There is a certain type of sentence often spoken in our ecclesial discourse, whose subject is “the bishops,” as in “The bishops should do X” or “The bishops think Y.” Many Catholics make this sort of statement. It’s perfectly reasonable, of course, considering the essential role that the episcopate plays in the life of the church.
Yet statements that refer to “the bishops” often belie a diverse and complex reality. In the last few years, I have traveled extensively throughout this country, and I’ve met a lot of bishops. I’ve learned that our perceptions don’t always align with their realities. I’ve learned, for example, that “the bishops” do not exist, if by that phrase one means a single, monolithic community of men who think and act the same way. To be sure, they are all devoted to the church and to its teachings on faith and morals. Apart from what is essential, however, they have widely different opinions about contestable or prudential matters and different pastoral and political sensibilities. It is inaccurate, for example, to assume that “the bishops” all vote the same way when they enter the voting booth.
Yet there are also several perceptions of the American bishops that are flat out wrong, even uncharitable, and we should challenge them. One canard is that the bishops are all careerists. The vast majority of them, including every one I have met, are not self-interested schemers. Are they disinterested in their advancement? Of course not; none of us are. But is ambition the driving force of their lives? Absolutely not. They are by and large faithful and devoted sons of the church.
Another misperception is that the bishops live like princes. Indeed, some of them have inherited a lot of stuff and they are thinking of downsizing in the spirit of Pope Francis. It will make good practical sense for some of them and perhaps not for others. These decisions are not always straightforward. But judging by what people often say, you’d think that “the bishops” are the only ones who need to be thinking this way. Shouldn’t we all be thinking this way? Does a Jesuit community really need 12 cars for a community of 20 men? Do you need that house in the Hamptons, or that third car in the driveway, or a five bedroom house to raise two children? Maybe, maybe not. But focusing on “the bishops” conveniently distracts us from asking similarly tough questions about our own lives.
It is also often said that “the bishops” are imperious or somehow lacking humility. My experience is that they struggle with humility no more or less than the rest of us. In my own life, moreover, when I accuse someone of lacking humility it is almost always an indication of my own deficiency in this virtue. Another misperception is that “they” don’t listen. By and large, I think they do. It’s important to remember, however, that listening is not the same as agreeing. Do the rest of us, moreover, listen to them?
“But what about Bishop So-and-So and what he did,” someone might ask. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. I’m not talking about the exception to the rule, however, but the fact that too many of us unfairly believe that the exception is the rule. Being a bishop in 2015 is a thankless and almost impossible job. We are lucky that most of the bishops in this country are devoted, intelligent and hardworking. It is also the case that they have given their lives to us in service. You don’t have to agree with everything the bishops say and do in order to see that they deserve our gratitude and prayers, as well as our best efforts to truly listen to them before we insist on being heard.