Pope On Criticizing Bishops

Msgr Charles Pope, that is, of the archdiocese of Washington DC, writing of bishops and their detractors. His concern about unity is dead-on accurate. I think the Church has been damaged by leaders who have placed the credal value of unity to the rear of a concern for a more strict ideology. Every Sunday and holy day, we profess a Church that is one. It’s not two: right and left, laity and clergy, before and after, in and out, cool and geeks, men and women. Bishops, and especially the pope, are responsible for maintaining unity. And when Msgr pope complains openly, part of it is on his boss, and his boss’s colleagues in the episcopacy:

I have written here before, (often to the great consternation of more than a few readers) of my concerns about disunity in the Church. In particular my concerns center around the dismissive attitudes many have developed toward the bishops. While this attitude was once the domain, largely, of dissenters on the theological left, it has now become quite a common attitude among many theological and ecclesial conservatives as well.

First found at the Deacon’s Bench, I’ve commented there, as well as on Msgr Pope’s blog. I don’t have the answers, but I do have more questions.

Most observers concede that American bishops chosen the past ten to thirty years are trending more conservative and more ideological. So why has dissent become “quite common” from those in the Church more in agreement with these bishops? Have the liberal just given up talking to their bishops? Have the conservatives become so emboldened they feel they “own” the episcopacy? Is it the internet? Is it the mismanagement of sex offenders? Is the translation of angry political behavior to the ecclesial sphere? These are questions Msgr Pope should want to ask. He should want to know the answers.

If I were to think the best of my conservative sisters and brothers, I might come to a disturbing conclusion that the Congregation of Bishops has been giving us poorer bishops for the past ten to thirty years. Msgr Pope disputes this point in his response to me.

I am unaware that the quality of Bishops has declined, but even if it has, they are the Bishops God has placed there and they deserve respect.

Every human being is deserving of respect. That is a bottom line. Bishops, as human beings, deserve no more or less respect because of their office. But in their sacramental role, they are entitled to respect, but again, no less so than my wife and I are entitled to respect each other because of the sacrament we share. Or because of our situation as a domestic church, the inclusion of children in this circle of mutual respect. But if bishops are teachers, then perhaps what some are straining at is the notion that they could lead by example.

Bishops have power to do almost as they wish. As a parent, I have similar power over my daughter. The question is one of effective leadership. If I use my authority unwisely, I’m not likely to net an optimal result in my father-daughter relationship. The same is true of bishops. If they do not respect women and men, adults and children, clergy and religious, liberals and conservatives, employees and volunteers, they are not likely to enjoy an optimal relationship. Their preaching will be forgotten. Their initiatives dismissed. Their motives questioned. And, alas, respect will be withheld. Unless or until a bishop father children or suggests a discussion on church discipline, he can continue to preach, hire, fire, and vacation where he pleases.

Which brings me back to the issue of quality. If the Right is so p***ed off these days at bishops cut from the same ideological cloth, maybe ideology isn’t at root here. Maybe the shepherds are just p***-poor. And perhaps the conservatives are on to something.

God has summoned us to unity and obedience. And unity and obedience should not be reduced to theoretical concepts. There is an actual and real bishop to whom you and I each owe respect and obedience. And even in those rare cases when the Bishop is clearly at odds with a Church teaching or required practice, we humbly seek dialogue. And, if that is not successful, we appeal to higher authority in the Church. Other things being equal, we should seek and cultivate unity with the local bishop. We should seek to understand his priorities, along with that of our pastor. And even if these priorities do not perfectly match ours, we do well to remember who is the anointed leader and who is not. There is a reason that the Bishop is the leader and I am not. At some level we have got to trust God and accept that he works even through imperfect men.

Here are some points on which I feel Msgr Pope falters:

– He speaks of unity between bishop and laity, but a more real danger is the unity within the Body. Few, few bishops are addressing the real chasms, especially that of Left and Right among Catholics today. An unorthodox approach would have these guys working amongst and with the laity of disparate ideologies and serving the greater good. I’m not dismissing the need for bishop-lay unity–not at all. But that’s just a part of the problem.

– Unsuccessful dialogue seems rooted in the sense many lay people get of disrespect from the clergy and their bishops. One of my favorite bishops quizzed me on how my wife’s and my adoption was going. He asked my opinion on a church interior. He listened to a suggestion or two I made when I was playing at a Mass he was to preside at. I didn’t bug him with correspondence (but once) or emails. I didn’t seek him out at meetings. I sensed the respect when he listened to me. And especially when he lunched with my wife once and listened to her. I respected him, though I knew he was put in a difficult place liturgically on some points. Respect meant I wasn’t going to grill him on small points to add juice to my blog. Can a bishop listen to thousands of laity in his diocese? I have just a few hundred parishioners, and I’m concerned I don’t listen to them enough. I can only imagine the hurdles of a bishop. But face it: respect is a two-way street.

– Actions or inaction have consequences. Adults live with consequences. Complaining does not help. Complaints up the “chain of command” are practically useless. I knew a priest with bad knees who opted to bow deeply instead of genuflect. One of his parishioners videotaped him and complained to the bishop. The bishop said genuflection was needed. The pastor complied, and a chain of command was thus established: the videographer, then the bishop, then the slightly embittered pastor. Msgr Pope and the curia itself have placed the complainant on a pedestal. The Culture of Complaint is well-established.

