Pope Francis : The Church Needs Better Bishops

Pope Francis stressed on Thursday (February 27, 2014) in his address to the Congregation for Bishops that the church needs better bishops. “Genuine pastors,” the pope said. Amen.

The National Catholic Reporter stressed on Thursday (February 27, 2014) in its editorial that Pope Francis must act faster on the clerical sexual abuse issue: “When it comes to sex abuse, church officials continue to cloak themselves in secrecy, deceive the faithful, and act with impunity.” Amen.

Indeed, we continue being confronted with the age-old Catholic irony: an appeal for pastoral bishops and selective Vatican barrel vision.

I am still amazed, for instance, how the Vatican can so quickly dump priests and bishops who are open to new forms of ministry and not discipline those bishops who knowingly condone and allow the sexual abuse of children.

By way of example, I have very good recollections of what the Vatican did to a wonderfully pastoral bishop, Bill Morris, from the Diocese of Toowoomba in Australia.

In November 2006, Bishop Morris issued an Advent pastoral letter addressed to priests and pastoral leaders in Toowoomba. He predicted that by 2014 the diocese would have only 19 active priests left, including the bishop. He considered possible future options: ordaining married, single or widowed men; welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry; ordaining women; and even the possibility of recognizing the validity of Anglican and Lutheran orders.

Three very angry Vatican cardinals began to call for his removal. Heated discussions followed. Finally in May 2011, in a face-to-face meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, he was sacked. Morris relates what happened: “Benedict says to me, ‘You are very gifted, you are very practical, you’ve got a role to play in the life of the Church, and it’s God’s will that you should resign.’” Morris was removed as Bishop of Toowoomba on the grounds of “defective pastoral leadership.” (A key instigator responsible for his removal was fellow Australian George Pell, the Australian cardinal recently appointed by Pope Francis to one of the Vatican’s most senior roles: Prefect for the Economy of the Holy See.)

In February 2012, Fr.Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist and founder member of the Associ­ation of Catholic Priests in Ireland, bestselling author and regular columnist with Reality magazine, was informed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was unhappy with some of his writings relating to priestly ministry in the church. In April 2012, he was suspended by the Vatican and was told that he would be allowed to return to ministry only if he agreed to write, sign, and publish a statement agreeing, among other things, that women should never be ordained as priests and that he would adhere to church orthodoxy on matters like contraception and homosexuality. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pointed out that Flannery’s views could be construed as “heresy” under church law, and threatened “canonical penalties,” including excommunication, if he did not change his views.

On March 18, 2011, Fr. Roy Bourgeois was given a letter from Fr. Edward M. Dougherty, Maryknoll’s Superior General, and Edward J. McGovern, its Secretary General, warning Bourgeois that he had 15 days to recant his support for women’s ordination or he would face expulsion from the society. Bourgeois responded in a letter dated April 8, 2011, stating that he could not recant without betraying his conscience.

On July 22, 2011, 157 Catholic priests signed a letter, addressed to Dougherty, in support of Bourgeois’s priesthood and work, and his right to conscience.

On November 19, 2012, the Maryknoll Society’s Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers issued an official statement indicating that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had ruled, on October 4, 2012, that Bourgeois had been canonically dismissed from both the Maryknolls, and the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Pope Francis, as well, has been quick to sack “pastorally defective” priests. In September 2013 Francis excommunicated the Australian priest, Greg Reynolds. According to Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, Reynolds’s excommunication was “because of his public teaching on the ordination of women,” which are grounds for automatic excommunication.

Nevertheless, encouraged by the public persona of the new Bishop of Rome, on January 14, 2014 Roy Bourgeois wrote to Pope Francis: “My pain at having been kicked out of the priesthood has allowed me to glimpse the exclusion and discrimination that people of color, women, and gay people in our Church have experienced for centuries. I will never forget how Blacks were restricted to the back pews of my childhood church in Louisiana. While the Church has made great gains in valuing and respecting Catholics of all races, we continue – with flawed theology and dogma – to make God our unwilling partner in discriminating against women and gays.”

No response yet from Pope Francis about Roy Bourgeois……nor about, pastorally defective bishops.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Nigeria’s president has signed a new law criminalizing homosexuality. Arrests, physical abuse, and the victimization of gay people have increased tremendously in Nigeria. Key members of the Nigerian Roman Catholic hierarchy, however, have fully supported the country’s new law. In a January 2014 letter on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama praised Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for his leadership in signing the new legislation.

