Shot Rolling on the Deck

Sometimes I send my column to particular friends who I think may have insights on the topic that would help either the writing or the content. One friend who shares my love of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (MC) series posed a series of questions to me after reading my last. I will attempt to answer them here.

Morale and Mutinies

Question: If the bishops are the captains of the ship, but they have lost the respect and trust of the officers (priests) and the lower decks (lay people), how does the ship continue to function?

Answer: This is a fair question, especially given the evidence in TCP’s
National Study of Catholic Priests that the bishops have lost much of the trust of their priests. Only 49% of priests responded that they trust their bishop “a great deal” or “quite a lot.” If the other officers (priests) do not trust the captain, why should the lower deck (laity)?

This seems like a question of degree. The lower decks may simply be grumbling – perhaps the faithful have stopped financially supporting the diocese, for example—but there may still be a chance to recover. On the other hand, there could be a mutiny afoot. Even in this more extreme case, it’s often possible to avert a mutiny on board if the captain acts decisively.

A good captain knows when a mutiny is brewing. In Post Captain, Jack describes it thus: “Men you have worked with right through the commission and liked, growing cold and secret; no jokes, no singing out, no good will; the ship falling into two camps, with the undecided men puzzled and wretched in between. And then the shot rolling by night… They roll shot along the deck in the night-watches, to let you know their mind, and maybe to catch an officer’s legs.” This is part of what I hope our study does for the American episcopate: lets them know that there is shot rolling on deck. It may not be rolling on their ship, but it is certainly rolling on some of the ships, and in a fleet every ship affects the others. Everyone in the Royal Navy was aware of what had happened on the Hermione. Burnout, cynicism, and distrust of leadership are warning signs.

Recently, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago who does not believe an abuse allegation against his pastor publicly crumpled up a letter from Cardinal Cupich. He effectively said to the community, “I don’t respect our bishop, so you don’t have to either.” Shot rolling on deck. Priests of the Diocese of Knoxville have written to the nuncio asking for “merciful relief” from the governance of their bishop, but have received no response. Shot rolling on deck. Priests of the Diocese of Steubenville have written to the bishops of Ohio asking for reconsideration of a plan to merge the diocese with Columbus. Shot rolling on deck. It is not prudent to ignore such warnings.

Later on in Post Captain, after a warning from Stephen, Jack is forced to recognize the signs of impending mutiny on his ship. His first reaction is to sit down “with his head in his hands and let himself go to total unhappiness—to something near despair,” but he does not stay there. He calls the head of the Marines and asks him to go through his men carefully and answer for whether they were to be relied upon. Next, he resolves to take the ship into action as quickly as possible, since there is nothing like cannon shot to make men forget their plans. Then he calls the whole ship on deck, and tells them directly, “Men, I know damned well what’s going on. I know damned well what’s going on; and I won’t have it.” He then descends from his place above the men; walks through them, unarmed; and hand-picks some of the men to go into the barge. He chooses a mixture of men – the innocent and the guilty alike—such that it becomes clear that the barge is not a punishment. Satisfied for the moment, the men got back to work.

This scene makes me wonder what would have happened if, in 2018 when the news about McCarrick came out, Cardinal Wuerl had called a meeting with his priests – followed by a press conference – and said, “I want to explain what I knew about this terrible situation. In 2004, I forwarded an allegation of sexual abuse against Cardinal McCarrick to the nuncio. This allegation involved an adult. I did not know of any allegations with minors. I did not know what to do in this situation, and I am sorry.” I cannot know for certain, but I think everything would have been different if he had chosen that path, rather than continual obfuscation.

Bad Captains

Question: What about straight-up bad captains (bishops), who have demonstrated that they do not deserve to be trusted?

Answer: Right. Yes. It must be acknowledged that we have had some bad captains, particularly when it comes to responding adequately to the sexual abuse of children by clergy. I will not make a list, since that is depressing, but there are some bishops who belong on that list who are still around and still enjoying their privileges. It is scandalous to the faithful when a bishop who is known to have covered up clergy abuse is given awards and speaking engagements, allowed to attend high- profile meetings and the like. It minimizes the suffering these men have caused and disregards the depth of their responsibility. If, as the catechism holds, some lies require public reparation (CCC 2487), how much more ought a bishop who covered up child sexual abuse do public reparation? In all this time, there has been only one bishop who independently and voluntarily left public ministry to do penance for his inaction on abuse (Bishop Robert Morneau in Green Bay). There ought to be at least a few more who follow suit.

One bad captain affects the reputation of all captains. While 49% of priests in our study said that they trust their own bishop, only 24% said that they trust “the U.S. bishops in general.” I cannot say for sure why that is, but I would guess that hearing stories about corrupt bishops affects how priests look at the whole body. How could a priest read about Bishop Bransfield’s routinely taking private jets from West Virginia to DC, for example, without looking with new scrutiny at how his own bishop gets around? Or if I learn that a church employee embezzled $300,000 and failed to turn over $2.8 million in payroll taxes, and this seems to not have been handled very well by the bishop, how am I going to trust the bishop’s judgment on the financial situation of the diocese in general? Thus the bad actions of other bishops make it imperative for a good bishop to demonstrate that he is trustworthy.

