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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Trust & a Corporate Sole Church

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Many Catholic parishioners assume the each parish is a legal and economic entity all to itself.  Those most faithful who give regular support may even imagine that they as a community own the church they attend.  However, in truth most churches belong to the local ordinary or bishop.  It is for this reason that those bishops who are ordinaries, not associate or helping bishops, are generally forbidden to drive cars.  One accident on the road could cost the whole diocese.  Yes, everything is owned by one man.  When a new bishop comes in, all the appropriate papers are signed, and there is a transfer, not just of spiritual jurisdiction, but of property, investments, other resources and money.  During the colonial and early days of the Catholic Church in the United States we followed the pattern of having trustees or a board own each church or school.  This is a pattern that we find with many Episcopal churches.  The problem we quickly discovered is that it watered-down the bishop’s authority.  Parishes would sometimes refuse to accept priests that were assigned to them.  The bishop could not close parishes and often did not have the resources to build new ones.  Catholics would even invoke civil laws to fight the decisions of their bishops.  Ethnic groups would frequently send back to Europe, hiring their own clergy.  Vagrant clergy traveling from place to place would find work in parishes even though they had not been vetted by the bishop.  The Old World sent many of its more troublesome priests to America.

Trusteeism died out as the American bishops increasing asserted their authority under canon law and national legislation passed in councils or gatherings at the primatial see, Baltimore.  Lay parish leadership in administering parishes was crushed.  It seemed that the problem was solved.

However, the days of rapid church growth are behind us and the model of corporate sole is becoming increasingly controversial if not problematical.  Churches have been consolidated, especially as populations have moved and ethnic groups have intermarried.  National churches are rapidly disappearing.  While the cause is sometimes espoused as being that of the priest shortage, viable parishes have suffered, too.  The priest abuse scandals have required that some bishops sell off church properties in order to pay settlements.  The faithful in the pews are made victims to sick men in priestly collars, bishops afraid of exposure, the hurting that want first justice and then revenge, and lawyers possessed by greed.

I recall a meeting years ago where the priests learned that funds earmarked for the care of sick and elderly retired clergy had almost been exhausted in the maintenance of priest abusers and settlements.  We were essentially told that should we need long-term care that we would be on our own.  A three-person board would be established for what little remained.  We were told this would protect the money from litigation and/or the whim of future bishops.  Nevertheless, a promise echoed since the days of Cardinal O’Boyle had been broken.  Parents were anxious about the future of the men who became priests. They would have no spouse or children to care for them in later years.  Mothers were told at ordinations, “Don’t worry about your boys; the Church will always take care of your sons.”  Ah, but we live in a world of broken promises— what is one more?

The Church is still wary of lay leadership in parish administration.  So much of the scandal could have been avoided.  Counselors and psychologists might tell a bishop that a priest abuser is healed and could be returned to ministry (which we know now is untrue); however, I doubt that an advisory board of laity (including parents) would have agreed to having such men returned to their churches.  The answer would have been, “Hell no!”  One strike and you are out— a man might be forgiven, but the wrong cannot be forgotten— the risk is too great.

It is my understanding that one diocese in California deliberately broke itself up into many smaller corporations sole.  However, the problem with trust remains.  We are required to keep confidence with an episcopacy that has sometimes violated this trust; indeed, the entire set up communicates that the bishops do not trust their own people. Given the recent exposure of Bishop Michael Bransfield in West Virginia, who knows how widespread an abuse there may be of the corporation sole model?  Schools were closed and charities suffered; nevertheless, the bishop could spend $2.4 million on private planes, luxury hotel rooms, limos, fine dining and even jewelry.

Here is precisely a case where the triangle needs to be turned onto its point.  The top part is the largest, the laity among the People of God.  Below this would be the religious, the priests, then the bishops and finally the pope.  Priests and bishops are not princes or rulers but servants; indeed, they are ideally the slaves of God’s people.  The pope is “servant of the servants of God.”  Bishops that live in expensive penthouses and mansions are confused about their station.  Even the popes live in modest apartments in a structure made for worship or as one pope suggested, that sometimes feels like a museum.

If there is a problem with clericalism then I suspect it has infected the corporate sole model of church administration and governance. The concentration of power in individuals is an incredible temptation.  Often it is accompanied hand-in-hand with a desire for secrecy and a lack of genuine transparency.  Notice that the revised standards for child protection still places bishops over bishops instead of independent lay boards.

I cannot say that I have all the answers. But it seems to me that there are pertinent questions that need to be asked.  Otherwise, how can we move forward?