God’s Agency With Bishops

Jimmy Mac picked up on Msgr Charles Pope’s response to me on his blog. I openly wondered about the quality of recent episcopal appointments. Even if the bishops are poor, he replied:

“(T)hey are the Bishops God has placed there and they deserve respect.”

Jim and Thomas suggested God’s agency here is doubtful. But I think it’s worth a serious look.

The ordination of a bishop is a sacramental event. As such, we Catholics believe Christ is involved in a real way. Perhaps any individual believer accepts or rejects this. And that rejection could be for any number of reasons, valid and invalid.

In the document Christus Dominus, Vatican II confirmed what Vatican I taught, that bishops are appointed by the Holy Spirit. Lumen Gentium 20-22, and the Catechism 1555-1561 give a brief summary of Church teaching as well. However, what of the current practice of assigning a bishop from another see? Is God involved with the elevation and installation of bishops? The latter might seem to be based on a subjective human judgment. And what of situations in which people reject a bishop-designate? Does the installation provide anything new that the ordination didn’t?

Probing a little deeper, Catholics are accustomed to a rather high degree of practical quality with regard to the validity and liceity of the Eucharist. By this I mean the matter has to be correct (you can’t consecrate rice bread and apple juice) and the proper ritual must be utilized (you can’t say any old words) and you have to have the proper intention of the Church (that is, you must intend for a sacrament to be celebrated–a priest walking into a bread factory and saying the right words just isn’t going to work).

Are bishops and the bishop-selection process subject to a similar level of scrutiny? In a way, the Eucharist is easy: bread and wine are inanimate substances. And the Church would tell us that gender is all-important, that you can no more consecrate a woman than pomegranate wine.

But suppose the bishop-candidate is “wrong.” Does the Holy Spirit really intend that a person appointed for political reasons is proper matter for the sacrament? A person incapable of good leadership, effective teaching, who does not strive for holiness?

Does God give us the office, but leave the Church with the freedom to appoint appropriate or inappropriate shepherds?

I can accept that in every life situation, God can work good from horrific evils. I can acknowledge the grave evil of World War II, but in doing so, need I reject my own existence? If not for this immoral bloodbath, my parents–from different regions of the country–would never have met and married. Does my existence, and that of my siblings and nephews and nieces justify Hitler?

I’m far from denying that the office of bishop, even as a post-Resurrection reality, is God-given and makes Christ present. But I’m far from satisfied in sitting with the notion that incompetent, insensitive, or even in coherent leadership is “of God.” God can work through a lot of flaws. And I believe God’s intent is that we strive for holiness in spite of our own sins. But giving bishops too much of a pass because they are appointed by God seems to drift off too much to a priest saying the “right words” at a bread factory.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to God’s Agency With Bishops

  1. Liam says:

    Much tends to be ascribed to God’s deliberate will that hindsight reveals was more probably due to God’s permissive will.

  2. Chris Grady says:

    the office of bishop, even as a post-Resurrection reality

    The office of bishop pre-dates the Resurrection: it goes back to Holy Thursday night, when Jesus conferred it upon the twelve.

    The first definitive act of the episcopate is recorded in the Gospels: the betrayal by Judas. So is the second: the denial by Peter. And the third: they all abandoned Jesus.

    Bishops have continued in their office down the century pretty much as they started that first night.

    • Jimmy Mac says:

      I don’t know what you are smoking, Chris, but please let the rest of us in on your secret.

      Do you REALLY believe what you said?

  3. FrMichael says:

    I like Pope Benedict’s comments about God’s will in his book Jesus of Nazareth (IIRC the first volume), which goes along the lines of, “We humans mess things up, God intervenes in history to try to clean it up.”

    I know I responded to one of your comments there in Msgr. Pope’s blog. I’m really not a Todd-groupie or harasser following you around the internet, I assure you, as I came across that post from another blog. It just might seem so at times LOL.

    I interact with my bishop enough to know that’s he’s merely human. And he is realistic and humble enough to heartily agree.

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