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On Listening to Bishops Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 09 June 2013

Bishops have been under fire these last years, and understandably so. There has been the horrific priest abuse crisis, for sure, but that’s been far from the end of the story: every few months, it seems, a bishop lands in the newspaper for a grave lapse of judgment or moral failure. And, as our Lord promised, when the shepherd is struck, the sheep are dispersed.

Tragically, there is nothing new in this situation. St. John Chrysostom observed the same problems fifteen centuries ago: just as Moses received a “bitter punishment” because his “fault was attended with injury to the rest,” Chrysostom notes that “the bishop cannot sin unobserved” as a public spiritual ruler. Due to the sheer scope of the episcopal office and the grave responsibility of shepherding souls, the saint surmises, “I do not think there are many among the bishops who will be saved, but many more that perish.”  

Bishops, though called to serve in the most exalted and public offices in the Church, are also mere men, subject to the same weaknesses as the people whom they are called to teach, sanctify, and govern. They sin and they make mistakes. Yet their task is to direct us in both the spiritual and moral life so that we live according to God’s will. And our task is to obey them with faith, humility, and good will.

Reservations emerge immediately. For the cynics and skeptics, some bishops amount to little more than hypocrites who tell us what to do without adhering to the same moral code, and the laity are mindless pawns who are only expected to pray, pay, and obey. For believers, the style, personality, or decisions of their bishops may be enough to induce contempt, parsimony, criticism, or even public opposition.

Blithe exhortations for kindness and harmony ignore the tension present between not a few bishops and the faithful that has also existed for centuries. In the same homily, Chrysostom declares that bishops are bludgeoned by “a thousand complaints on all sides. None is afraid to accuse him, and speak evil of him. . . .The soul of a bishop is for all the world like a vessel in a storm: lashed from every side, by friends, by foes, by one’s own people, by strangers.”

Listening to bishops has never been easy – nor will it ever be. But obedience to our superiors is inscribed in the word of God: the Decalogue’s command to honor parents includes obedience as a necessary component. And closer to the current subject, the Letter to the Hebrews says “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give an account.” (13:17)


            St. John Chrysostom by Matthew Garrett (2007)

What, then, are the parameters for obedience to bishops? First, we must recognize that bishops are sinners just as we are. By their office they are called to a higher standard, but their authority does not remove the effects of original sin. Fallen bishops cause grave scandal; so they need our prayers and compassion even more, rather than condemnation. Besides, the media slings more than enough of this.

Second, bishops teach us and govern us from their authority as successors of the apostles and representatives of Christ, not from their own personal character. When they are instructing us in matters of faith and morals, it is Christ’s teachings, not their own, that they bid us to keep. Thus by listening to them, we actually obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), and in doing so, the will of God is fulfilled: our sanctification. (1 Thess 4:3)

Third, most of us encounter bishops not only by instruction in the faith, but in practical judgments that have no assurance of divine guidance: appointment or removal of a priest, refusal of a legitimate request, closing of a church or school. Here obedience – along with charity and patience – is truly tested. This instance requires two further clarifications.

On the one hand, according the will of Christ the apostles and their successors the bishops have legitimate authority in all ecclesial matters down to the most mundane dealings. By virtue of the duties incurred by the great gift of our baptisms, we must obey the juridical decisions of bishops, even if we disagree.

On the other hand, our duty of obedience does not mean we cannot communicate our opinions, ideas, and reservations to our bishops, in private or public. But because of bishops’ ecclesial dignity, we must do so charitably and with deference. We can seek recourse to the Apostolic See if we believe a bishop has decided contrary to canon law, but we must never seek to embarrass or insult him in the process – doing so only further disturbs the whole flock.

“A bishop is bound to belong to all, to bear the burden of all,” writes Chrysostom. As members of the same Body of Christ, we must help our bishops bear the burden of souls by bearing our burden of obedience to them. Obedience never has been easy, and it never will be. But like all things truly Catholic, obedience is worth the sacrifice.

