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Bishop Finn in Kansas City: Not quite up to date?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 30, 2014

Frankly, I was among the most vigorous supporters of Bishop Robert Finn when he took over the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in May of 2005. It did not take this “Opus Dei” bishop long to start making the kinds of changes which are so critical to both Catholic renewal and the New Evangelization. I did not hesitate to provide a long list of reasons to praise Bishop Finn after his first year in a piece called Everything’s Up To Date in Kansas City. And when I rerview that commentary today, I am still struck by how promising Finn’s leadership looked.

Unfortunately, Bishop Finn was somewhat tangentially caught in the sex abuse scandal in 2011 when he failed to report to civil authorities a priest who had child pornography on his computer. Given the rather fuzzy circumstances of Finn’s failure, I did not regard it as extremely significant, except in the sense that a failure to be absolutely on top of these things in today’s Church really does raise questions of competence. Finn’s failure in this regard inevitably called his leadership into question, even more when he granted at least one jurisdiction the right to regularly review the diocese’s handling of sex abuse in return for dropping charges against him. To me, letting civil government into Church administration is the last thing a bishop should ever do.

Now the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been the subject of an Apostolic Visitation to determine Bishop Finn’s fitness for leadership. The news was broken (not surprisingly) by the National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper whose middle name is an oxymoron. But it is interesting that the primary question asked by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa—the Apostolic Visitor—did not involve Finn’s handling of sexual abuse. The primary question was this: “Do you think he is fit to be a leader?”

And therein lies a tale.

Ideological Differences and Ruffled Feathers

We cannot get inside Bishop Finn’s head to see what God sees, but we would be foolish not to note that there is at least one other major fact about Bishop Finn’s leadership which is likely to generate a significant number of negative reviews: He set out from the first, and very vigorously, to change the rather lackadaisical Catholic culture of his diocese. We need to keep in mind that, very often, the person who goes in to reform a bad situation serves only a short time because he must make so many enemies. But having effected the shift, it becomes far easier for somebody else to come in and continue the work.

You can read the details of this cultural shift in my initial commentary. Essentially, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had been a leader in promoting and training lay pastoral ministers as substitutes for priests. It was a diocese which seemed to embrace the priest shortage, perhaps interpreting its causes as a justification for creating a FutureChurch characterized by ever-growing secularism. There was clearly a worldly attitude at work, and this was manifest in the administration of the diocese, the university faculties the diocese used to train people, and even the authors published in the diocesan newspaper. Finn pitted himself directly against this classic “progressive Catholic” culture of accommodation.

To do this he had to shake things up, dismissing key people in the old regime, radically altering the allocation of funds in the Diocesan budget, and appointing collaborators who shared his vision (which, whatever Finn’s personal failings may be, at least represents both the mind of the Church and much of what we strive to inculcate at CatholicCulture.org). Such shake-ups make enemies. Despite the fact that Finn consulted widely throughout the diocese during the year he served as coadjutor, before taking over in 2005, the classic liberal complaints were made against him as soon as he began his program of reform: Finn doesn’t consult (the right) people. Finn has a personal (and regrettable) agenda. Finn alienates (the wrong) people. Finn doesn’t understand (the comfortable patterns of) Kansas City-St. Joseph.

As the National Catholic Reporter story makes clear, Finn’s counter-cultural leadership generated its share of critics. Inevitably, NCR made a point of using only the critics in its story. On the other hand, it has to be acknowledged that among his critics have been not only people from the old regime whom Finn dismissed, but also Finn’s own hand-picked chief of staff, Jude Huntz, who served from November of 2011 until August of 2014 (and who was apparently orchestrating an effort to replace the bishop even while still in office).

Reaching a Conclusion

It would be foolish, of course, to praise Finn’s leadership ability just because I respect his orthodoxy. Too many people on all sides of every question make this fundamental category mistake. Still, I find myself willing to put up with at least some shortcomings in a man who can say things like the following:

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.

Now: If such words inspire me, how many do they frighten?

Ah, well. Rome will undoubtedly evaluate everything carefully, and make a prudent decision. But it is also true that part of prudence is to do what one can to avoid or repair breaches in mutual trust. I had high hopes for Bishop Robert Finn. It is painful to witness his undoubted suffering as he has come under fire from both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. I still hope for a happy outcome, an outcome that will not throw Finn’s deep and public commitment to authentic Catholic renewal into disrepute.

But I will confuse neither dissatisfaction with incompetence nor zeal with ability. On the key question in this investigation, we shall have to wait and see. For the moment, we can say with confidence that an Apostolic Visitation is not a good sign. With apologies once again to Rogers and Hammerstein, Rome may find that things have not yet gone as far as they can go.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 05, 2014 1:51 PM ET USA

    When liberal Catholics fail to follow the leadership of an orthodox Catholic Bishop they find ways to make the Bishop look like a poor leader. This entire thing is much to do about orthodox versus liberal. Bishop Finn may have to go but I hope the next Bishop is ultra orthodox.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Oct. 02, 2014 7:32 PM ET USA

    Finn is not the victim of a "witch hunt," as many have said. He was convicted, albeit on a misdemeanor count, of a sex abuse related crime. He also placed other young people in danger when he requested that Ratigan be able to live in a Vincentian Fathers house without telling the hosts why Ratigan was being put there. I have no sympathy for Finn and wish he would have the intelligence and humility to step down. He's the reason that even faithful Catholics like myself don't trust our hierarchy.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 02, 2014 11:49 AM ET USA

    “The best song is still ours” (p.8) writes Cardinal Pell, and Athanasius is still a model for our times and for all of those who don’t shrink back from the righteous battle in defense of the truth." SYNOD AND TRUTH: Understanding In Depth the Grave Errors of Cardinal Kasper - Roberto de Mattei, (Rorate Caeli website) After making commenting here, I could not help but find solidarity with de Mattei's conclusion. Yes, stand fast in testimony to truth. Do not "shrink back" from its defense.

  • Posted by: shrink - Sep. 30, 2014 10:11 PM ET USA

    One might also be very very curious about Mr Huntz, who, while being paid by Bp Finn, and having the bishop's confidence, was contriving to subvert him? And three years later he brags about his "concerns" in a full throttle interview to the NCR!! Did Cdl George give his permission for this interview? Or was it the newly installed Bp Cupich? Also, was Mr Huntz in the middle of the embroglio in Scranton that surrounded the shenanigans of one Fr. Urrutigoity?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Sep. 30, 2014 8:07 PM ET USA

    From initial disappointment with Francis I swung to a modicum of enthusiasm. But now, after witnessing too many gaffes on his part to be mere accidents, and after seeing the (ongoing) media circus he has allowed the present Synod to occasion, I am gradually returning to my first impression. What is happening with Finn does nothing to allay my growing concern. It must be remembered that every time you say "Rome" in this essay, you could just as well have said "Pope Francis".

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 30, 2014 7:07 PM ET USA

    I attended a Solemn High Mass offered by Bishop Finn in 2007 at St. Patrick's in KC shortly after Summorum Pontificum. A great moment! We continue to live in challenging times. The Church transcends, but many Catholics and Church leaders struggle with and even recoil from this reality. It is a scandal. But we must know ourselves; as the gospel says: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." Tenacity is not dispensable. Hold on!