The anti gay witch-hunt in Uganda is also now in full-force, since Uganda President Yoweri Museveni signed a new an anti-homosexuality bill into law on February 24, 2014. Uganda’s Catholic bishops have reaffirmed their opposition to homosexuality, but reserved judgment on the recently ratified bill imposing harsh punishment for homosexual acts in the East African nation.A spokesperson for the Uganda Episcopal Conference, Msgr John Baptist Kauta, said Uganda’s bishops were on retreat and would not be available for comments about the new law until March. “We normally don’t want to overreact,” he said.

Support for women’s ordination get a quick response from Rome. Why is there mo quick response — a reprimand or disciplinary sanction — for the African bishops whose support for anti-gay legislation has launched a reign of terror and cruelty against gay and lesbian people? Why no quick response from the man who so famously said, in July 3013 when asked about gay people: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”

Closer to home in the United States, there are ongoing concerns about bishops who should have been sanctioned by the Vatican for their complicity in the sexual abuse of children. So far these men are still comfortably in place on their episcopal thrones. NCR, of course and other major papers have covered their cases in great detail.

In Los Angeles, thousands of pages of documents have been made public that clearly show that retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, and his diocesan collaborators clearly shielded abusive priests from public scrutiny and law enforcement. Where is the Vatican outrage about Mahoney’s defective pastoral ministry?

Minnesota Public Radio reported earlier, in February 2014, that despite official archdiocesan reports that the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese’s list of “credibly accused priests” numbered 33, the existing list is closer to 70. Minnesota Public Radio further reported: “There were handwritten lists and emailed lists and memos about lists stored on computers and in filing cabinets at the chancery in St. Paul. Some men appeared on every list, others on one or two. All of the lists obtained by MPR News contain information that police have never seen. Chancery officials later stopped writing lists for fear they could be obtained in lawsuits, former chancellor for canonical affairs Jennifer Haselberger told MPR News.”

And of course…….the Oscar for delinquent diocesan bishops has to go to — envelope please — Bishop Robert Finn from Kansas City, Mo.

Robert Finn, Bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City – St. joseph, was convicted in 2012 of a criminal misdemeanor for failing to report suspected clerical child abuse. Nevertheless, Finn remains a bishop in good standing, while serving two years’ probation in Jackson County, Mo.

Finn is also a strong defender of Catholic orthodoxy and has warned the National Catholic Reporter (editorial office in Kansas City) that it is on Catholic thin ice.

In a January 25, 2014 column in the diocesan paper, The Catholic Key, Bishop Finn wrote: “In the last months I have been deluged with emails and other correspondence from Catholics concerned about the editorial stances of the Reporter: officially condemning Church teaching on the ordination of women, insistent undermining of Church teaching on artificial contraception and sexual morality in general, lionizing dissident theologies while rejecting established Magisterial teaching, and a litany of other issues.”

Meanwhile, a group of Roman Catholics in Kansas City has taken the responsible step of petitioning Pope Francis to discipline Bishop Finn. The formal request was sent to the Vatican along with an online petition signed by more than 113,000 people worldwide asking for Bishop Robert Finn’s removal.

So what does it really mean to be “pastorally defective”?


A very short post script: Due to his very positive PR image, a few of my friends have begun to really chide me for any critical remarks about Pope Francis. All I can say is that, as I have been for most of my life, I am a believer and a Catholic convinced that critical thinking and questioning is a virtue and not a vice. It also alarms me when I read people, like New York’s Cardinal Tim Dolan, asserting that people who question church authority are basically secularists with an anti-Catholic agenda.


All Church is Local

Annie Selak is a Roman Catholic lay minister who is Rector of Walsh Hall at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. A year ago on Valentine’s Day, her reflections about the kind of church young people really want were published in the Washington Post. She had four main points. Sorting through my files, I came across her article and it remains as timely as ever. And of course: what young people want from the church is what a lot of older people want as well!

Annie wrote about a church that: (1) takes people seriously, (2) that is inclusive, (3) that embraces God everywhere, and (4) that struggles with big questions and is open to dialogue.

Annie’s four points launch my reflection for this week.



Pope Francis is certainly changing the media’s perception of the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless the Catholic exodus continues. Francis is aware of the problem and focused on it this past July in Rio. “I would like all of us to ask ourselves today,” he said, “are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?”

If someone told you that only 20% of the students that graduated from a particular university could find employment, I suspect you would say that university really needs some shaping up.

This in fact, however, is exactly what’s happening in our American Catholic Church.

