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'No discussion' — Priests respond to USCCB address on priesthood

As the final agenda item of the U.S. bishops’ conference spring plenary assembly, bishops heard a brief address from Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing on a recent survey showing a serious lack of trust in bishops among their own priests. 

After Bishop Boyea’s speech to the conference, no comments were offered by other bishops from the floor. 

Since the speech and the survey was about the priests of U.S. dioceses, The Pillar decided to ask priests for their reactions. 

They talked about Boyea’s speech, the Dallas Charter, and whether bishops take seriously the concerns of their priests. 

Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing. Image via USCCB 


Boyea, the chair of the bishops’ committee on clergy, consecrated life, and vocations was introduced by conference president Archbishop Timothy Broglio to give what he called “a brief presentation on the Catholic University of America’s study on the priesthood.”

The study, formally titled “Well-being, Trust, and Policy in a Time of Crisis: Highlights from the National Study of Catholic Priests,” was produced by the university’s Catholic Project, and showed the results of an extensive survey of American priests, diocesan and religious, which were presented to the bishops as a body earlier in the week.

First published in October last year, the report’s key findings included that while U.S. priests report high levels of personal well-being, they also have a widespread lack of confidence and trust in their bishops, in large part due to how accusations against clergy are handled in dioceses.

Priests reported that they are less likely to seek personal support from their bishop than they are from any other source, and said they believe bishops regard priests as “liabilities” and “expendable.”

One of the most eye-catching findings of the report was the significant gap in perception between bishops and their priests on how supportive the bishops are of their clergy: 90 percent of bishop respondents told researchers they would respond “very well” to a priest who came to them with personal struggles. But only 36 percent of priests agreed.

After receiving a presentation on the report on Wednesday, the bishops spent several hours in executive session last week discussing its findings in small groups. 

Boyea’s address to the assembly on Friday was meant to be a kind of summation of the feedback from those sessions, with time allotted for bishops to speak from the floor — though none elected to do so.

Calling the report a “service to the Church,” the bishop thanked the Catholic Project staff, and Catholic University faculty whom he said had worked in close collaboration with his committee since the report was issued.

“It is good that our commitment these two decades to mechanisms like the Dallas Charter has exemplified our resolve to serve, support, and keep walking with those so grievously harmed by abuse,” Boyea said as he opened. 

“But as we have learned from the good work of the Catholic Project… the difficult steps which had to be taken has also had emotional, spiritual, and personal effects for many of our priests, who are good, caring and responsive ministers of the faith.”

Even before the results of the survey were published, Boyea said, “many of us knew that in doing all that is right and necessary for healing and for restoring the integrity of the Church in the United States, there had also emerged tensions, mistrust, and even conflict between ourselves as bishops and our priests.”

“We need to pause and consider how we arrived at the point where the very priests who are our best partners in ministry also hold these feelings of worry and distrust,” Boyea said, while saying that “renewed efforts must be made at the little things.”

“Best practices tell us that communication should be personal, recognizing the simple and significant life moments of our priests,” he added.

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The bishop also noted that good communication should also be “informational” and “transparent on procedures and processes which affect accused priests or when things like restructuring will affect their lives.”

“It must also be synodal,” Boyea said, “treating our presbyterate, especially our young priests, as a group vital to the life of the Church in the years to come.”

Boyea said the bishops needed to make efforts to “more fully understand the breadth and depth of the causes of mistrust between ourselves and our priests. We must seek the honest and candid input of our priests about their fears and worries,” he said.

“Bishops look to navigate the delicate balance of legal and pastoral responsibilities,” he said, and “we see a need to renew our personal reflections on the theology of spiritual fatherhood, as it is part of our episcopal duties, both to our people and to our priests.”

“To all priests — our brothers, our sons —  thank you for your faithfulness during these challenging times,” Boyea concluded. “We honor your honesty and vulnerability in sharing with us the weight of this crisis on your ministry.” 

“We acknowledge your fears and frustrations, and we are humbled and edified by your great love for the Church.”

The Pillar asked 10 priests in diocesan ministry across the United States for their reactions to Bishop Boyea’s speech, and for their sense of how the bishops’ conference has responded to the Catholic Project’s report.

The priests range in age from 30-70 years old. Some have been ordained for decades, others for only a few years. The group, which agreed to give their responses anonymously, includes several priests serving in parish ministry, others in priestly formation, and some diocesan chancery positions.

