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Why Doesn't the Pope Do Something about "Bad" Bishops?

by Rev. Robert Johansen

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  • Description:
    Heresy from the pulpit, do-it-yourself liturgies, pro-abortion politicians honored by Catholic institutions, bankruptcy—in any other organization, the person in charge would be reading the classifieds. But removing a bishop isn’t like firing a CEO; it’s more like removing a father’s custody of his children.
  • Larger Work:
    This Rock
  • Publisher & Date:
    Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, February 2006

A question I have heard frequently among conservative Catholics is "Why doesn’t the pope do something about those bad bishops?" The question usually is prompted by frustration with a perceived lack of orthodoxy or zeal on the part of some bishop. Catholics in some places face situations in which it seems the bishop turns a blind eye to heterodoxy and dissent—or even appears to give them his blessing. Faced with such dysfunctional diocesan environments, they naturally look to Rome for relief and redress, but often are disappointed to find that help is slow in coming, if it ever comes at all.

By "do something" people usually mean that they want the pope to discipline the bishop, to apply pressure on him to adhere more closely to Church teaching, or even to remove him. But most of us—while from time to time sharing such wishes or even voicing them—don’t know exactly what can be done about a bad bishop. So I’ll address a couple of common misconceptions about the bishop’s role and his relationship to the universal church, and I’ll explain how the Church sees these things, both in its teaching and tradition.

Misconception #1:
The Pope as CEO

Most of us have a boss. Many of us work in large companies where our boss also has a boss, and so on, up the ladder to the president or CEO. If you mess up at work, you’ll be called to account for it, and if you make too many mistakes, you risk being fired. Your boss is in the same position with regard to his superior, etc. So it’s rather natural for us as Americans to assume the hierarchy of the Church functions in a similar way. But having a hierarchy of organization is where the similarity between the Church and the corporation begins and ends.

One reason the Church is different from a corporation is the sacrament of holy orders. When a man is ordained, he is changed in his very being; he is "configured" to Christ as head and shepherd. This new identity is permanent and cannot be removed. Even if a priest is removed from the priesthood ("defrocked"), he remains a priest, sacramentally speaking, so a priest or bishop can’t be fired in the sense that a corporate employee can.

A department head or vice-president of a corporation has authority by delegation: his authority is given from the next higher level of the organization and ultimately comes from the president, CEO, or board of directors. The department head has authority only insofar as it is "borrowed" from above; it does not belong to him.

But this is not the case regarding the Church. The bishop enjoys the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders (cf. Lumen Gentium 26) and as such is head of the local Church, the diocese. A bishop’s authority within his diocese does not operate by delegation: The bishop is not merely exercising a power "borrowed" from the pope. Canon 381 of the Code of Canon Law states: "In the diocese entrusted to his care, the diocesan bishop has all the ordinary, proper, and immediate power required for the exercise of his pastoral office." The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church explains:

The pastoral charge . . . is entrusted to [the bishops] fully; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman pontiff, for they exercise the power that they possess in their own right and are called in the truest sense of the term prelates of the people whom they govern (LG 27).
A bishop, then, should not be thought of as a middle-level executive, carrying out the instructions of his Vatican superiors. Each bishop governs his diocese in and by virtue of his own authority. The policies and directives of each diocese are not set in Rome, to be executed by local officials. Bishops are not employees of the pope, and they do not have to get approval from higher authority for the vast majority of their decisions. While each bishop is accountable to the Holy Father and the whole college of bishops, the terms of that accountability are actually quite narrow.

Misconception #2:
The Bishop as Manager

A corollary of seeing the pope as a CEO who delegates his authority to his department heads, the bishops, is to see each diocesan bishop as a manager—someone responsible for meeting goals and deadlines, keeping the organization "on message," and delivering the product. In the corporate world, a manager who fails to do these things will be fired and replaced. By analogy, Americans are tempted to think that a bishop who fails in his responsibilities needs to be fired as well.

But the Church sees the bishop as the father of his diocese. In the Second Vatican Council’s document on bishops, Christus Dominus, the Church, "the Lord’s flock," is compared to a "family of which the bishop is the father" (CD 28). Elsewhere, the bishop’s office is defined as "father and pastor" (CD 16). This identification of the bishop as father goes back to the earliest Church Fathers, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 115), who, in his Letter to the Trallians, described the bishop as "the image of God the Father."

This identification of the bishop’s office as fatherly in turn derives from the witness of the apostles themselves. The apostles referred to themselves as "fathers" of the faithful and to their flocks as their spiritual children. For example, Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, "I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15).

