The Divide Between the Bishops and the Faithful

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Over the past few months, a number of Catholics have expressed their exasperation with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone—one of our best American bishops, by all accounts—for admitting on the Crisis Point podcast that he wasn’t ready to deny Nancy Pelosi Holy Communion for her rabid and long-time pro-abortion advocacy. If even one of our strongest bishops won’t act in an obvious case of “Eucharistic incoherence,” then what hope do we have in the episcopate?

These Communion Wars highlight the great divide that exists between the bishops and the lay faithful today. Bishops are unconvincing in their arguments for doing nothing, and the laity have gotten nowhere in trying to push the hierarchy to a more robust stand. It’s as if the two groups are not speaking the same language—because they’re not.

When a bishop considers this issue on the practical level—what to do when a Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi presents himself or herself for Communion—he will consider many factors (assuming he even cares about reserving the Eucharist for Catholics in a state of grace): How will denying the politician Communion impact the diocese? Will it cause a revolt among his clergy? Will it dry up donations for charitable works? Will it cause a media frenzy? Ultimately, how will the work of the diocese be impacted? 

The average Catholic sees—or cares—little about these factors. His questions are more directed toward individual concerns: Will the soul of the politician be harmed? Will more women consider abortion? Will this cause people to lose faith in the Real Presence? Will my Catholic cousin think this gives him support to keep voting for pro-abortion politicians? Ultimately, how will souls be impacted?

Bishops primarily look to the good of the organization; lay Catholics look to the good of individuals. Bishops strive to be strong administrators; we want faithful apostolic leaders. Bishops focus on the natural elements of the Church; their critics within the Church focus on the supernatural elements.

This isn’t to say bishops are all wrong in their outlook and lay Catholics are completely right. A truly effective bishop would meld the above elements together in his episcopacy. But for almost all modern bishops, what we get are managers focused on the organization, the administration, and the natural. 

As a recent article here at Crisis pointed out, over the past century Church officials have looked more and more at managerial skills over apostolic zeal when selecting new bishops. I can back that up with at least anecdotal evidence. A former pastor of mine, one who was known for his administrative skills but not for his zeal in converting souls, eventually became a bishop, while the pastor who followed him—who was willing to “go there” if it meant saving souls—remains a pastor. 

Focusing on the administrative over the apostolic has caused a great crisis in the Church. It has led to shepherds who are afraid to correct wayward sheep for fear of offending the flock. It has created a gaggle of middle managers instead of an army of apostles. 

This is not meant to dismiss the concerns of the typical bishop. He has responsibility for all the work of the Church in his diocese, from parish life to charitable programs to outreach to non-Catholics. If he’s constantly in the cross-hairs of both the media outside the Church and liberal elements within her, he will have little time for doing the work of the Church. Further, it’s clear that a bishop’s superiors—i.e., Vatican officials—are much more likely to prioritize the efficient running of a diocese over what will be seen as controversial political stands. It’s hard to take a stand if you know your own boss might throw you under the bus later for it.

Further, all Catholics should want well-run dioceses. We should want for the work of the Church to be effectively carried out, in order to reach the most souls with the message of Jesus Christ. Strong administration isn’t bad, in its proper place.

And yet, it’s easy to see that our bishops’ priorities have become severely unbalanced, resulting in an organization without a mission. Instead of existing for the salvation of souls, most dioceses exist simply to keep the diocese going. So if our bishops take actions that harm individual souls in order to keep the diocese running efficiently, their actions are self-defeating. What does it matter if you get the trains to run on time if they’re all going to the wrong destinations?

Today’s bishops too often reduce the Church to the level of a purely human organization, with no divine mandate to, in the words of Jesus, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). 

Yes, lay Catholics may need to be more understanding of the difficulty of being a bishop. I worked directly for a bishop for five years, and I’ll be honest: being a bishop is a terrible job, one that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s a constant game of “whack-a-mole,” as a bishop must address complaint after complaint from across the diocese. 

Yet at their consecration bishops are called to be successors of the Apostles and to lead their local Church, part of an institution founded by Jesus Christ to bring eternal salvation to lost souls. This means they must put the supernatural above the natural, placing the salvation of souls as the top priority, not an efficient organization.

Our expectations are high because they should be high. Although it’s tempting to either fall into constant “bishop bashing” or to show sycophantic deference to the office, we should always challenge our leaders to have a supernatural outlook. We must urge them to put the good of individual souls before the good of the organization, and to prioritize faithfulness to our Lord over administrative wizardry. We aren’t asking every bishop to be a combination evangelist, martyr, and teacher—a St. John Chrysostom, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Augustine rolled into one—but we are calling on them to radically change their priorities.

Catholics rightly no longer blindly follow the “pray, pay, and obey” model of the early 20th century (a model, I’ll note, that was never historically the norm in the Church). This doesn’t mean that we should disregard or disrespect our bishops, but we must hold them accountable. While we should be cognizant of a bishop’s myriad responsibilities, we cannot allow him to forget that the salvation of souls—not the administration of organizations—is the primary mission of the Church.

[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibez/CNA]

By

Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His most recent book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.

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