Is 'corruption' the right way to describe the dysfunction of the Catholic hierarchy?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 17, 2016

Several readers have questioned my use of the term “corruption” to describe the current state of the Catholic hierarchy. Few if any bishops use their positions for illicit gains, my friends write; so it is not accurate to say that they are corrupt. I see the point, but I disagree. Let me explain.

We would agree that a defense lawyer is “corrupt” if he deliberately botches his client’s case, in exchange for a kickback from an equally corrupt prosecutor. If another lawyer argued the case just as badly, because of incompetence or laziness, we might call him a bad lawyer but not a corrupt one.

Now imagine a lawyer who deliberately scuttled his client’s defense, not because he hoped for any personal gain, but because he believed the world would be a better place with his client behind bars. He might think of himself as an upright man: someone who would never dream of accepting a bribe; someone working selflessly to eliminate crime. Nevertheless he would be a corrupt lawyer, because he would be acting contrary to the ethical norms of his profession.

In the same sense, I argue that a bishop or priest is corrupt if his actions are not guided by the desire to save souls. He might work tirelessly; he might sacrifice his own personal interests. But if he is motivated primarily by the desire to balance the books, or to preserve the public image of his diocese or parish, or to enhance its social clout, then his intentions are faulty and his work is suspect.

Let me put it another way. A man is “corrupt” if, when he succeeds in doing what he sets out to do, he fails to do what he should do, because he is guided by the wrong principles.

In a corrupt police department—as seen in countless action movies—the problem is not simply that some cops take bribes from criminals. The problem is that honest cops cannot clean up the force, because whenever they report one venal colleague, they run into a superior who is also on the Mafia payroll, and will suppress the evidence. So the system rewards behavior that is at odds with the purposes of law enforcement. That sort of institutional corruption can be changed only by a thorough, dramatic, and probably painful house-cleaning.

Again, I do not believe that our bishops are corrupt in the sense that they seek illicit gain. But I do believe—and have argued at length that the American bishops, as a group, have lost sight of the real purposes of their ministry. To the degree that is true, the hierarchy is corrupt and dramatic reform is needed.

In the first reading from today’s Mass, taken from the Book of Ezekiel, the Lord scolds the shepherds who have not looked after their sheep: “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” Doesn’t that sound like a description of today’s confused American Catholic population?

One old friend suggested that rather than speaking of “corruption,” I should charge clerics with timidity. He argued persuasively that bishops and priests who conduct themselves honestly will easily dismiss the charge of corruption. But no man likes to be called a coward, and the charge of timidity is much more difficult to dismiss. Point taken.

On the other hand I recall a conversation with another old friend, who angrily referred to a negligent bishop as a “crook.” Playing the unaccustomed role of peacemaker, I observed that there was no evidence this bishop had ever engaged in any financial misconduct. So he was not a “crook,” I suggested. My friend was not mollified. “Is he doing his duty as a bishop?” he asked. No, I admitted; he clearly was not. “Is he taking his salary as a bishop?” Yes, he was. My friend closed out the argument: “Then he’s taking money under false pretenses; he’s a crook!”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: johnleocassidy3475 - Aug. 20, 2016 2:48 PM ET USA

    Dear Phil - Here in the London 'Westminster' Diocese, I'm afraid your analysis is all too true. We never hear any of the essential truths of the Catholic Church mentioned by priests in sermons such as the 4 last things, sin, repentance, compunction,theological virtues, etc. I doubt if the majority of the priests ever give much thought to salvation. It is even less certain if the real presence is held with any conviction. Purification and reform of the clergy is the big issue.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 18, 2016 1:09 PM ET USA

    Phil, you are absolutely correct in your past three columns! I see Pope Francis as someone with a good potential to break the crust of corruption. And we keep in mind that there is nothing impossible for the Holy Spirit.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Aug. 17, 2016 3:26 PM ET USA

    So half of our bishops are corrupt, and the other two thirds are cowards. That just leaves my own Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix as the lone Catholic wolf looking out for the sheep. Not quite what Jesus had in mind, imho.

  • Posted by: KC627 - Aug. 17, 2016 2:06 PM ET USA

    At our morning Mass today, our pastor, as part of his homily, stated that "Bishops and (we)Priests as 'Shepherds' should use this reading from the Prophet Ezekiel as part of an examination of conscience." I pray that all our priests, Bishops and leaders in the Church are inspired by the Holy Spirit to discern this same message from Ezekiel to see if they are properly shepherding their "flocks."

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 17, 2016 10:47 AM ET USA

    If American Catholics were lead by fearless men whose gaze was fixed firmly on the crucified Christ then America would not be the country that leads the world in abortion, divorce, sexual sins, drug abuse, facsist government, low Mass attendance and general poor worship of God Almighty. The Bishops and priests should dread the day they are called before the just judge to receive their final sentence. Jesus said don't fear the one that can kill you but fear the one that can let you go to hell.