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It is surprising, given the events of the last year, to imagine that some members of the Roman Catholic clergy actively seek to be ordained a bishop, and even regard their path towards this office as an ecclesiastical “career.” St. Augustine regarded his ordination as a grave danger to his salvation, because he knew he would have to answer to God for the souls of all those in his diocese. Pope Gregory the Great, worrying about the ease with which the sins of a bishop are magnified into scandal, argued that “no one does more harm to the Church than he who, having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly.” The widespread criticism of the bishops’ handling of sexual abuse by Catholic priests ought to bring home to everyone the tremendous burden that comes with the office of bishop.

Let us examine the criticisms leveled against the bishops. Bishops are supposed to govern with mercy, as Christ did. So we shall (charitably) assume that, in giving former abusers chance after chance to clean up their lives and be faithful to their vocations, the bishops acted out of mercy”and not from negligence, or from indifference to the abuses and the abused, or from fear of public scandal. If we make this assumption, we can still say that they seem to have acted with a naiveté that is scandalous in people with such broad responsibilities, because in their mercy they took too few precautions that the abusers would not strike again with other victims.

After the story broke and public opinion wondered why these criminals were treated so leniently, the bishops then made the equal and opposite mistake: having been burned by being too merciful, they turned around and zealously applied the strictest justice, in the form of “zero tolerance” policies. But, as Richard John Neuhaus has argued at length, that response seems neither Christian nor, in many cases, just. Yet, if the bishops turn around again and behave mercifully toward their priests, it isn’t clear how this will help the situation that brought on all the criticism in the first place.

Part of the difficulty here comes from a conceptual confusion, the common view that justice and mercy are opposed to each other. This view assumes that mercy is the Christian virtue, justice the secular one; mercy the virtue that tailors policies to the individual, justice the impersonal universal law; mercy is leniency, justice strictness. This view is frequently found among some of the greatest religious minds. Reinhold Niebuhr, who held this view, found it in Karl Barth, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and, before that, Augustine’s City of God . Luther’s distinction between law and gospel seems to express this view, as does the vision of the twentieth“century Polish mystic St. Faustina Kowalska, which portrays a wrathful God the Father holding back from the application of terrible justice only because He sees man through the wounds of His Son. Even Richard Rorty, who is not a great religious mind, thinks that the success of liberal democracies lies in the creative tensions between “the agents of love” and “the agents of justice,” explained more or less in this way.

Yet this sharp opposition deserves to be called into question. Any mother knows that treating all her children alike is unjust”the twelve“year“old girl needs to be treated one way, the three“year“old boy another, and the seventeen“year“old young man in yet another way. The twelve“year“old who earns perfect grades in school might be rewarded by staying up late to watch Olympic gymnastics, while the seventeen“year“old might regard watching gymnastics as more like torture. It is ridiculous to expect the three“year“old to be as responsible as his teenage older brother, for example; if both punch their best friends, the one should be sent to the corner while the other might be grounded for an extended period. It would be silly to argue that since both have committed the same act, they should be punished similarly, that to punish the toddler lightly is somehow to frustrate justice. We don’t expect children to control their anger as well as adults, and so it would be monstrous to hold the toddler to the moral standard of an adult, by bringing him up on charges of battery, say. In this case, to reward and punish each child individually, the hallmark of mercy in the view I’m criticizing, is clearly to act with justice as well.

To treat people as other than they are is inherently unjust. Since people are persons, it follows that to treat them impersonally is likewise unjust. Yet human laws are applied without regard to the personal history of each person subject to them. So it would seem that every human law is unjust.

This conclusion obviously requires qualification, since baldly stated it seems crazy”the very word “just” is derived from a Latin word for law, after all. But the idea that every human law is imperfect, and therefore unjust to some extent, does indeed make sense, because we can imagine a perfectly just judge who administers perfect justice”who assesses a person’s talents, motives, opportunities, weaknesses, ideals, history, and everything else about him, and then judges all his actions against the standard of what he is able to do. The perfect judge would have to apply an infinitely complex law, so that each person under the law would be held to a standard that is individually tailored to his situation: “Anyone who was born on May 23 at 2:53 p.m. at 1128 Main St. and whose first sight was of a quite pretty nurse named Amy whose hands were slightly cold . . . ” and so on, telling the exact story of your life in literally every detail, “ . . . any such person ought to have been able to control his temper upon discovering that the morning newspaper was wet from the rain, but could not be expected to remember to buy a card for his sister’s sixteenth birthday.”

