Just before the United States Catholic bishops' meeting 20 years ago, I was part of a dinner with then-Bishop Roger Mahony of Stockton, Calif. In those days, he stood out as one of a new breed of bishops. Achieving stature for his support for Cesar Chavez's farm workers, he had also become a supporter of the nuclear freeze, a movement that was rattling both the Reagan administration and Cold War Democrats.
Early on in the dinner, a colleague asked the bishop what had led him to adopt the stance and he replied: "One morning a year ago, I was shaving and heard Alexander Haig [then the secretary of State] declare that the U.S. just might have to lob a nuclear weapon at the Soviets to show them we were serious. I realized that he meant it and that something had to be done." As a result, Mahony had moved to the fore in an effort to make the U.S. government accountable for the morality of its words and its actions.
What a difference 20 years makes. Now Cardinal Roger Mahony, having ascended to one of the most visible Catholic seats of authority, has made his name and his office synonymous with resistance to any real accountability on the part of bishops, to their flock or to the public at large.
With his cross-country twin, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, this prince of the Roman church is engaged in a campaign to retain the centuries-old prerogatives that shield the Catholic hierarchy from oversight. Mahony, Egan and others have been accused of blocking efforts of the lay National Review Board to watchdog the church's handling of its sex-abuse scandals -- scandals that are close to bankrupting some dioceses.
Their resistance led to the intemperate outburst and resignation of the board's head, Frank Keating, a former Oklahoma governor. The incident is a classic example of how bishops, who are supposed to answer to a higher authority, play real-world hardball. They operate in a system innocent of the checks and balances necessary to any just form of government. They keep it that way by equating the welfare of the church's ruling class with the welfare of the church and its people.
Not surprisingly, the way the bishops wield power doesn't always bear scrutiny. They personally control the purse strings of their dioceses, which allows a style of money management that freely fuels Rome's ordained old-boy network. Well-selected patronage can bring with it power, including the power of bishops to promote their own candidates as bishops to follow them.
Not all bishops trade in this coin -- only the ones who crave control and influence, masking it by crowing that "the church is not a democracy." The real principle at work -- "one hand washes the other" -- operates easily in the closed world of the hierarchy. It is a system that cannot reform itself.
As the U.S. bishops gather for another meeting this week in St. Louis, lay Catholics must begin to face the legacy of being left out of any governing role in the church -- not as angrily as Keating, perhaps, but as directly. Their spiritual heritage is in thrall to a ruling class of men who remain contemptuous of giving an account of themselves and their stewardship.
Until the bishops' influence peddling is uncovered, this ruling class will continue to block meaningful change in the way the Catholic Church governs itself.
Twenty years ago, I admired a young bishop who was making a name for himself by speaking truth to power. On this side of a sad divide caused by the hierarchy's efforts at cover-up and at holding on to its power, I can only hope that someone -- or Someone -- will call the system to account.