The Diocese of Baton Rouge got the right man at the right time for the many challenges that lie ahead.
Last month, the Most Rev. Michael Duca formally transferred his bishopric to Baton Rouge from the Diocese of Shreveport. To me, having attended Masses at which he celebrated, not only did he deliver engaging homilies, but it also was clear the Spirit burns brightly in him.
Additionally, Duca has demonstrated in his career leadership skills that make him well-suited to address current problems within the church. Originally from Dallas, he attended Holy Trinity Seminary. Almost two decades later, he became its rector and restored dignity and order to a place that had become, in the words of D Magazine, “a magnet for sexually confused youths, or self-professed gays” with an environment that “degenerated into obvious promiscuity.”
After working to reform one of the most scandal-plagued dioceses in the country, Msgr. Duca won appointment to Shreveport, one of fewer than a dozen American dioceses that, according to the authoritative website BishopAccountability, has had no priests publicly accused of abuse. Even as nationally Mass attendance fell, as well as the number of Catholics and priests — undoubtedly in part resulting from clerical scandals — the proportion of Catholics and number of priests held steady in north Louisiana during his decade there.
Duca’s pastoral skill will help in Baton Rouge, where the Catholic portion of the population since 2002 has fallen nearly 2 percent and the number of priests by a fifth, with a corresponding shrinkage of the number of parishes. Thankfully, even as the diocese has had past problems with clerical abuse — most shamefully its having to settle a suit involving deceased former Bishop Joseph Sullivan — nothing untoward has surfaced recently.
Given his experiences, Duca seems well-equipped to oversee a process of priestly formation that weeds out the unchaste and unholy that could prey on his flock. And, although never tested in this way, he gives every reason to believe that if controversy did erupt, he wouldn’t engage in the unconscionable hide-and-seek games too many in the Church hierarchy have played and continue to play.
Duca ought to address other issues as well. He can help to quell confusion over Pope Francis’ recent catechism change that declared the death penalty as “inadmissible.” That repudiates the view of almost every notable Catholic theologian over the past two millennia that rare use of capital punishment has redemptive value for individuals and may defend the larger community.
Hundreds of American Catholic theologians and religious, from university professors to ordinary priests, have petitioned the Holy Father not to follow through with this unprecedented reversal of dogma. With it, they fear the Church loses its claim to teach eternal truths from God and that other doctrinal abandonments may follow to erode that legitimacy further.
While used as a primary teaching document, bishops may extend the contents of the catechism in instructing the faithful. Duca and his fellow bishops could clarify that “inadmissible” means flawed judicial processes and administration of capital punishment should circumscribe its use at this time but that the practice itself isn’t inherently immoral.
Also, Duca, who asks that Catholics live their faith actively, should remind Catholics that this doesn’t mean its reduction into mere political ideology stumping for certain causes. The Church must emphasize its mysteries of faith and the gospel, and it mustn’t devolve into shilling for a presumed social gospel that makes it indistinguishable from secular organizations and interests.
Baton Rouge Catholics want confidence in the institutions of their faith and deserve superior spiritual guidance. Duca has the ability to provide both.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about the Louisiana Legislature at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or write firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.