Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pointing Fingers at Bishops

At Accepting Abundance, my friend Dr. Stacy Trasancos offers her thoughts on criticizing bishops. So…being a guilty part of such a thing, I thought I’d throw in my two-cents’ worth as well. (Be sure to read Stacy’s post – she has some good points.)

I have also written on this topic here and here, and I’ll reproduce some of my thoughts from those posts.

I don’t really want to bash bishops, and I hope that the criticism I engage in doesn’t really qualify as “bashing”. I agree with the concept of respect for the episcopal office; I agree that bishops are human beings, too, and thus not incapable of errors; I agree that obedience to a bishop’s decrees is required of the faithful.

BUT…okay, there’s always the big “but”…

Sometimes, it seems to me, bishops act in highly irregular ways. Yes, we may have a media slant on the issue at hand, or the bishop may have very good reasons for taking some particular action, and we may not be privy to all the information he has used to guide his decision. Still, there are times when you just have to shake your head…and maybe shake up the community by asking some or making some comments.

I have heard a story about a monk who, after years of solitude and prayer in the monastery, left that haven in order to go out and correct some errors that were running rampant amongst the laity. The bishop, observing the monk, commented, “What is this?! A monk has left his monastery!” To which the monk replied, “I wouldn’t have to leave my cell if you would do your job.”

Or something like that. The point is, many bishops are not doing their job, and by commission or omission, they are misleading the people. They are causing scandal by allowing people to think, for instance, that it must be okay for Catholics to disagree with the Church on abortion, contraception, and homosexual marriage because Catholic politicians do so and go uncorrected.

Sometimes, the laity must speak up, even according to Canon Law:

Canon 212  §3 According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, [the faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful

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 here’s a little more 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, and 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, 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 through his consecration as a bishop; 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.

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.

So, is it so uncharitable to let bishops know that we see errors in their actions? And if they don’t respond to our concerns privately, is it so uncharitable to let others know that these errors exist? Dr. Stacy reminds us of that saying that “If you point a finger, there are three pointing back at you.” She adds (my emphasis):

We also have the obligation to fulfill our own role in the Church. After all, even fingers can play a vital role in the functioning of the body, but not if they are stuck in the eye.

That’s a good point. On the other hand (so to speak), sometimes it takes a poke in the eye to get the bishop’s attention. And better a poke in the eye than eternity in hell.

So what do we do? Do we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear when bishops say and do scandalous things? Or do we respectfully, but firmly, announce that “the emperor has no clothes”?

Sometimes, I think, we must accompany our prayer with a poke in the eye.


  1. Another Great Post : thanks so much
    I am concerned with our Bishops, I do respect them and pray for them BUT...we can not have these Bishops closing their eyes to scandal and evil ..we must take a stand and fight for the complete TRUTH ...they are in a very serious position and may God have Mercy on them ..may they have the courage to stand up for the Gospel ...as Jesus did !

  2. I would like to think that we would never "give up" on our Bishops and give them that "poke in the eye" when needed. However, there is always a delicate balance to consider. Might I suggest that we pray before poking? : )

  3. Agreed, HSE! Before, after, and during.

  4. We should allow *our own eyes* to be poke every once in a while, too. :)

    I know I need it. Certainly, as our Blessed Lord *said*:

    "Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." (Mt. 7:5)

    What is He speaking of? Fraternal correction in the second half of this verse.

    Okay, we aren't "brothers" to our bishops in the same sense that *their* "brothers" are bishops, this is true.

    However, as Dr. Jay has pointed out *very well* with her excellent information in her posts - if we encounter abuse *of any kind* (physical/mental, liturgical, doctrinal) we have the duty and obligation to "go up the chain" if nothing gets done about it at the lowest level.

    Then, once one has contacted the chancery and nothing gets done, by all means contact the bishop personally.

    One of the spiritual works of mercy is to admonish sinners. I, as a father of five, have been admonished in one way or another by not only my beautiful wife... but also in certain ways by our children!

    Sheesh, talk about being humbled. ;)

    Our bishops have the three-fold duty, as title holders of the office of "bishop," to teach, govern, and sanctify.

    + Teach the faith - wholly and entirely the orthodox Truth

    + Govern their diocese - it is a Kingdom, don't forget. It has laws and rules the bishop should proclaim and enforce.

    + Sanctify their flock - i.e. via the sacraments... especially, *the* source and summit sacrament, the Most Holy Eucharist and the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    It is a matter of salvation of souls if they are derelect in those tasks. It is their vocation.

    I have a freind who is a little, ahem!, elderly (80+). She has a 30 minute meeting with our bishop tomorrow. She has some "items" she wants to go over with him (he is fairly new... a little over a year now in his office). She is going to ask him about teaching the seminarians Latin, having the extraordinary form of the Mass celebrated in the diocese, certain liturgical abuses that are prevalent, etc....

    What an example! When I grow up I hope to be like her. :)


  5. Great comment, CK - yeah, I've had my eye poked a few times, too. We are supposed to be stones sharpening each other, or something like that, right?

    And yes, the bishops have such a responsibility for souls...and I think we have a responsibility for their souls. By bringing our concerns to them, and by persisting in our desire for the precepts and doctrine of the Church to be followed and taught, we help them work out their salvation as well. I think they'd rather be "corrected" by a lay person than suffer the consequences of lax teaching in purgatory.

    Good for your octogenarian friend!

  6. So it all boils down to one thing: where do we get millstones?

  7. Dr. Jay,

    Thanks for the mention.

    One thing I wanted to clarify, a distinction I think got missed by some commenters.

    I'm specifically referring to public criticism, the kind that appears in blog posts and webmag articles where the author hasn't made any effort to do as Catechist Kev said, and "go up the chain" in private discussion.

    I'm all for contacting your bishop, or someone else's bishop, if you have a concern and are seeking to give or receive advice. I have done that myself consistent with Canon 212.

    Perhaps I should have titled my piece "On Publicly Criticizing Bishops."

    To quote a quote from a commenter on my blog from Cardinal Francis George.

    “The bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have. The bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those that hold that faith gather around them. Others disperse.”

    Again, my main point was the public criticism. It is divisive, at a time when we urgently need to stand united.


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