 
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.
 
 
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Comments (23)Add Comment
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written by irenaeus, June 09, 2013
My bishop recently passed away. This article gives me all the more reason to pray for his immortal soul.
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written by Austin, June 09, 2013
I wish the writer had advised us about what to do when the bishops give advice which is erroneous: such as the document "Always our children"; '(specifically the part that says "wait and see")...also the bishops conference has so many specific political opinions, such as this immigration bill. Isn''t support of such a bill by the bishops clericalism; shouldn't Catholic laity be the experts here and the bishops give moral guidelines only? The bill is filled with specifics which requires knowledge of the law and situation.
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written by Mack, June 09, 2013
One wishes for a bishop without fashionable adjectives -- "African-American bishop," "Hispanic bishop," "Italian-American bishop," "German-American bishop," and so on. One wishes for a bishop. If he must have an adjective tacked on, perhaps he could be a Christian bishop.
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written by Jack,CT, June 09, 2013
@Austin,very wise statement......ty
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written by Dennis, June 09, 2013
The sticking point has long been, "Should we obey disobedient bishops?" No.

Should our ancestors have affirmed and obeyed the choice of all the bishops in England, save John Fisher, who affirmed that the King was supreme head of the Church in England? No.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, June 09, 2013
Austin

While the Church and State are distinct societies, the Church has indirect power over civil authority. “There may occur a clash between the spiritual good and temporal convenience or expediency, and on such occasions the temporal sovereign must yield to the spiritual,” as Suarez says. The Church has this right because she serves a higher end, the human being’s eternal salvation. It follows that the Church is the judge of the limits of her jurisdiction.
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written by Manfred, June 09, 2013
Prof. Bonagura: Thank you for laying out quite clearly the traditional Catholic teaching on the office and role of the Catholic bishop. Thank you as well for the quotes from St. John Chrysostom. As Austin points out above, sometimes?, often? bishops exceed their competence on matters over which they have not authority or expertise while ignoring those very serious matters which are within their purview. For Cdl Dolan to make sure we understand tha Andrew Cuomo, the pro contraception, pro abortion, pro sodomite "marriage", adulterous governor of New York is "a Catholic in good standing" is so patently absurd that the authority which appointed Dolan, The Vatican, should have removed him on the spot as he has become the laughing stock of the tabloids. THE FACT THAT HE IS NOT REMOVED demonstrates that the Church is incompetent and really ought to shut Its doors. JP II admitted he was not good at "management". Pope Francis just admitted he did not want to be Pope. Abp. DiNardo just allowed a Methodist "bishop", female of course, to hold an ordination of a Methodist minister in cathedral in Houston, TX to the outrage of his laity who are calling him out on it. The Church also produces bishops of the caliber of Burke,Paprocki et al. Now It has to find a way to remove the rotten apples as soon as possible rather than waiting until they retire. Bendict opoened that door by retiring himself when he knew was failing.
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written by jrf, June 09, 2013
A timely and insightful article! Ezekiel 33:1-17 comes to mind: The Prophet a Watchman. Popes, Bishops, Priests, Parents and all in roles of legitimate authority ought to take notice. Aren't we all Watchman? Such truths have no expiration date.
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written by David Bonagura, June 09, 2013
A number of comments thus far look at the thorny issue of bishops' statements that fall under the third point I mentioned in the article: practical decisions, which often are the most difficult to accept, and, as I noted, require charity and patience. These decisions, be they about political matters (Catholic politicians who publically reject Church teachings) or pastoral matters that spill into specific particulars (USCCB documents come to mind here), must be respected by us because of the dignity of the officeholders--and because of the precept of charity. We may note that many of these statements are intended as policy or advice, and therefore do not require obedience per se; nevertheless, we should listen carefully and think deeply before throwing stones. We are free to express our disagreement, in public or private, if we believe bishops to be in error, but only with due deference. Bishops will make mistakes on practical judgments—just as we do—but that does not make them heretics or in need of removal. Far from it. Rather, we should pray for them doubly, and help them in practical ways if we are able—this is far more effective than embarrassing our own shepherds in public. We as sheep owe the shepherd, and perspective, far more than this.
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written by Ernest Miller, June 09, 2013
Manfred: You present arguments in which I fully agree. BUt, how on earth should we take action?
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written by Pat, June 09, 2013
It seems that there are many areas of confusion developing 'On Listening to Bishops'.

