When Absolute Power Corrupts
Recently the Holy Father, Pope Francis, warned the leaders of a variety of lay-led Church groups that proliferated after the Second Vatican Council that “their mission is to serve, not to wield power or exert control over other.” It is a message that is not unfamiliar to the pontificate of Francis. Whether the Pope is speaking to bishops or pastors, or ruminating about Curial reform, his message is the same – there are certain dangers that lie in wait for all Church leaders. “The exercise of governance is a theme that is particularly close to my heart,” said Pope Francis, pointing out that “the cases of abuse of various kinds that have occurred… always find their root in the abuse of power.”
Those of us sentimentally, if not directly, attached to the parish of St. Isabel, know only too well how devastating the results of unchecked power can be. It is said that Lord Acton (1834-1902) is responsible for the famous quote that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton was writing to Bishop Creighton to reinforce the notion that the same moral standards should be applied to all men [and women], political and religious leaders included, regardless of any prestigious position they might hold. Bishop Creighton, and others, were suggesting that the “offfice” of some individuals “sanctifies the holder of it.” Acton called such thinking a “heresy,” for it absolved the “criminal behavior of many Popes, and the appalling treatment of dissidents and heretics.”
To the extent that Bishop Dewane, Chancellor Smeryk, Fr. Joseph Waters, Fr. Joseph Gates, Mrs. Khristy Scheer, and Fr. Ed Martin are absolved of the harm they have done to Fr. Christopher and to the Church of St. Isabel, to that extent has the Church given new meaning to the danger of “absolute power.” Those who have been so completely disenfranchised from the church they regularly attended, the church they generously rebuilt, the church they supported with their entire hearts, have become, for nearly five years now, victims of a system which refuses to have the courage to address the problem of what happens when you have Bishops everywhere accountable to no one but themselves. It will take more than a cosmic shift to take place in order for the words of Pope Francis to penetrate the hearts and minds of bishops who enjoy the benefits of acting like kings, and are less concerned about acting as servants in imitation of their Lord.
In his address Pope Francis warned against the “lust for power, something seen,” he said, “in particular with the omnipotence of the shepherd who delegates only ‘theoretically’ to others and, in reality, decides everything in the community and for everyone.” Pope Francis goes on to say, “this desire for power nullifies all forms of subsidarity. This attitude is ugly and ends up emptying the ecclesial body of its strength.”
One can recall in the infamous letter sent by “ten pastors,” their legitimate complaint over Bishop Dewane’s eviscerating of the existing Presbyteral Council, which was always a consultative body. Bishop Dewane took all of the controls the priests had over agenda and minutes, making the participants nothing more than ‘back-window’ dogs who were merely meant to nod their heads in agreement. It was at the same time that everything, from every department, was sent out by the Bishop with his multi-colored (and expensive) return address. No longer could departments deal with the priests directly, in order that everything was intended to be seen as the Bishop’s idea and coming from him. Narcissists are easily threatened by the gifts of others! The “ten priests” clearly recognized what was happening, and they were forced to sit back and watch while the strength of the Presbyterate of the Diocese of Venice in Florida was emptied and squandered.
Pope Francis is keenly aware of those whose “disloyalty” causes them to play “a double game.” It manifests itself in empty talk that pretends “we want to serve God and others, but in fact we serve our ego, and we bend to our desire to appear, to obtain recognition and appreciation.” Some bishops, and we know one, set themselves up as “the sole interpreters” of a community’s charism, says Pope Francis. As members of one Church we all share in the one Spirit, who acts and speaks in and through each one us. When it comes to local Diocesan matters, they are anything but collegial.
The insight and words of Pope Francis are a great comfort, but they do not bring about change in and of themselves. What is needed is the courage to put those words into action, something that can only be accomplished by like-minded bishops who are unafraid of losing their bully pulpit and who function as though the good of the church is what is most important. While our five-year history makes the abuse of power personal, it is a problem for the entire Church. Pope Francis is surely doing his best to appoint bishops whose thinking matches his, but he is not looking to clone himself and create a people of God in which individual charisms are stifled. The abuses of power within the church as a whole must be addressed fearlessly, for they are greatly harming the unity of the church as a whole, and this will never happen if bishops cannot find the courage to make themselves accountable to the entire church. To the extent that bishops are allowed to continue to operate as kings or grand potentates, to that extent will the church continue to feel the sting of what happens when “absolute power corrupts.”