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It’s one thing to oppose political policies like abortion and stem cell research: it’s quite another to clothe that opposition with hateful attacks on individuals. But that’s what seems to be going on in the right-wing corner of the U.S. Church. I think the stridency reflects the ongoing struggle to “rebrand” Catholicism and Father Tom Reese has recently fleshed out some of the issues on his website. Theology aside, lay persons in Catholic America should consider this a testing of leadership styles.
Leadership is often a matter of perception. After all, a military general — even a brilliant one– can’t win the battle unless troops follow him into battle. Catholic America is familiar with how secular politics personalizes leadership and how electioneering appeals are salted with words like “stay the course” or “change for a new direction.” It should not surprise anyone, therefore, that social perceptions about leadership seep into the way pastors and bishops govern and how their governance is understood.
I’m old enough to remember the “two Johns” in Catholic America during the 1960s. Both President John F. Kennedy and Blessed Pope John XXIII were seen as leaders moving a new direction. During the 1980s, it was hard to tell which conservative had the more charismatic personality: Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II. But they walked in the same directions. Now in 2009, both Church and politics are undergoing a sea-shift in governance style.
Appearances matter. For instance, take away the charismatic dimension of political conservatism and sunny movie-star Reaganism becomes Darth Vader-esque Cheneyism. I am not alone in thinking that bishops who rule by threat and condemnation erode their pastoral effectiveness. Just as general public has turned off the old Republican Party styles, much of Catholic America isn’t listening to the segment of bishops who are following the old playbook. Their stridency lacks a Christ-like message.
All of this is a shame because the challenges facing Catholic America are huge. Since the 1960s, much of the Euro-American Catholic population has moved to the suburbs Most dioceses face the dual need to build new parishes in the suburbs while simultaneously closing down old ones in urban centers. Moreover there are few religious women left who define their vocations as a cheap labor force in the Catholic schools.
The situation for Catholic institutions holds similarities to the collapse of General Motors or to the financial meltdown of the Great Recession. The faithful are divided into two sociologically defined groups: the suburbs with a decreasing number of Euro-American Catholics and the cities growing with Latino Catholics. The solution can’t be to “burn the candle at both ends” because that would fail to service adequately both city and suburb. But neither ought the choice be to abandon one and choose the other. Exclusion of any part of the Catholic population, I think, leads to problems like those of today’s Republican Party which is all but dead on the two coasts where most Catholics live.
What leadership style a bishop chooses is crucial for addressing the crisis and making the necessary radical policy shifts. Some prelates seem to think they can close parishes, schools and hospitals searching only for the bottom line and without consideration of the laity’s faith. To continue the political style comparison, a bishop ill-serves his flock by adopting the leadership style of Donald Rumsfeld used in misconducting the Iraq War. A “lean” Catholic Church with heavy procurement based on old strategies and one that ignores the basic needs of the foot soldiers or that goes against the advice of the field commanders is doomed to failure.
I am confident that the U.S. Catholic Church will catch up with the need for change in the style of episcopal leadership. The new approach was installed with Archbishop Dolan in New York. His personality suggests a chat over a hamburger and a cold beer rather than a missive dripping with vitriol and threats to deny communion.
Meantime, we must regret the damage done by prelates making headlines that hinder Catholicism’s mission. We don’t need Catholic versions of Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney dividing us; we need bishops who bring us together.