Such a perfect judge would also have to be omniscient, for he would have to know an infinitely complex law and know the infinitely many ways people can fall short of that law. He would have to know men’s hearts, evaluating them in the mysterious intimacy of their free choices, and he could not be repulsed by what he found there. And finally, he would have to care enough about the law and the people to administer such a law perfectly.

But such an omniscient and conscientious judge would still not administer perfect justice unless the laws he administered were also perfectly just. So the perfect judge would have to be the perfect lawgiver, whose laws are not only infinitely complex but also ordered toward a perfectly just society. And he would have to be the perfect executive, since his laws would have to be effective in bringing about this just society.

If the goal of this judge, lawgiver, and king were to have a perfectly ordered society, then he could not be satisfied with perfect laws that nobody actually follows, or that people once were able to follow but are now observed more in the breach. His laws would have to be dynamic, so that they constantly adjust to reflect what a person could be expected to achieve at this moment, and his sentences would have to be therapeutic, so that when a person fails to uphold his personal law he is rehabilitated and even strengthened because of his punishment. If the laws were dynamic but the punishments not therapeutic, if every time someone broke the law it was adjusted downward to accommodate the downward pull of vice, it would clearly result in general disorder and not a just society. Alternatively, if the sentences were therapeutic but the laws not dynamic, if every punishment improved a person but the laws never reflected this, then the law would cease to be related to the person, and would again become unjust. Either the laws would be too strict”for instance, putting the three“year“old in jail for striking a playmate”or inadequate to restore order”telling the teenager who beat up a classmate to sit in the corner for twenty minutes.

It should be obvious that only God could create and administer this perfect justice. It might be the “God of the philosophers” rather than “the God of revelation,” since we’ve only spoken in general terms about divine attributes, as philosophers do. In any case, the point stands that if such a perfectly just God exists, then all human laws are imperfectly just, which is to say that they are all unjust, to a greater or lesser degree.

It should also be clear that this perfect justice is no different than mercy. Each law is tailored to the individual person, so that what he is expected to do is always within his reach. If he meets one set of expectations he is presented with new demands, so that he travels up an inclined plane until he is at all times living up to his full potential. If he fails to meet one set of expectations, he is given another chance to conform to a new set, and to continue, step by step, to become all that he can be. There is no distinction here between strictness and leniency, the impersonal and the personal. God’s justice is completely personal, and therefore is neither strict nor lenient.

In the apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia , Pope John Paul II reflects on the nature of the sacrament of Penance:

According to the most ancient traditional idea, the Sacrament is a kind of judicial action; but this takes place before a tribunal of mercy rather than of strict and rigorous justice, which is comparable to human tribunals only by analogy . . . .

But as it reflects on the function of this Sacrament, the Church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the gospel frequently presents Christ as healer, while his redemptive work is often called, from Christian antiquity, medicine salutes . “I wish to heal, not accuse,” Saint Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the pastoral activity regarding Penance, and it is thanks to the medicine of Confession that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair . . . . Whether as a tribunal of mercy or a place of spiritual healing, under both aspects the Sacrament requires a knowledge of the sinner’s heart, in order to be able to judge and absolve, to cure and heal.

The image of the tribunal, not of justice but of mercy, where the penitent appears before Christ who is both judge and healer, captures something of the peculiar nature of divine justice. Pleading guilty before the tribunal of mercy is a prerequisite to forgiveness, just as telling the doctor what ails us is necessary before he can administer the appropriate cure.

Perfect justice, then, is identical with mercy. They both can be explained in terms of helping each person be all that God intended him to be. Human law is by its very nature unjust, impersonal, and inappropriately strict. This difference between divine and human justice makes necessary the secrecy of the confessional”what the penitent confesses is for God’s tribunal of mercy alone, not for men. The impersonal tribunals of the civil court system will not be so merciful because they are not as just. The eyes of the media are more merciless still, lacking even the court’s rudimentary safeguards on vindictive emotion, while the fury of rumor, Fama malus , is epic. Nowhere is man’s justice proportionate to God’s; nowhere are his tribunals as fair, nor anywhere his sentences as wise.

