The appointment of Bishop Sean O’Malley to head the Boston Archdiocese just months after he was sent to rebuild the church in Palm Beach, Fla., shows he is trusted by the Vatican but has raised questions about whether the Roman Catholic Church has too small a pool of capable leaders.
Some American Catholics, on both the left and right, have said as much since the clerical sex-abuse crisis erupted last year.
Liberals see a conservative pope who has picked bishops for their loyalty over leadership skills. Conservatives see a church with problems so large that relatively few people can handle them.
Bishop O’Malley fits into both arguments.
Staunchly loyal to the Vatican, he also seems uniquely qualified to help the Boston Archdiocese recover from a year of devastating scandals. Bishop O’Malley served as bishop of Fall River, Mass., after a major abuse scandal there, and then was sent last year to shepherd Palm Beach, where the two previous bishops admitted molesting minors.
Pope John Paul II picked Bishop O’Malley as Boston’s next archbishop on Tuesday. Looking at church leaders throughout the country, Catholic observers say there were few other choices.
Editor Tom Roberts of National Catholic Reporter, a newsweekly that has unearthed sex-abuse scandals since 1985, believes the past year “has pointed out how lacking in leadership the bishops’ conference is.”
The Rev. Richard McBrien, an outspoken University of Notre Dame theologian, agrees. “There is little or no leadership talent in the hierarchy today,” he says.
Mr. Roberts and Father McBrien are liberals who often goad the bishops, but conservatives are worried, too.
“When I look around at the current bishops and the ones I’d like to see promoted, I don’t come up with too many names,” concedes Philip Lawler of the Catholic World News Internet service.
Russell Shaw, a longtime spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference, says he came up with “six, eight or, generously, 10” persons among the 279 active bishops qualified to handle Boston.
But, Mr. Shaw says, that doesn’t mean the talent pool is shallower than a decade or a generation ago. “The problems are much larger and more intractable,” he says, and the hierarchy brought this situation upon itself through mishandling abuse cases in years past.
Deal Hudson, the conservative editor of Crisis magazine, sees a “shortage of bishops with both the theological and people skills that are necessary to dig out from a situation rife with anger, with division and with, frankly, depression.”
Some might theorize that the steadily shrinking number of priests inevitably means fewer well-qualified bishops, but Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge doubts that.
Mr. Hoge says his own research indicates that if celibacy became optional there would be four times as many priesthood candidates and seminaries would be full once again. But he doesn’t think that affects the hierarchy.