On Listening to Bishops

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.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.