How to Talk to (and about) a Bishop


In my work with a Catholic apostolate the past twelve years, I’ve found that non-Catholics, new Catholics, and lukewarm Catholics ask an incredibly broad range of questions. Not so when it comes to "veteran" Catholics.

Veteran Catholics have been in the Church a while, perhaps all their life, and their orthodox antennae are fully functional. In addition, they are often "veterans" in the sense of having weathered some controversy on the parish or even diocesan level. The questions I receive from veteran Catholics seem equally diverse at first, but typically they all come down to this: What can be done to address perceived problems in my parish or diocese?

My interlocutors have a heightened awareness of what’s really going on in the Church. For them, the problem didn’t begin with the much-publicized sex scandals of recent years, as they have long endured the corrosive effects of dissent, classroom sex education, liturgical abuse, and an overall failure to effectively teach the faith in its fullness. Many are engaged on a very personal level, as they’ve seen their Catholic school-educated children and grandchildren leave the Church, in a sense inoculated against all things Catholic.

When veteran Catholics try to speak up about the problems they see in their parishes and dioceses, one of two things usually happens. Some simply vent out of anger or frustration, completely out of tune with the "nuance" of Church bureaucrats. Their style gets in the way of their substance, and their concerns are typically dismissed out of hand. Others, though, present their concerns respectfully and well, but often even then nobody seems to listen or to do anything to correct the problem. In both cases, merely speaking up will often result in the veteran Catholic being ostracized from the local Church, being made to believe that he is the problem, not Fr. Feelgood or Sr. Mary Wicca-Reiki.

For most veteran Catholics, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (and their predecessors) are not the problem—indeed, the popes are routinely spoken of in appropriately favorable, if not saintly, terms. Veteran Catholics recognize the role of the pope as the vicar of Christ and legitimate successor of St. Peter. They appreciate the courageous witness of contemporary popes amidst the challenges of today’s world.

The local bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t typically fare so well. To some extent this state of affairs is understandable: The buck has to stop somewhere. The local bishop in essence is president, Congress, and Supreme Court in his diocese. If a politician has a bad record, we can vote him out of office. If a football coach fields a lousy, undisciplined team, he doesn’t come back next season. The bishop, though, not only seems to be ultimately responsible for the spiritual malaise in his diocese, but he also seems to be immune from any repercussions for a "poor performance."

Not surprisingly, then, the questions I get from veteran Catholics often have an edge to them. Wounds are still fresh, and the frustration level is palpable.

Last February, This Rock published an article by Fr. Robert Johansen that addressed this issue "from above"—i.e., the Pope’s approach to his bishops. In this article, I’m going to touch upon the issue "from below"—i.e., how we as lay faithful must relate to our bishops. Rather than offer solutions to specific scenarios, I want to propose seven guiding principles to help us navigate through turbulent ecclesial waters.

(1) An Apostle in our Midst

One of the principal defining features of Catholicism is its teaching on the papacy. Veteran Catholics frequently uphold this teaching against Protestant and Orthodox objections on the one hand and the objections of dissident Catholics on the other.

Meanwhile, the last few decades have witnessed a renewed appreciation of the laity’s call to holiness and mission. The Second Vatican Council’s salutary emphasis on our baptismal dignity and responsibility plays nicely into the American sense of democracy and egalitarianism.

So while the roles of the papacy and the laity seem to capture our attention, we tend to pay less attention to the Church’s perennial teaching on the immense dignity of the office of bishop.

Christ built his Church on the foundation of the apostles (Eph. 2:19–20). The bishops are the legitimate successors of the apostles. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says they are "authentic teachers of the apostolic faith endowed with the authority of Christ" (CCC 888; cf. Lumen Gentium 25).

Our bishop is neither a mere representative of the pope nor an authority apart from the pope. He exercises authority in the name of Christ in his diocese and in communion with the entire Church.

In his November 20, 1999, ad limina address to the German bishops, Pope John Paul II addressed attempts to drive a wedge between the pope and the local bishop, saying:

Unity with the bishop is the essential and indispensable attitude of the faithful Catholic, for one cannot claim to be on the pope’s side without also standing by the bishops in communion with him. Nor can one claim to be with the bishop without standing by the head of the college.

We need to embrace the fact that our bishop, whatever his personal faults and failings might be, is indeed an apostle in our midst. For this we need the gift of faith. As St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the early second century, "When you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ" (Letter to the Trallians, 2,1).

(2) Like Noah’s Righteous Sons

The relation of Christ and the Church is often expressed in nuptial terms. Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is his Bride. By extension, the bishop (who acts in the person of Christ) and his flock have a spousal, familial relationship. The bishop’s ring symbolizes his "marriage" to the local Church. Moreover, the bishop typically wears a pectoral cross, not a crucifix. There is no corpus on his cross because the bishop himself is to be the corpus, laying down his life for his bride in imitation of our Savior (John 15:13; Eph. 5:25).