– While focusing on the rights and privileges of bishops and complainers, we’ve lost focus on the responsibilities of each office. A bishop is responsible for unity amongst the people of his see, not just his own gladhanding. Each lay person is responsible for the exercise of charity, good will, and importantly, good presumption (see Catechism 2478) on the part of sister and brother believers. Rights are indeed important. Rights are trampled on in both secular and ecclesial societies. But maybe it’s time to cease harping on our own rights.

Maybe we would be all best served by speaking of the rights of others, and the responsibilities we possess. Bishops, and their well-respected priests might do better to complain less about what they are being denied, and more about what others lack. And perhaps we laity might consider less our right to appeal up the chain of command, and do more praying for the people we detest, and hopefully, shoulder our responsibility for a flawed, sinful, and imperfect Church.

I do know this vent of mine isn’t going to open any doors. I’m likely still on any number of spit-lists for my open and particular criticism of bishops. There’s no question I could look very closely at the remarks I put into print here. I don’t think I offer untruths. I’d say every criticism is well-reasoned, if not heartfelt.

But I do think if Msgr Pope is serious about this essay, some people other than conservative Catholic laity may need to undergo a serious self-examination to get at the bottom of the bile of it all. These matters go far deeper than political ideology. It’s time to quit complaining about Left, Right, and in-between. Time to look for real answers.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Pope On Criticizing Bishops

  1. Liam says:

    He was receptive to my comment:

    Pace much of the sturm und drang at St Blogs over the years, I believe most Catholics in the pews in the US (and the Internet representation of Catholics is a bar-bell curve that is quite the opposite of the reality in the pews) are simply becoming more like real Roman Catholics. I actually think they spend less time actively opposing their bishops than they once did. They hear them, they see if and how the bishops’ talk matches their walk and the Gospels, and take matters under advisement. American Catholics no longer give as much mental space to their bishops as perhaps they once did; they are becoming much like their Roman brethren in that regard.

    I will say this: a great deal of what dominates traffic at Catholic blogs appears to be extraordinarily ruddered by issues of self-dramatization and egoism. People seem to love to use God to exercise vices masquerading as virtues. Overheated rhetoric needs to be identified not only as self-subverting, but an occasion of sin.

  2. Jimmy Mac says:

    ” — they are the Bishops God has placed there and they deserve respect.”

    1. the first part of this statement is highly debatable.
    2. respect is earned, not deserved out of hand.

  3. Jimmy Mac says:

    Tim Unsworth of blessed memory once said it best:

    Bishops break out in shingles in the face of ambiguity; laity live with it each day in their homes, jobs and social life.

  4. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…..
    Amen, KLS

    • Liam says:

      But I should not take that without a bit of self-reproach here, either.

      I don’t blog*. It’s easy for me to play the role of fact-checker and rhetorical cold water thrower, which is one of my big bits of role-playing, I admit. I am not the writer, just The Critic, as it were. Blogging on the cheap.

      * It’s not that I’ve not been invited to consider it. Todd graciously offered me a berth here, and every year I get people who respond to my comments with, “I’d love to read your blog” or something like that. Why don’t I? For a few reasons, among which are:

      1. I am, in Amy Wellborn’s adaptive revival of the phrase, a Bad Catholic. I have a couple of issues that are in the form of knotty, unresolved questions. I don’t try to rally people around them, though, as such, though I’ve certainly invited feedback on what I consider unresolved and, remarkably, not a single attempt has ever been sincerely engaged at any depth. I attribute that more to the weakness of the medium than human weakness, though the latter is not absent, either. Anyway, I am quite comfortable with messiness, and in fact have very strong reasons to believe I am called to live in a state of unresolved messiness, rather than the more comfortable and congenial climes of tidiness and order: to me, that’s the call to faith rather than certainty.

      2. My own spiritual life is boring. I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in anything I have to say about it. If anything, it’s a pretty bracing embrace of dryness. Priests don’t preach about it (though they should) because people (especially Americans) are even more terrified of dryness than death.

      3. There’s too much temptation to egoism for me; not so much of the obvious kind, but the more insidious kind. Instead, I learned from a Jesuit spiritual director that I am naturally contemplative – not the common, meditative sense of that word, but rather I am naturally open to finding God in what my senses and personal encounters bring up for me in the moment. This is why I work better as a respondent than an initiator: I want to behold. If I focus on my beholding, and analyze, I get lost in myself. That’s just beside the point.

      • My own spiritual life is boring. I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in anything I have to say about it. If anything, it’s a pretty bracing embrace of dryness.

        What an astounding revelation, Liam, as I would have bet the last dollar that you possessed one of the most fecund of spiritual lives of any soul ever encountered in cyberville. But I understand that nothing is as it “seems” in these most important matters. I, obviously, seem to embrace “tulmult and turmoil (sturm und drang)” as my M.O. Not healthy. And with the latest news coming out of El Paso, TX coming before the imminent move of their bishop to our see, I cannot see a lessening of Todd’s and Msgr. Pope’s concerns about how we plebian RC’s are to “behave.”
        Lord, let there be Lumen Christi at the end of this year’s tunnel…amen.

  5. The monsignor’s comment that “they are the bishops God has placed there” is nonsense. They were selected by litmus test and represent a relentlessly self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

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