Like Family, They May Not Be Perfect, But They Are Our Imperfections
By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.
While disgruntled criticisms of Catholic bishops are nothing new, there seems to be an increase of late, especially since the start of Pope Francis’s pontificate. There is clearly no denying that there are problems within the Church, but Catholic moral teaching makes it clear that murmuring against our bishops shouldn’t be taken lightly. Cheap chatter, intellectual pride, and unchecked emotions can often make it difficult to discern who is in the right and make such murmurs justifiable.
There are, however, six—at least—critical things to consider before engaging in public criticism of any bishop (including the Bishop of Rome):
1) The Necessity of Bishops
Throughout the Church’s twenty-century history, the primacy and necessity of the bishop has always been emphasized as the glue uniting the people of God to the Church of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his letters from prison before being eaten by lions in Rome’s Coliseum, emphasizes over and over again the importance of being in accord with the bishop: “Defer to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ did to the Father in the days of his flesh, and as the apostles did to Christ, to the Father, and to the Spirit. In that way we shall achieve complete unity.” (Letters of Ignatius: Magnesians, 97) And later, “Flee from schism as the source of mischief. You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father.” (Letters of Ignatius: Smyrnaeans, 115). Ignatius, like others after him, refers to the essential familial relationship of disciples to the bishops like Christ to his Father.
Like a crack in the windshield, the first break with bishops will only lead to further cracks, as we have ample evidence from the Protestant Reformation. (Although there is no concrete number available because of all the overlap, a quick Internet search says that there are over 41,000 different Christian denominations. Talk about splintering.)
“Surely Ignatius never saw bishops this bad,” one might protest. A brief survey of history will confirm that, yes, bishops have been this bad before. Worse even.
2) The Pope Isn’t a CEO
Since the rise of the modern state following the French Revolution, the balance of power has tipped dramatically from local bishops, pooling around Rome. The post-Révolution political spectrum gobbled up much of the Church’s authority and properties, leaving local Catholics to turn their attention to Rome for guidance. (This is why you find curiosities in the Church, such as the Primate of Poland, which used to be a title that carried some real authority instead of merely an honor as it is today.)
This centralization, while helpful in times of upheaval is not the type of structure intended for the Church. Local bishops traditionally have greater authority to deal with local problems. It is for this reason that the pope is not supposed to act like the CEO of a company and fire bishops beneath him. Or why you can’t write a letter to the pope with your own issues with a priest or bishop and get any kind of action. It simply isn’t how the hierarchy is supposed to work.
3) All Bishops Require Our Charity, Some Require Our Mercy
Even the best bishops have problems in their dioceses. Inside the chancery there are issues of personnel, finances, social dramas, not to mention the weaknesses inherent to the man and the cultural or legal battles outside the chancery. Impossible-to-evaluate spiritual battles are also ever present.
One excellent bishop, committed to holiness and beautiful liturgy, found himself in the humbling position of lowering his own standards diocese-wide as he just tried to ensure that every parish under his jurisdiction was celebrating at last one valid Mass every Sunday. When one is cleaning up messes on such a fundamental level, many other worthy commitments must take a back seat. As outsiders, we never know exactly what is going on behind closed doors.
As for those bishops who are motivated by less than pious intentions, charity and mercy are both required. “Yes, but they don’t deserve it,” one may protest. Exactly. No one who receives mercy deserves it. That’s why it is called mercy. Author Joseph Pearce, chronicled his own conversion from a white supremacist thug to a mild mannered author of biographies about Catholic Intellectuals. In his autobiography, Race With the Devil, what Pearce most attributes to his conversion are the merciful actions performed by others precisely when he didn’t deserve it, usually when he was drunk and up to no good. It was the kindness of others – kindness that seemed positively foolish – that ultimately tenderized his own heart and lead him home to the Church.
This is not a suggestion to turn off our minds and blindly follow the dictates of men chosen to lead our Church, but to inform ourselves, pray, and act in charity. Even when we disagree or don’t understand, we can question like Mary did the Angel Gabriel, but ultimately it is our humble and prayerful obedience that transforms our actions into something truly fruitful.
4) Gossip and Venting
St. Francis De Sales assigned a serial gossiper the task of spreading a large bag of feathers around town. After finishing the task, the young woman was told by the saint to gather them back up. Of course, the request was impossible to fulfill, proving his point.
St. Thomas Aquinas has, of course, an extensive treatment of things related to gossip, including reviling, backbiting and derision, which occur when someone, without a truly good intention, defames another, either publically or privately. What is shocking is that he classifies these, under certain conditions, as mortal sins, graver than theft but less grave than murder. Those “listening” (or reading), are not free of culpability either. In fact, Aquinas argues, they could be even more culpable for their role in “cheerleading,” and not resisting (ST: II-II 73 a 2).
As Thomas notes, there may be a necessary good to expose the sins of others, but extreme discretion needs to be used under such circumstances with not just any reason qualifying as a “necessary good.”
Unfortunately, there is no dispensation for “venting.” Raw emotions of rage or schadenfreude are probably not the best places to start when heading to the com box, social media or the coffee klatch. Go for a walk, chop some wood, or best yet, take it to prayer. I am pretty sure the response you get from “the still, small, voice” won’t be “go rant publicly.”
As ever, the Catholic moral principal that “a good end doesn’t justify bad means” applies here. Slander, reviling and backbiting are no answer to solving the Church’s problems.
Subsidiarity is the Church’s fundamental tenet that assigns responsibility for an issue or problem to the lowest appropriate authority; likewise, it restrains higher authorities from usurping the tasks of the lower. Embracing such decentralization liberates all of us back-seat drivers to let go and let the driver do his job.
So too with our faith. If it is your job to voice criticisms of a bishop because you are in close proximity to him as an employee or trusted friend, then yes, using fraternal correction, you may have an obligation to do so. But for the rest of us, not so much, unless you are like St. Catherine of Siena, tasked with the project because of your personal sanctity (and not just in your own mind).
6) Good Leaders Are a Luxury
Over and over again in scripture, the first thing God does when he is displeased with his people is take away their leadership and replace it with someone weak, impotent, vicious, or all of the above. Ironically, it is when people need strong leaders the most that the one capable of bringing order, unity, and justice is absent. The people are left to languish in their own sin – or wander in the desert – until they finally realize their disobedience doesn’t work. God restores order in response to contrition, repentance and obedience. Leadership, it would seem, is something of a luxury afforded to people who are faithful to God. It is a privilege, a sign of favor, a fruit of the goodness of a people. And in many respects, our bishops are a reflection of us – our own disobedience and viciousness, and in this case, “you get what you pray for.”
Flannery O’Connor said it best when she wrote: “We suffer more from the Church than for the Church.” And we pray that may always be the case because our enemies outside the Church are much more vicious than they are inside, as ISIS shows us daily. But ironically, what we suffer from the Church is made worse by the poison of murmuring.
Ultimately, railing against the bishops proves to be a sterile business, at best. The heroic Cardinal Borromeo in Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” offers a worthy alternative: “You should have loved, my son; loved and prayed. Then you would have felt that the forces of evil have power to threaten and to wound, but no power to command.”
Our bishops are not politicians. They have been ordained to shepherd us. Are some corrupt? Yes. Are there some who are weak? Yes. Are there some who are sinners? Yes (we all are). But perhaps if we offered them more space to do their job and increased prayer to support them, they might do the right thing. And even if they don’t, at least we know we have.