Yes. Only 20% of American Catholics, who pass through “our system,” are still with us by the time they reach 23. The other 80% drops out. A bishop friend told me recently that parish closings across the country are due to population shifts and not decreased numbers of Catholics. I agreed that he had a point, but I also suggested that when his gas gauge says empty and his car stalls on the expressway, he is probably out of gas.

The Bishop of Rome is great, when it comes to positive papal PR. Too many of his brother bishops, however, just don’t seem to get the point. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill said famously that all politics is local. I would like to stress that all church is local; and that is where Annie Selak’s four points do or do not become real.

What about, for instance, the local church in Newark, New Jersey? The local archbishop there, known for his steadfast orthodoxy, is adding an addition to his “retirement home.” Archbishop John Myers’ currently inadequate 4,500-square-foot retirement home has five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a three-car garage, and a big outdoor pool. The new wing on the archbishop’s humble residence (which he currently only uses on weekends), will include an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library, and an elevator. Perhaps someone should put a plaque in the front yard: “The poor you will always have with you.”


(1) At all levels in the church, I want a church that takes seriously the life experiences of contemporary men and women. When it comes to the shortage of ordained ministers, the closing of parishes, exclusion of divorced and remarried, the firing of gays and lesbians from Catholic schools, or the firing of single parent mothers (to mention just a few recent church events and  issues) the local church seems terribly distant from what is actually going on in people’s lives. The church can recover from institutional sin and mistakes. It cannot, however, recover from being irrelevant.

(2) At all levels in the church, I want a church that embodies the inclusive kind of ministry we see in the life of Jesus. He consistently reached out to the marginalized. Nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus banning or excluding people from the community because they are women, or divorced, or have gay or divorced parents. He did say, once upon a time: “There was a certain rich man who was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and who lived each day in luxury.” (Were he speaking today he might have added: “…and he had a three-car garage, two swimming pools, and three fireplaces.”) At the rich man in purple’s gate lay a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores.  As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores……The story about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is an exhortation about living a new kind of life. It is an exhortation that the local church be a home (a church capable of warming hearts) for people who have no home: physically, psychologically, financially, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. All church is local.

(3) At all levels of the church, I want a church alert to the Divine presence in other Christian churches and in other religions. The pope emeritus warned about relativism; but diversity and unity are two concepts that go together. Younger Catholics especially, have grown up living with and alongside people from different churches and different religions, or no religion; and they see holiness and signs of the Sacred there. And they ask what the big God picture is really all about.

(4) At all levels of the church I want a church that struggles with the big ethical and religious questions and is genuinely open to dialogue. The hierarchy does not have all the answers to life’s big questions. It doesn’t even hear many of the big questions. And there will be new ones tomorrow. In all of our contemporary “relativism” and “secularity” we meet the living God. All of us in the church – and all of us in dialogue with each other — need to wrestle with the hard life questions. And, with one foot in Scripture and Tradition and the other in contemporary life, we need to engage the world. We don’t need to be spoon-fed static old theology. We need to wrestle with and grapple. We need to use our minds and engage our hearts. We need to debate, to think, and to pray. And we need to do all of this in parishes, schools, and chanceries across the country.


No Gay Pride in Catholic Nigeria

On January 7, 2014, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law new draconian anti-gay legislation.

The new Nigerian legislation mandates: a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union, and a 10-year prison term for “a person or group of persons who supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.” Public displays of affection between gay men and lesbians are also criminalized.

Despite the fact that Pope Francis, has struck a charitable tone toward gays and lesbians, the Roman Catholic bishops of Nigeria appear to be socio-sexually tone deaf and blind to contemporary understandings of human sexuality.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. About 48% of its more than 170 million people are Muslims and close to 50% Christians, out of whom about 24% are Roman Catholics. The country has 9 archdioceses and 43 dioceses. The head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria is Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, 55 years old, and a strong supporter of Goodluck Jonathan’s repressive anti-gay legislation.

As the New York Times reports, since Nigeria’s president signed the harsh law criminalizing homosexuality, arrests of gay people have multiplied, advocates have been forced to go underground, some people fearful of the law have sought asylum overseas, and news media demands for a crackdown have flourished.

Key members of the Nigerian Roman Catholic hierarchy, however, have fully supported the country’s new law. In a January 2014 letter on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama praised Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for his leadership in signing the new legislation.

“We commend you for this courageous and wise decision,” the archbishop’s letter states, “and pray that God will continue to bless, guide and protect you and your administration against the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent, the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices, that have continued to debase the purpose of God for man in the area of creation and morality, in their own countries.”