Here’s what priests told us, in their own words:

“My reaction was mixed.” 

“I don’t like how much of the blame was placed on the Dallas Charter. While priests being treated as liabilities rather than sons does place significant tensions on the priest/bishop relationship and the Charter is one of the factors, plenty of bishop and priest mistrust can be attributed to other things. 

“It seems as if the buck was trying to be passed onto something most bishops could claim they weren’t responsible for implementing. Additionally, an attitude that places the blame squarely on the Charter only reinforces the idea found in the survey that priests view bishops as administrators and paper pushers. Had there been some gesture to acknowledge or take accountability for other missteps and problems with the priest/bishop relationship, or even an apology, a simple ‘we are sorry for any missteps we have taken,’ would have gone a long way.

“I did, however, like the parts toward the end talking about the solution. When priests see bishops as administrators, working towards ‘mutual sharing of ministry’ where we see the bishops in pastoral contexts beyond confirmations and ordinations would be huge. 

“Bishop Boyea also acknowledged the ‘need to feel kinship and fraternity’ - priests need to be able to view their bishop as father and brother who knows and loves them, rather than just as a boss who views them as a number in the system. Given that Bishop Boyea said this was just a beginning, I look forward with cautious optimism to seeing what concrete steps will be proposed and taken.

“I was also a bit disappointed by how many bishops it seemed had already left.”

man in green robe sitting on chair
Priest rests his head in his hands during holy Mass. Stock photo/unsplash.

“A couple of things stood out to me.” 

“First, there was no acknowledgment that part of the lack of trust is that bishops seem to have largely exempted themselves from the transparency and consequences that happens in the case of priests. There’s no real reckoning with McCarrick, and we rarely hear [bishops being] upfront about Vos estis investigations.

“Second, Bishop Boyea asked the bishops to make recommendations about this, but why not ask some actual priests?”

“It's difficult to watch and to process.”

“I know that the bishops do care, and they want to have a relationship of trust with their priests. I was disappointed by their silence, but I understand it. They probably felt caught off-guard by the study. Who would want to discover that the small group of men - on which his whole life relies - does not trust him? 

“They also (probably) don't know what to do to build trust, since respect and implicit trust has been built into their lives for years as priests and, now, as bishops. If I had a word of advice for bishops, it would be this: Allow your priests to see you. Remember parish life and how your people wanted to see you around the parish, to know that you were local and available if needed. ‘Climb into the trenches’ and take parish daily Masses from time to time. Make time to go to parishes to help the pastor hear confessions, especially of school children. Office work doesn't need nearly as much of your attention as you think it does. 

“I don't know if any of that is helpful, but they are my initial thoughts. Thankfully, I'm one of the lucky ones - my bishop loves his priests and goes out of his way to send us cards and notes of affirmation, as well as planning meals with us. I thank God every day and pray that Rome doesn't steal him from us!

“One more thought: Trust is usually implicit when a pastor shows up at a parish. If he loses the trust of his people, it's either because (i) he really screwed up or (ii) he isn't around enough for them to get to know him. If a priest doesn't know his bishop as a person, he'll never trust his bishop no matter how many birthday cards the bishop sends him.”

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“This is the same antiseptic, institutional response we — priests — are so used to hearing from the bishops.”

“There was no vulnerability in Bishop Boyea’s comments. No recognition of what is a brutal reality: that priests' overall confidence in the bishops as a body has been in the cellar for decades now. 

“And then: no discussion.

“The 'them and us' dynamic that inheres in the relationship between the vast majority of bishops and priests is a major contributor to the dysfunctional relationship between the two reflected in the Catholic Project study.

“Until bishops stop understanding themselves as members of an exclusive power club, little will change.” 

man in white thobe sitting on chair
Priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Stock photo/unsplash.

“I was really surprised and happy when I heard the bishops were going to make space to get a whole presentation on the report.”

“That alone told me they were taking it seriously. And I was really grateful that they discussed it in groups, privately among themselves. I hope they could be really vulnerable and honest in the face of some of the trust issues that are affecting the priest-bishop relationship right now.

