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Thoughts on reforming the Church in America

I think a bishop should be the kind of guy whose palms still sweat a bit when entering the pulpit, accompanied by a small number of butterflies in his gut.

(Photo: Karl Fredrickson | Unsplash.com)

Fr. Jay Scott Newman, writing for First Things, wants to end to the Imperial Episcopate. He warms my native Kansas populist heart.

A friend of long-standing, Newman is a priest in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, and pastor of St. Mary’s in Greenville. To put his parish and pastoral practice in perspective, George Weigel once (maybe he still does) called St. Mary’s the best Catholic parish in America. St. Mary’s and its pastor are featured in Weigel’s book, Letters to a Young Catholic.

He has a number of reforms. Eliminate titles (Eminence, Your Excellency, so on) that distance the bishop from the clergy and even further from the laity. Instead, revert to “Father.” As reforms go, it ought to be a piece of cake. I would think a reasonably modest man would be embarrassed by the lavish titles anyway. Can you see him shaving in the morning and talking to the mirror like that?

I think a bishop should be the kind of guy whose palms still sweat a bit when entering the pulpit, accompanied by a small number of butterflies in his gut. I would like a bishop who knows (or at least remembers from the early days of his priesthood) two paradoxical sensations: exhilaration at preaching the Gospel, simultaneously linked to an honest doubt as to whether the Holy Spirit made the right choice in picking him to do it, yet determined to do his best because it’s his job.

Newman also wants to eliminate the elaborate attire:

We should encourage bishops to abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black. Like the Eastern Orthodox clergy, let all bishops, priests, and deacons wear the same black cassock, with bishops identifiable by their miters, pectoral crosses, and rings.

All good, but do nix the miters. Considering miters originated as head gear worn by imperial Byzantine court officials, it ought to go. Besides, they didn’t catch on in the West among clerics until the 11th century; a kind of fad, I take it. Fads come and fads go; time for this one to go, I think.

Newman also suggests much leaner diocesan staffs, accessible bishops, and complains about the multiplicity of titular and auxiliary bishops, “a deformation of the episcopate,” because in his vision every bishop becomes first a pastor to pastors and, by extension, to the seminarians.

For this the bishop must reestablish himself as the parish pastor of his cathedral, in name and in practice. A bishop would do this by conducting liturgy and preaching at the principal Sunday mass, every Sunday.

This, in my thinking, might be a problem. I recall the late Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things magazine, speculating on a Church of vastly smaller dioceses. Actually, what he had in mind was to increase in the numbers of dioceses. No diocese, say, would have more than fifty parishes.

This, Neuhaus suggested, would permit the bishop to visit his entire diocese, one parish per Sunday, over fifty weeks and still have a two-week vacation afterwards, not discounting Wednesday visitations for confirmations and the like. He could still conduct Saturday eveing masses in the cathedral (if Saturday attendance did not improve, that might be another issue.) I’d add bishops should do their own grocery shopping now and again. Okay, I just threw that in.

Presently bishops are part of a more or less self-selecting process. A priest is marked, so to speak, for ecclesiastical greatness and moved along by the right mentors, promoted in the right circles, brought to the ear of the papal nuncio in America. That, I fear, is part of the catastrophe we are in. There is also a more grassroots solicitation process that happens, one involving opinions of fellow priests. But it all goes through the nuncio, there to the Vatican, and back and forth, vetting here and more vetting there. It is lengthy and still doesn’t prevent lemons. It is not unusual for a diocesan vacancy to last a year or longer.

A rather notable number of priests who are approached refuse consideration for episcopal appointment. They should be the real candidates, but the vetting process is what it is.

Unless, re-erecting some old history from the early Church, bishops were to be selected locally by diocesan synods of priests and laity. Of course, the election of Callistus I (martyr, d. 223) as bishop of Rome was the occasion of the first anti-pope, but it all worked out. The selection process did have merit.

And there’s some model for that approach in American Catholic history. That roughly is how Fr. John Carroll became the first bishop in the United States, elected by his fellow priests in Maryland. There were 9,000 Catholics (not counting slaves) in Maryland and the pope gave permission to the nineteen priests to elect a bishop. John Carroll got the job, elected by the chapter in November 1783; the pope confirmed it in June 1784.

So, it’s been done before. The addition of parish lay representation would simply mimic the practice of the early Church (without the occasional riot following some elections). We could insist that the successful nominee received three-quarters approval, clergy and lay, each counted separately, and include an additional caveat, direct papal approval. If for some good reason the pope could not approve, the diocesan synod would vote again. My dream process, incidentally, would eliminate some of the bureaucratic tangle in the Vatican; nobody would have to worry about American appointments anymore, would they.

