Nicholas Clifford

A couple of years ago, the Pew Research Center told us that Vermont was the second most secular state in the Union. But, at least according to The Economist, Vermont also boasts of the second highest rate in the Union of sightings of flying saucers.

Make of those factoids what you will. Perhaps they might at least help to explain why the Vermont press has paid almost no attention to the search that has been going on since last fall for a new bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, since Bishop Salvatore Matano moved to the Diocese of Rochester, New York.

The new bishop will be chosen by Pope Francis. But how does he choose and where does he get his advice? The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, describing the process, talks about broad consultations, but evidently only among the ordained -- priests, other bishops and so forth.

Not a word about the laity. Point this out to the more old-fashioned sort of Catholic, and you’re likely to be told firmly that "the Catholic Church is not a democracy." Of course it isn’t. No more than the average business, or university, or hospital, or television network, or NFL team and so on. At least if what is meant by "democracy" implies that all the members of a particular institution should vote for their leaders, or that Americans should vote, say, for members of the Supreme Court or the President’s cabinet.


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The difference, of course, is that in most of these cases, there is, or should be, broad consultation in the choice of the leaders; and second, that the leaders are, or at least should be, accountable downwards as well as upwards. A CEO or a university or hospital president may be primarily accountable only to her board, but if she and the board do not consider themselves accountable in some sense to those below them -- customers, students, patients, and so forth -- they are likely to be in for a bumpy ride. And of course a bumpy ride is exactly what the Catholic Church has had, particularly since the sex abuse scandal broke many years ago. There can be no doubt that a weak, even non-existent, sense of downward accountability is at least partly responsible. That particular problem has brought severe financial losses, and -- far more important -- severe moral losses, for reasons with which we’re all familiar. And to most of us, it is clear that the church’s leadership, from Rome down to the local level, by and large has only itself to blame.

The reforms that are necessary will take a long, long time. For two reasons: first, because some of the insiders will resist them strenuously (as Pope Francis is already discovering in his attempts at change); and second, because regaining the trust of individual Catholics, to say nothing of broader public opinion, cannot come overnight. Nor should the needed reforms be only those imposed from the top down, the kind that say, "Trust us, we know what’s best and we’ll fix it." That approach has been pretty thoroughly discredited (and not only in churches).

Of course reform will have to come from the top, but it will also have to come from the bottom. To this end, a small group called Concerned Catholics of Vermont was formed some two years ago to see what it might contribute to thinking about the church’s future here. At present it has two primary aims, modest but necessary. The first is to work for the appointment of a new bishop willing to seek help from those concerned by the Church’s loss of moral authority, a bishop who is capable of listening sincerely to those in his charge. The second is to encourage the new bishop to call for a diocesan synod (a general gathering of Vermont Catholics, both lay and ordained) to consider ways in which the church may carry out its work most effectively and most in concert with Christian principles. The last synod held here took place over forty years ago. Much has changed since then, and it is time for a fresh look and fresh ideas.

Concerned Catholics of Vermont will hold a day of reflection and prayer on Oct. 18, and we invite you to join us. More information is found at our website: http://www.gmcatholics.org/.

Nicholas Clifford is a former professor of history and provost at Middlebury College.