“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

If you haven’t yet read my post explaining why Robert Finn, the Catholic bishop of Kansas City, deserves the indictment handed down by a grand jury the other day for not reporting a priest found with child pornography to the police, as the law requires, please go here. It’s important to have the facts before you decide what to think about that situation. I drew from the long independent report that the diocese commissioned from a former US Attorney. It always was breathtaking that any Church leader would react to the sexual exploitation of children by clergy with anything less than revulsion and resolve to make things right. It defies all explanation that in 2011, after all the Catholic Church has been through on this front over the last decade, that a bishop would come down on the side of shielding a priest on whose computer was found a cache of hundreds of photographs of little girls’ genitals. But that is what the Bishop of Kansas City chose to do, and now he’s got to answer for it in court.

This morning’s NYT reports on the reaction among the faithful of the parish where Father Shawn Ratigan, now facing state and federal child pornography charges, served as pastor. The reporter spoke to them as they went to Sunday mass. This caught my eye:

“Obviously we’re not O.K. with this and we don’t like the way it was handled,” said Jason Krysl, standing with his wife, a teacher at a Catholic school, who was holding their 7-month-old son. “But it’s frustrating because there’s not much you can do about it. It’s not like you can vote for bishop.”

Maggie Nurrenbern, a high school Spanish teacher, said the indictment was a step in the right direction. “Nobody is above the law,” she said. “The bishop should go to jail, I absolutely believe that. He was covering this up for months and the priest kept abusing girls in the meantime.”

And Bill Marcotte, who is retired and serves as an usher, said he was disappointed. But, he added, “If you’re a good Catholic you’ve got to forgive him.”

Jason Krysl encapsulates the frustration of faithful Catholics when confronted by bishops like this: as a layman, there is nothing you can do. When we were still Catholics and living in Dallas, we were so disgusted finally with the diocesan leadership on the scandal that we began directing our tithe to the St. Vincent de Paul, to help the poor. We didn’t want our parish to have any of it for several reasons, first among them not wanting the bishop to have access to a single pfennig. This was not a good strategy, as the pastor of our parish had no say at all in how the bishop handled things. Our pastor could have been the second coming of the Cure’ of Ars, and he still could have done nothing, given the structure of church governance. In my case, the anger and frustration over our own powerlessness in the face of this corruption in high places finally corroded away my ability to believe. And so I left. This happened a lot in Boston, the epicenter of the US scandal, and has been happening a lot in Europe. Yet the Church hierarchy acts as if there is no reason to worry, that bishops do not have to be accountable to the laity for their actions. There is apparently this deep conviction that they are the Church, and have no real responsibility to anybody but themselves and the clerical class. Erin Manning, a faithful orthodox Catholic and longtime reader of this blog, tells of her experience with the punishing effects of clericalism on the morale of the laity in this must-read comment on the Bishop Finn thread.

It’s not just in Catholicism. I am a communicant of  the Orthodox Church in America. We have not been hit with sex abuse scandals (UPDATE: I forgot the charge, as yet unresolved, against a Canadian bishop based on something he is alleged to have done 30 years ago) but the behavior of many of our bishops over the past few years has been a bad joke. It’s hardly worth going into in detail here, but it involves chronic financial scandal, abuse of power, rumors of sexual misconduct (not with minors!), and the kind of backbiting and malicious intrigue that makes “Gossip Girl” look like a model of communal integrity. A few years ago, in my Dallas parish, Archbishop Dmitri (of blessed memory) instructed us all to quit reading a muckraking website, which was pretty much the only source anybody had for details of the chicanery and fecklessness among the Holy Synod. He was right to counsel skepticism about that site, which has its own agenda, but the archbishop’s instructions amounted to, “Don’t look at this scandal, don’t think about it, let us bishops handle it.” The problem was, the bishops weren’t handling it. There was a striking absence of leadership and integrity among those men when it came to dealing forthrightly with corruption in their own ranks. Still is, to a distressing degree.

