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Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | May 16, 2006

The conventional wisdom is that if you’re a bishop who wants to reform his diocese, you have to take things very slowly. You need a five or ten year plan with limited objectives. You must proceed with great caution and sensitivity. You’re wise to avoid adverse reactions. At least that’s the way it’s always been done, when it is done at all. But not in Kansas City. Reform in Kansas City is moving at Internet speed, under Bishop Robert Finn.

Better than a Magic Lantern Show

Finn, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and a member of Opus Dei's Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, served as coadjutor of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese for about a year beginning in March 2004. On Raymond Boland’s retirement, Finn took sole charge of the diocese, of which he was made ordinary by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2005. Since taking charge, Bishop Finn has:

  • Dismissed the lay chancellor and replaced him with a priest.
  • Dismissed the female religious who served as vice chancellor and replaced her with a layman with a track record in Catholic apologetics.
  • Cancelled the diocese’s programs for training lay people for pastoral ministry.
  • Increased the staffing of the vocations office from a half-time priest to a full-time priest with a half-time priest assistant.
  • Ordered a new study of adult catechesis under the leadership of the new vice chancellor.
  • Cut the budget of the Office of Peace and Justice in half and established a separate Respect Life Office.
  • Removed the diocesan sponsored master’s program from Aquinas Institute of Theology (run by Dominicans affiliated with the Jesuit St. Louis University) and placed it with the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University.
  • Ordered the editor of the diocesan newspaper to drop Fr. Richard McBrien’s column.
  • Established a pattern of reviewing the contents of the newspaper prior to publication, sometimes cutting stories which appear to undermine Catholic teaching.

He’s Gone About as Far as He Can Go

What is most remarkable about these changes is that much of the longtime middle management of the diocese has simply been swept away. Career professionals over a period of twenty years, those who had been highly regarded by the previous bishop (and sometimes by his predecessor), the cognoscenti, the inner circle—in short, those who were always consulted before anything was ever done—were as so much chaff before Bishop Finn’s new broom. The great complaint, of course, is that these changes were made without consultation, and made by a man with an “agenda”. Again and again in news reports, the mantra of non-consultation is chanted loud and long.

The reality, of course, is simply that Bishop Finn didn’t consult those who were accustomed to being consulted. Kansas City-St. Joseph was the national leader in the formation of lay people as pastoral administrators to staff priestless parishes. The entire mindset of diocesan management seems to have been rooted in this vision of the Catholic future. But Bishop Finn made it his business to move beyond the established circles and get a feel for the pulse of the people in the pews. In his year as coadjutor, he visited 70 out of 100 parishes in the diocese, talking with and listening to an astonishingly large number of “ordinary” Catholics. Having consulted so widely and listened so well, it is perhaps not surprising that he failed to consult those he was about to fire.

Every House Is All Complete

As for his “agenda”, in a number of interviews and press sessions, Bishop Finn has made clear why he is making changes. In response to those who question his commitment to justice and peace, he stresses that abortion is the holocaust of the modern world. Commenting on his shift in educational priorities, he said that “we have to understand where the power of the laity is. It is in the family, the workplace, the marketplace.” Very few lay people will ever be involved in parish administration, he noted. “Sometimes we tend to focus on that very small percentage and forget about the rest of the flock,” who need to be able to explain the Faith in a hostile culture, especially concerning issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

He also noted that previous pastoral formation programs “had been given birth during that period of time when there was a lot of emphasis on process and sharing and a little less on content.” Clearly Bishop Finn wants lay persons to be well-formed lay persons and priests to be well-formed priests, and he does not want the two confused. As he told the long-time pastoral planner for the diocese, who had worked for years to supplement a shortage of priests with lay administrators, “I’d like priests in every parish.”

In his charge to the new adult faith formation commission, Finn put his plans into the following more complete context:

Forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, we are in a time of a more mature self-understanding in the Church, than the period immediately following the Council. More than ever, the Council documents deserve careful reading and study. They have been used at times to justify experimentation that was interpolated on what has been sometimes called the "spirit of the Council." Now we must allow ourselves to see how they are an incentive for renewal in continuity with the Church's tradition. The Sacred Scriptures, interpreted by the Church, and illuminated by the Fathers and other anchors of Catholic Tradition, and the Magisterium, presented concisely in the Catechism and other teaching documents of the Holy Father and the Councils, are the "sine qua non," or the fundamental resources for our efforts. Our diocesan program must supply elements of a "core curriculum" and a solid faith foundation which will help the faithful withstand the rather constant challenges of the secular culture.

In response to all this, many critics still report themselves confused. One tried to explain away the changes by theorizing that Bishop Finn had always found the way things were done in Kansas City “very foreign” and had “never adjusted.” Or perhaps he never adjusted to those who define Catholicism as an “agenda”.

What Next! What Next?

There is more to come in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. It is too soon to tell how successful Bishop Finn’s approach will be. If he succeeds in reshaping his diocese without losing a substantial number of the Catholics within it, this will upset all the conventional wisdom—the wisdom by which nearly every diocese and the Church as a whole has been governed for almost 50 years. It will become clear that quick, public, and decisive action constitutes effective leadership. It will force other bishops to question whether the only possibility is a slow war of attrition, often so slow that the objectives are forgotten.

For this reason, it is difficult to think of a more important experiment in today’s Church. Here comes a man steeped in Catholic tradition yet formed to engage the modern world. Undaunted by the obstacles in his path, he acts both boldly and swiftly. He neither courts the establishment nor worries about adverse publicity. He governs as if he believes his authority is the authority of Christ. And when asked why he acts as he does, he gives plain and simple Catholic reasons. Let us hope Bishop Finn is a harbinger of things to come. For the present, with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein, Kansas City really is up to date.

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