What would the Apostles do?

Commentary by Judie Brown

Pope Benedict's recent document concerning the Catholic Church has raised a number of hackles, especially among those who take issue with the idea that Jesus Christ started one church and not many. But lost in the shuffle is one of the foundational elements of the Church's understanding of this teaching: apostolic succession.

In short, each bishop of the Catholic Church can trace a direct line back to the Apostles. The Apostles laid hands on those they had chosen as bishops, who then laid hands on their successors as shepherds of the Church, all the way down to those who serve today.

The pontiff was wise to point this out, as it has crucial meaning for and crucial impact upon the Church today. It means that today's bishops are to lead the Church as the first bishops led it-those first bishops being the Apostles that Christ chose to carry on His work on earth.

It saddens my heart to think that if only all of the bishops had acted as the Apostles had done, we would not be reading news stories about certain bishops paying out multi-million dollar settlements in response to allegations of sexual abuse by the priests in their dioceses.

The largest and most recent of these settlements was the $660 million authorized by Cardinal Roger Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, though total payouts now exceed $2 billion at this point and could grow higher. All of the facts are not known, but the question must be asked: Would it have ever come to this if the bishops in these certain dioceses had acted as the Apostles, their predecessors, had done?

The Apostle Paul minced no words with the people of Corinth: "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans…. Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?" (I Corinthians 5:1-2).

How much more terrible when the perpetrator of such unspeakable action is a priest of Jesus Christ! But were such men expelled from the fellowship? In recent years, perhaps they have been, once the scandal became public and the onslaught of lawsuits began. But for decades and decades, it seems that in far too many cases, these violators were not expelled; they were simply moved from one parish to another-and then to another. It would seem that if the bishops in these dioceses had been true to their calling as successors to the Apostles, the matter would have been handled quite differently.

President Harry Truman was not thinking of eternal matters when he famously put a sign on his desk that read, "The buck stops here." But that in essence is what Pope Benedict's statement says about apostolic succession and thus the office of bishop in the Catholic Church. The bishop is the leader; he can't shuffle papers off to an underling, or pretend not to know that any of the priests who serve Christ's people are betraying his trust and behaving in a criminal fashion. In President Truman's case, the nation was at stake. In the bishop's case, something far more valuable is on the line: souls.

The payouts are disheartening. They represent the contributions of generations of good Catholics who gave in good faith to the support of their church and its institutions. It is money that could have gone to save preborn children from abortion, through pro-life outreach, homes for unwed mothers, chastity programs for young people. But now all of that is money is gone, and it's really too late to ask, "What if?" It's too late, even, to ask, "Why?" It is not too late, however, to demand, "Never again!"

A payment to those who've accused priests of sexual abuse is only the final chapter in a long, sordid story. Yes, it may have been a priest who committed grave evil, but it was a bishop who covered up for him. Many see the payments as a misuse of Catholics' donations. The cover-up is even worse, as it represents a misuse of the office of bishop.

It suggests that these bishops are more interested in "protecting their own." The feeling is that somehow the priesthood would be tainted if more bishops would expel priests guilty of crimes; if bishops would turn priests accused of wrongdoing over to civil authorities for criminal prosecution. Well, the priesthood has indeed been tainted, perhaps much worse than it ever would have been had the bishops in the affected dioceses been more forthcoming with dealing head-on with such accusations.

Why do I, as head of a pro-life organization, offer my thoughts on the abuse scandal and its multi-billion dollar cost? If a bishop can turn a blind eye to sexual abuse, a bishop can also turn a blind eye to abortion. Unfortunately, that has also occurred, and this is something I have written about in my latest book, Saving Those Damned Catholics, which is a defense of Catholic teaching.

A bishop cannot just publicly ignore the fact that one of his priests has committed a criminal act upon an adolescent. Likewise, a bishop cannot just publicly ignore the fact that one of the people in his diocese is an elected official who publicly claims the Catholic Church as his own while also endorsing the brutal deaths of millions of preborn children through the crime of abortion. In neither case is silence an option.

Both of these situations must be addressed pronto, just as St. Paul told the early Christians that there were some things that simply could not be permitted in the church.

What would the Apostles do? We don't have to ask. It's written in scripture. They would most assuredly not wring their hands, engage in deceit, and just wish the problem would go away. They would do what needed to be done and not make excuses or look for the easy way out. Today's bishops have the same grace at their disposal as Peter, Paul, John and the others had back in the early days of Christianity. It takes bold faith to tap into that grace, however, and I pray that all of our bishops have the courage to take that leap of faith. In cultural terms, it means sailing into the heart of the storm. But as Christ told Peter, it's time to get out of the boat and walk.

Release issued: 2 Aug 07