The laity is starving for consistent, comprehensive spiritual food of care in order to understand eternal salvation. When messages are based in political issues, the 'dignity of officeholders', and intent, becomes suspect.

"These decisions, be they about

political matters
(Catholic politicians who publically reject Church teachings)

or pastoral matters that spill into specific particular (USCCB documents come to mind here),

must be respected by us because of the dignity of the officeholders--

and because of the precept of charity.

We may note that many of these statements are intended as policy or advice,

and therefore do not require obedience per se;

nevertheless, we should listen carefully and think deeply before throwing stones.

We are free to express our disagreement, in public or private,

if we believe bishops to be in error, but only with due deference.

Bishops will make mistakes on practical judgments—just as we do—but that does not make them heretics or in need of removal. Far from it."

vs

"...The Church has this right because she serves a higher end, the human being’s eternal salvation. It follows that the Church is the judge of the limits of her jurisdiction. ..."
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 09, 2013
You know, this matter of obeying bishops is something akin to the natural law: you know it when you see it. The same holds true with bishops, the laity know when they got a good one and when they don't.

I don't advocate disobeying one's bishop on matters of faith and morals - EVER. Yet there are other areas where disobedience to a bishop IS the right thing to do (such as the case cited above regarding those apostate English bishops who broke with the authority of the successor of Peter. Disobedience was the moral position to have taken. It just so happens that in that situation those bishops were taking political positions which safeguarded their heads and eschewed doing what was morally right).
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written by Dave, June 09, 2013
I think we need to fast and pray for our bishops, as indeed we ought to fast and prayer for the salvation of the world (and of our own souls). With the Fortnight for Freedom fast upon us, now is a good time to redouble our efforts to pray to the Holy Spirit on their behalf. I don't know how anyone can read St. Chrysostom's Sermon and not pray for men who have accepted the episcopal burden -- for those who did so in obedience, and for those who sought the honor.
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written by Howard Kainz, June 09, 2013
@Manfred: Check your sources. Cardinal Dolan did not say that. but just the opposite. According to the New York Times, May 14, "Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan declined on Tuesday to say whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was “a Catholic in good standing,” as he ratcheted up his criticism of the governor’s continued advocacy for abortion rights.... 'I don’t mind telling you that’s one of the things the governor and I talk about,' Cardinal Dolan said in a radio interview with Fredric U. Dicker, a columnist for The New York Post, on Mr. Dicker’s radio talk show on WGDJ-AM. 'Look, he and I have very grave differences, and this is one of them.'"
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written by Jack,CT, June 09, 2013
@Manfred,The men of our" Faith are
HUMAN,have u ever considered that
prior to your calls to close the
doors of the church?
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written by senex, June 09, 2013
One could cite scripture that we should accept and obey the ruler (i.e., Caesar) in the same vein as the author of this article and some commentators suggest we should accept every word that comes forth from the mouth or pen of the bishops. It is all well and good to say that on matters of faith and morals we should follow the bishops (which in the opinion of many include the USCCB). But the USCCB has no teaching authority, only the individual bishop. As the late Fr. Neuhaus said: The bishops should stick to matters where they are supposed to have competence. They abuse this by opining on virtually every social issue and more. They ambitiously take too many positions on too many issues, most of which belong to the laity and on which the laity have more competence. They should stick to stating moral principles and get away from detailed applications where their biases often lead them astray.
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written by anonymous, June 10, 2013