Spousal, covenantal relationships do not involve a quid pro quo. My fidelity to my marriage covenant is not dependant on my wife’s fidelity. I don’t assess my wife’s performance each day in order to decide whether she deserves my love. Rather, my commitment—and hers—must be total and unconditional.

This principle also applies to our relationship with bishops. And it should be noted that bishops’ obligations are weightier than our own. Yet the bishop may never say, "These people are a pain in the neck and oppose me at every turn; I will not love and serve them." He will be judged ultimately on his fidelity to Christ played out through the exercise of his episcopal ministry, not on the fidelity of his flock.

Similarly, we have a duty of docile reverence toward our bishops as our spiritual fathers. This duty flows from the fourth commandment.

Of course, we must not accept error, but with patience, fortitude, and charity we must always preserve unity in our pursuit of Christ’s truth.

Taking needed corrective action with respect to one of our shepherds is not a cause for rejoicing or something to be publicly proclaimed so that we can take "credit" for being some sort of orthodox gunslinger. Rather, like Noah’s righteous sons who covered their father’s nakedness notwithstanding his drunkenness, we should take appropriate action while remaining very conscious of the harm caused by publicly airing our grievances against our spiritual fathers.

If my own father were to do something untoward, it would be wrong for me to ignore it or to cover it up for him so that he can get away with it again. But it would also be wrong, and indeed a violation of the fourth commandment, to treat him as anything less than my father and to lead the charge in publicly disgracing him.

(3) Fatal Detraction

In its section on the eighth commandment ("Thou shall not bear false witness"), the Catechism discusses the curious sin of detraction. This sin involves the "disclosure of another’s faults and sins to persons who did not know about them" (CCC 2477), thus causing an unjust injury to that person’s reputation.

What’s curious about the sin is that it’s a "truth" sin. In other words, the "faults and sins" that are disclosed are real, yet in certain circumstances such disclosure is nonetheless sinful. When we criticize the local Church we may be just "letting off steam," and everything we say may well be true. But this does not excuse making statements that will (a) harm the faith of other Catholics whose faith is weaker, (b) provide an unnecessary stumbling block for nonbelievers, or (c) unfairly harm the reputations of others. Scripture tells us to say "only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29).

In addition to protecting the faith of others, we must protect our own hearts, ensuring that we do not allow our negative feelings about real evils to fester and ultimately to lead us out of the Church.

Let’s assume that a husband and wife are having marital problems, and the husband wants to do something about it. The first step would be for the husband to honestly acknowledge the nature and extent of the problem. He would try to work things out with his spouse, and no one would criticize him for seeking the help of others—marital counselors, spiritual advisors, friends and confidants, and above all God himself—to help remedy the problem.

But if the husband were to disparage his wife to his children, to neighbors, perhaps even to the press, we can say that regardless of the truth and frustration level behind his statements, he would be only hurting the situation. St. Joseph, when confronted with our Lady’s pregnancy, determined to "divorce her quietly," without subjecting her to shame (Matt. 1:19). As Catholics, we have to similarly distinguish between acknowledging the truth and taking restorative action from mere venting and causing greater division within the Church.

(4) It’s How You Say It

Canon 212 of the Code of Canon Law, based largely on section 37 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), sets forth in general terms the proper disposition of Catholics when it comes to our relationship with Church hierarchy.

Canon 212 has three sections. The first section describes the faithful’s general obligation and responsibility regarding Church authority, stating that we’re "bound by Christian obedience to follow what the sacred pastors, as representatives of Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or determine as leaders of the Church." We don’t hear too much about that, and we’ll continue the discussion of "obedience" in the next section.

The second section talks about the faithful’s right to make their spiritual needs and desires known to the pastors of the Church.

The key section, when it comes to problems in the Church, is the third section, which provides:

In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence that they possess, [the laity] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters that pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful . . .

Unfortunately, many people stop reading at that point. But the canon goes on to provide:

. . . with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons.

So how one addresses issues in the Church does matter greatly, even when we have truth on our side. As apologists we frequently cite St. Peter’s admonition to "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15). Peter goes on to advise us to do so "with gentleness and reverence." If we run roughshod over the qualifications mentioned in the second half of section three of canon 212, we may be "successful" in achieving short-term objectives (though that hasn’t been the usual experience), but we’re not being "faithful." Rather, acting out of understandable pain, frustration, or anger, we likely have given into "the violence that under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse" (Centessimus Annus 25).

