Trusting our shepherds: A healthy Church requires true bishops, not branch managers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 10, 2015

I have noticed again, in discussions of Pope Francis’ reform of the annulment process, that some people fear the empowerment of bishops. Their instinct is that it is much better for Rome to take care of contentious issues (such as marriage annulments) for the entire Church.

I make no claim to define the best possible annulment process. I simply wish to address a general attitude. It just happened to be canonist Ed Peters’ analysis of the “fast track” changes to the annulment process which led me, once again, to reflect on what we might call the problem of episcopal minimalism.

Peters made it clear that there is much that he likes about the changes, including the dropping of the requirement for a review of each and every case by a higher court. But he expressed significant reservations about two things which, with the deepest possible respect, I suggest reveal exactly the tendency toward episcopal minimalism to which I am referring. I believe this is something we all must guard against.

Using the Discussion of Annulments as an Example

First, Peters expressed concern that the new canons do not reinforce the concept that every annulment case “is fundamentally legal in nature”. I suspect this also proves the dictum that if your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. It is not uncommon for canon lawyers to over-emphasize the legal aspect of a question. But in fact, the purpose of Canon Law is to provide what we might call a secondary layer of procedure which, in most instances and without subverting the law of charity, is suitable for protecting what we might call the deeper nature and purposes of the Church.

Marriage is a perfect example. You do not need to be a canonist to understand the grounds for nullity. Those grounds do not derive from law but from a Catholic grasp of the nature of marriage itself. In addition to deficiencies of form, they hinge upon the eligibility of the spouses for marriage, their capacity for marriage, their intentions in entering upon the marriage, and their consent to marriage. Again, they derive from a sound understanding of both natural marriage and the sacrament of marriage, which is part of the Faith and expounded in Catholic teaching.

Once marriage is understood, therefore, the grounds of nullity are not hard to grasp in their basic outlines. Barring exceptional cases, every bishop in the world has a firm grasp of the realities which give rise to these grounds, just as well-formed laymen do. To worry that bishops who do not happen to be canon lawyers might somehow not understand nullity sufficiently to make reasonable judgments in a fast-track case, including understanding where they may need further consultation, puts the cart well ahead of the horse.

Peters goes on to take issue with the Pope’s explanation of the new canons, particularly Francis' list of a number of examples of situations which should be given special consideration for a “fast track” approach. Peters rightly notices that the situations cited do not all bear on the question of nullity. Therefore, he fears that bishops and judges could be confused by the list to think some things are grounds for nullity that really are not. Moreover, he wonders whether other married couples, seeing or hearing of this list of examples, might be confused by the non-nullity situations into wondering if their own marriages are valid.

Again with respect, this seems to me gratuitous. It assumes severe deficiencies on the part of bishops and other judges while also assuming that married couples everywhere are going to be reading and misconstruing this particular list of examples, becoming more scandalized than they were before. Yet if you were developing a fast-track process for some legal problem, and you recognized that not all situations can be handled via the fast track, which types of situations would you suggest ought to be given priority? The question practically answers itself: situations where the grounds of nullity seem very clear AND situations in which delay is likely to cause the most suffering. The one set of situations bears on nullity; the other does not, but it remains a valid reason for the Church to intervene as quickly as possible.

Bishops as Fools

Remember that the point of this article is not to study the annulment process, nor is it to criticize Ed Peters, who is my go-to source for understanding what Canon Law says and how it bears on particular situations. No, I choose this merely as an introductory example because it seems to be rooted less in the necessities of law than in the (not uncommon) fear among deeply committed Catholics that bishops are generally either knaves or fools. The reservations expressed do not really concern the state of the law as much as they do the imagined incompetence of the bishops, who are always and everywhere charged with administering (and at times even suspending) the law.

Thus we begin to perceive a partially-hidden desire for episcopal minimism which runs constantly through the minds of many of us who most defend Catholic teaching against local aberrations. Not only do I wish to address this, but I must. If not kept in relatively close check, it is potentially deadly to the health of the Church.

In our time, of course, this “holy fear” of bishops is understandable because most of us have first-hand experience of the unfortunate ideological distance that separated Western bishops from Rome in the last third of the twentieth century. In those days—I freely confess it—my default request to bishops was often this: “Please, don’t get creative. Just do what the Pope says.”

There is merit to this position at times, but even so it is woefully inadequate as a sound basis for ecclesiastical renewal. In fact, the distrust that many still feel for their bishops tends to exacerbate an even deeper problem in the Church, a problem which can never be resolved unless bishops are respected for, and act in accordance with, the full dignity of their office.

