Successors of the Apostles

Ten years ago I wrote a novel called The Priest which grew out of asking myself what it would be like to be a young priest in the Church today. A later novel, Gate of Heaven, asked what it would be like to be an old priest in the Church today. Lately I have been reflecting on the truly awesome burden shouldered by our bishops. Perhaps it has never been easy to be a bishop. It was a sure route to martyrdom in the first centuries of the Church. Times haven’t changed all that much.

The sense you get from bishops is that they receive an awful lot of correspondence from people who think that everything has gotten out of hand and wonders why something isn’t done about it, preferably before sundown. Some bishops, it is true, profess to be amused by such concern. May they receive more letters. But imagine that you are a bishop and you agree that not everything that has happened since 1965 can be entered in the credit column of the Book of Life. What do you do about it?

You get complaints that in religious education classes, even perhaps from the pulpit, the faithful hear basic dogmas such as the Resurrection called into question. Lots of odd things are said about Christ. Odd things are said too about the founding of the Church and of the priesthood. By odd I mean heterodox.

As a bishop you are also aware of the truly unsavory situation where sex education is concerned. You cannot escape knowing that sexual misbehavior amounting to mortal sin is often spoken of as, if not exactly meritorious, then not deserving of condemnation. (I do not mean to suggest that notions as quaint as mortal sin and merit would be heard in this context.)

Finally, word reaches you of odd liturgical practices, of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist distributing communion while ordained priests lounge in the sanctuary, of ad hoc variations on the canon. And so on.

What is a bishop to do? Those who write letters of complaint assume that what he should do is crack down. But look at it from your bishop’s point of view. If he has the temerity to query odd accounts of the Resurrection and other aspects of Christology, he will be answered by references to, for example, Edward Schillebeeckx. Let us use Schillebeeckx to stand for a great many other names, most of lesser wattage. The point of the retort will be that theologians now teach such-and-such. And who is Bishop Grinch to presume to joust with Edward Schillebeeckx?

Similar responses would be made to the bishop if he looked into the other matters I mentioned above. He will be made to seem old fashioned, pre-Vatican II, uninformed, if he persists. Perhaps on occasion such intimidation is more than successful and the bishop himself ends up either touting heterodox views or at least insisting that theologians and their epigoni have every right to voice them.

It takes immense courage for a bishop to teach and defend the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church in the present situation. He knows or will swiftly learn the kind of treatment he will receive from much of the Catholic press if he walks faithfully in the vocation to which he has been called. Whiplashed between letters of strident indignation and the condescension of the theological establishment, it is all too easy for him to be overwhelmed by the latter and adopt its view of the former.

No doubt it is because of this that our bishops find relief in such issues as foreign policy and economic theory, regions to which their charism does not travel, while in our schools and seminaries and pulpits the tide of heterodoxy rises. With chaos and confusion under his nose, the harassed prelate speaks of Nicaragua. Who can blame him? Well, I can, but I think I understand his problem.

It is our problem too. We do not sufficiently back our bishops when they do the tough job. That the job can be done and done magnificently is clear from the example of Pope John Paul II. The best way to back the bishops is to pray for them every day. As in the prayer of the Mass. When it is read.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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