Our bishops hold offices of great authority, their words, actions, and decisions are public, and they are human—the very worst thing you can be if you want to avoid criticism. And many bishops, like many priests, have at times shown glaring lapses of leadership in recent years. All of these factors, and the general antipathy of people towards authority in the Western world, conspire to make the bishops regular targets of ecclesiastical pundits of all theological and political stripes.
In post-Watergate America, relentless criticism of those in public authority has become ubiquitous. People do not even question such criticism anymore. That is simply the way it is.
Often, such criticism is justified by an appeal to the presumed foreknowledge of the people being criticized. They knew, or at least should have known, what to expect when they sought positions of power.
Just one difficulty with applying this secular approach to criticism of the bishops is that the bishops did not choose their positions of authority. They were chosen. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (Jn 15:16), Our Lord told His first bishops at the Last Supper.
But isn’t it true that ambition helped propel some of our bishops down the path towards the episcopacy? In all probability, yes. But this admission does not change the more fundamental truth that the Church, in the person of the Pope, chooses priests to become bishops. And so it is unjust to think of public criticism as “part of the package” of the life they have chosen for themselves.
Criticism will always come to every leader, but the critic, especially one who purports to be a devout Catholic, has his own moral responsibility to make sure that both the substance and the form of his criticism are appropriately just and merciful.
Having offered those preliminary thoughts, I would like to consider an article, “The Shepherds the Church Needs Now,” published March 25 in the National Catholic Register by Janet E. Smith, my former professor and an esteemed colleague at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Smith takes the bishops to task for what she describes as their insufficient response to the COVID-19 crisis. According to Smith, the bishops have largely been “missing in action” during these days of social distancing.
In short, Smith’s article contains much “action,” in the form of criticism of various kinds lodged against the bishops’ response to COVID-19, but “missing” from her article is a cohesive, coherent argument.
Smith fails to make her case on a number of levels. First, she sets the bar of competence impossibly high. And the standard she sets is one entirely of her own design. This is a very common flaw in criticisms of those in authority—using as the sole standard of judgment one’s own sense about what those in authority ought to do.
In Smith’s view, in order to respond competently to the current crisis, each bishop ought to do the following:
- Lead Eucharistic processions in public areas of his diocese;
- “Step-up” his “personal presence to (his) flock” in his online ministry;
- Catechize his people on how to deal constructively with the suspension of public Masses;
- Ensure that chancery personnel are prepared to field incoming calls with requests for Baptism;
- To “learn from their priests,” whose pastoral initiative has produced abundant good fruit: “flying in a plane or helicopter with a monstrance over a whole diocese while people ‘adore’ from the ground; hearing confessions and saying Mass in parking lots; and processing with a monstrance in a flatbed of a truck to take the Eucharist to all parts of town, in addition to live-streaming Masses, Rosaries, Stations of the Cross, and retreats”;
- “Be present to us like never before—to help us keep our faith alive and to have the virtue of hope for our benefit and the benefit of those around us”;
- “Use social media to keep constant contact with your flock. Teach us what we need to know about how to keep spiritually strong in these frightening times”;
- Spend time answering Smith’s list of seven “frequently asked questions” for the flock;
- “[Provide] online spiritual direction every day, and they should broadcast their own daily Mass; they should say at least one Rosary online every day, lead novenas and litanies; they should lead a reflection on Scripture daily, and teach people how to do lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture)”;
- “Introduce the laity to various devotions—their favorite ones—and stories of their ‘friend’ saints. Or at least some of these!”;
- “Make themselves daily guests in the living rooms (or prayer spaces) of their flock. Imagine the impact if large numbers of the laity of a diocese logged on daily to pray together with their bishop.”
If this is what it takes merely to achieve the competence required to avoid the criticism of commentators like Smith, I rejoice all-the-more in the unlikelihood of my ever being called to the episcopacy! I simply could not fulfill these requirements, and very few priests or lay people I know could do so. At least, most would find it impossible to do all that Smith requires and perform all the vital functions of leadership without which a diocese is quickly set adrift during a time of crisis.
Functions such as setting diocesan policy for liturgies and other public gatherings, communicating directives for radically altered Holy Week and Triduum liturgies, providing necessary aid to parishes dealing with the financial ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis, and countless other leadership tasks are neither exciting nor pastorally satisfying in the way that leading a Eucharistic procession would be. But these things must be done in order for the Church to function in a holy and healthy way. It is precisely this kind of leadership that frees up the parish priests Smith admires for their zeal and ingenuity to carry out their extraordinary ministries.
Secondly, Smith mixes different kinds of arguments in a way that packs a rhetorical punch but does not provide coherence to her argument. She seems to approve of the suspension of public Masses, but not of baptisms, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Whatever one’s view of these questions, they are only tangentially connected to the question of pastoral zeal and initiative that dominates Smith’s article.
Similarly, Smith cites the example of two young girls who apparently wept at the prospect of not being able to attend Mass. This anecdote provided one example of the different degrees to which various Catholics have received the news that public Masses are being suspended. Yet this heart-wrenching section of Smith’s article was more-or-less sandwiched between her acknowledgement that most Catholics are grateful for the suspension of public Masses and her recommendation that bishops catechize about non-Eucharistic means by which Catholics can encounter Our Lord. In an article so highly critical of the bishops, one is left wondering what point, exactly, Smith is attempting to make here.
Finally, in her fear that bishops are doomed to “lead from behind,” Smith fails to acknowledge the tremendous difficulty of the current pastoral situation, which even the bishops’ harshest critics should acknowledge is unprecedented in the living memory of all of today’s Catholics. And she says very little about the innovative forms of pastoral care that are in fact being given by a great many bishops during this time of crisis. Unfortunately, these omissions add to the seemingly arbitrary nature of Smith’s critique.
I have had the privilege of meeting many bishops in my 14 years as a priest. These bishops, like all of the other people I have ever met, have weaknesses, some of which are more obvious than others. But as a group they are good, dedicated, even holy men who strive to serve God and his people faithfully. Some, I believe, are either saints or are far down the path of sanctity, again, just as are many of the priests, religious, and lay faithful I have been blessed to know.
My purpose in writing this article is not to argue that bishops are above reproach. Rather, bishops are vital to the Church’s life and mission, they face incredibly difficult pastoral situations every day, and they deserve to be treated with justice and mercy, just like anyone else. I am afraid that Smith’s article is one in a long line of critiques by various Catholic commentators that fail to meet the criteria of justice, let alone mercy.
May God give all of us the grace to do better at building each other up, holding each other accountable, and acting for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, especially in times of crisis.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!