Degrading the Catholic bishops

Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings rarely cover religious rites, but they would certainly show up if Rome decided to use Pope Benedict XIV's "Degradatio ab ordine pontificali."

This 1862 rite for the "Degradation of a bishop" is not for the liturgically faint of heart. In it, a bishop who had committed disgraceful acts was stripped of the symbols of his office -- mitre, crosier and ring. The prelate leading the rite would say: "Rightly do we pull off thy ring, the sign of fidelity, since thou has made bold to rape God's own bride, the Church."

Try to imagine that on Nightline.

When reclaiming the book of the Gospels, the prelate would exclaim: "Give us back the Gospel! Since thou has spurned the grace of God and made thyself unworthy of the office of preaching, we rightly deprive you of this office."

Finally, someone would take a knife or "a shard of glass" and lightly scrape the thumbs, fingers and forehead of the disgraced bishop, or someone standing in for him. The goal was to remove to "the extent of our powers" the anointing of his holy office.

"It's like playing a film of an ordination rite, only backwards," noted a conservative Jesuit scholar who, in an act of ecclesiastical self-preservation, always uses a nom de plume. He published his translation of this obscure text in Catholic World Report's anonymous "Diogenes" column.

"To use our modern jargon, this rite would have been a 'teaching moment.' The point would have been to act out what it means to be a bishop and what it means for a bishop to fall."

No one would dare use such a rite today. These days, bishops slip away quietly. Some hold press conferences, which offer a more modern approach to shame.

So far, a dozen Catholic bishops -- in America and around the world -- have resigned during the current wave of sexual-abuse scandals. Bishops have resigned for health reasons, legal reasons, psychological reasons and, sometimes, to move to a less public form of ministry. What is missing is any sense that these resignations have spiritual significance.

What Catholics need right now is a strong dose of liturgical catharsis, according to this Jesuit "Diogenes."

"There are souls at stake. There are spiritual consequences to what is going on," the priest said. "What many faithful Catholics have been saying is that too many bishops have failed to keep the promises that they made to God and to his church. It's not a just matter of making bad management decisions. It's a matter of defending the faith."

The bishops are the key. During their Dallas media blitz they approved a "zero tolerance" policy for priests and deacons guilty of sexual abuse of minors. This was a crucial step, since about 2 percent of U.S. priests have been accused of sexual misconduct. But a stunning Dallas Morning News investigation has shown that 60 percent or more of U.S. bishops have been accused of failing to stop sexual abuse or covering up past crimes. On this, the new "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" is silent.

The bishops also avoided debate to clarify how this charter will affect the overwhelming number of cases -- some say it's as high as 96 percent -- that involve the homosexual abuse of adolescent males. An attempt to discuss the impact of doctrinal dissent in seminaries was greeted with silence. Both of these explosive issues had been emphasized in an April document signed by U.S. cardinals after they met with Pope John Paul II.

The bishops approved a "zero tolerance" policy that will have an immediate impact on their priests. The question is whether a "zero tolerance" policy will be created for bishops.

This appears unlikely. If there are going to be any rites for the "Degradation of a bishop," they will almost certainly have to be held in secular courts.

"Would it be a 'zero tolerance' offense if a bishop lied to a judge or a grand jury? Yes, I think it would be," said Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. "Yes, I think we could see some bishops in jail."