MIA -- Spiritual fathers for spiritual sons

Sometimes the bishop calls the priest and sometimes the priest calls the bishop.

But one way or another, bishops and priests make appointments to meet over two cups of coffee. On one level, it is a meeting between employer and employee. On another, it's supposed to be an encounter between a father and a son.

These days, the atmosphere can get tense. There are questions that must be asked and a bishop has to ask them.

"Like any good father, the bishop must ask his spiritual sons specific, concrete, detailed questions about the manner in which they are living their vocations," noted scholar George Weigel, who is best known as the author of "Witness to Hope," a 992-page biography of Pope John Paul II.

"How often do you pray? Do you have a spiritual director whom you see regularly? Are you sleeping alone? Is Internet pornography a troublesome temptation? Is your recreation appropriate for a priest? Are your friendships, with both priests and laity, morally blameworthy? Do you have problems with alcohol? Is your celibacy fulfilling or burdensome, and are you living it faithfully and peacefully?"

A good bishop isn't trying to force a confession. The bishop also needs to avoid the role of therapist or attorney. But a bishop has to ask tough questions, according to Weigel, in order to rise above the role of "ecclesiastical executive" and assume the role of "genuine spiritual fatherhood."

That sounds obvious. But there are few safe, innocent questions right now, as Weigel makes clear in his new book, "The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform and the Future of the Church."

It's hard to be a spiritual father when there are legions of lawyers and journalists camped at the chancellery doors. Ask Bishop Edward Egan, once bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., and now archbishop of New York. In an attempt to fend off liability lawyers, he once referred to his Bridgeport priests as mere "independent contractors." It's hard to imagine Cyril, Ambrose and Augustine using this kind of language.

At some point, said Weigel, bishops need to "stop whining" and risk reclaiming their role as spiritual leaders.

"The failures of episcopal leadership that turned a significant and urgent problem of clerical sex abuse into a full-blown crisis touched all three of the bishop's classic roles, that is, as men who are to teach, govern and sanctify," noted Weigel. The bottom line is that far too many bishops reacted to "the meltdown of priestly discipline ... as managers, not as apostles."

Many bishops stopped daring to ask the tough questions and embraced a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to a host of issues.

But someone has to ask a priest if he is lonely and, if so, what he is doing about it. Weigel noted that, "One of the most serious problems Catholic priests in the United States face today is loneliness, as more and more parishes become 'one-priest' parishes. Loneliness, in turn, is a breeding ground for temptation."

Someone has to ask a priest if his parish is growing or shrinking. Someone has to ask if he has preached any sermons lately on the tough parts of Catholic doctrine and how his people responded. Someone has to ask: How many in your flock have been inspired to become priests and nuns?

"To ask a young man to throw his life away for Christ requires a man asking the question to reflect on the radical quality of his own discipleship," said Weigel. "Putting hard questions to others requires a priest to first put hard questions to himself."

This means that bishops need to answer all of the same questions. This may not be what the lawyers advise, but bishops are not called to be lawyers.

"It sounds like the bishops have been operating with a different software than the Catholic software," said Weigel. "If a bishop has lawyers who tell him that he cannot act pastorally when dealing with a victim of abuse, or that he cannot address this in the church's primary language of repentance and forgiveness ... because of legal liabilities, then he needs to find new lawyers.

"He needs to find lawyers who will let him be what he needs to be -- which is a Catholic bishop."