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By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 22, 2007

The photo above shows Rochester Bishop Matt Clark doing a Lenten dorm liturgy with the U of Rochester chaplain. Several blogs have already commented on the liberty Clark awarded himself respecting the rubrics -- see Rich Leonardi and Fr. Erik Richtsteig -- but my own thoughts were sidetracked onto another subject: what are bishops for?

Let's do a thought experiment by going back in time.

Suppose you were an ordinary lay Catholic in the year 1107 anywhere in Christendom: Castile or Flanders or Liguria or Kent -- Rochester, say. There is no such thing as a printed book, and precious few hand-copied ones are available. Were a controverted doctrinal issue to arise, how would you know what the mind of the Church was concerning it? Well, there was your parish priest, and your bishop. Most folks simply had no other access. That meant the reliable transmission of the mind of the Church on the part of parish priests, and even more especially of bishops, was indispensable.

Switch back to the present. You're an ordinary Catholic in Rochester, New York. A controverted doctrinal issue arises and you want to know what the mind of the Church is. What do you do?

Well, if you don't own a computer, you write off to EWTN or the Daughters of St. Paul asking them where you can get an encyclical or another Roman document that treats of the matter. If you do own a computer, you go on-line to the Vatican web-site and bounce around until you've found your answer. What you don't you -- what you didn't even think of doing -- is to ask your bishop. Because he's hard to reach? On the contrary. You don't bother asking because, if your bishop has any opinion whatever on the matter, that opinion will emerge from a froth of sentimentalism itself derived at second-hand from television shows, pop-music lyrics, and movies. In a way unimaginable to a 12th century Christian, he is first-and-foremost an Entertained Man, and the meaning of his own life, his stance towards the Big Questions, is a secondary shadow projected onto his imagination by the tens of thousands of hours he has devoted to his own diversion. The Church, as Church, doesn't interest him.

In this respect the Bishop of Rochester is hardly unique; in fact, he's typical of the anglophone ecclesiastics of his generation. But the point is this: while today's bishop has the same indispensable place in the ecclesiology of doctrine that his twelfth (or first) century counterpart had -- that is, as a successor of the apostles -- his role as a real-world conduit of that doctrine has vanished. A world in which almost no one had access to the mind of the Church independently of his bishop has become a world in which almost everyone has that access. Sure, Bishops Burke and Finn and Bruskewitz will give us the right stuff, but so can thousands of other Catholics. We rejoice when we find a bishop who's both interested in Church teaching and holds the right opinions about it, but we no more depend on bishops as a class than we depend on cabbies or aerobics instructors for conveying the vera doctrina.

For all that, bishops are still bishops. "The individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches," reads Lumen Gentium (see also the Catechism at 886). This is true effectively, even in Rochester, on those occasions when the Holy See puts a pistol to the bishop's head and forces him to give voice to the Catholic teaching. It is also true by imputation, in that whatever thoughts Bishop Clark may actually have on perichoresis or stem cells or women's ordination are irrelevant; because he's a bishop, Catholics attribute to him a bishop's position, which by definition is the mind of the Church. That means we dig around and find the mind of the Church on the Internet (or at the Daughters of St. Paul), and mentally "paint" it onto his episcopal person. That keeps Lumen Gentium intact. That keeps us Catholics.

When we see Bishop Clark squatting behind the coffee-table in his 1974 who-shot-the-couch polyester stole (the chaplaincy calls it an Insta-Mass -- Rochester is Kodak country, remember) it's difficult to see him as the visible source and foundation of unity in his Church. But just as Clark's contempt for the Roman Rite doesn't alter our own obligations in respect to it, his dignity as a source of unity is accorded to him -- somewhat like a hereditary nobleman's title -- by others, i.e., by those of us who accept the whole of the doctrine of the institution that awarded him the dignity. What are bishops for? Don't ask a bishop, ask a Catholic.

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  • Posted by: ILM - Apr. 03, 2010 7:51 PM ET USA

    This is so depressing. I guess putting up with the way our Church is so badly represented was included in Christ's thinking when He said us in the Gospel 'Those who indure to the end will gain eternal life'.

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 01, 2010 12:30 AM ET USA

    Obviously Georgetown and the other Catholic universities have never heard about(much less taught) the Sins that Cry to Heaven for Vengeance. It's not surprising that the Cathechism isn't part of "higher learning" anymore. I was surprised, however, to run across a priest who ministers to other priests who was unfamilar with it.