The bishops of the United States are facing a crisis of confidence. According to a study published yesterday, American Catholics priests describe their bishops as “imperious,” “above the law,” and ladder-climbing “chameleons.”
The study, published by The Catholic University of America, found that American priests are “flourishing” in their own lives and ministry, but, as one priest interviewed put it, no more likely to seek personal counsel or support from their bishop than from “a stranger in the street.”
The breakdown of trust between U.S. priests and their leaders presented in the report suggests a serious fracture in the Church’s internal communion in the United States.
Rebuilding the fundamental relationship between American clergy and their shepherds will likely need serious reflection by the bishops – one bishop called the study's results an “examination of conscience” for bishops.
But when the bishops meet in Baltimore next month for their plenary assembly, will the issue be in their conversation, or on the ballot?
In the report published Wednesday, some priests told researchers that they live in “regular fear” of being “thrown under the bus” by bishops, who - some priests say - see them as “expendable” and “liabilities.”
Survey results showed that priests were more likely to describe their spiritual fathers as “CEOs” rather than “shepherds.”
But perhaps most alarming for the bishops is the data that shows few of them are aware of their presbyterates are feeling: bishops nearly unanimously told the same survey that they would do “very well” supporting priests in need. Barely a third of priests agreed about that.
Responding to the report yesterday, Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Diocese of Crookston said bishops said take seriously the survey's data.
“How does one learn to be a good father in the midst of all our modern bureaucracy?” Cozzens asked. “How can I love my priests as a father, brother, friend? These are the questions I am asking myself as I ponder this painful reality.”
It's not clear how many bishops will ask themselves the questions Cozzens has raised. And, of course, how best to rebuild trust between individual diocesan bishops and their clergy is something each bishop will have to consider for himself.
But the apparent crisis of confidence laid bare in the Catholic University report suggests that U.S. priests are actually more skeptical of the bishops as a body than as individuals; while 49% of priests had confidence in their own bishop, only 24% expressed confidence in the bishops’ leadership and decision making as a group.
This would seem to be a problem for the USCCB to consider, perhaps as a matter of urgency. By coincidence, in less than a month the conference will gather in Baltimore for the USCCB’s annual plenary assembly.
Even if the subject of rebuilding trust with their clergy doesn’t feature as an agenda item, it is likely to be raised from the floor by bishops during the assembly’s deliberations.
It might, for example, feature in a scheduled discussion on the proposed merger of the Diocese of Steubenville into the neighboring see of Columbus — a plan on which the Ohio bishops and the Vatican have already been consulted, but the local priests have not.
The apparent gulf between priests and their bishops nationwide represents a serious wound in the Church’s pastoral life and internal communion — the effects of which are likely profound even if not yet fully understood.
But while the report flagged known disparities between how bishops relate to each other, and are held accountable in the face of accusations of misconduct compared to their clergy, rebuilding the kind of trust absent between priests and their bishops is unlikely to be a matter of policy alone.
Instead, the U.S. bishops may consider a change in the posture and tone of their own deliberations, and in their leadership, and this is something that could feature in bishops’ discussions, especially as the weigh candidates for the conference presidency and vice presidency — both of which are up for election in just over three weeks’ time.
“Sincere listening and intentional conversations will be needed by us all as we seek the unity the Lord wants for his family and that we need for the work of evangelization,” Cozzens said yesterday, reflecting on the survey’s findings.
“That must be the way forward,” he said. “Maybe this is what synodality is really about?”
Synodality is likely to be a hot topic for the bishops in Baltimore.
But as both Pope Francis and the USCCB stressed, the chief aim of the synodal process is meant to be learning to do things differently, to speak differently, and to think differently.
So could a truly “synodal” candidate emerge from the crowded ticket of candidates in Baltimore?
USCCB presidential elections tend to favor “continuity candidates,” with the vice president traditionally being elected president as a matter of course. This year, the current conference VP, Archbishop Allen Vigneron is too old to be elected. Given Vigneron’s ineligibility, perhaps the most likely candidate this year is the conference’s current secretary (and VP runner up three years ago) Archbishop Timothy Broglio.
The other nine candidates include several who have distinguished themselves in various ways, either through serious and credible committee work, or their strong voice on important public policy issues like gun violence, abortion, and the death penalty.
Others appear to be obvious standard bearers for different theological and ecclesiological camps within the conference membership.
What remains to be seen is if a kind of maverick candidate will emerge from the crowded field of 10, a bishop willing to speak to and about the conference in a different way and from a different perspective. Will one of them be willing to articulate well the problem that Wednesday’s CUA report details? Can any of them offer a coherent response and vision for how the conference should relate to their closest collaborators — their own priests?
The answer to both these questions may, of course, be “no.” And even if such a candidate does emerge, it’s by no means certain how his brother bishops will respond, or even how seriously bishops take the crisis of trust they are reportedly facing.
But the willingness of the bishops to give at least some space for Bishop Cozzens’ call for an “examination of conscience” and a “synodal” discussion about how to relate to their priests as brothers and fathers, and not as CEOs and lawyers, could prove a key indicator of the health of the conference.