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When bishops denounce bishops: the limits of episcopal courtesy

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Jul 26, 2010

Catholic bishops are extremely reluctant to engage in public criticism of other Catholic bishops. They are many good reasons for their reluctance. But there are times, I suggest, when they must overcome it, for the good of the Church.

Bishops may disagree about fine points of doctrine and discipline. That is understandable; there is plenty of room of differences of opinion among loyal Catholics. But is there a point at which a bishop’s public statements are so obviously at odds with the teachings of the Church that they must be explicitly condemned? Is there a point at which orthodox bishops are duty-bound to condemn a colleague’s position?

The faithful have the right—even the obligation—to presume that a bishop who is in good standing speaks with some authority. Yet a bishop’s teaching authority cannot be exercised apart from the authority of the magisterium. The Code of Canon Law instructs us:

By their episcopal consecration, Bishops receive, together with the office of sanctifying, the offices also of teaching and of ruling, which however, by their nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head of the College and its members. [emphasis added]

The “head of the College”—that is, the Pope—has stated clearly and unequivocally that the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood is impossible, that this decision is final, that it is binding, that debate on the issue should be ended since it can only cause vexation and confusion. Nevertheless, in a homily delivered at a Mass for Pax Christi members, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton pronounced:

So we listen to those women in our church who say "I am called." Christ is in them as Christ is in every male member of the church. I hope and pray that all of us will listen deeply to God's word today and that we will hear what the spirit is speaking to the church at this time in history and in our church throughout the world.

When Bishop Gumbleton made that statement, surely 100% of the people who heard him interpreted his words as, if not a call for the ordination of women, at the very least a call for reconsideration of the Church teaching. In other words, Bishop Gumbleton’s statement was directly contradicting a definitive doctrinal statement by the “head of the College.” He was not exercising his episcopal authority properly; he was abusing it. But how could an ordinary lay Catholic know that? An innocent Catholic, hearing Bishop Gumbleton defend those who call for women’s ordination, might understandably conclude that a faithful Catholic is free to embrace that position; after all, he heard it from a bishop!

Bishop Gumbleton retired, very reluctantly, in 2006, having reached the normative age limit. The Vatican—much less reluctantly, one assumes—accepted his resignation. Still he remains a bishop in good standing. He will continue to mislead the faithful, unless or until others in authority in the Church—his fellow bishops—explicitly denounce his heterodox public statements.


Sometimes the personal failings of Catholic bishops will cause public damage to the Church. That, too, is understandable; they are human beings, sinners like the rest of us. But is there a point at which a bishop’s public stance is so obviously scandalous that his colleagues are duty-bound to denounce him?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us:

Bishops, with priests as their co-workers, have as their first task “to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” in keeping with the Lord’s command. They are “heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ, they are authentic teachers” of the apostolic faith “endowed with the authority of Christ.”

But what happens when a bishop’s pattern of misconduct, and his unwillingness to accept the consequences of his misbehavior, become so clear and evident that he becomes not a preacher of the Gospel, but an impediment to evangelization, an encouragement toward cynicism, an enduring object-lesson for all those who argue that the Church is merely an old-boy network protecting the hierarchy? Is there a point at which bishops who are serious about their mission to evangelize are duty-bound to condemn their colleague?

The Springfield Republican recently provided on-line readers with a videotaped deposition by Bishop Thomas Dupre in a sex-abuse case. (The full transcript of the bishop’s testimony is also available.) In answer to every substantive question, the bishop replied by invoking his right, under the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, to refuse to reply “on the ground that to do so may tend to incriminate me.” Again and again, in response to even the most seemingly innocuous questions, the bishop invoked his constitutional rights, using a shortened version of the required legal formula: “I assert my rights to refuse to answer.” At one point, when he refused to describe his education, his questioner asked in apparent incredulity: “So you’re claiming the Fifth Amendment right with respect to your educational background?” He was.

The deposition included this remarkable exchange:

Q: Bishop Dupre, are you an ordained member of the clergy?
A: I assert my right to refuse to answer.

As a matter of US constitutional law, Bishop Dupre has the unquestioned right to invoke his Fifth-Amendment privilege. But as a bishop, a successor to the apostles, a teacher of the Gospel, his adamant refusal to take any public stand is enormously damaging to the Catholic Church—a direct contradiction of the Gospel’s assurance that the truth will set us free.

Bishop Dupre resigned in 2004, immediately after being confronted with charges that he had been personally involved in the sexual abuse of young men, as well as in covering up evidence of other priests’ abuse. He has disappeared from the public scene. Still he remains a bishop in good standing. He will continue to be a source of scandal for the American hierarchy, unless or until others in authority in the Church—his fellow bishops—explicitly denounce his appalling public stand.

Is it acceptable for a bishop, who claims to be in communion with the Holy See, explicitly to contradict an established teaching of the Church? Is it acceptable for a bishop, consecrated to serve the cause of evangelization, to refuse to say whether or not he is a Catholic priest? No; these are unacceptable public statements, which bring scandal and discredit upon the hierarchy. It’s time for good and faithful Catholic bishops to defend their own authority, by denouncing colleagues who abuse it.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jtuturic3013 - Aug. 03, 2010 5:44 AM ET USA

    Te_Deum hits the mark. It really is a false charity. We aught to not only pray for our bishops, but fast! Yes, fasting is not so in vogue these days. Perhaps it is because Satan and his minions do not want us to use such a powerful weapon that even Jesus recommended we use in the driving out of particularly nasty demons. If it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us!

  • Posted by: Savonarola - Jul. 30, 2010 10:20 PM ET USA

    Phil, you have it right, as usual. There are two facets to the clericalism that's with us still (despite Vatican II) : 1) collegial clericalism, where the bishops' "club" hangs together in self-serving loyalty and never observes the principle of fraternal correction and 2) condescending clericalism, where, keeping the laity in its pray-pay-obey role, it is not to be conceded that the laity might have something useful to say or do on behalf of the Church.

  • Posted by: Te_Deum - Jul. 27, 2010 11:36 AM ET USA

    I am fairly certain that a good part of it is false charity. It is one of the reaons I believe that we should pray daily for our bishops. May God grant them wisdom, prudence, and holy boldness. They have to learn how to distinguish between charity and false charity, as well as focus more on the voluminous number of souls harmed by one wayward bishop or politician. These bishops and politicians may appear to be in the good graces of the Church, but in reality, they are not.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jul. 27, 2010 3:10 AM ET USA

    Doesn't it seem similar to the refusal of most of the bishops to condemn errant Catholic politicians? Perhaps those selected to become bishops need to have their "credentials" closely checked before Rome selects each one. Part of the problem also seems to be "collegiality" - the "old boy" network, as you point out. There have been so many examples recently (e.g., Weakland) that have caused true scandal, which I think must have stopped being taught in the seminaries after Vatican II.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jul. 26, 2010 6:45 PM ET USA

    I can understand why a majority of bishops remain silent. It's out of fear. If they condemn, they can also be condemned. It's less clear why such as Chaput and Bruskewitz don't speak up.

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