Catholic Bishops deserve, “Respect, Obedience and Good Counsel”, not journalistic criticism!

Author with Justin Cardinal Rigali at 175th Anniversary Dinner for Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, May 2007

The use of Catholic journalism to “Bishop-bash!” is just plainly wrong. For that matter, the use of Catholic journalism in any “bashing” capacity is equally wrong. There are discussions that beg an answer to the question, “Can Catholics publically disagree with their bishops?” Well, my thoughts on the matter are very simply put, Yes; Catholics have the right to disagree with their local Bishops on matters that are not part of the Catholic deposit of faith. When it comes to administrative activities or any activities that pertain to the proper administration of assets of a diocese, there should involve some degree of praise and criticism of the Bishop’s handling of administrative affairs.

The Catholic Church regardless of the perspective one wishes to view maintains and administers not only a spiritual community of Catholic believers, it also has the responsibility of efficiently managing a large infrastructure of facilities to accomplish the spiritual mission of the Church. It seems very clear that the role and responsibility of the Bishop is to be a spiritual leader to the flock with which he is entrusted. However, Church canon law also entrusts the Bishop with the proper disposition of the temporal materials that make up the Church’s other persona, namely a functional and administrative top-heavy conglomerate which includes real estate, properties, staff, vehicles and all of the concerns that go along with secular obligations.

Frankly, this author believes most of our bishops would gladly abdicate responsibility for all of these things if given the choice of responsibilities. Most bishops with which I am familiar consider administration of temporal responsibilities a burden that is part of the package of being a Catholic bishop. Historically there are quite a few points that have led us into this role of secular administration for the Office of Bishop. Most notably, especially in the United States the difficulties experienced with lay trustees in the 19th century (especially the Hogan Schism, in Philadelphia) prompted the development of juridical safeguards written into the Code of Canon law to protect the temporal assets of the Church. Administration by individuals, especially non-clergy is still a concept that eludes the administrative structure of the Catholic Church, and in light of the litigious settlements against the Church in regards to the clergy sex scandal, this will not likely change in the immediate future.

However, it brings up the point again regarding the right of Catholic faithful to openly criticize and contradict their Bishops when it comes to the proper administration of a diocese. Perhaps the course in this regard is to consider very keenly and carefully the position of honor as a Successor to the Apostles we give to our hierarchy. As a Catholic faithful, we believe the Bishops of a local Church in union with the Successor of Saint Peter constitute the living embodiment of the sacramental and spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. In this sense, the most Catholic perspective we can take regarding our Successors to the Apostles is to unconditionally provide both respect and obedience to them when it comes to spiritual and moral matters of ecclesial concern. In terms of the administrative “hat” they unfortunately wear as part of their administrative responsibilities, we need to provide prayer, support and constructive counsel and criticism when it is appropriate. Bishop bashing…as it is called is never acceptable. For that matter, our Catholic principles of fellowship and our communal sense of responsibility needs to become more strongly at work here. As a community of believers, the bishop to make administrative decisions for the welfare of his diocese should use every method of advice and counsel and faithful entrusted to his care.

Unfortunately, not all administrative decisions made by our Bishops are correct or sometimes cognitive of the desires of the community of the faithful. The sheer natures of the administrative responsibilities required of a diocesan bishop are indeed enormous. That is precisely the reason for consultative groups of both clergy and laity that are incorporated to advise the local Ordinary. If indeed any criticisms are lodged against the administrative effectiveness of a local Bishop, they should always be considered in terms of disagreement associated with the temporal administration of the diocese and not a personal affront to the person of the bishop himself.

We have of course seen many instances of administrative questioning regarding the temporal activities of bishops. However, we need to support and guide all bishops in their temporal responsibilities by forming a consultative college of consultors that will appropriately advise and make temporal business recommendations that enable a bishop to focus on the responsibility of being a spiritual leader and not a corporate chief financial officer. As Catholics, we do not have the right to criticize the occupant of the local cathedra. We have the obligation and responsibility to help the bishop with all of the venues open to our disposal to assist the administrative and temporal running of a diocese. As a Church, we are still quite a long way from achieving this goal; we still have the baggage of Trusteeism in the 19th century, as well as the clergy scandal of the 20th century. However, as a faithful Church we are indeed making progress with the deadministration of the office of bishop and are starting to make positive inroads to sharing the temporal responsibilities. Most importantly rather than criticize our Shepherds we need to publically support and guide them in secular affairs…and free them up to be the High Priests and Successors to the Apostles that we believe they truly are. No bishop bashing, just constructive criticism offered in a spirit of respect and obedience in deference to their sacred responsibilities, often burdened with secular issues of confusion.

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that writes on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes daily at: & & He writes about Irish Catholic experiences  at Nothing Left Unsaid!” is his daily column @ Comments are always welcome @

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