Church leadership responsibilities: an American case study

Church leadership responsibilities: an American case study

Phil Lawler

It's easy to shirk responsibility. It can be habit-forming. More often than not there's a convenient excuse. Maybe someone else can do the job. Maybe nobody will notice if the job goes undone. Maybe things will turn out all right even if you do nothing.

Shouldering the responsibility, on the other hand, might entail hard work. It might involve facing opposition. It might be unpleasant.

Responsibilities are nearly always unpleasant when they come at inconvenient times and in unexpected forms. That's when the temptation is greatest to shirk them.

You can be very sure that Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Michigan, was not looking forward to being in the eye of a storm in October. He would have been much more comfortable if he could have avoided a media controversy. He certainly didn't want to issue a public rebuke to another bishop. But the responsibility was thrust upon him, and to his credit Bishop Sample seized it.

That word 'responsibility' cropped up twice in the statement Bishop Sample issued on 9 October, explaining his decision to ask Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (Detroit auxiliary bishop) not to make a speaking appearance in the Marquette Diocese.

After expressing his regret that 'what should have remained a private matter between two bishops of the Catholic Church has been made available for public consumption,' Bishop Sample explained that he is the 'chief shepherd and teacher of the Catholic faithful' in Marquette.

'As such', he continued, 'I am charged with the grave responsibility to keep clearly before my people the teachings of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals. Given Bishop Gumbleton's very public position on certain important matters of Catholic teaching, specifically with regard to homosexuality and the ordination of women to the priesthood, it was my judgment that his presence in Marquette would not be helpful to me in fulfilling my responsibility' (emphasis mine).

Far too many times in recent years, we have seen bishops sidestep their responsibilities. How many heterodox speakers have appeared at Catholic schools, with not a word of rebuke or correction from the diocesan bishop? How many children have daydreamed their way through religious education programs that offer no real introduction to the Catholic faith? How many devout lay people have suffered in silence - or maybe not in silence - through week after week of liturgical abuse?

Bishops have a solemn moral duty to correct these problems. But the problems are not corrected.

It would have been very easy for Bishop Sample to rationalise the appearance by Bishop Gumbleton: to say that Gumbleton probably would not say anything directly contrary to the teachings of the Church, to hope that probably no real harm would be done. It would have been very easy to look the other way.

In much the same way, a father can look the other way when his teenage daughter leaves the house dressed like a tart, or his teenage son comes home glassy-eyed. It's easy. It's comfortable. And it's sinful. Fathers bear the moral responsibility for the rearing of their children, just as bishops bear the moral responsibility for their flocks.

Looking the other way can be habit-forming, too. The habit has become deeply ingrained in the American Catholic hierarchy. Confronted with clear evidence of a problem, bishops and their aides choose to put the rosiest possible interpretation on the facts, to avoid the necessity of disciplinary action. (Surely that young priest had a good reason for being in that bar; surely that bishop had a good reason for travelling to Thailand.) So the problems fester.

Let's be honest: The fact that one bishop worries that another bishop's public speech might have had a corrosive effect on the faith is itself a clear sign that others have shirked their responsibility. If Bishop Gumbleton undermines Church teaching on the highly contested issues - and he does - why does he remain a bishop in good standing? The Vatican has responsibilities, too.

Responsibility involves gathering information, weighing it sensibly, and recognising when action is necessary. A responsible person does not passively watch a drama unfold, idly hoping for the best. He takes action. He influences events, rather than merely observing them. He acquires the habit of leadership, which is the habit of taking responsibility.

My prayers are of thanksgiving that Bishop Sample has the habit of responsibility, and of petition that others will imitate his example.

With acknowledgement to Catholic World News. Phil Lawler is its editor.