How Our Bishops Failed

(Homily for Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A)

During my priestly career I have sometimes imagined I could be a good bishop – maybe of a small diocese with lots of Hispanics, like Yakima. Now I am grateful I was never called to such a task.

In this Sunday’s Gospel we glimpse the bishop’s job: to tell people their world will soon end, but in the meantime do all possible to help them by praying for the sick and confronting demons. And to ask God for other laborers to bring in the great harvest of souls. In a parallel passage, Jesus entrusts them with his own teaching authority: “He who hears you, hears me.” (Lk 10:16)

To teach in Jesus’ name, with his authority, is a great task. Sadly, our bishops have fumbled their teaching office. The recent scandals make that failure painfully obvious. Since the late 60’s, bishops have tolerated open dissent to Jesus’ teaching on human sexuality. That leniency reached such an extreme that two successive Cardinals did not correct a priest who openly advocated man-boy sex.*

Many bishops have got on their knees to beg forgiveness from God and from the people for these failures. In doing so they have given an example to us priests. We also have reason to repent. Some of us tried to be “free agents.” A priest who “does his own thing” is a contradiction in terms. Our priesthood comes from the bishop and has meaning only if we are united with him.** We share the responsibility for this present mess – and we have to shoulder the unpleasant work of cleaning it up.

Having said that, I must mention a personal fear: some folks have the idea that all we need to do is proclaim a “zero-tolerance” policy. Public relations may require legal language like “one strike, you’re out,” but, then, do we say words like mercy, healing, reconciliation are only feel-good talk? To make a number of priests and bishops into scapegoats might satisfy the public, but it will not address the deeper issue. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus stated, “The crisis created by clerical sexual scandals is essentially about three things: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity.”***

Today is “Father’s Day.” As we honor our fathers, we acknowledge the painful reality that many men have fled paternal responsibilities. Sadly, we priests did not give a shining example of spiritual fatherhood. Jesus has a word for us: “Repent.” Stop straddling the fence. Cardinal George pointed out that there can be no “bachelors” in the priesthood. Every priest is a married man with children. What joy when one embraces that exalted vocation!

The Lord chose twelve weak, sinful men as his apostles. We know that Judas eventually betrayed him, but the others (with the possible exception of John) would not have passed a “zero-tolerance” test. Yet the Lord strengthened them to be spiritual fathers of the nascent Church. He does the same for us.


*It takes no great effort to connect the dots from the 1968, when Fr. Charles Curran and seventy-seven theologians protested Humanae Vitae to the 1975 Catholic Theological Society book Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought which made room for cohabitation, adultery and homosexuality to Fr. Paul Shanley helping found the North American Man-Boy Love Association (1979). Shanley maintained that "homosexuality is a gift of God and should be celebrated," and said there was no sexual activity that caused psychic damage, "not even incest or bestiality" (October 1977 speech).

**For that reason to "defrock" or laicize a priest is different than firing a corporate employee. It is comparable to amputating a limb. In the Seattle Archdiocese, three priests were removed from assignment, forbidden to say Mass or wear a clerical collar, but not laicized. The Archdiocese continues to have financial and other obligations toward them.

***See: The Real Issue Is Fidelity by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (USA Today article)

Versión Castellana

From Archives:

Eleventh Sunday, Year A, 2008: A Firm, But Compassionate Father
2005: Labor Shortage
2002: How Our Bishops Failed

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Bishops Meeting in Dallas, Cloning, Ordinations)


Fr. Armando Perez (Ordained June 8, 2002)