In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia , on the mercy of God the Father, the Pope argues that the aspirations of human justice must always be related to the perfect justice and mercy of God. Christians cannot be satisfied with the cruelties of human justice, despite the temptation to do so:

Christ, in revealing the love“mercy of God, at the same time demanded from people that they also should be guided in their lives by love and mercy. This requirement forms part of the very essence of the messianic message, and constitutes the heart of the gospel ethos. The Teacher expresses this both through the medium of the commandment which he describes as “the greatest” (Matthew 22:38), and also in the form of a blessing, when in the Sermon on the Mount he proclaims: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

The heart of the gospel ethos is to treat others with the love and mercy characteristic of God. The Pope’s prophetic, even otherworldly positions on ecumenism, capital punishment, third“world debt relief, and a host of other issues of contemporary politics seem to be grounded in this insistence that our notions of justice be derived from the perfect justice and mercy of God.

Yet against this background it is important to note that in his message for the 2002 World Day of Peace the Pope declares, “There exists . . . a right to defend oneself against terrorism . ” Somehow, divine mercy”the “very essence of the messianic message””is compatible with a far“flung military action in the name of justice. Pacifism is not the necessary consequence of the imitation of God’s mercy.

There are two typical sorts of reaction to this. The first, characteristic of Reinhold Niebuhr and other “Christian realists,” is to worry that this attempt at uniting justice and mercy will either water down the Christian ideal of pure love, which leads necessarily to pacifism even in the face of attack, or that it will persuade politicians to be irresponsibly merciful and trusting towards those nations and powers that threaten it. The unfortunate lot of the responsible Christian politician in this life is to act in the world of power politics with all its messiness and moral impurity, while looking to the morally pure life of the Christian pacifist for a reminder of how man should treat”and, God willing, in the life to come will treat”his fellow man. In a famous exchange with H. Richard Niebuhr in the pages of the Christian Century , Reinhold Niebuhr wrote,

I realize quite well that my brother’s position [nonviolent pacifism, roughly] both in its ethical perfectionism and in its apocalyptic note is closer to the gospel than mine. I am forced to admit that I am unable to construct an adequate social ethic out of a pure love ethic. I cannot abandon the pure love ideal because anything which falls short of it is less than the ideal. But I cannot use it fully if I want to assume a responsible attitude towards the problems of society. Religious perfectionism drives either to asceticism or apocalypticism. In the one case the problems of society are given up entirely; in the other individual perfection is regarded as the force which will release the redemptive powers of God for society. I think the second alternative is better than the first, and that both elements must be retained for any adequate social ethic, lest it become lost in the relativities of expediency. But as long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal.

This view is striking in its willingness to compromise the putative demands of God in response to the demands of the sinful world. The Christian realist regards the pursuit of sanctity as the calling of a few individuals, and incompatible with the demands of pursuing justice in a sinful world. So the view I am forwarding”that every Christian is called to act with mercy”appears to the Christian realist to be utopian and even irresponsible.

The other reaction, which is characteristic of Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, Michael Baxter, and a host of Christian pacifists, is to point out the incoherence or even hypocrisy of holding on the one hand that we should be merciful and forgiving towards all men everywhere, and on the other that the U.S. is justified in its war on terrorism. They would reject this view of God’s action, and argue that to follow Jesus is to embrace the cross, to abandon oneself wholly to God’s providence even if it leads to our deaths, rather than succumb to the worldly ways of violence and power politics. Hauerwas in his Gifford Lectures quotes a typical passage from Yoder:

Christ is agape ; self“giving, nonresistant love. At the cross this nonresistance, including the refusal to use political means of self“defense, found its ultimate revelation in the uncomplaining and forgiving death of the innocent at the hands of the guilty. This death reveals how God deals with evil; here is the only valid starting point for Christian pacifism or nonresistance. The cross is the extreme demonstration that agape seeks neither effectiveness nor justice, and is willing to suffer any loss or seeming defeat for the sake of obedience.

This view insists against the realists that the gospel makes real political demands, that Christians must engage in politics, but not violent politics or politics that enters into negotiations with the world. The “politics of Jesus,” to use Yoder’s phrase, demands that through the collective witness of the Church Christians bring the gospel to the attention of the world with a compelling and revolutionary challenge to the powers of the age, as Jesus did by rejecting temporal power and accepting death on the cross. To accept even the right of self“defense, as the Pope does, is to accept the all“too“human logic of worldly power structures and to ignore the decisive victory of the Lamb. It is to lack faith in God’s liberating power, and perhaps even to affirm a practical atheism.

The view of justice and mercy I sketched above, which takes seriously the nature and demands of perfect justice and divine mercy, incorporates some truths from both these positions. Like the pacifists, it holds that the political sphere is under the jurisdiction of the gospel message, that all men are called to imitate the mercy and love of God, and to strive to be perfect as He is perfect. Like the realists, it holds that being responsible for people other than oneself does create a different set of moral demands that it would be wrong to ignore. Let us explore how divine mercy can embrace these traditionally opposite views.

