Episcopal authority and the abuse crisis

The bishop of Kansas City, his excellency Bp. Robert Finn, is a favorite and frequent target of dissenters; his conviction provides a focal point and a face for the abuse crisis, even though he’s something of a patsy, as I’ve noted before. See The Finn Indictment, 1 MPA 51 (2012). Elsewhere, it was suggested that Finn’s failure to act destroys his governing authority. “In the early church,” it was argued, “authority came from the laity, who elected their bishops,” and a bishop who loses the confidence of the laity thus loses his authority. Such a bishop may “retain[ ] the legal powers, but his authority is gone.”

I understand the distinction between “authority” and “power,” but it founders. It would be well-taken if we were speaking about political office: Richard Nixon, for example, retained all the legal powers of the Presidency until his resignation, even as his moral authority evanesced. The temptation to make the same distinction in an ecclesiastical context is natural: The egregious Bernard Card. Law, for example, might be said to have lost his “moral authority.” But if “moral authority” means something like “that effervescent charisma of leadership that comes from human reputation,” Cardinals Law and Mahony never had it, and Bp. Finn does not depend on it. The “moral authority” of a bishop rises from the same spring as his core “legal authority.” (“Core” insofar as exercise of faculties in a particular diocese comes from human authority, to wit the Holy See.) Vatican II teaches:

“Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, … and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. … Bishops, therefore, … presid[e] in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing. And just as the office granted individually to Peter, the first among the apostles, is permanent and is to be transmitted to his successors, so also the apostles’ office of nurturing the Church is permanent, and is to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Therefore, this Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ. … The laity should … promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church.” (LG18, 20, 37; cf. LG6, 14.)

So the bishop’s moral authority arises not from the man but from his place in the episcopal line, and whom he represents—that is why the miter matters, for example. See Authoritative teaching, liturgy, and authority, 3 MPA __, __ (2013) (“The miter is the symbol of the bishop’s authority; it is a reminder that we are not listening to this man because he is learned or holy or likable or because we agree with him”).

It was never true, incidentally, that in the early church, “authority came from the laity, who elected their bishops.” It is true that in some stages of the church, bishops were chosen by “election” of cathedral chapters and other ecclesiastical bodies; it may be true, although I don’t know one way or the other, that some such elections included laymen. But that practice can safely be taken to be an aberrational response to circumstances, not (as it is too often presented) as a model. See The Selection of Bishops, 3 MPA __ (2013). It was a situation that arose during period in which the Church could not be ruled as she once was and now can be again, a state that was lost by expansion and regained through technology. In scripture, however, we glimpse a straightforward model that comports with common sense and sounds familiar enough when translated into the modern ecclesiastical argot: The episcopal college chooses its own successors, and the Church appoints bishops and priests to particular dioceses and parishes. Cf. Acts 1:15-26, 14:23; Titus 1:5. (Unsurprisingly, this is also the model we see in First Clement.)

So Finn retains the full authority of a bishop, and it isn’t hard to see why that must be so. If episcopal authority could be compromised by failure or personal sin, the church would have lapsed centuries ago; where is the threshold? They say that hard cases make bad law, but sometimes easy cases make even worse law, because easy cases can obscure the subtleties of a rule’s application to muddier facts. The graveness of the sin and the proximity to the act are clear enough in the Finn/Ratigan case. But what about a case in which the sin of the priest is less clear? What about a case in which it took place in a suffragan diocese and, the suffragan being paid up with the right (i.e. left) people, the metropolitan is accused of not doing enough? What about a case in which the bishop is simply accused of the last, worst resort of those with an ax to grind, the “he didn’t do enough” canard? What we get is a mushy, inherently-manipulable standard that will always be susceptible to use in covering those who wish to disobey a given bishop.

The last word on the point may safely be given to John William Bowden’s Tract for the Times #5:

Since the Apostolic age [twenty] centuries have rolled away … and, blessed be God, the Church is with us still. Amid all the political storms and vicissitudes, amid all the religious errors and corruptions which have chequered, during that long period, the world’s eventful history, a regular unbroken succession has preserved among us ministers of God, whose authority to confer the gifts of His Spirit is derived originally from the laying on of the hands of the Apostles themselves. Many intermediate possessors of that authority have, it is true, intervened between them and these, their hallowed predecessors, but the gifts of God are without repentance; the same Spirit rules over the Church now who presided at the consecration of St. Paul, and the eighteen centuries that are past can have had no power to invalidate the promise of our God. Nor, even though we may admit that many of those who formed the connecting links of this holy chain were themselves unworthy of the high charge reposed in them, can this furnish us with any solid ground for doubting or denying their power to exercise that legitimate authority with which they were duly invested, of transmitting the sacred gift to worthier followers.
. . . .
The unworthiness of man, then, cannot prevent the goodness of God from flowing in those channels in which He has destined it to flow; and the Christian congregations of the present day, who sit at the feet of ministers duly ordained, have the same reason for reverencing in them the successors of the Apostles, as the primitive Churches of Ephesus and of Crete had for honouring in Timothy and in Titus the Apostolical authority of him who had appointed them.
. . . .
Wonderful indeed is the providence of God, which has so long preserved the unbroken line, and thus ordained that our Bishops should, even at this distance of time, stand before their flocks as the authorized successors of the Apostles.