What to do when you believe that your bishop is defrauding the people of his diocese when he closes half of their parishes in one fell swoop, refuses to answer questions, you find that the consulting group that he has hired is in partnership with a Catholic insurer/appraiser, all of the parishes closed seem to be the ones that have no mortgages or their bills are paid and they have money in the bank, yada,yada, yada, and to top all of that off, he comes from an archdiocese where he has been implicated in the direct coverup of sexual abuse in that archdiocese...It is so very hard to trust anything that he says--it seems that he speaks with "forked tongue"...Very disturbing for us...Nothing is as it seems...
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written by Louis Baumer, June 10, 2013
Unfortunately for Bishops--only the Pope in infallible--and only under specific circumstances. Only an ego such as Cardinal Mahoney of LA, in his "exalted position" in the Church could believe one "mea culpa" makes up for decades of
errors and wrongdoing.
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written by jamercurio, June 10, 2013
The Bishops' job is to save souls. Considering that only 20% of Catholics in the US attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on a weekly basis, they are failing badly. They should leave the social justice crap to the politicians and the Protestants, and work on the commission Christ gave them instead. Feed my sheep.
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written by Joe PewSitter, June 10, 2013
"...bishops teach us and govern us from their authority as successors of the apostles and representatives of Christ, not from their own personal character."
So, when you have bishops saying things like, abortion and contraception is OK because the HHS ordered it; or, all Christian religions are the same, they just do it differently; or, they support womyn priests, is that teaching us the True Word of The Lord?
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written by Francis of Chino, June 10, 2013
With all due respect, jamercurio, part of saving souls is social justice. Fighting abortion, for example, is social justice. Fighting for the Christian view of marriage is social justice. Or should we leave those to the politicians (and if you say yes on that one, I present you Senator Portman and Jon Huntsman) and the Protestants (who seem to decide their dogmas by majority vote)? I assume you believe as I do that they should intervene in those cases, and rightly so. So why pick and choose where the bishops have the right to advise and exhort their flocks about the public square? Would we not in that case be as hypocritical as the Kennedys (RFK possibly excepted)? Are all interventions created equal? Of course not. Some matters are subject to due differences as to prudence. But we must show due deference to our bishops - indeed all our legitimate superiors - even where we prudentially disagree in good faith.
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written by Skip Wallace, OFS, June 11, 2013
Professor, you present wonderful points that are important to not only consider, but to take to heart. It isn't easy to countenance some things that come out of the mouths of some Bishops sometimes. And we do have a right and responsibility to let them know our displeasure, but always...always...with "due deference" as you point out. Have we seen, and will we ever see, occasional buffonery in the ranks of the Bishops? Of course. But I can trump that by pointing out the high and mighty clowns in the laity that post in blog comboxes all over the 'Net, some of whom have presented here. The most laughable thing said here so far is that the Church should "shut It's doors." I'm still snickering over that one. The guy needs to reread St. Matthew a time or two.
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written by John Rathowen, June 11, 2013
Too often in the past 50 years has this question raised itself and too often has it been ignored or the answer too it has been fudged.

Stop obeying your Bishop when you suspect that what you are hearing either from his mouth or from the mouth of his Clergy who, after all are his co-workers or should be, are not preaching, teaching and otherwise promoting the Catholic Faith that comes to us from the Apostles. At that stage you are not only allowed to disobey the Bishop or Priest but you are subject to a solemn biblical injunction to disobey and to ignore him/them. Rebuke the Bishop to his face. Rebuke the parish clergy, if you have to. They are masquerading as Catholics if they do not teach Catholic Doctrine. Sadly, too many are neo-Modernists and have no idea what sound Doctrine is and, that being so, you MUST NOT follow them or obey them. Why, because you cannot be a neo-Modernist and a Catholic. They are mutually exclusive. The one, Catholicism, is the Doctrine of the only Church founded by Christ - the other is no better than a glee club having heresy for it's rules. Be a Catholic or be a Heretic - the choice is yours.

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