The Branch Management Heresy

The “stable” period of Church history which most of us (or our parents) fondly remember was characterized by a certain cultural stability which no longer exists, but it was already a period of steep decline in the vitality of the Church, and particularly of the episcopate. It was characterized by the utterly false perception that bishops are essentially branch managers of an international corporation, who exist primarily to follow the script from the main office.

The “branch manager” attitude was already widespread among the bishops themselves earlier in the twentieth century. Despite fond memories of theological and liturgical peace, this was no golden age. Bishops too often saw their own role as one of managing the Church’s local material resources well. They placed a high priority on political connections, good relations with the wealthy, and the growth of the Church’s properties, parishes, and service institutions. (On this point, once more, I can only recommend Phil Lawler’s important book, The Faithful Departed.)

Allowing for some over-simplification in the interest of clarity, the spiritual growth of the Catholics in their care was generally way, way down on the bishops’ list. History suggests that the same was largely true of their efforts to foster a priestly holiness that extended much beyond the formalism of good order; it also seems that most bishops paid scant attention to their own spiritual growth. In this era of somewhat artificial stability, with Western culture on the cusp of breaking entirely away from its Christian roots, so much—so very much—was erroneously taken for granted!

This is why, when faced with the pressures of secularism, including internal theological pressure from secularized religious and academics, such bishops scarcely knew how to respond. They had little conception of their true role. Each bishop is, after all, the vicar of Christ in his own diocese, called to exercise the full priestly roles of teaching, ruling and sanctifying in union with the entire episcopal college under its head, the successor of St. Peter. Yet few bishops realized that their weakening political clout, the rise of secular fashions, and the growth of anti-Catholic marginalization were in truth no match at all for their dignity as successors of the apostles of Jesus Christ.

When directions from the main office in Rome grew weak and confused, huge numbers of bishops simply spiraled out of control. Most seemed to have had no clear sense of who and what they were.

The Role of the Episcopacy Rediscovered

It can be argued that in attempting to improve the worldwide episcopate in the course of his long pontificate, Pope John Paul II did not discipline or remove individual bishops often enough. But he did show his wisdom by insisting again and again over more than a quarter of a century that, for the Church to function properly, bishops must understand, embrace and exercise the fullness of their identity and office. Thus the quality of the episcopate began to improve dramatically, a process continued for another eight years by his successor (though Benedict, perhaps sensing his time was short, removed bad bishops more frequently than did John Paul).

In emphasizing the importance of the episcopate in this way, recent popes have simply followed the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which both Wojtyla and Ratzinger attended in different capacities. Moreover, in devoutly desiring a greater emphasis on the episcopate at the Council, popes John XXIII and Paul VI were simply effecting the completion of an important work, already seen as necessary a hundred years earlier at Vatican I.

The First Vatican Council proposed to set forth the nature and responsibilities of each rank of the Church, beginning with the papacy, but was interrupted by war. This inadvertently contributed to the weakness of the episcopate, for Vatican I completed only its work on the papacy. In a world soon to be divided even further by two world wars, we may perhaps see something Providential in this focus on the central authority of the Church, but clearly it also resulted in a disproportionate emphasis on the top.

For precisely this reason, the hierarchical nature of the Church, with special emphasis now on the role of the episcopate, was the principal concern of the primary teaching document of Vatican II, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Led by the example of Pope John Paul II, the post-conciliar popes have all been rightly and deeply committed to the timeliness of this teaching for the Church in our time. The upshot is that no branch managers need apply. The fundamental ecclesial reality at stake today is that each bishop possesses and must exercise the fullness of Christ’s authority in the territory where, by the disposition of Peter, he presides.

What Pope John Paul II and his successors realized so clearly is that the Church cannot thrive when the episcopate is weak. This realization also required a different approach from Rome, different, that is, from the practice of much of the previous century. In other words, the Church cannot thrive when Rome reserves all decisions to herself—when, in effect, the Church’s bishops are neither encouraged nor free to be what they are supposed to be.

An obvious practical point is also worth noting. Regardless of theory, the life of the Church in each diocese is inescapably formed by its bishop. No matter how good the pope is, a diocese with a bad bishop will degenerate quickly into a spiritual shambles. No matter how bad the pope is, a diocese with a good bishop will be fundamentally well-ordered and healthy, even if his job is made more difficult by Rome.

