Is Unity Among Bishops the Most Important Good?
National Catholic Register, 7 January 2019
COMMENTARY: A question to ponder as the U.S. bishops conclude their retreat in advance of the February summit at the Vatican.
As the U.S. bishops conclude their retreat Tuesday near Chicago, a critical pastoral decision awaits them: How is their unity as shepherds of the flock to be manifest in responding to the sex-abuse crisis? Are divisions among the bishops to be avoided, or are they necessary for the work of episcopal accountability to be done?
That challenge was at the heart of the letter that Pope Francis — who asked the bishops to make a joint retreat as a necessary response to the sex-abuse crisis — sent to the bishops for their meditation at the beginning of the retreat.
The letter was a profound biblical meditation on how the Lord Jesus instructed the apostles to regard each other and their service to the Church. Lyrical and often moving, the papal letter brought to mind exactly how difficult it is for a bishop to be all that he is supposed to be and to do all that he is supposed to do.
In 2003, St. John Paul II published his apostolic exhortation on the life and ministry of bishops, Pastores Gregis. While widely praised for its comprehensive treatment of the apostolic office in the Church, the most common criticism was that it was impossible to find any man who could be and do everything that it was essential to be and to do. The same applies more than 15 years later.
In a wide-ranging eight-page letter, Pope Francis touched on many topics, one of which was the division occasioned by the sex-abuse scandals: God’s faithful people and the Church’s mission continue to suffer greatly as a result of abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse and the poor way that they were handled, as well as the pain of seeing an episcopate lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation.
That unity among bishops is better than division, reconciliation better than recrimination, is beyond dispute. But the question the U.S. bishops must have been wrestling with these last days is the kind of unity and the kind of reconciliation required.
The revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have exposed that there is a kind of unity — or at least apparent unity — that facilitates corruption. It is not true that “everybody knew” about Archbishop McCarrick, but there were many who did. Why did not they not take more assertive action? Perhaps out of fear of repercussions, perhaps out of concern for the reputation of the Church. But another reason, perhaps, is because bishops and their senior officials put a very high value on unity, which is why they rarely criticize each other in public or correct each other in private.
The same phenomenon applies in presbyterates and in parishes; the unity of the diocese or the parish is often considered to be the greatest good to be preserved, with difficult matters that might give rise to divisions therefore not addressed.
Two recent examples illustrate that sometimes division is necessary.
A year ago, when the Holy Father made his visit to Chile, the Chilean bishops stood together with him in relation to Bishop Barros, whose transfer to the Diocese of Osorno had provoked widespread protests in Chile. That expression of unity turned out to make matters worse.
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