In February 2002, with the US Catholic Church reeling from the abuse scandal in Boston, and similar revelations going off all over the country like long-hidden land mines, David Spotanski, a layman who was chancellor of the Diocese of Belleville, wrote this long memo to his boss. That boss was Bishop Wilton Gregory, who had recently been elected head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Spotanski read this memo aloud to Bishop Gregory in the privacy of his office. Bishop Gregory — now the Archbishop of Atlanta — later said that he took this memo with him, along with photos of the three Spotanski children, whenever he traveled on business having to do with the Church’s handling of the scandal.

As the Catholic bishops gather for their annual meeting, it’s worth re-reading what Spotanski wrote 16 years ago. I can’t copy-and-paste sections from the PDF file, but I can post screenshots:

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Later that year, the USCCB would promulgate the Dallas guidelines. No bishops would be held accountable under its terms.

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In fact, John Paul II — now a canonized saint — would move Law to Rome to serve as archpriest in one of the city’s most important basilicas.

More. Here he refers to his own children, Jonathan, James, and Erin:

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One final passage:

Read the whole thing. 

A lot has changed since Spotanski — who now works for the Atlanta archdiocese — wrote this great letter. A lot has not.

Over the weekend, I read in Ryszard Legutko’s book The Demon In Democracy this passage about Cardinal Stefan Wyszinski, the Polish primate, who broke with his predecessors’ encouragement to the faithful to work with the communists:

But in his rejection of the dialogue, Primate Wyszynski was right. He did not trust the intellectuals, and in fact had never trusted them, as one can see from a well-known article published before World War II when the specter of communist Poland was not yet in sight. Hence, his decisions to make the Catholicism of the people — the folk Catholicism, so to speak — the stronghold of the Catholic faith was quiet understandable and compatible with his deep convictions. The decision had far-reaching and generally positive effects: by relying on rural religiosity the Church managed to preserve a large area of social practices and religious traditions that was not accessible to the communist ideology. In countries where this type of folk Christianity did not exist or was considerably weaker, the communist system managed to wreak more havoc and penetrated deeper into the social fabric.

Legutko goes on to say that this strategy had a down side too, namely that it left the Church without much in the way of intellectual leadership. The problem is that the Catholic intellectuals (in Legutko’s account) were almost all compromised.

Anyway, I read this Legutko passage in light of the crisis in the US Church regarding the bishops. What if faithful lay Catholics substituted the word “bishops” for “intellectuals” and “communist” in the passage? In other words, what if it were possible to speak of the episcopal class as untrustworthy, and of authentic Catholicism being preserved by the people, who guarded themselves and their children from being harmed — spiritually and intellectually, I mostly mean, but not only that — by the institutional Church and its leadership? I’m not talking about people leaving the Catholic Church, but rather finding a way to abide within it faithfully despite its being led by many untrustworthy shepherds. Is that even possible? If so, what would it look like?