The Church and Accountability
We hear a lot these days about accountability. That’s good.
The Church needs to be accountable. For one, and most significantly, we are accountable to God. As the Bible tells us, one day we shall stand before Him in judgment. On that day, no excuses, no rationalizing, no denying, no hiding, will do us a bit of good. We will answer to God and, literally, “there will be hell to pay.”
Then, we are accountable to ourselves. As people of integrity, we hold ourselves to the high standards coming from morality, a properly formed conscience, and the expectations of Jesus and His Church. Sometimes we say things like, “I just couldn’t live with myself if I did that.” That’s a good indication that we are people of character. And, often do we examine our consciences to hold ourselves responsible, apologizing to God or another when we have let them down.
Three, we’re accountable to others: spouses, family, brothers and sisters in the faith, friends, co-workers, countrymen, teammates, our class. Others rely upon us, and we can’t let them down.
Four, we’re accountable to nature. If we pollute or abuse nature, it will catch up with us, and we or our children suffer the results.
Finally, are we not accountable to history? Those who come after us will bless us or curse us for the choices we make now, and will have to live with the consequences of our actions, good and bad.
The Church, too, is accountable. In the past, at times, some Catholics acted like the Church was above reproach, exempt from the demands of accountability, on its own, above it all. That was wrong. That was tragic.
As your archbishop, I am accountable to many, and I’m glad that I am, because I am weak, imperfect, flawed. Daily do I examine my conscience. Every two weeks I tell God, “I’m sorry,” in the sacrament of penance. Often do I meet with people, boards, and councils to whom I report, and ask for advice and criticism.
I am accountable in a special way to the Holy See. One simple but effective way we bishops give a report of ourselves to the Vatican is called the ad limina visit, which takes place about every five years. You may recall that, just last November, Bishop Dennis Sullivan, Bishop Dominick Lagonegro, Bishop Josu Iriondo, Bishop Gerald Walsh, and I (and we were happy that Cardinal Edward Egan joined us as well), spent a week in Rome giving an account of our pastoral leadership in this archdiocese. The Holy Father and the prefects of the different departments of the Vatican asked some tough questions of us and, yes, offered some chiding. They listened to us as well.
Actually, in preparation for this ad limina visit, we had to submit a lengthy Quinquennial Report, providing the Holy Father himself with information on our parishes; sacramental life; education; the liturgy; vocations; clergy; religious women and men; our youth; the seminary; finances; charity and services to the sick, needy, elderly, and immigrants; our prophetic role in society in defense of the poor, the unborn, marriage, family, and the common good; and our cooperation with the wider ecumenical and civic community.
Just last month, guess what? I got a reply from Rome—specifically, from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who coordinates the visits ad limina. It is clear to me that the officials of the Vatican read our Quinquennial!
I want to be accountable to you, so here are the points they raised:
First, the reply noted our efforts to defend marriage from attempts to weaken it, especially through last summer’s sadly successful state law which presumed to change the immutable definition of marriage as the lifelong, faithful, lifegiving union of one man and one woman. The Holy See shared our disappointment over the result, but did commend the Catholic community here for vigorously exercising its duty as believers and as loyal citizens in defending marriage.
Secondly, Cardinal Ouellet, on behalf of the Apostolic See, expressed concern about threats to religious freedom in the very country that has been looked to as the guarantor and defender of that first of our liberties given us by God.
Thirdly, and soberly, the letter brought up the continuing painful effects of the sexual abuse crisis, noting how the survivors, their families, the faithful, our priests—the overwhelming majority living virtuously—and the entire Church have suffered. The Vatican encouraged us to continue our sensitive vigilance leading to a renewal of trust in the Church and community, so that the Church can be seen as a sanctuary for our youth and children.
Fourthly, the Holy See called us to accountability in the new evangelization, especially urging us to keep up our efforts to make Sunday Mass a priority, calling people back to the sacrament of penance, outreach to our university students, and going after those who have drifted away from the Church.
Fifthly, Rome congratulated us on the merger of seminaries among the Diocese of Brooklyn, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and ourselves, while prodding us about the low number of vocations here in the Archdiocese. (I better get to work on that!)
Finally, our pastoral planning, especially for our parishes and schools…they reminded us not to forget that, while such sound planning is essential for the proper stewardship of God’s gifts and resources, the closing, merging, or consolidation of parishes and schools is usually very painful for God’s people, and thus must be done tenderly, patiently and prudently. Point well taken…
All in all, I was encouraged and challenged by the letter, as we bishops were by the visit itself. Good accountability usually does that…
The correspondence concluded by asking me to convey to our priests, religious, and faithful, the love, gratitude, and apostolic blessing of Pope Benedict XVI. Consider it done…