A Necessary Aspect of Reform

The branch manager vision of the Church results in precisely the distortions which were so characteristic of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During this period, popes struggled to cope with a worldwide Church primarily through the agencies of the Curia. As a result, curial offices vied for control, frequently limiting the scope and even bullying the very bishops they existed to serve. The Curia, particularly the Holy Office—even exercised undue control over the communication and interchange between the members of the episcopal college and their head.

It is not for nothing that Bishop Griffiths, an auxiliary in New York, finally spoke up at Vatican II when the members of the Holy Office tried too hard to control one key discussion after another. “Might I be permitted to remark humbly,” he said, “that on the day of Pentecost, there were bishops in the Upper Room, but there were no Roman theologians.”

It is now excruciatingly obvious that this curial dominance—this pattern of a main office communicating with branch managers—has played an important role in crippling the modern Church. Moreover, anyone who follows the news will realize how hard it has been to reform this management pattern. Many in the Curia still strive to hobble the “branch managers” and to control the ecclesiastical message, ordering things according to their own lights.

This problem, of course, developed with broad approval out of a limited vision of the Church, largely conditioned by the political and corporate models of the times. We are not speaking of conspiracy! But even when our ecclesiastical vision became more complete, in this respect, by the mid-twentieth century, the ingrained patterns were difficult to reverse.

Consider: Earlier popes sometimes felt as isolated from their brother bishops as they did from European political support. Pope John XXIII sometimes took days off in the country to gain brief respites from the constant machinations of the Curia. Pope John Paul made considerable progress, but mainly through the force of his incredible dynamic personality and media presence. Pope Benedict accomplished a little more but ultimately admitted that he felt too weak to complete the needed curial reform. Pope Francis was elected primarily because the world’s cardinals thought he might actually be able to accomplish that task.

Conclusion

Historically, of course, this branch management model has been associated with the dominance of (and infighting among) the Italian cardinals and their career-oriented staffs. The Curia regarded itself as the pope’s keeper and the safeguard of the Church, too often viewing the world’s bishops as “outsiders”. This comes through again and again, for example, in Henri de Lubac’s notes on the Second Vatican Council. Things are changing, but they are changing slowly.

The key point is this: All sides must understand and live more deeply the very nature of the Church. Bishops must learn again what it means to be bishops; and the Curia must learn what it means to support them in the exercise of their episcopal ministry—unless they break unity with the college and its head, the pope, who is the sole source of their particular jurisdiction.

That is the path—and it is the only path—to a strong and vibrant Catholicism. In this light, fear of letting bishops exercise their authority (of which the fear of having them ordinarily control the disposition of marriage cases is a likely example) may not be exactly groundless but, if this fear is not carefully controlled, it can only be seriously counterproductive. No bishop is perfect, not even the successor of Peter. But if we truly want Church renewal, if we truly desire a healthy and vibrant Catholicism, there is no alternative to the apostolic model Our Lord established, despite His own betrayal by…a bishop.

The Church, and principally the Pope and his advisors, must do everything possible to place in office holy, competent and strong bishops. The Church, and principally the Pope, must not tolerate bishops who are seriously incompetent, morally perverse, or unwilling to operate cum Petro et sub Petro. But the Church, including you and me, must also encourage, welcome and assist each bishop to exercise the fullness of his authority in the name of Jesus Christ.

To some this may seem frightening. But however difficult, what is essential remains necessary.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 14, 2015 1:00 AM ET USA

    I am generally happy that the issue of separated and divorced Catholics has been brought to the forefront of the Church's attention. May the Holy Spirit guide Pope Francis and the Bishops in the fullness of Truth, Mercy and Justice.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Sep. 12, 2015 12:08 AM ET USA

    I think, mayhaps, that thou dost protest too much. Ed's experience as a canonist is second to none. My own experience as a Petitioner's Advocate backs him up. But more importantly, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who brought Ed on as an advisor to the Signatura, also backs him. As the former chief of the Church's tribunals, he's seen it all and knows fast-tracking by the bishop isn't the right way to do it. Ed is not trying to minimize bishops' abilities, just pointing out the flaws in the new laws.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 10, 2015 7:14 PM ET USA

    In studying Reformation history at Kansas St Univ one required test was a book of essays on St. Charles Borromeo. A point emphasized was that the Church's hagiography typically emphasizes the cardinal (not by accident) while he, on the contrary, spent a good deal of time during his life emphasizing his authority as bishop. But it's important to remember that some disturbing propositions at last year's Synod won majority votes from the bishops. Everywhere marriage is besieged. The time is now?