Criticize a Bishop? Not So Fast

In this special Crisis Magazine Point/Counterpoint, Deal W. Hudson and Francis X. Maier, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, discuss and debate whether a Catholic may criticize a bishop publicly. Is it a violation of canon law? Must Catholic journalists avoid scandal or bad news or anything that shows the Church in a bad light?

Deal Hudson began the exchange here, arguing that a faithful Catholic may turn a critical eye on his bishop. The following is Francis Maier’s opening statement.

Both men’s closing responses appear together, here.

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Deal makes an intelligent argument, and I don’t disagree with it. In fact, his final paragraph is right on target. But I do have three things to add from my experience on both sides of the ecclesial fence: 15 years as editor of the National Catholic Register, followed by another 15 in diocesan service.

First: Despite my years as an editor, and despite everything I thought I knew about how the Church functions, working inside a diocesan chancery has left me far more sympathetic toward bishops and priests than when I was outside looking in. The bishops I’ve worked for and around are good, hard-working pastors who love their people and live their faith as real apostles. They deserve better than the river of criticism that often flows through their offices.

In my experience, the “fisherman” image for bishops is quite apt — but in some unintended ways: In practice, a bishop’s job can involve poling your way through a vast, shallow delta of bad vibes and adolescent carping from battalions of the religiously unhappy or confused. Any priest unwise enough to seek the episcopal ministry would do well to think again. In an era of limited candidate pools, he might get more than he bargained for.

Obviously, bishops also receive a great deal of love and encouragement from the pews, and leadership has its consolations. And anyway, part of a bishop’s responsibility is to listen to his people, the good news and the bad. If there weren’t real joy in the work of a bishop, no one would want or have the strength to do it.

Nonetheless, a bishop friend of mine often claims that the role of today’s bishops and priests is to serve as the Church’s liver — in essence, taking in the toxins of the believing community and purifying the bloodstream. The image may be unpleasant, but it’s accurate, and being the body’s liver can be uniquely unfunny. When I entered diocesan service, being a natural skeptic, I had few illusions about the human foibles of ecclesial life — I just didn’t expect them to come so lopsidedly and bitterly from laypeople.

The average Catholic is simply unaware of the pressures on a typical bishop: the erosion of his privacy and personal life, the shortage of resources, the abundance of needs, the sometimes difficult relationships with priests (who are brothers, not employees) and religious communities, and a dozen other issues. These burdens don’t excuse a bishop’s failures, but they should at least earn him the same understanding and civility a layperson would expect under similar circumstances.

Unfortunately, they don’t. Especially since the clergy sex-abuse scandal broke in 2002, bishop-bashing and a pervasive climate of distrust bordering on contempt have emerged from both the left and right in the Church in the United States. Both use the scandal as a hook on which to hang a bagful of other issues. The trouble is that when the shepherd is struck, the sheep scatter. Given that fact, Catholic journalists must take extraordinary care that in questioning the behavior or views of a bishop, they do it in a way that respects both the office and the man, and does not shill for those outside the Church who bear her ill will.


Secondly, all Catholic media, to be truly “Catholic,” must be evangelical — in other words, missionary. Each media organization pursues this goal in a manner appropriate to its specific format. But the guiding principle for all Catholic communications is Inter Mirifica 17: The “main aim of all [Catholic media] is to propagate and defend the truth and to secure the permeation of society by Christian values.” Elsewhere, the same conciliar decree notes that “an authentically Catholic press” should have as its purpose “to form, to consolidate and to promote a public opinion in conformity with the natural law and with Catholic doctrines and directives” (14). When we undermine trust in our bishops, we undermine the Church herself; in fact, we engage in a kind of anti-evangelization. This doesn’t exclude the respectful criticism of bishops on matters of real substance. But, as Deal rightly suggests, how we do that matters profoundly, because it has implications for the faith of a great many people.

Finally: The Church is never primarily a bureaucracy or an institution. These things are necessary dimensions of her life, but they’re only the skeleton. The Church, as people have actually lived her through the centuries, is much closer to a confederation of families than to a multinational corporation or monolith. The Church is a “she,” not an “it” — and until laypersons hardwire that historically Catholic vocabulary back into their thinking, they will always imagine the Church through the lens of American power politics.

The Church is, as Pope John XXIII said so movingly in his encyclical Mater et Magistra, the mother and teacher of all humanity, and within the family of faith, bishops are our fathers and brothers — not kings, not princes, not CEOs, and not above fraternal correction, but nonetheless deserving the affection, fidelity, and love that should exist in every family toward a parent or elder brother. The more we publicly criticize our bishops, the more we put the family at risk.

  • Francis X. Maier

    Francis X. Maier, the father of four, writes from Philadelphia.

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