Commentary: That bishops, too, are human

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor   |   June 18, 2003 at 5:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 18 (UPI) -- Am I alone in pitying the frightened little man in a black clerical shirt as he was hauled off to jail in Phoenix, Ariz.? Is it wrong to feel compassion for a bishop who has allegedly killed a jaywalker while driving home from Mass, and then evidently fled the site of the accident?

It is now a popular sport to point a finger at men of the cloth. Imagine! A bishop! The same bishop who evidently allowed priests accused of pedophile acts to continue working with minors!

True, it's not a pretty story. But has anybody considered that bishops, too, are human -- that they are fallible like the rest of us?

It is the mark of a self-righteous society that it loves digging for evidence of hypocrisy, especially where clerics are involved, which in itself is hypocritical. For who knows if not tomorrow a jaywalker stumbles across our front bumper? Who knows if we, too, upright citizens, would not panic and drive off – if indeed this is what Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien has done?

Who knows, to focus on his case again, whether he had an alcohol problem, was depressed or suffered from any other physical or psychological impediment?

We don't know any of this. All we know is that O'Brien had descended from the spiritual leadership more than 400,000 Arizona Catholics to a ghastly little cell. So now more than a few people are having a grand time now engaging in Schadenfreude – taking delight in someone else's misfortune.

Curiously, they tend to be the same types who rejoiced over the election of Canon V. Gene Robinson to the Episcopal bishopric of New Hampshire, even though he had left his wife and two children to live with a male partner.

But that's okay, just as it is okay for John Spong, the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., to dismiss virtually every tenet of the Christian faith and write saucy columns for a pornographic Web publication. That's daring, that's progressive. That invites applause.

On the other hand, O'Brien, who to his credit resigned as bishop of Arizona immediately, is deemed worthy only of finger pointing. Hypocrites!

Who says men grow wings the minute three other bishops lay hands on their heads at the consecration rite? Is not the history of the Church of Christ – Roman Catholic and otherwise – filled with lamentable examples of failures?

Think of the murderous and scheming popes in the 9th and 10th centuries; think of their perverted successors in the Renaissance; think of the perfidious and blood-soaked French Cardinal Richelieu, but also think of Protestant pastors who failed miserably in their marriages and personal lives; think of cowardly clerics who did not stand up to manifest evil – Nazi, Communist or otherwise!

By comparison, Thomas J. O'Brien is small fry.

But what do these lamentable biographies prove? Nothing more and nothing less than human frailty. To those who believe in the cosmic struggle to which we are all party, the struggle between God and Satan, it even makes sense that those who stand in for Christ at the altar and who – as in the bishop's case – stand in the apostles' succession are the most vulnerable.

Anybody who has ever been to seminary knows of the incredibly powerful temptations coming his way as he sets out to prepare for ministry; and these temptations never cease, as the history of the saints – and that includes all of us who are trying to be disciples – has shown over and over again.

Secular hypocrisy regales in the saints' human failures; by "saints" we mean all serious Christians. Secular hypocrisy keeps mum about truly saintly comportment – the faithful resistance of men like Catholic bishop Clemens August von Galen in Germany and Lutheran bishop Eivind Berggrav in Norway against the Nazis, for example.

Secular hypocrisy skips over the fact that the human failure among a few bishops in the United States is amply balanced by stalwart, manly leaders of dioceses such as Lincoln, Neb.; and Atlanta; Arlington, Va.; and Newark N.J.; Denver; and Chicago, just to name a few.

These are shepherds whose faithfulness is rewarded by a growing number of priestly vocations and expanding flocks, just as those Protestant pastors who faithfully preach the Gospel are more often than not rewarded with full sanctuaries.

But even these men are sinners, as they would be first to admit. Obviously there is a difference between them and the criminals on St. Peter's throne centuries back, and doubtless even the scared little man in Phoenix, who canonically will always remain a bishop but never head a diocese again.

In the end, though, it's hard to refute the Rev. C. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, who says: "Given all the horrible things that have happened in 2,000 years of church history – murder, nepotism, sex scandals among St. Peter's successors – it is a sign of the Church's divinity that it could survive all these people."

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