(5) Strength Lies in Obedience

Throughout Church history there has been an epic battle raging between good and evil, between grace and sin, and this battle rages within all of us individually as well as within the Church. Through baptism we’ve become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4), and yet concupiscence remains within our frail human nature inclining us to sin. We see this in a particular and at times startling way in the person of the bishop, who is "God’s anointed" yet is still quite capable of grave sin as well as character flaws such as weakness, timidity, and too much regard for human respect.

We know through faith that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20), so we know which side prevails in the end. But the messiness of a world—and indeed of a Church—in which God writes straight with very crooked lines can be very frustrating along the way.

The fall of man as well as the fall of one-third of the angels was caused by disobedience to God resulting from pride. We also know that only God’s authority is without limit, and thus only our obedience to him must be without limit. Yet it is nonetheless true that others participate in God’s authority, and to that extent we owe them our obedience as well. Not complicated stuff. But, as we say in the legal profession, bad cases make bad law, and recent scandals make it harder to see this obligation in its proper light.

Obedience does not mean accepting error or becoming a doormat. If a bishop were to command us to sin, we’d be obliged not to obey, because such command is outside the bishop’s sacred authority. But if on the next day he issues a command that’s within his authority, we are obliged to obey without grumbling, even if another bishop does things in a way more in line with our preferences. We need the virtue of humility to submit our wills to lawful authority. More fundamentally, we must foster in ourselves and others a reverent respect for the bishop’s God-given authority, which provides the foundation for godly responses to exercises of that authority.

(6) Be Relentlessly Constructive

In the business world there’s a maxim that may help us take the right approach in this matter. Successful managers are able to "catch their employees doing something right" and in the process provide positive reinforcement for good behavior. As Catholics, we too should emphasize the positive as we strive to "overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21).

There is, after all, much good going on in the Church. We can’t let the seemingly ubiquitous weeds blind us to the wheat. We should look for opportunities to build up our shepherds and other Church leaders and to thank them for their service.

In our attitude toward the Church, we should strive to be relentlessly constructive, thereby avoiding the extremes of naïve optimism and unrelenting criticism. A critical spirit produces pessimism and bitterness that can be spiritually devastating—even scandalous when communicated to others. If we’re bitter we’re certainly not going to attract people to the faith. There is no patron saint of bitterness; rather, the saints attracted people to Christ through their holiness and joy notwithstanding the crosses.

This is all about living the virtue of hope and remaining focused on the prize, Christ himself. This hope impels us to be resourceful for the kingdom of God, trusting that the Lord looks favorably on our fidelity.

In my experience as a litigation attorney, the vast majority of cases settled without ever going to trial. The parties were generally much better off trying to resolve their differences in good faith rather than insisting on their pound of flesh. How much more must that be the case with Catholics (cf. Matt. 5:23–26). This can be a real challenge in troubled parishes or dioceses but, in the words of Paul, we can’t grow tired of doing the right thing (2 Thess. 3:13).

(7) Good and Bad Anger

All human beings have passions, feelings, and emotions. In this regard anger is unique and tricky because it is both a capital sin (hence gravely evil) and also a passion (morally neutral, or even amoral). Anger is rightly directed toward perceived evils, and the better formed we are the more the passion of anger inside us will be calibrated rightly. For example, a saint would be angered by sin; one with less virtue might be angered by having to wait an extra minute in a shopping line. But the intellect and will must call the shots, not the anger—otherwise, we will move from passion to sin. That’s why it’s so important to cool off (if necessary and if circumstances allow) before responding to a perceived evil or injustice.

The passion of anger can and must be put to good use. We have a duty to resist evil, and so the lack of passion is a defect insofar as it would lead us to be indifferent toward sin.

How we deal with our anger matters greatly. Any evil that comes our way must be opposed righteously—always with the goal of fostering the salvation of souls and never to get in a kick to the shins. The crosses, abuses, and frustrations that provoke us to anger are the very stuff of our salvation. That doesn’t mean we simply sit back as passive observers, but when we seek legitimate redress we must unite ourselves more completely to Christ and gratefully welcome these opportunities to grow in grace and virtue through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Above all, we should pray fervently for our own local bishops and our dioceses. Having a godly attitude toward the bishop doesn’t necessarily change him (though it might), but it is an act of fidelity on our part that vividly manifests our love for the Church. And I think we’ll find that these prayers will change us, softening our hearts but not our minds.

Perhaps the last word should go to St. Catherine of Siena, who said to those who are scandalized and rebel against what happens to them: "Everything comes from love; all is ordained for the salvation of man; God does nothing without this goal in mind" (Dialogue on Providence, IV.138).


Leon Suprenant is the former president of Catholics United for the Faith. He now works for My Catholic Faith Delivered, a comprehensive, authentically Catholic, interactive online learning center based in the Kansas City area. For more information, check out...

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 1.