Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Matt Malone, S.J.July 21, 2015

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Cody Serra
8 years 4 months ago
I agree that generalizations are always unfair to the many members of any group. Bishops are no exception. However, their words and actions impact our most intimate and spiritual lives as Catholics more than the words of politicians, government officials, friends, and other authority figures. The problem may be that that we expect perfection from those in the hierarchical institutional system. We expect the ideal holy man in each one of them, forgetting that they are human beings like us, with a particular role different from the laity within the institution. I believe the repeated criticisms are the result of the clericalism that exist in our church among not only the clergy, but also among the faithful laity. The laity is a contributor to the clericalism that does exist today and likely for centuries, around the world in many quarters of the Catholic population. That creates unreal expectations. I wonder if the problem of the bishops being lumped together as if they were one, is the consequence of our false conception of bishops, sometimes also of any ordained clergy, as being super human and perfect reflections of the Jesus Christ. We were taught that in my early Catholic education many, many years ago, History shows us the error in that teaching. Some Bishops may still believe that they have a super especial grace from God that the faithful does not receive and some, a few hopefully, so do believe and preach it even these days. And then, we fail to separate these ones as individuals without making broad generalizations. We need to listen at their words, but they have to listen to us. Some do a good job. Others fail. Teaching becomes authoritarian commands when the realities of church and society are ignored. Faith is incarnate. Christ is among us in the world. Some Bishops mirror Jesus' loving attitude when teaching. I wish all of them would. But let's give thanks for the many good teachers of the Gospel, and keep our hearts open to agree or disagree with the ones that interpret differently the way Christ's message can be offered to convert hearts today. We all should remember that the Holy Spirit does not discriminate by our position within the Church. Listening is a mutual relationship of encounter with faith and God's love among Bishops and faithful.
Joris Heise
8 years 4 months ago
My comment is addressed to the difference between someone who is intelligent, sincere, and hardworking, etc., and someone who embodies the Gospel. The article serves as a good reminder of the individual humanity of men chosen to be bishops in our country, of the misrepresentations and misunderstandings about them--as well as a reminder to be charitable in talking to and about them. Nonetheless, it seems to me that they do not embody the Gospel enough to avoid a calling to account, a prophetic challenge to behave in ways that DO our Father's will. They seem more intent on conforming and enforcing conformity than in continuing the miracles of healing, feeding others (and the other corporal works of mercy) and forgiving--which the Gospels enjoin on all of us. I fear that their sincerity has replaced their openness to truth; their dedication to the church ans submerged their welcoming of sinners, and their elevation to the episcopate has reduced or eliminated their practical service to strangers, Canaanites, Samaritans, women, etc--which Jesus practices in the Gospels. Defenders might defend indivduals, rightly so--but the body of bishops do not appear publicly to be the Body of the Gospel Christ.
Charles McNamee
8 years 4 months ago
Dom Thomas Keating OCSO n his brief(43 pgs) but wonderful little book "The Human Condition" relates an ancient story which goes as follows: "A Sufi master had lost the key to his house and was looking for it in the grass outside. He got down on his hands and knees and started running his fingers through every blade of grass. Along came eight or ten of his disciples. They said, "Master,what are you doing?" He said, "I have lost the key to my house." They said, "Can we help you find it?" He said, "I'd be delighted." So they all got down on their hands and knees and started running their fingers through the grass. As the sun grew hotter, one of the more intelligent disciples said. "Master, have you any idea where you might have lost the key?" The Master replied, "Of course. I lost it in the house." To which they all exclaimed, "Then why are we looking for it out here?" He said,"Isn't it obvious? There is more light here." The analogy Dom Thomas makes is to our search for God. We frequently fail to appreciate Jesus' own "good news", that the Kingdom of God is WITHIN us. [Mark 1:15-16]. All of us, Popes, Bishops, Priests, Nuns, Laity are often prone to forgetting that basic reality. We seek for happiness outside ourselves in our need for pleasure, security, power and acceptance by others. These are the basic needs we all sought as children, and often we return to that search in our adult life. God indwells us all, especially the person to your right and to your left. Seek God where He may be found in prayer and in how you find Him in all others in needs like your own. Thank you for a great essay Fr. Malone.
Ana Vago
8 years 4 months ago