The Respect of the Officers

Question: What is needed for reestablishing trust between bishops and priests or between bishops and the laity?

Answer: Rebuilding trust with priests must be a priority for bishops today; If the other officers do not trust the captain, the lower deck knows it, and loses trust themselves. When the choice is between trusting the priest they see every Sunday or the bishop they see (maybe) once a year, you can guess who they will choose to listen to. For example, when we experienced turmoil in the Archdiocese of Washington over what Cardinal Wuerl knew and when with regard to Cardinal McCarrick, it became clear to the laity that the priests and the bishop were at odds. At one point, I believe the priests were asked to defend the cardinal, and one priest said to his congregation, “The cardinal is a big boy; he can defend himself.” This situation just couldn’t continue. The widespread distrust of the presbyterate must have been a major factor in the Holy Father’s eventual acceptance of the cardinal’s resignation. If the officers refuse to follow the captain’s orders, the captain is rendered powerless.

Good Captains

Question: But the fact is, the bishops have been doing a lot to combat clergy sex abuse. What if the people aren’t listening to the captain but instead are listening to the media or focusing only on the negative reports?

Answer: This is a fair point. With regards to preventing clergy sexual abuse, the US bishops really have done a lot. One of our podcast episodes is about this—
Episode Five: What is the Church Doing to Keep Kids Safe? Anyone who has volunteered or worked for the Church in any capacity where children are involved knows that we are trying to be as careful as we can be. Background checks, safe environment trainings, rules about doors being locked or windows into offices… For twenty years, the bishops have made a good faith effort to stop clergy abuse from happening. It’s not clear that everyone knows that, though. Negative news is always more popular than positive news, and prevention does not get the press that an abuse incident would. Part of that is just fallen human nature, and it is not going to change, but we could certainly do a better job of communicating how far we have come.

One of the things that I think is important to say is that we (lay people, but I bet also priests) really want to like, even love, our bishop. We want him to be a good captain; We want to trust him, and we are going to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least at the beginning. We are ready and willing to be pleased, even impressed, by simple human gestures. How often have I heard someone say approvingly of their bishop, “He’s just so down-to-earth,” or “He remembered my dad and asked about his cancer treatment.” We lay people are not that hard to please when it comes down to it, and it doesn’t take much more than simply and humbly building real relationships. Obviously, a bishop can’t do that with everyone in the diocese, but he had better do it with his priests and the lay people who work in his chancery or diocesan pastoral center. Building relationships is important for any leader of an organization and in some ways is extremely simple: remember people’s names; be aware of what they do; call them when something significant happens in their lives. This is what priests told us in interviews that they wanted from their bishop. “Bishops need to know their clergy. They should spend time with them in social gatherings, or other informal ways, so that a relationship can be built between the Bishop and his priests.”

In the MC novels, Jack has a number of “followers”—men who follow him from ship to ship, evading the press gang, hiding out until Jack has a ship they can join. They trust one another with their lives. The most heartbreaking scene in all of the novels (in my opinion, and spoiler alert!) is when Bonden, the coxswain, is killed in action. He was, in many ways, Jack’s right hand man for decades, and no one could ever replace him. Jack takes it hard, and it is pretty devastating for the reader, who knew Bonden quite well by book #19. It makes me wonder if there would be some wisdom to bishops bringing one or two priests with him to a new diocese. I know that could be tricky and could hurt the establishment of trust with the new clergy, though, and may also tempt him not to make new friendships. A possible alternative is for the outgoing bishop to leave a note for the incoming one with the names of a few people whom he has found to be helpful and supportive, just to give the new guy a place to begin.

There are good captains, for sure; good bishops in the U.S. that men (and women) are happy to follow. In our study, we found that there are some dioceses where trust is at 100%. Having worked for the USCCB for 8 years, I have met good captains, and some of them certainly would have followers if that was a thing. One newer bishop said to me once, speaking of another bishop: “I would take a bullet for that guy.” I have seen these good bishops praying in the chapel in their free time; skipping elaborate meals; listening with patience to someone who accosts them in the lobby of the hotel; remembering me or at least faking it well; sitting with the staff at lunch, etc. As I said before, it doesn’t take much more than being relational at a basic level.

Good captains will always have the support of the lower decks. The laity are generally less aware of the “inside baseball” of chanceries, so until their parish or school is in danger of closing, many (most?) American Catholics are quite willing to just go to Mass on Sunday and support the Church, without worrying too much about the bishop. Like the men on the lower decks playing cards while the ship waits for the battle to begin, the laity are ready and willing to trust their bishops. It is only when that trust is betrayed – as it has been all too often in the last few years – that the shot starts rolling on deck.