easy to play the game of "what if", and I can't know what might have happened. But I have a feeling things might have turned out differently if a couple of Cardinal Law's peers had taken him aside, when he wanted to shuffle another priest-abuser, and said "Bernie, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

The Scandal has prompted many people to call for "reform", and "change". Certainly reform is needed. Certainly openness is needed. But the problem isn't some clerical "code of secrecy". The problem isn't that the teaching of the Church, and the role of the bishop, as defined by Church tradition, has been tried in the U.S. and found wanting. The problem is that it hasn't really been tried at all.