Fortunately not all African bishops side with the narrow-minded Nigerians. A few days after Archbishop Kaigama’s pastoral letter, a strongly worded editorial in the The Southern Cross, a newspaper run jointly by the bishops of South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland, took aim at the new Nigerian law, calling on the Catholic Church in Africa “to stand with the powerless” and “sound the alarm at the advance throughout Africa of draconian legislation aimed at criminalizing homosexuals.” The Southern Cross, however, speaks for the minority.

In South Africa gay marriage and same-sex adoption are legal (and Mozambique and Botswana have outlawed forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation) but harassment and attacks against gays in Africa have surged over the past decade. Gay men and woman say discrimination and danger persist throughout Africa. They have trouble getting housing, jobs, and even medical care. They continually face extortion and abuse from police.

Same-sex acts are illegal in 31 sub-Saharan countries, and punishment ranges from years in prison to the death penalty.

The push for tougher anti-gay legislation and policing across Africa in recent years has been accompanied by mob violence, the murders of activists, and street protests.

Defenders of anti-gay legislation in Africa, like Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, emphasize that homosexuality is a threat to society; and that anti-gay laws are about upholding fundamental religious and cultural values.

For further reflection:

“In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, July 31, 2003

Archbishop Kaigama


A Strange Catholic Conscience

Shaela Evenson, an unmarried teacher at a Roman Catholic middle school in Montana, has been fired after getting pregnant. According to the middle school Principal Kerrie Hellyer, she was an “excellent teacher” and taught sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade literature and physical education for just over eight years.

Wonderfully pro-life that Catholic school. What a strong and lasting teaching moment for those young boys and girls. I wonder what they would have done with a pregnant and unwed Virgin Mary.

Patrick Haggarty, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Helena, fired Evenson on January 10, after learning about her pregnancy. It takes years to dismiss a sexually abusive priest, with a history of raping boys and girls. But just a matter of days to dump an exemplary teacher because she is unmarried and pregnant.

It is a strange kind of Catholic conscience. The children at that school and their parents will long remember this.

A couple weeks after the firing of Shaela Evenson, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in an effort to resolve more than 350 sexual-abuse claims.

Bankruptcy, of course, comes in two styles: financial and moral.

While Bishop George Thomas up in Montana was working on his bankruptcy papers, down in the Midwest, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City was finishing his diocesan newspaper column condemning the National Catholic Reporter.

Bishop Finn noted in his column,”The Bishop’s Role In Fostering The Mission Of The Catholic Media,” that, as Bishop of Kansas City – St. Joseph, he has the canonical duty to “call the media to fidelity.” Fidelity is an important Catholic word…..Specifically, the Missouri bishop condemns NCR for editorial positions “officially condemning Church teaching on the ordination of women, insistent undermining of Church teaching on artificial contraception and sexual morality in general, lionizing dissident theologies while rejecting established Magisterial teaching, and a litany of other issues.”

In September 2012, please recall, Bishop Robert W. Finn became the first American prelate convicted of failing to report a pedophile priest; and priests, lay people, and victims’ advocates have repeatedly called for his resignation.

As the New York Times reported, at that time, the Bishop Finn case began when Shawn Ratigan, a charismatic parish priest, who had previously been known for inappropriate behavior with children, took his laptop computer in for repairs. A technician reported to church authorities that the laptop contained pornographic photos of young girls’ genitals, naked, and clothed.

Ratigan attempted suicide. He survived and was sent for treatment. Bishop Finn assigned him to a convent and ordered him to stay away from children. But Father Ratigan continued to attend church events and take lewd pictures of girls for five more months, until church officials reported him in May 2011, without Bishop Finn’s approval. A silent Bishop Finn….

Another case of a strange Catholic conscience. Why is Robert Finn still the Bishop of Kansas City -St. Joseph? And what about all the other Bishop Finns scattered around the country and across the globe?

Robert Mickens, the respected Catholic journalist, observed recently: “The Holy See has never removed a bishop – not one – for covering up clergy sex abuse. Cardinal Law was removed, not to punish him, but to protect him. And arguably the worst priest offender, Marcial Maciel, was never laicised. He was merely sent away in his old age in order to protect his Legion of Christ, not his victims.”

For conscience sake, we need to re-examine the very strange case of contemporary Catholic conscience. Otherwise — the last person out of the church, please turn off the lights.

PS I do suspect the UN report on the Vatican and sex abuse may indeed hurt the reform cause. It raises questions.