In Celebration of Bishops

Consider this issue a celebration of our bishops — you’ll find pages explaining their priorities, their initiatives and their successes.

We love our bishops. We support them wholeheartedly. We don’t simply defend them; we want to promote the good they are doing for the Church.

It’s a sad sign of our times that the first reaction to this is the puzzled question, “Why?” We live in a time when complaints about bishops are louder and angrier than they have been in memory — and more dangerous, too.

Lay groups like Voice of the Faithful explicitly wish to dismantle the hierarchical structure of the Church. Bankruptcy courts are stepping in on the Church’s right to control its own property — often at a diocese’s invitation. Lawsuits threaten to make it impossible for Catholic institutions to follow Catholic teachings in their health policies. Activist groups are trying to limit the free speech of bishops in elections.

Catholics who bash bishops may find themselves unwittingly contributing to a climate that threatens to tear apart the very Church we love.

Does that mean we should pretend everything is fine with the bishops? Of course not. It means we should give bishops the respect due their office, the obedience owed their authority. It means we should support their initiatives even while we acknowledge their failures.

After all, this is what every generation of Catholics who preceded us did.

The history of the Catholic Church is a history of the failures of bishops, starting with the Twelve Apostles themselves. One betrayed Jesus, another denied him, and all of them fled him in Gethsemane. Then there was the early Church. St. Paul’s letters are filled with warnings about all sorts of unsavory things bishops were involved in.

When heresies swept the Church in the first centuries, they were aided and abetted — and in some cases invented — by bishops. The Great Schism was a failure of bishops above all else. The crisis of the Protestant Reformation was fueled by the scandal of a corrupt hierarchy. When Pope John Paul II asked God’s forgiveness for the past sins of the Church, most of his list dealt with failures of bishops.

And, yes, this history of human failure in the Church has carried on into our own time.

American bishops have asked forgiveness for their part in the sex-abuse scandal. They should. It was mostly their fault.

The crisis was, first of all, a failure of bishops in their teaching role. As the Holy Father told U.S. cardinals in his summit on the scandal, parents “must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.” It was a failure of bishops in their sanctifying role. Bishops ordained men who were not committed to the way of life the Church requires of priests. And the scandals were also, of course, a failure of the bishops in their governing role, as some bishops allowed criminal priests to continue in ministries, putting teens and children at risk.

The Church’s history of failures shows the great risk God took by putting human beings in charge of his Church. But failure isn’t the full story of the Church. It isn’t even the most important.

God didn’t stake the future of his Church on human leadership alone. He also sent his Holy Spirit to guide the Church. That the Church has thrived and continued its apostolic succession through two millennia of colossal human failure is powerful evidence that there is more to the Church than meets the eye.

You could write another history of the Church as the history of successful bishops.

Those failed apostles? Apart from Judas, all of them spent the rest of their lives tirelessly preaching the Gospel, up to martyrdom. The early Church? For the most part, it took Paul’s advice, and the calendar is filled with saints who are summed up simply as “bishop and martyr.” The heresies were defeated by bishops like St. Alexander, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Bishops such as St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis DeSales led the post-Reformation renewal of the Church.

And bishops are needed now more than ever.

Think of three fundamental errors that have devastated our society. One is moral relativism — the belief that truth isn’t knowable and that all morality is merely a matter of taste. Another is the divorce between faith and daily life — aggressive secularism that makes God unwelcome outside a very limited private sphere. A third is radical individualism — “looking out for No. 1” taken to its logical extreme. 

The hierarchical Church serves as a bulwark against each of these in a way that non-hierarchical religion cannot.

The bishop in his teaching role reminds us that God is the final arbiter of truth and that he continues to guide his Church into the full meaning of revelation. Even the best of evangelical Christianity cannot serve this function — for Protestants, each person interprets Scripture on his own. This only provides a more solid foundation for relativism.

In his sanctifying role, the bishop marries faith and daily life by continuing the sacramental system. Christ breathed on the apostles and said, “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” He told the Twelve, “Do this in memory of me.” He told Peter, “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” Christ gave these gifts to the apostles, not to his followers generally. Without successors to the apostles, God’s action can’t invade our world the way it does through the sacramental system.

Last, the bishop’s governing role is a check on radical individualism. We aren’t freelance Christians doing God’s will on earth; we are members of the body of Christ, and we need to submit to authority in order to play our proper role. Catholics find again and again that their initiatives thrive when they respect the bishop’s governing power and wither when they don’t.

Sure, we can see problems with bishops. Sometimes big problems. It has always been thus.

But when we defend the Church, we can’t just defend a doctrine or an ideal; we have to defend the real Church. The flesh-and-blood Church as it exists today, led by the successors of the apostles, the bishops. Our bishops.

Join us in our love and appreciation for them.

This issue spells out plenty of reasons they deserve it.