Of course not all bishops are "the same". Every now and then one reads something said by a bishop that does not comform to the group-speak. But, there is a body called the USCCB that speaks for all bishops. The perceptions of the bishops come partly from the public image of this group - an autocratic group of celibate old, mostly white, males who attend national conferences where barriers are set up - literally - to keep at a safe distance the laity who might be there to "protest". Why do they hold signs and protest? Because the bishops are unwilling to invite them to discuss the issues. Most bishops are driven in limos and most do live more handsomely than the average person, with these lifestyles supported by the money of the laity, who cannot afford to live that way themselves. They have no accountability in how the money is spent, including the billions spent not only to compensate victims (a just cause) but to continue to push expensive litigation against victims. They do not ask the laity for permission to spend their money on poliitcal campaigns that the people in the pews often do not support - such as fighting gay marriage initiatives or fighting the health care bill that includes provisions for insurance to cover contraception even when the churches themselves, and their purely religious organizations (not supported by taxpayers) have been exempted. Most Catholics, including most Catholic women, believe that the church teaching on contraception is not just misguided, it is dead wrong. But, bishops don't listen to married couples, especially not to married women, unless they are wealthy lawyers with seven children, as though their showcase, hand-picked, token 'orthodox" women actually represent the majority of Catholic women. If Matt Malone could provide a few examples of how bishops "listen" to the laity many would be interested. Few bishops respond to mail, and few bishops spend any time at all listening to "ordinary" Catholics who are neither rich nor powerful. The bishops as a group have a reputation that they themselves have earned through their words and their own behaviour. The exceptions, those who dare say anything at all that is not part of the group-speak, are even sometimes shunned by their "brother" bishops, although their "brother" bishops who protected child molesters are still welcome members of the club..
norman ravitch
8 years 4 months ago
The real problem with bishops and all clergy is that they are poorly educated. Theology takes up far too much time; it is a rather weak discipline, the attempt to understand God who is, see St. Augustine, essentially unknowable. The clergy should study history, psychology, economics and so on. I heard yesterday at Mass that 65 % of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. This means the clergy doesn't understand it either and cannot make it stick. Bishops come from the ordinary clergy; as such they are no intellectual giants to be sure. I am vindicated in my long held belief that most Christians, clergy of all sorts included, don't really believe what their churches tell them to believe. If 65% of the Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence, what do they believe? A priest from Poland I knew here in the American South told me the people he met in churches were so nice but knew absolutely nothing about Catholicism? Whose fault is that?
norman ravitch
8 years 4 months ago
AND, let me add: American Catholics, except for Hispanics, are no longer peasants. They have been to college and cannot interact very well with priests whose education is technically below that of a mediocre highs school student. I know that holiness is also needed, but priests without real educations are not going to be taken seriously.
Vicktor Moberg
8 years 4 months ago
I've only met ONE priest who did not receive a graduate degree. Every other seminarian, scholastic, priest, and brother I've met has received, or is working on a graduate degree. In order to be a priest, they must receive at least a Bachelor's degree, so I don't know where you're getting that priests' educations "is technically below that of a mediocre highs school student."
norman ravitch
8 years 4 months ago
But they go to mediocre Catholic institutions.
Lisa Weber
8 years 4 months ago
Bishops are as variable as any other group of human beings. They do have one thing in common, both collectively and individually: none have an ongoing dialogue with the women of the church. They may talk to nuns, but nuns do not represent the women of the church and so cannot speak for them. Bishops have the authority to mandate that women leaders be elected by secret ballot, so the lack of women leaders cannot be blamed solely on women. The neglect, or active stifling, of the feminine side of the church is a primary reason that the church in the USA is dwindling now. The emphasis on works of mercy tends to neglect the people who are not economically deprived but who still have a need for communal worship, catechesis, fellowship, inspiration, spiritual dialogue and growth in Catholic faith. The church does not accord full membership to women and the blame for that lies mostly with the bishops. Much could be said and done without allowing the discussion to be derailed by fruitless talk of women's ordination to the priesthood, but there seems to be little interest in developing a discussion. Perhaps the bishops are afraid of a dialogue but a lack of dialogue is deadly as well.
Anne Chapman
8 years 4 months ago
It would not be surprising if the bishops with whom Fr. Malone interacts treat him somewhat differently than they would some others. He is a priest, part of the clerical club. He is also not just an "ordinary" priest, but the editor of an influential and respected Catholic journal. Most bishops would take care to be respectful in conversations with him, and perhaps even to listen to what he has to say. They would be unlikely to accord someone like me, any ordinary lay woman, the same respect nor would they be willing to spend time listening to what I, and most other women, might have to say.

The latest from america

A Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinDecember 07, 2023
Since Oct. 7, a fascinating dynamic has emerged: the Jewish and Palestinian narratives we see posted on social media have converged—with the protagonists and antagonists reversed.
Joshua StantonDecember 07, 2023
Gender roles in the church need not be a zero-sum game.
Colleen DulleDecember 07, 2023
Bradley Cooper's new Leonard Bernstein biopic, "Maestro," offers a portrait of a soul that struggled to determine which direction it wanted to take in the world of classical music.
Doug GirardotDecember 07, 2023