Observations: Bishop Bashing

While we’re all waiting for the Department of Defense to come out with a pastoral letter on the NCCB, perhaps we can investigate why the bishops of this country vote on policy papers without either education or staff preparation for the vote. That NCCB meetings are beginning to seem like sessions of Congress is upsetting mostly in light of the fact that they do not, to a man, have policy experts or research staffs capable of preparing information to brief them on their policy votes.

One relatively vocal and liberal bishop wrote me recent­ly: “I wish that someone would make an analogy with the president or other government figures who are in an executive position. They all have staff persons who inform them on the technical details related to their work.” Since bishops don’t have staff experts, they must call them in ad hoc, he continued. Why?

While women in the Church are often criticized for wanting to grasp “power,” a cold eye cast toward your friend­ly neighborhood power center, resplendent in episcopal pur­ple, will find him surrounded by a phalanx of clerics. They may be staff, they may be chancery officials, or they may be hangers-on. What they have in common is that they are clerics. What else they have in common is that they probably know little about public policy.

Enter the political cleric. Trained or not in policy analysis, he can get close enough to be heard by those who make the determinations. (Of course they consult with the whole church, just look at the list of people who came to testify at this or that hearing in preparation for the pastoral. Even the bishops forget that the list was drawn up by a cleric.)


Back at the chancery, the enlightened bishop may have hired a deacon or two to do staff research, but he dare not show up at an NCCB meeting with a non-clerical aide. It’s just not done; it would look as if he could not attract qualified men to his presbytery. So he is left to the mercy of the “insider” clerics whose political agenda are mercilessly complicated and simply put.

Where does that leave the Church, which supports the structure, the meetings, the votes, the Washington staff, the political clerics and the uninformed bishops? Exactly where it has always been — on the outside looking in. No wonder bishop bashing is the preferred indoor sport of conservatives and liberals alike. It is so easy. Insulated by clericalism, the American bishops are no different from any others. Some haven’t a clue as to what is going on in the Church, let alone in the technical specifics of pastoral letters. The black wall around them won’t let in the least bit of light to shed on, say, questions of declining church attendance, declining vocations to the clerical state, declining donations, declining influence in areas of moral concern, and declining interest in general.

Despite protestations to the contrary, they are Insiders and the rest of the Church are Outsiders (all non-presbyters laity, men and women religious, and deacons alike), and the increasing fact of the matter is that the emperor has no clout.

The we/they mentality takes root well before seminary; it in fact can generate more vocations than the post-Vatican H mind would like to admit. One bishop has admitted to me that clerical collars, vestments, ceremonies, and special privileges are part and parcel of “vocation.” How many bishops have admitted this to themselves?

Sometimes it is hard to recognize the Gospel at work in the Church when otherwise sane men are making unsubstantiated claims about the relations between social programs and defense spending, between tax structures and economic opportunity. But where are they getting their information? Not long ago, Newsweek called the personal staff of one bishop “mediocre and out of touch.” But some bishops don’t even have that much to speak of.

Clearly, while the structure may be fine, the processes must change. Laity, women, economists, and defense specialists alike are rightfully offended when a wholly clerical enclave presumes to pronounce on them or on their specialty. And an educated people sensitive to tokenism cannot and will not accept the few bones tossed in their direction.

Let the Insiders recognize that what they criticize most in others is that which they find within themselves. If Outsiders are to be accused of attempting to arrogate power unto themselves, perhaps the Insiders should take a look at what constitutes the “power” someone seems so bent on either get­ting or protecting. 

Phyllis Zagano


When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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