We’re supposed to let bygones be bygones. But there are times when fresh information can cast light on events that were mystifying at the time. One such mystery is how Charles Grahmann, former bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, kept his job for a decade after it was revealed in court in 1997 that he allowed sexual predators to keep working as priests. The bishop stonewalled the legal system, reneged on an agreement with a lay committee to resign, and refused to countenance an adjunct bishop appointed to replace him.
During this period, I was told repeatedly that the bishop was confident he could resist the pressure in Dallas and Rome because he had a friend in high places, Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger, of course, became Pope Benedict XVI, and we now know he had his own problems with sexual predators, dating from his days as archbishop of Munich. He seemed to handle it the same way his counterpart in Dallas did: by assiduously ignoring it.
I thought at the time that Bishop Grahmann was only a frightened, stubborn, and not very intelligent old man. It is now apparent from events in Europe that, instead, he was following the Vatican’s unwritten policy: ignore, obfuscate, bury, and resist.
As a traditionalist-leaning Catholic, I have always supported the hierarchical structure. I remain a firm papist. But the events of the last 15 years have led me to study the history of the hierarchy and its relation to the papacy. Specifically, I am interested in how bishops are chosen. Today almost 90 percent of bishops are appointed by Rome. But that is a recent innovation, which only took root in the early decades of the 19th century. (When talking about an institution that is 2,000 years old, 200 years counts as recent.) For more than a millennia and a half, bishops were chosen locally. All that was required to confer legitimacy on them was the laying on of hands by three other bishops.
But the wave of exploration created thousands of new dioceses. In North America, in South America, in Africa, and in Asia, Rome began assigning missionary bishops. Today, 200 years later, in those continents the Holy Father has retained the prerogative, an assertion of papal authority that today is accepted as normal even when it contradicts the teachings and practices of the Church for most of its history.
In such a top-down structure, what kind of man succeeds? The one who is always looking up—and never looking around. It does not matter how good you are at your job; what matters is whether someone in Rome notices you. It creates an institution of brown-nosers and yes men.
If bishops were elected by their priests, looking up would be a disadvantage. Local priests would want someone who looks around, who knows what needs to be done, and who has the intellectual and spiritual capacity to get it done.
The ages-old custom of subsidiarity—whereby problems are solved and opportunities seized at the lowest possible level—made the Catholic Church the most successful and longest-lasting institution in the world. That custom has now been almost entirely abandoned. Memoranda released in Europe in the past two months show a Vatican bureaucracy that was trying to manage the tiniest details of sexual abuse cases across the world. It should come as no surprise that its chief concern was the effects of scandal on the Vatican, not the effects of sexual abuse on its victims or the effects of its bishops’ moral corruption on the local churches.
A true traditionalist would argue that the Church needs to return to the organizational structure that worked so well for it for so long. A bishop from Dallas who was elected by Dallas priests and who was responsive to the Dallas laity would not—could not—have let the sexual abuse scandal fester here for so long. The bishop of Rome is elected. Why isn’t the bishop of Dallas?
Prelates fiddled in Rome precisely because they were in Rome, and not here. Until the method of choosing bishops is changed, the Church will continue its sad, and wholly unnecessary, decline.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org .