Thursday, December 22, 2011
Am I My Bishop's Keeper?
What a bishop is supposed to be, how he is to act: these things are laid out plainly in Canon Law and in various documents of the Church. For instance:
Walking in the footsteps of Christ, the Bishop is obedient to the Gospel and the Church's Tradition; he is able to read the signs of the times and to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Petrine ministry and in episcopal collegiality. (Pastores Gregis, paragraph 19)
And from the Code of Canon Law (my emphases):
Canon 386 ß1 The diocesan Bishop is bound to teach and illustrate to the faithful the truths of faith which are to be believed and applied to morals. He is himself to preach frequently. He is also to ensure that the provisions of the canons on the ministry of the word, especially on the homily and catechetical instruction, are faithfully observed, so that the whole of Christian teaching is transmitted to all.
ß2 By whatever means seem most appropriate, he is firmly to defend the integrity and unity of the faith to be believed. However, he is to acknowledge a just freedom in the further investigation of truths.
Can. 387 Mindful that he is bound to give an example of holiness, charity, humility and simplicity of life, the diocesan Bishop is to seek in every way to promote the holiness of Christ's faithful according to the special vocation of each. Since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, he is to strive constantly that Christ's faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments, and may know and live the paschal mystery.
These descriptions, of course, constitute the ideal. But still, they are written into the law of the Church. Bishops, ideally, are good shepherds to their flocks, wise fathers to their priests, promoters of vocations; they are faithful to the teachings of the Church, and they impart their knowledge to the faithful.
Obviously, many bishops – if not all – fall short of these ideals. They are human, after all, just like the rest of us! And because of that, we of the laity are often admonished to be charitable to our bishops (and priests, of course), to pray for them, and to give them a little slack, because leading the faithful is such a difficult job.
Is the job of leading the faithful by example really all that hard, though? Well, yes, I know that there are tightropes to be walked as the media is dealt with, dissident groups and individuals clamor for changes, and those radical traditionalists keep insisting on having an extraordinary form of the Mass available on a regular basis. But then, a bishop is supposed to be a cut above, by the grace of God; he’s held to a higher standard than a parish priest or a layman.
So, yes, the bishop’s responsibility is huge: he is responsible for all of those souls under his care, which includes all of the people of his diocese – even, in a sense, those who are not Catholic. Many a bishop has probably said to himself, “You can please some of the people all of the time, and you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” And then he tries to do his best to juggle the needs and desires of his flock as he makes administrative decisions.
And there’s the problem: a bishop’s job is not really to please any of the people. A bishop’s job is to please God, and to save souls.
If I were responsible for the souls of all the individuals in a diocese, I don’t think I would spend a lot of time worrying about how to avoid offending people in my statements on issues like homosexual “marriage”, or homosexual priests, or providing a Mass in the Extraordinary Form, or whether liturgical dance should be allowed, or whether children should gather around the altar at the consecration, or…whatever. People will complain about anything and everything. And someone will always be offended.
The Church has spoken on most, if not all, of the issues that come up in parish and after parish, diocese after diocese…year after year. The issues come up because the people have been led to believe that things change in the Church. And indeed, some things do change. The problem is that there are things that can change, and things that can’t. And many of the faithful do not know the difference. In fact, they are so unaware of the difference that many who consider themselves “faithful” simply are not.
Since the Church has rules and regs – and since She teaches the Truth – a bishop need only give voice to what the Church already declares as true. In order to truly care for his flock, the bishop simply must preach the truth. He must preach the truth even if he thinks the “big donors” will stop giving money to the local church. He must preach the truth even if he is crucified in the media. He must preach the truth even if he is crucified by his own flock (just like Jesus)!
If the bishop does not preach the truth (and live it and talk it and publicize it in the mainstream media), but instead subverts Church teaching and directly violates Canon Law, then he leads his flock astray. Period.
And if he leads his flock astray, what is to become of him? Scripture has a straightforward answer:
[Jesus] said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:1-2; see also Matthew 18:6)
If I were a bishop, I’d be trembling in fear at those words. I would start thinking about whether I was teaching and preaching the truth of the Catholic Church, or whether I was promoting my own agenda...or someone else’s agenda. And yet, how little thought many of our bishops seem to give to the propriety of their own actions – and the subsequent effect on the faithful! Little ones are stumbling all over the place, because our bishops are unwilling to preach the Truth.
Yes, pray for our bishops. Pray for their conversion of heart, that they might lead us in the way of the Truth of the Catholic Church.
But remember, too, the warning words of Ezekiel:Just as the bishops’ failure to inform their flock about their errors is wrong and harmful to the laity, so too is the laity’s failure to speak up when bishops flaunt the law of the Church and teach wrongly.
The bishop is responsible for our souls, but so are we responsible for his. I am my brother’s keeper, even – and maybe especially – if he is a bishop.
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