On Bishops

I took some heat on a neighboring blog for my tart comments about our American bishops. I believe that 20% or less of our bishops are good bishops. (Another commentator thought I was being generous.)

I will state from the beginning that my first experiences of bishops were overwhelmingly positive. Matthew Clark became my bishop while I was a college student. When I was in grad school, I was surprised that he remembered my name. (I theorized that bishops kept dossiers on rabblerousers and the reason why they were driven to parish events is that it gave them time to review info on potential problems.) Seriously, Bishop Clark asked me about the progress of my theological studies, and seemed up-to-date on my ministry aspirations. More so than my parish pastor.

When I moved to Illinois, the Bishop of Rockford, Arthur O’Neill, introduced himself to be as we sang in the bass section together for a diocesan RCIA workshop.

I met Walter Sullivan when I interviewed at a Virginia parish. He actually sat in on my personal meeting with the pastor. I knew he was the chaplain of Pax Christi USA, so I confess I did drop in the bonbon that I organized Masses for Peace on Wednesdays during the early weeks of the Gulf War.

My archbishop in northeast Iowa knew my wife, remembered we were adopting a child, and when I wrote to complain about some personnel policies, he replied immediately with a personal letter explaining where I was wrong, where I was right to hope for more, and asking for patience for things to change for the better.

I’ve also corresponded with bishops who were not my own, and in correspondence they have been singularly generous, insightful, and patient. This is why I believe most bishops are good priests and holy men.

I’ve also seen and known bishops who seemed to be bitter men. One who publicly dressed down a chancery official for something that was his own fault. And some have been tragically incompetent. It is possible to be a good person, but incompetent in one’s job, or improperly discerned in religious life and service.

Over the years, I’ve become disenchanted with the American bishops as a group. I notice the infighting among them. I’ve noted criticism of brother bishops, of women religious, and of theologians I’ve thought to be mean-spirited, unfair, and sometimes just plain ignorant. And please note that I am not labelling bishops as mean, unfair, or ignorant people. Just their words and actions. These words and actions sometimes betray an inability or unwillingness to be schooled in the truth of a situation. This is a very bad quality for a bishop to possess. As a husband and father, I know it is bad for me to be inflexible, dogmatic, and a poor listener. Good leadership has requirements.

The bishops seem not to have listened or perceived the gravity of the situation of the cover-up of sex abuse. Public statements focus on abusers, but not the veils of secrecy and obfuscation that have done more damage to the wider Church. Those veils cast doubts and shadows on other bishops, good and bad.

Speaking for myself, I do not require a liberal, progressive bishop. I don’t need an echo of my own mind sitting in the nearest cathedra or in the chairs of other cathedrals and chanceries. I think it’s probably a good thing that bishops are conservatives. That provides a balance to clergy and lay disciples who are more forward-thinking, who are making the more aggressive, inspirational, and creative moves at the boundaries of the Church.

Conservatives are probably not the best suited people to be at the borders, generally speaking.  But we should be able to expect stability, thoughtfulness, and discernment from those at the center. Isn’t that just right?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to On Bishops

  1. Liam says:

    My own experience of writing to my own bishop (Cdl Law in 1989) was transforming. It was a deeply personal reflection on my part and made a relatively modest request for consideration on his part. What I got back was a letter from his secretary that essentially converted my letter into an affirmation of the Cdl’s agenda in a way that was signally offensive. It made quite clear that I existed to affirm the Cardinal.

    After that, I felt compelled in conscience to ignore my bishop.. I realized that for most Catholics for most of history, they only paid attention to their bishops when they owed him obligations of service and/or money. Otherwise, they probably prayed that God would bless and keep their bishops…far away from them.

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