Naturally, you should read the article by Newman for yourself. As I said, he got my populist juices going. His entire approach is creation of an approachable episcopacy. Or, as he puts it, “the retrieval of the episcopate as an Order in the Church for the preaching of the gospel—rather than as a clerical caste in which narcissism can twist good men into caricatures of prelatial pomposity.”


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About Russell E. Saltzman 13 Articles
Before entering seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor (before becoming Roman Catholic), Russell E. Saltzman was a newspaper reporter, press secretary to a member of Congress, and deputy secretary of state of Kansas.

5 Comments

  1. “Eliminate titles (Eminence, Your Excellency, so on) that distance the bishop from the clergy and even further from the laity. Instead, revert to “Father.” As reforms go, it ought to be a piece of cake. I would think a reasonably modest man would be embarrassed by the lavish titles anyway. Can you see him shaving in the morning and talking to the mirror like that?”

    No, the titles should not be taken away. I am a laywoman and I don’t consider that titles “distance” anybody. They are a reminder of the bishop’s office. A reasonably modest man would know quite well the dignity of his office, which is not at all a glorification of himself personally.

    “Newman also wants to eliminate the elaborate attire:

    We should encourage bishops to abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black. Like the Eastern Orthodox clergy, let all bishops, priests, and deacons wear the same black cassock, with bishops identifiable by their miters, pectoral crosses, and rings.”

    No, we shouldn’t. We aren’t Eastern Orthodox, and I see no reason why we should throw away our own culture.

    “All good, but do nix the miters. Considering miters originated as head gear worn by imperial Byzantine court officials, it ought to go. Besides, they didn’t catch on in the West among clerics until the 11th century; a kind of fad, I take it. Fads come and fads go; time for this one to go, I think.”

    I don’t. Again, it is part of the traditional attire and has nothing to do with the current predatory-homosexual-and-cover-up crisis. I’m willing to bet that most of the people who caused the crisis were going around saying “Don’t call me Your Excellency, call me Joe” (or “Uncle Ted,” as the case may be) and wore clerical dress as infrequently as they could.

    “We could insist that the successful nominee received three-quarters approval, clergy and lay, each counted separately, and include an additional caveat, direct papal approval.”

    Yeah, because the majority of laymen are just sooooooo well catechized. I can just see the left-wing lunatics staging takeovers so that we would never, ever get good bishops.

    “His entire approach is creation of an approachable episcopacy.”

    It all smacks of the modern trend of “I’m just as important as you are and I don’t see why I should respect your office.” No, thanks; I wouldn’t find him more approachable, but less, if he carried out the plans as you describe them.

    • You are absolutely right, Leslie. What are put forward in this article as “populist reforms” come from well beyond Kansas and Charleston. In fact, as a matter of history, every one of them has been a tried-and-true tactic of heretics from the 8th and 9th century Byzantine iconoclasts to the 12th and 13th century French and Italian Cathars to the 15th century Bohemian Hussites to the 16th century German Lutherans and English Anglicans. Episcopal titles, mitres, vestments, and vesture do not honor the man wearing them but rather the King of kings and Lord of Lords whom the man represents. St. Jean Baptiste said: “A priest should always wear golden vestments and a well-worn cassock.”

  2. Increase the number of dioceses and parishes, if at all possible… in order to have an appropriate size/scale for both. Talk about oversight, governance, and so on is meaningless until the question of scale is dealt with properly.

    As for eliminating the miter in both East and West, that is a good suggesting but how many Eastern bishops would be willing to be rid of it? It would probably require a pan-orthodox council.

    Getting rid of certain outward signs of office (in vestments and such) is fine, but the most important thing that needs to be reformed firs is interior, the bureaucratic mentality and the lack of accountability. Much needs to be done to educate Latins about mutual responsibility between the faithful and their bishops for safeguarding the Church, and the suggestions presented here are good beginnings but require much for their proper implementation.

  3. The commenters are right. Lutheran ecclesiology is the last thing we need at this moment or ever. Bring on the palaces and parades, the multicolored regalia, the mitres and the croziers, the sashes buttons and pipings, the cappa magna, the red shoes,and the papal tiara to celebrate the Kingdom of God present already here on earth. The “poor” and the peripheries need that more than anyone. Kiss an episcopal ring now and then and you (and the recipient) will get a better feel for its wearer’s awesome responsibility before Christ.

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