The spiritual fatherhood of the bishop has profound theological and ecclesiological implications. Once again, the early Fathers bear witness to the centrality of the episcopate. Ignatius of Antioch writes:

As therefore the Lord, although united to him, did nothing without the Father, neither by himself nor yet by his apostles, so neither should you do anything without your bishop and presbyters (Letter to the Magnesians, 7).
Ignatius even links our unity in the Eucharist to our unity with the bishop:
Wherefore let it be your endeavor to all partake of the same holy Eucharist. For there is but one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, one cup in the unity of his blood, and one altar. As also there is one bishop, together with his presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants, so that whatever you do, you may do it according to the will of God (Letter to the Philadelphians, 4).
It is quite clear from Ignatius that the bishop is the center of unity for the local Church. Without the bishop exercising his fatherly office as successor of the apostles, nothing happens in the Church. The strongest expression of this principle might be found in Ignatius’s Letter to the Smyrneans:
Wherever the bishop will appear, there let the congregation also be; as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church (Letter to the Smyrneans, 8).
This centrality of the bishop is reiterated constantly throughout our Tradition—through the Fathers, the Council of Trent, Vatican II, and up to the present.

Can You Make a Case for Amputation?

There is a temptation to view the expressions of the truths of our faith as metaphors or figures of speech. But this is a capital mistake. For example, when we hear the statement that "the Church is the body of Christ," we may be tempted to ultra-spiritualize it and turn it into a nice saying rather than recognize it as a profound revelation of our status as members who have been incorporated (literally em-bodied) into Christ and living in him. Likewise, when we say that the Church is a family, we mean it quite literally. The Church is not a reflection of the reality that is "family"—quite the opposite. The family is a reflection of the reality that is the Church. We must always bear in mind that spiritual realities are more real, not less real, than physical or natural realities. In Christ we are more truly connected, more truly in communion with people than we are with our own family members.

So if in Christ the Church is truly a family, then the bishop is truly a father to his flock. Now think about fatherhood for a moment: Is a father’s identity dependent on how well he fulfills it? Not really. A father is a father, almost regardless of how well he fulfills his responsibilities. We might say that John is a better father than Sam, but we don’t say that Sam is therefore not a father. There are some very good fathers; there are the majority of fathers who muddle along doing the best they can; and, unfortunately, there are a few bad fathers out there.

Now, in the natural sphere, a father has to be very bad indeed before he is relieved of his office. Mere incompetence is insufficient. While we may look at him as a sad case, most reasonable people wouldn’t say that the father who lets the house get run down or who doesn’t effectively discipline his children should be removed from his family. No, in order to justify separating a father from his family, we require substantial evidence of actual abuse or neglect. The father of a family is so integral to its identity that before removing him we have to be sure he is actually causing harm to the family. That determination is made in a court of law, with evidence and witnesses, and the father has an opportunity to defend himself. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, removing the father from his family is not so much like firing a bad manager as it is like amputating a limb from one’s body: It’s justifiable only under the direst circumstances.

So it is in the family of the Church. The citations above from Ignatius of Antioch show that the father of the Church family, the bishop, is integral to its identity and functioning. And so the Church contemplates removing a bishop only when circumstances are grave—mere incompetence is insufficient. The bishop must be shown to be actually harming the faithful in his diocese—and the Church demands a very high threshold of evidence to make such a judgment.

Canon law stipulates that only the pope can appoint or depose (remove) a bishop (CIC 377, 401–402). Given the nature of the sacrament of holy orders and the spiritual identity of the bishop as father to the people of his diocese, one might expect that papal intervention in the affairs of local dioceses would be rare. A perusal of Church history bears this out. While some Catholics may desire to see the pope "clean house" and remove a number of inadequate bishops en masse, you’d be hard pressed to find historical precedent for that kind of sweeping measure. Popes throughout history have removed bishops here and there, one or two at time. But those who imagine a pope setting episcopal heads to roll simply are misunderstanding how the papacy and the Church work.

Obligation to Charity; Necessity of Evidence

When it comes to dealing with an erring bishop, a pope is far more likely to employ methods such as persuasion, fraternal correction, and gentle chiding than he is to wield the club of discipline—much less the atomic bomb of removal. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is charity: If a bishop is saying or doing bad or dumb things, we are all—especially the pope—obliged to assume in charity that he is well-intentioned and is acting either out of ignorance or confusion, barring evidence to the contrary (supposition, conjecture, and probability do not count as evidence). The experience of the church bears out the wisdom of this approach, as does my own experience as a pastor: In my experience, most Catholics who embrace positions at odds with Church teaching are well-intentioned—they want to follow Christ. But they are either uninformed, misinformed, or malformed (in their conscience or intellect). All three of those conditions can be remedied with great patience and love.