When the Catholic parishioner quoted above says of his bishop, “if you’re a good Catholic, you’ve got to forgive him,” that resonates. In Orthodox circles, this sentiment comes out as, “Stop worrying about the sins of the bishop (or priests), and focus on your own sins.” There is truth in both related ideas. Christians do have a duty to forgive, and also an obligation to always keep their own sinfulness front to mind, and to guard against self-righteousness.”

But I find that these noble sentiments are typically deployed not for the sake of greater holiness, but both to protect the clerical class from facing accountability for their failings, and to protect the laity from having to face the unpleasant, even painful, facts about its own leadership — and, in turn, to consider what their own responsibilities as Christians and members of the Church might be. It may be easier to say, “I forgive the bishop” and move on than to stop and think about what the bishop did, and what kind of thoughtful response it requires. In a case like this, easy forgiveness amounts to the cheap grace both nervous clergy and anxious laity need to protect themselves from facing true accountability. They’d rather believe in the fiction that everything is just fine than to do the hard work of repentance and authentic reform.

No lay person wants to believe that his religious leaders have done wrong. As a father, it is hard for me to understand why any father, upon learning that his child was molested by a priest, did not go straight to the cops, or even straight to the rectory and beat the crap out of the molester, instead of going to the bishop and acquiescing in a cover-up. But you know, that’s human nature. People may not have been able to comprehend that a priest or a bishop behaved this way. It was too confusing, too upsetting. Trusting in Church leaders to make things right was perhaps the path of least resistance. We all have a powerful need to believe in the integrity and goodwill of our religious leaders — and they have a powerful need to believe in their own integrity and goodwill.

In the 1990s, a certain Catholic bishop was confronted by a married woman, her lawyer, and her psychiatrist, who told him that Father X., her confessor, had used knowledge of her sins to blackmail her into an adulterous affair. The bishop told her that if she went public with that, that he would have no choice but to ruin her, “because I have to protect the people of God.” See, I have no problem believing that that bishop was not being cynical, that he truly believed that his malicious threat amounted to carrying out his duty to shield his flock. It was bulls nonsense of course, but the point I wish to make is that many in the clerical class, and enablers in the laity, play this game with each other, in which they implicitly agree not to see what is right in front of them, because to recognize it for what it is would occasion a crisis neither wants to face.

And so, yes, we do have to forgive to be good Christians, and we do have to keep our own sinfulness front to mind. But Bishop Finn seems to want forgiveness without accountability for what he’s done here. Too often, it seems to me, we cheapen the precious gift of forgiveness and grace by turning it into a sentimental gesture. If you have ever examined your own conscience seriously, felt the weight of your own sins, genuinely repented, and felt the sweet liberation of forgiveness, you may rightly feel angry at how the treasure of forgiveness is abused in these cases. If people come to believe that the Christian church’s teaching on forgiveness is being used as an excuse to protect clerical malefactors from accountability, then one of the central promises and great gifts of the Christian faith will seem like a sham, and the kind of practice that simply enables destructive behavior.

Understand this: I’m not protesting forgiveness, but asserting the importance of the real thing against cheap grace. Bishop Finn has a right to expect forgiveness from his people, but he has no right to expect them to support his remaining as bishop. I am not impressed by expressions of sorrow from bishops who have failed so spectacularly in the governance of the local church, who do not at least offer to resign as a sign of their contrition. That hierarchs in the institutional Church has no expectation that bishops in such positions should resign or be removed sends a powerful signal that they believe themselves to be unaccountable by virtue of their office, and that the Church really exists for themselves. In the Orthodox Church, our bishops parade in fine vestments and magnificent beards. But the clothes and the beard, and even valid ordination do not make one a true Christian leader. In their hearts, people know that, or should. But cheap grace serves the therapeutic needs of many clerics and many in the laity, so it remains common, even as discouraged people drift away from the Church, or never darken its doors because they don’t believe it’s for real.

(I haven’t talked about Protestant clericalism, simply because I have no experience with it, but I don’t doubt that it exists, though probably expresses itself in different ways, owing to a different ecclesiology.)