Ahhh, Bishops . . .

Up on the Rock of Cashel in Ireland, there is the ruin of a bishop’s stronghold. Someone once said to me there: “They always take care of themselves.” They were the bishops. At the time of the apostles, bishops were poor and lived risky lives. Yet with the Edict of Milan (313), bishops became state officials as well, controlling lands and towns and provinces. They gained civil dignities and stipends. They were barons and lords.

Nothing in the way they were originally constituted said that they ought to behave in this way. They went along with the culture instead of witnessing to it.  Not all bishops do this, but enough do to make their rate of consumption and longing for class a problem for the Church’s presence in the world.

Bishop’s residences can be a huge problem. Again, some live in modest houses, but for the rest, the houses are a massive counter-witness to the official work of the Church. The Church is a witnessing body. It is a series of corporations for legal purposes. More importantly, the Church is fundamentally a witness of Jesus Christ in the world. Which does not entail having lots of money or a higher social status.

Theologically, the problem is that the bishop is bound by the material parameters of Jesus Christ’s own life. It is simply not possible to witness credibly to Jesus Christ while living a life significantly richer than Jesus Christ – unless the message of the Church is a mere commodity. Living the life of Christ is personal in the sense that it engages the whole person, body and soul. Every aspect of the individual’s existence is supposed to manifest Christ. This applies to priests, too, but that is a subject for another time.

Armani suits or expensive hobbies demonstrate the individual bishop’s reliance on material things rather than his reliance on the Spirit. It could also suggest one’s imagined superiority over the people around or one’s fitting in with the upper class.

Then there are the perks of the job– the invitations to expensive restaurants, where someone else picks up the tab. There are the free tickets to major events. There are the loaned holiday houses and so on, seemingly without limit.

Psychologically and spiritually It ought to be difficult to preach the Gospel on Sundays while living this kind of life the rest of the week. At least if one knows the Gospel.

Archbishop’s residence, Chicago (seen from above)

I once asked about the conspicuous consumption and was told that it was the bishop’s diocesan salary and he could do what he liked with it. A great argument – from the secular world. The problem of witness gives the lie to this proposition. Some bishops get the same salary as priests with the same years of service.

The secular world should not be the source of our values, otherwise conversions and redemption would be superfluous. Besides that, too many corporations and individuals spread secular values already. There is one Church that spreads the opposite values. One Church that is truly “countercultural.” Too many Catholics try to live on the edge of the two contradictory value systems.

Money has always been the bane of Church officials’ lives. We’ve heard all the rationalizations. It’s necessary for the functioning of the Church. Clergy need to get church and school buildings repaired, and meet all sorts of needs in the parish and the diocese.

The need for money, however, sets off a whole chain of events related to fundraising. And to bishops being held in thrall to the wealthy and being an ornament at dinner parties.

It goes even further: stories about bishops giving the rich or powerful special treatment and even playing down the doctrines of the Church crop up, again and again.

Some of them must be true since rich Catholics getting away with things like publicly supporting abortion has become a scandalous public sin. Yet the hackneyed claim of treating them “pastorally” has worn exceedingly thin over the years.

Is it a fear of the rich? Or the powerful? Is it a longing to be accepted by them? One wonders if the bishops’ spiritual directors ever discuss questions like these with them. After all, the director is supposed to be helping the directee to become more Catholic. In other words, to take more of Catholic teaching as true. So true in fact that it must be acted upon.

Lastly, one should definitely ask in which fancy hotel does the Bishop’s Conference meet and in which restaurants do they eat while the conference is gathering? Simpler facilities might help break the illusion that somehow the bishops are supposed to be magically at home among the rich and the powerful. Ordering in pizza to a working meeting might be humbling and a public witness at the same time.

Let’s have a corps of bishops leading consistent lives and teaching consistent doctrine– not driven by arbitrariness but moved instead to live out the life of Christ – the one Christ.