It is, to say the least, difficult to understand how it is possible to be loving and merciful to people one is trying to kill. Nevertheless, this must be a possibility if the demands of universal love and the right of self“defense from terrorism are compatible. To think about this problem, let’s try a thought experiment.

Your brother has been having some psychological problems that have caused him to leave his job for a time. You invite him to live with you for as long as it takes to work through these problems. Your whole family makes the effort to shower him with affection, yet his psychological problems worsen and you talk to your spouse about institutionalizing him. Unbeknownst to you, he overhears this conversation.

One day as the rest of the family is heading to church, he comes out of the house with a knife and attacks your fourth“grade daughter, slashing her arm with the first swipe of the blade. As your brother yells at you and your daughter bleeds, you realize that he has overheard your conversation about the mental institution and does not want to go. You try to placate him, but he attacks again and narrowly misses your youngest son. You know his situation exactly, your heart goes out to him, you want to help him rather than harm him, but you have to protect your family. So you take the gun you keep in the glove compartment of your car and shoot your brother, at first just to get him to stop”shooting at the sky and then shooting him in the leg”but when that proves ineffective, you shoot to kill. Needless to say, you mourn for your brother’s life, and you teach your children to do the same.

It is fair to say that in such a tragic situation, it is possible to love your enemy even as you kill him. Your brother can be an enemy and still be your brother, whom you love despite all his faults, and for whom you would do almost anything. If you didn’t have to protect your family, you might not have had to shoot him, for you would have had more flexibility and been able to take greater personal risks. But in that situation, being responsible for the lives of all the members of your family, you lacked such flexibility. You no longer were able to be patient and forgiving. Perhaps if you were stronger and could handle yourself in a knife fight, you might have had the training and the ability to protect your family without harming your brother, but you didn’t. So you killed your brother, even as you forgave him and asked God to forgive him for what he unknowingly did.

This example reveals how one can love an enemy without ignoring that he is an enemy, how the demands of responsibility can put a limit on how merciful an action can be without limiting the mercy in one’s heart. In this case, where killing is the action that accords with justice, mercy does not stay the hand, but it does soften the heart. The action appears harsh, but the intention mitigates the harshness of the act. Which is not to say that good intentions make any action just; but in this case, where the just action is to take another’s life, it would be wrong not to kill, just as it would be wrong not to love and forgive while killing. As the Pope says in his message for the World Day of Peace, “Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment and revenge, not of justice.”

Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice, leading to that tranquility of order which is much more than a fragile and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving as it does the deepest healing of the wounds which fester in human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such healing.

To be responsible stewards of God’s creation, we have to work to put this lasting order, what Augustine called the tranquillitas ordinis , into effect. Providence allots each person’s responsibilities differently”some are responsible for the fate of nations, others only for the upbringing of their children”but each person is responsible for the lives and fortunes of those who happen across his path. As we have seen, the scope and sphere of this responsibility might put a person in a situation where the love he ought to have for all men, even his enemies, runs up against the responsibility he has to defend those he has been given to protect. In that situation, a person may be forced by the demands of justice to use violence. He should seek to avoid such situations, and where possible to act meekly towards all men, hoping to sacrifice honor and pride in the near term to win over his enemy to a long“term friendship. Indeed, every person who wants to follow God’s example must make whatever excuses he can for great sinners such as bin Laden, Hussein, and (albeit in a different way) Father Shanley, to forgive them, and to hope that they grow in love for God and neighbor. The limits that the execution of one’s responsibilities in justice might place on the scope of one’s merciful action do not grant anyone an excuse for vengeance or hatred. But this does not mean that we are required, or even permitted, to forgo the necessary defense of those for whom we find ourselves responsible when they are attacked.

In the thought experiment above, if I have the ability to save my family and disarm my brother, then I have the obligation to do so. If I don’t have the ability, I am not obligated to do so. If the U.S. Army is so powerful that it can distinguish between combatants and noncombatants without putting its soldiers at unnecessary risk, then it has an obligation to do so; if this cannot be done without risking many lives, then we will sadly have to expect civilian casualties (though the army still must not target civilians as a terror tactic).