“But it would have been nice to hear something from Bishop Boyea, or any bishop from the floor, say something about how when priests feel like their bishops will throw us under a bus to save himself, we aren’t imagining it. And when we say there’s a double standard of ‘justice’ — one for them and one for us — that’s real, and we have a right to be upset and they should answer us.

“Instead, it seemed like a lot of what Bishop Boyea was saying was ‘they had it coming and we made the tough calls.’ With all respect to the bishop, I doubt he’d have that attitude if he was the one facing a false accusation.

“I really hoped a couple of bishops would have stood up to say something about hearing what the survey said about that, but no one did.”

“I’m lucky I have a pretty great bishop who seems to really take listening to us seriously.”

“But I talk a lot to my old classmates in other dioceses, and a lot of them aren’t that lucky.

“What really got me watching Bishop Boyea speak was that he seemed to say that if priests don’t trust their bishops, that’s a problem with the priests not the bishops. Especially after the debate about priestly formation, where there was a lot of talk about how weird and clerical we all are, apparently.

“It feels like there isn’t a problem with the Church in America that isn’t the priests' fault, or a tough decision the bishops didn’t get right. I don’t see how that’s right, but maybe that’s why I’m not a bishop!”

“I was pretty underwhelmed by Bishop Boyea’s speech.”

I guess I am just not really sure what the point of it was. If the point was to tell us [priests] that our concerns have been heard, I guess it kinda did that? But I can’t say it left me feeling validated, more like I just don’t understand how hard things have been for bishops since 2002.

“I’m sure it is hard for them, and I get it that most of them didn’t make the messes that have become scandals in the last 20 years. But for guys like me ordained since then, we didn’t make this mess either. Really, we all went to seminary knowing the Church was wounded and bleeding, and the priesthood was under a lot of suspicion. 

“We chose to follow our vocation to serve God and his people and we knew it would be hard and we needed to model the sorrow and suffering of Christ to our parishes. I don’t think a lot of us realized that we’d have to make that case to the bishops who ordained us, though.”

man in white thobe sitting on chair
This guy. Stock photo/unsplash.

“To be fair to the bishops, I don’t think the point was to use the conference to address us as their priests through the media.” 

“They talked about the CUA report in private, in groups, and I think whatever was said there was between them. Whatever they have to say to us they will, I hope, say in person at home. That’s what I am waiting for.

“I kind of feel like I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in anything that is said into a microphone on camera anyway. If my bishop wants me and my brothers to know something, he’ll tell us to our faces. Or he won’t, and that’ll say something, too.”

“I kind of glazed over as Bishop Boyea was speaking.”

“I honestly expected it was just going to be a kind of boilerplate intro to a more real discussion by the rest of the bishops. I was pretty floored none of them had a single thing to say.

“Bishops lined up at the mic to put in their two cents about consulting about a consultation to think about changing something for Catholic hospitals, but about why their priests don’t feel loved by them? Crickets. 

“I don’t think they needed to apologize to us or anything, but it would have been helpful to see some interest in the issue.”

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“The first thing that bothered me was the placement of it on the agenda.”

“Having that talk at the right end of the conference showed me it wasn’t a priority for the bishops there, and really wasn’t one for the ones that had already left.

“The whole vibe [Bishop Boyea’s speech] was: ‘we did the right thing by following the Dallas Charter’ but there was no admission that they could have done things better, or more pastorally, as they implemented it — or any ownership that the problem we’ve had are problems they created and they haven’t addressed. 

“It just felt a lot like they were totally washing their hands of any responsibility for the problems, which just sort of happened somehow, and taking all the credit for the ‘tough’ calls they made.

“I felt like there was a total disconnect between how [the bishops] have implemented the Dallas Charter and the consequence of their actions. There was a lot of ‘this is what we had to do to restore confidence,’ but then you look at McCarrick, who wrote the thing, and I think the bishops have some questions to answer about how much they trust themselves versus how they treat us.

“I’d like to ask them: If you don’t have the respect and trust of your priests, what is it all for? How are you going to rebuild wider trust in the Church without them? That was frustrating as well.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect much and I didn’t get much from watching the speech. Having ‘more communication’ is great, but the performative nature of the talk made me feel even more disconnected from the bishops as a body.

“My big takeaway from the CUA report was that priests don’t expect much from their bishops. We don’t badmouth them in public but internally we’re all just really tired and frustrated. I don’t think listening to that talk will change anyone’s mind.”

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