Bad Bishops have been blasted throughout Christian history. St. John Chrysostom is supposed to have said, “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops” (though he never used the precise phrase). In the Middle Ages in Germany near Bingen am Rhein, a legend arose about Bishop Hatto. Having summoned the poor to buy bread from him at prohibitive prices, he instead locked them in a barn, informed them they would die like rats, and set the barn alight. Hatto awoke in the night to find his portrait devoured by rodents, upon which a servant informed him a great mischief of mice was fast on the way to the palace. In terror Hatto saddled his steed, rode to the river, boarded a boat, and rowed to a redoubt, a stone tower. The rats remained undeterred. They devoured the Bishop’s horse, swam the river, besieged the tower, gnawed through doors and windows, and gorged themselves on the Bishop’s corpulent flesh. To this day the tower is thus called the Mäuseturm, the Mouse Tower, in memory of the demise of a most wicked bishop.
Bishop Hatto, chroniclers and historians agree, was falsely maligned. But the legend reflects medieval discontent with the episcopacy. In our own times, the misjudgment and malfeasance of many bishops is not legendary but all too real. Much criticism is justified; the pedophilia and ephebophilia scandals of the last decade are the obvious example here. Some is not, as when critics excoriate Cardinal Dolan for inviting both presidential candidates to the Al Smith dinner.
For while many bishops are rightly famous for their incompetence, ineptitude, and infidelity, many more are not. Many have led quotidian, quiet lives of prayer and management, minding their dioceses and attempting to lead lives of Christian fidelity and charity. Just as we never hear about planes that take off and land safely, we are never confronted with news of bishops who fulfill their offices with quiet honor. All too often, however, real scandal erupts, whether a sin against good morals, a crime against others, or a failure to teach the Faith.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Church is episcopal in structure; on earth it is marked out by bishops standing in succession going back to the apostles and Jesus who chose them, and thus to God himself, incarnate in Jesus. (Other churches also hold this ecclesiology.) It’s an ancient idea found in the first century in Pope St. Clement’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Catholic ecclesiology is much more than apostolic succession, of course: It’s also the Church triumphant and baptized Christians outside the bounds of the Roman communion. But the Catholic Church does hold fast to apostolic succession.
Apostolic succession is something I had to think about deeply when I was considering conversion to Catholicism. If the Church is marked out by bishops, shouldn’t bishops be better? A fortiori I had to ask, if the Pope of Rome is the supreme head of the Church on earth, the vicar of Christ himself, what do I do with the Borgias? It’s a bit embarrassing when the papacy becomes effectively a dynasty. Many friends I talk to are interested in Catholicism to some degree but claim (I think honestly) that bad bishops hold them back. One person who’s part of an email list with me recently wrote something to the effect of, “If more bishops acted with a spine like Bishop X, then I could become Catholic.”
I’m an Augustinian at heart, since I first read parts of The City of God as a youth, and was raised Lutheran, so nothing produced from the darkness of human nature in Christian or pagan man surprises me, whether grave sin or major omission or simple misjudgment. Hurts, yes; angers, yes; disappoints, yes; frustrates, yes; but scandalizes? No. Bishops are human, and will err and sin in all sorts of ways. And unless one is going to dispense with organized Christianity altogether—an option neither Jesus nor the New Testament leave open for us—someone has to mess up administrating a church. It may be a Baptist congregation that votes wrongly on something of import. It may be a presbytery or a General Assembly affirming heresy and immorality with eager ebullience. It may be a congregation’s church council covering up crimes.
The ultimate issue for those who take seriously the question of which Christian communion they should belong to, I think, is not which ecclesial structure evinces the most holiness yesterday and today. Rather, the proper question is this: What structure has God willed? For me, I came to believe that God through Christ willed the episcopal structure with the bishop of Rome at its head, though others will of course come to different conclusions. I would thus affirm apologist Frank Sheed’s sober words:
We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope (John Paul II), but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the church, although I might well wish that they would leave.
The issue of sin in the historic hierarchy is a matter of what I’d call ecclesiadicy (a most cumbersome term indeed). By it I mean an attempt to justify the concept of apostolic succession in light of episcopal sin in the same way theodicy concerns attempt to justify an all-good, all-loving God in the face of profound human suffering. Put another way, if one can believe in God after Auschwitz, one could also believe in the Church after whatever scandal. It’s not so simple, of course, for those who have experienced real trauma at the hands of hierarchs or for others who are rightly enraged thereby. There we have an existential issue, and may God grant them peace.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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