The Next Good Bishop

Who was the last good bishop appointed in the United States? And some people are asking, more importantly, who will be the next good bishop?

Frequent commenter and friend Jimmy Mac has been peppering me with emails and links the past several weeks. And he’s not the only one. I’ve also been reading more progressive and liberal Catholics lately. A lot of enthusiasm for symbolic moves: washing the feet of women and Muslims, the Gang-of-Eight serving as his “cabinet” for reform. The seeming sidelining of Dolan for O’Malley, that Braz de Aziz seems to be a bit lighter in his steps, the crackdown in Scotland–all this points to a change in the game plan. And to be honest, when the train collision is in the air, even running off the rails in a semi-upright position seems an improvement.

So we’ve gotten a few new bishops lately, and some Catholics are vexed about it. Aren’t these guys all conservatives? What about that breath of fresh Third World air? What about housecleaning? Why business-as-usual?

I don’t think it’s time to get alarmed or annoyed. Seriously. New appointments were all in the pipeline long before sede vacante, and no pope is going to track dozens of dioceses and maybe three times as many candidates when he has bigger fish to fry in the curia, and at least a dozen other countries in bigger Catholic crisis than the States. I’d actually be worried about Pope Francis if he were bypassing his Congregation of Bishops and micromanaging the selection process. I also don’t think the good health of the Church requires us to have this particular handful of bishops as a counterweight to the careerist, vapid majority.

And some of my friends might be alarmed at this thought coming from me: I don’t think having all liberal bishops would be a good idea for Roman Catholicism. I think the number of canon lawyers is a huge concern. In the secular world, careers in law seem aimed, for some, at government. And as a 10-15% minority of the bishops, that makes some sense to me. But we also need bishops who, by and large, have served as pastors for most of their lives. The new El Paso bishop has, in my view, a well-rounded pedigree since his 1980 ordination:

  • 1980-85, associate pastor while earning two Master’s Degrees, one in liturgy.
  • 1985-94: professor, spiritual director, seminary vice-rector
  • 1993-date: three successive assignments as pastor of parishes in the Diocese of Dallas.

If this guy can lead and inspire, I wouldn’t care if he were a card-carrying sixth-generation Republican. This is the kind of resume that gives a guy the tools to become a good bishop. Editing a diocesan newspaper: that not so much.

So Michael Barber chaplained Legatus. Not a big deal in my mind. Not at all. Can the man be a pastor? That’s what I want to know.

In my parish experience, I’ve had a wide spread of ideologies in the priests I’ve worked for. There have been eleven in 25 years. Three liberals, four conservatives, and four too close to tell. Some were good liturgy guys, and these are the hardest for me to work for. My liberal priorities don’t often align with the priorities of liberal priests. A few conservative guys and I have gotten along great. And there have been guys who were less concerned about liturgy–they wanted to manage finances or preach the social gospel. Honestly: I don’t care about ideology in my boss. I like having a leader. I like a guy who will listen. And I prefer a pastor who can set a direction and let me contribute to it.

I wrote to Jim earlier today and noted that in the first year of JP2’s papacy, he appointed Ken Untener and Matthew Clark. Our first bad JP2 bishop  might have been Roger Mahony in 1980. So I’m giving Pope Francis until Christmas 2014 to right the ship on bishops. But any way it goes, I’m probably not going to get overheated about it. And I don’t think any concerned readers should be concerned yet either.

Bottom line: we’re talking about bishops. A bishop should be a large-part conservative by definition.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The Next Good Bishop

  1. Charles says:

    Bottom line is spot on.
    But I wonder if we can expect the same criteria for bishops that we are, and we are, entitled to in a local pastor? So, we have to ask ourselves, what constitutes, in exactitude, a “good bishop.”
    Damned if I know anymore.

  2. Liam says:

    Well, for a review of current ordinaries and auxiliaries, here’s a handy refresher tool:

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