On Monday, we awoke to the news that Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, both of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, had resigned amid criminal charges against the archdiocese concerning the mishandling of sexual abuse cases, and the associated swirl of who knew what, and when, and the recent announcement that the archdiocese had filed bankruptcy. It was a sad, but not all that surprising development. In perusing the news I’ve read more than one legal or church official claim that the resignations are “closing a chapter” or “will begin the healing.” I don’t think so, but I hope I’m wrong.
First, there is no excuse for sexual abuse perpetrated by priests, and when it does happen there is even less excuse for indecision or cover up on the part of bishops. Indeed George Weigel, in his 2002 exposition The Courage To Be Catholic, pointed to two main factors that led to the outburst of abuses cases: a diminution of priestly identity and a failure of episcopal leadership. He further points to the immediate post-Second Vatican Council turmoil in which record numbers of priests left the Church as ordination lost its “special-ness” and the laity flexed a new set of Vatican II muscles:
What the Council did not anticipate was that the priesthood would become somewhat “laicized” and the laity clericalized as the first generation of post-Vatican II Catholics tried to implement the Council’s teachings, according to a rather loosely defined “spirit of Vatican II.”
Weigel claims “bad timing” that just as young men were confused about their vocation, the so-called sexual revolution hit America, turning seminaries into carnal free-for-alls. Similarly weakened bishops began viewing their vocations as corporate managers instead of teachers and sanctifiers of their local churches. When I first read this book several years ago, I found Weigel’s critique to be unsparing and compelling– I still do.
But let’s fast forward a dozen years or so. Preventive measures regarding priestly formation going all the way back to the 1980’s under John Paul II seem to have by and large cleaned up the seminaries and subsequently produced a lot of faithful priests. Not perfect, but better. However, I’m not sure the same thing can be said for the episcopate.
By definition, bishops are older and thus some still bear the indelible mark of the silly season of the 1960s and 70s. And not to mentioned the job really is a big one, fraught with politics and clever whisperers of dissension against the orthodoxy. Many bishops are already inclined to the liberal view of Catholicism and many others simply don’t have the pluck to resist. Only a very few seem to consistently demonstrate a willingness to be radically counter-cultural (and let’s face it, some of this last group may simply like a good donnybrook…).
I fear that the episcopate at large is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship involving tolerance for all sorts of disorder and disobedience while somehow calculating that they or their misled flocks won’t be devoured by the enemy. We need stronger bishops and they need our prayers and encouragement.
Junto challenge: write a letter to your bishop telling them why we need manly virtue in the episcopate. Don’t make it gushing and weak. George Weigel described how bishops fed off the leftward tilt of post V2 liberalism and dissension, and were derailed. Let’s see if a strong and encouraging message in the other direction can “re-rail” them.
Final Note: As I read through a timeline created by Minnesota Public Radio, of the (former Father) Curtis Wehmeyer case which finally drew the criminal charges against the archdiocese, I honestly found the material lacking in implication against Archbishop Nienstedt. The abuse in question happened under his predecessors; but of course they’re already gone. Read through it and make up your own mind.
St. John Vianney, pray for our priests and bishops, for penitence from misdeeds, and especially for the healing and consolation of the victims of abuse.