Can the Bishops Lead the Church?: From December 4, 1971

The Roman Synod ended, first of all for the delegates themselves, as a lesson in procedural chaos and substantive frustration. Hard on its heels came the semiannual meeting of the American bishops with its mixed and minor output. In their wake, more than one Catholic, not otherwise notably cynical, rebellious or passive, is left with the question that Fr. Andrew Greeley asked in our pages a few weeks ago (11/20): "Is there any point at this time in going through the motions of working with the American hierarchy?" In December of 1971, can we really expect our bishops to lead?

In a sense, our recent expectations of them may have been more than a little naive. Given the age and previous experience of the bulk of our bishops, plus the complexity of the problems they—and we—have been struggling with, neither the Synod nor the Washington meeting should be viewed as bankruptcy proceedings. Neither was devoid of real, if undramatic, gains.


The Synod was, to be sure, an ordeal for bishops and for the rest of us. But better this public, if sometimes humiliating, practical lesson in the exercise of collegial episcopal responsibility than a return to the secret maneuvers of an unchallenged Roman curia. Our leaders, however painfully, have received in Rome one more lesson about the new Pentecost. And their very failure to arrive at clear policy directions for the universal Church only reinforces the conviction that most key developments and reforms today can only be initiated regionally, nationally or locally.

As for the meeting of the American bishops, it was not without significant advances. The admission to their future meetings of the press and of auditors from various groups in the Church is a meaningful step toward a fully dialogal stance on the part of a previously hesitant or fearful hierarchy. Their acceptance, too, of recommendations of the U. S. Catholic Conference's Advisory Council has increased the likelihood that in 1976, after several carefully developed preliminary steps, the American Church will have instituted a true National Pastoral Council.

But if measured optimism is not to degenerate into bland gradualism, the present moment calls for new initiatives. The next several months should be a period of critical reflection and crucial option for the bishops themselves, but also for other leadership forces within the American Church.

Quite frankly, ought not our American bishops ask whether the time has not come for them to undertake a serious study of their leadership. No single action in their meeting next spring could do more for the recovery of confidence than this concrete expression of their will to search out and overcome any dysfunctional aspects of their leadership.

Authority and leadership in our day are so threatened, so rare and so indispensable, that they can no longer be exercised without a sophisticated grasp of what they are all about. In a recent remarkable study, The Assault on Authority, Fr. William Meissner has analyzed the socio-psychological factors present in genuine authority. He has, for example, underlined the role of the mythologizing process in the exercise of and in the response to episcopal authority. And he has called for "an evolution of new structures of authority which permit its exercise in such a way as to respond to the contemporary demand for freedom and responsibility."

No office holder, secular or ecclesiastical, can without infidelity neglect this kind of analysis. The charism of Church authority does not exempt the bearer from the dynamics of cultural change. If our bishops, quite rightly, have taken the crisis of priestly life and ministry seriously enough to underwrite a massive half-million dollar study, should they not take their own leadership role just as seriously and enlist the best available expertise? The recently renewed theology and spirituality of Christian discernment, to mention only one area, would have an immense contribution to make to a truly creative unleashing of the potential inherent in the episcopal office.

It would be a grave error, however, for the rest of us to sit back passively and wait for the bishops to find themselves. As Fr. Meissner indicates, the authority of office is not the only authority bestowed by Christ on his Church. Nor is genuine leadership reducible to formal authority. The Church of Jesus Christ is a community of Spirit-gifted men and women, and no baptized Christian may avoid his responsibility to cultivate his gifts for the benefit of the whole community. Just as we have undervalued the rich diversity of gifts authored by the Spirit in the Church, so also we have not sufficiently grasped the responsibility for the community's upbuilding that each charism entails. The exercise of one's charism is itself quite manifestly a form of leadership.

The gift inherent in the episcopal office is not the gift of initiating or controlling everything that happens in the Church. The bishop is called precisely to oversee (the literal sense of episkopein), to elicit, direct, unify and, when necessary, challenge and correct the exercise of the manifold gifts of the people whom he serves.

In the coming months, therefore, we hope to see fresh initiatives on the part of other leadership groups in the Church. New alignments are already emerging. One hopeful step is the regrouping of lay leadership described elsewhere in this issue. Another is the recent decision by major superiors, of religious men and women to work more closely together. There is, too, among American Catholic theologians a growing awareness of their indispensable teaching role, one for which the episcopal magisterium can never substitute. And Catholic journalists likewise have a summons to exercise their own mode of leadership.

Undoubtedly, the dynamics of such nonofficial leadership functions will prove challenging at times to the hierarchy, particularly to prelates of an authoritarian mindset. But the least we owe a reactionary bishop is to provide him with interesting things to react to, and the best we can do for the growing number of open bishops is to keep reminding them that they are not alone in trying to lead.

It is good, then, that we all ask the stimulating question that Fr. Greeley has asked himself. But it would be folly to allow our mythological stereotypes to fasten upon any obvious shortcomings of Church authorities in order to justify a sterile cop-out from our own leadership responsibility.

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Lisa Weber
6 years 11 months ago
If men and women religious are going to work more closely together, developing a uniform code of conduct toward the rest of the laity would be a most useful undertaking.  My first suggestion for the code of conduct is confidentiality for parishioners in their dealings within the church.  Once a code of conduct is developed, a complaint department for infractions would be helpful.


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