John Paul dedicated a good amount of his energy to correcting the errors to which many Catholics, including bishops and priests, had succumbed. His approach was to teach, explain, and correct. This approach does not yield a quick fix, but there is evidence that his work has already begun to bear fruit: in the throngs of young Catholics who fervently embrace the Church’s teaching, in the rise of dynamic orthodoxy, in the founding and growth of authentically Catholic colleges, and in the signs of a resurgence of vocations in dioceses and religious communities that make no compromises on Catholic teachings.

The second reason that a pope will be reluctant to attempt to discipline a bishop is that of evidence. As I pointed out above, the Church always has viewed removing a bishop as drastic surgery, fraught with danger in and of itself. So there needs to be very strong evidence that the damage done by removing a bishop will be less than the damage caused by his remaining. The problem is that this sort of evidence is not easy to come by. If we think about the kinds of things Catholics frequently complain about regarding episcopal inadequacy, they’re usually "sins of omission"—rarely does the bishop openly advocate dissent or preach rank heresy. Usually the complaint is that the bishop isn’t reining in the heterodox elements in the diocese: He allows that dissenting theologian to speak in his diocese; he isn’t doing anything about Fr. Warmandfuzzy’s liturgical abuses. The problem with this kind of episcopal inaction is that it usually falls under the heading of prudential judgment. A bishop could quite sincerely judge it imprudent to intervene in a situation. He may be wrong, objectively speaking, but he may have plausible reasons for his decisions. And if that’s the case, it doesn’t meet the threshold of evidence necessary to remove him. Now, it’s also possible that a bishop inwardly is applauding and encouraging the dissenters or Fr. Warmandfuzzy, but short of an open admission from him or the ability to climb inside his head and heart, how are you (or the pope) supposed to determine that?

The Danger of Schism

The third reason popes are reluctant to depose bishops is the danger of schism. Whenever a bishop is removed, there is at least the possibility that he may elect to leave the Church altogether and set up on his own church, taking many of the faithful with him. Going back to our Lord’s prayer that "they all be one" (John 17:20–21), the Church regards schism as great evil and precipitating or fomenting schism as a grievous sin. Ignatius, in his Letter to the Smyrneans, wrote "Shun divisions as the beginning of evils." As long as people are kept within the Church, even tenuously, there is the possibility of correction and conversion. But if they depart, they may be lost for good.

And the larger the dissenting element, the more prevalent the heterodoxy, the more grave the danger. Msgr. George Kelly, in his book The Crisis of Authority, argued that, because dissent had become so widespread, the danger of schism was very real in the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s. Any papal "crackdown" against dissent, he argued, likely would have led to the separation of a large body of the faithful from communion with Rome. And so John Paul II seems to have adopted a "gradualist" approach: He largely avoided direct confrontation, save in the realm of ideas. He taught, corrected, and exhorted his brother bishops, and all of the faithful, to holiness and to the embrace of the fullness of the faith.

The gradualist approach may turn out to have been a mistake, but I don’t think so. The majority of episcopal appointments under John Paul II have been very good, even outstanding. Bishops of unquestioned orthodoxy, such as Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Charles Chaput of Denver, are now to be found in many of the major U.S. sees. And in a host of smaller sees one can find many excellent young bishops who are zealous and courageous exponents of the faith.

These bishops, along with the many renewal movements, are beginning to reorient the Church toward a more authentic expression of the Catholic faith. Dissent and heterodoxy are being recognized as the dead ends that they are; their proponents are aging, and they are not attracting new adherents. In time, they will likely wither. While the struggle is by no means over, I think we can say that the tide is beginning to turn: As the dissenters fade away and diminish in influence, they are being replaced by younger, wholeheartedly Catholic bishops, priests, and laypeople who will set the direction for the next generation. In this respect, a wise saying commends itself: Many times, the solution to the Church’s problems is found in the funeral rite.


Fr. Robert Johansen is pastor of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was ordained in August 2001 after priestly formation at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He studied classical and patristic Greek and Latin at the Catholic University of America. He has been involved in pro-life work since college and was closely involved with the efforts to save Terri Schiavo. His articles have appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and National Review Online.

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