American culture pressures us to secularize, to diminish religion, particularly religion based on truth. We are supposed to get truth from the culture, otherwise the purveyors of culture lose their power to turn a buck. From sitcoms that never mention religion, to political parties that suppress and reshape religion, to city councils that ignore the presence of religion, to composers with no religion in their music, to media who never mention the relevance of religion to news and events, the list goes on.
Now into this hostile torrent, insert a bishop. The head of a diocese deals with many, many things in committees and meetings away from the public eye. Most Catholics only see the bishop at ceremonial moments. But is this concealed life, this life hidden from the larger culture, what the bishop is there for? Often bishops seem more like vicars-general, lower ranking officials concerned with the internal life of the diocese.
Is there a specific role for a bishop outside of the institution of the Church itself? For the sake of argument, I will assume that the theology of a council has authority. Christus dominus, the Second Vatican Council’s document on the pastoral life of bishops, starts with the line: “Christ the Lord, Son of the living God, came that He might save His people from their sins and that all men might be sanctified.” That phrase “all men” jumps out doesn’t it?
Then: “Christ gave the Apostles and their successors the command and the power to teach all nations, to hallow men in the truth, and to feed them.” Clearly, this goes beyond the world of committees and parishes. There is a whole world of institutions and people beyond the ecclesial community to be hallowed in the truth with the bishop leading the process.
In fact, specifically: “They should show. . .that earthly goods and human institutions according to the plan of God the Creator are also disposed for man’s salvation and therefore can contribute much to the building up of the body of Christ.”
The Council officially expected bishops to have a sophisticated range of conversations with everyone in the culture. Christ is in the background, reaching out to all. Hence, the Council concluded: “Since it is the mission of the Church to converse with the human society in which it lives, it is especially the duty of bishops to seek out men and both request and promote dialogue with them.”
There is no qualification to this statement, not about the time being available, or convenience, or anything else. It is simply a bald statement of fact.
Moreover there is no mention of farming out this work. The clear intent is that the bishop – the individual with the apostolic grace – do it. Another official does not have the same status to stand and speak to what John Paul II called the culture of death.
As to the means of this conversation, the Council said, bishops:
should also strive to make use of the various media at hand nowadays for proclaiming Christian doctrine, namely, first of all, preaching and catechetical instruction which always hold the first place, then the presentation of this doctrine in schools, academies, conferences, and meetings of every kind, and finally its dissemination through public statements at times of outstanding events as well as by the press and various other media of communication, which by all means ought to be used in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.
So Catholic doctrine, the Catholic understanding of the world is meant to be brought out into the public square through “meetings of every kind.” And the bishop is the one doing it. The bishop’s apostolicity has been translated into the cultural matrix of the twentieth century.
Now we can line up this comprehensive picture of the bishop’s personal outreach to the culture with the Council’s picture of the baptized layperson in the culture. The Council said: “laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.”
First of all, there is the same wide-ranging expectation placed not only on the individual at the top of the diocesan hierarchy, but also on each baptized person. The difference in their speaking to the culture lies in the places that they are tasked with reaching. Ordinarily this would mean in the family, in one’s place of business, in one’s sports team, in the interactions at the service station or in the supermarket.
But there is more: “With a constantly increasing population, continual progress in science and technology, and closer interpersonal relationships, the areas for the lay apostolate have been immensely widened particularly in fields that have been for the most part open to the laity alone.”
So bishops and laity are each tasked with reaching their own specific areas of the culture. Why don’t we fly a little and give God’s grace a chance in this stubborn and deadly culture in which we live?