In any case, if we follow the logic of divine mercy to its conclusion, we can see that while this or that person might be called to an avoidable martyrdom out of eschatological witness, it would be wrong for the President of the United States, who is entrusted with the protection of millions of people, to allow his country to be attacked. He must do what he can to protect his people, acting not out of vengeance, but out of a realistic assessment of the needs of self“defense. If an attack is not likely to be dangerous, he should practice patience and forbearance with the country’s enemies. But if there is a clear and present danger, he has a responsibility to act, perhaps with much bloodshed, all the while following Lincoln’s dictum, “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”

So a war defending those for whom one is responsible can be a just war. On the other hand, the reverse is also true: killing that is not defensive in nature violates the demand of mercy that we should be forbearing and patient with a person unless he is dangerous to us. Hence the logic of divine mercy leads us to reconsider another issue of life and death: capital punishment. And here we find that putting mercy at the forefront of our moral analysis removes the major premise of the traditional moral argument for capital punishment, namely, that the death penalty is just retribution for the murderer’s extreme violation of the social order. In the mercy of God, there is no retributive justice, no eye for an eye, no settling of scores. This follows from God’s transcendence, since no act of a mere human being can restore to God what was taken from Him by the murderer’s sin. And it follows from the finality of death, because the death of the murderer cannot bring the victim back to life. When someone has committed murder, the best that can happen is that future murders are deterred, and that the murderer decides to change for the better. The policy in accord with perfect justice tries to bring about this best outcome. Certain sorts of punishment make the prisoner learn a lesson and grow as a person”they are therapeutic, as we mentioned earlier”and so make sense in the context of God’s justice and mercy. Capital punishment, though, is not so compatible, except where the death of the criminal is necessary to prevent further harm to others. Where a criminal can be held in prison so that he is not likely to be a danger to the rest of society, including the other prisoners, then considerations of perfect justice suggest that he should not be killed.

This is, famously, the position advocated by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae , and adopted in the most recent edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church . Part of what the above reflections have shown is that the considerations of the mercy of God in Dives in Misericordia lead to the comments about the morality of capital punishment in Evangelium Vitae and the justification of the war on terrorism in the message for the World Day of Peace. Which is to say that from that early encyclical’s disciplined reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, on the atonement of Christ, and on the covenant of God with Israel, one can develop a general Christian moral framework for thinking about practical questions such as capital punishment and how to deal with threats by terrorists.

This possibility would have been surprising to Reinhold Niebuhr, and as the earlier quote from Niebuhr suggests, he would find the result reassuring. On the other hand, Christian pacifists influenced by Hauerwas and Yoder should find this framework unsettling in the way it links Christian love and mercy to the responsible use of coercion. If the argument above withstands scrutiny, then we can plausibly call this framework “the politics of God the Father,” echoing the title of Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus . Yoder’s book was a response to those, such as Niebuhr, who think that the Gospels are irrelevant to the large social questions of war and politics, and therefore that Christians ought to think about these questions solely using secular categories of power relations. Yoder’s claim is that the gospel message will always have political consequences, which Christians ought to spread throughout society.

The politics of God the Father shares this claim. It does not agree with Yoder’s further argument that the life of Jesus must be read with a political eye, or that in such a reading the unambiguous message is that everyone should renounce all forms of coercion, even economic coercion, and rebuild all social structures from the ground up. Yoder’s reading relies on a tendentious application of a narrow strain of “social” or “political” biblical criticism that was in the avant“garde in the late 1960s. Those who want to follow Yoder by applying to politics the gospel injunctions to love and mercy, and yet who are not persuaded by the same biblical criticism or by his politicized reading of the New Testament, might look more closely at the politics of God the Father developed by John Paul II.

Which brings us again to the bishops, who more than anyone should try to govern in accord with divine justice and mercy. We now have the conceptual tools and theological vocabulary to analyze their problem appropriately. Let us again assume out of charity that the bishops tried to act responsibly, and were neither negligent, nor indifferent to the abuses and the abused, nor afraid of public scandal. If a responsible bishop nonetheless allowed an abusive priest to continue in office when he shouldn’t have, we can see that he made a mistake about his latitude for mercy given his sphere of responsibility. If the bishop were responsible only for the abusive priest, then mercy would demand that he be patient with him as with any sinner, granting forgiveness and helping him to begin his life again. This is indeed the duty of the priest’s confessor or spiritual director, the representative of the tribunal of mercy. The bishop is also responsible for the reputation of the clergy and the finances of the diocese, and concern for these might lead him to seek quiet ways of handling potential lawsuits, while still helping the troubled priest begin his life anew, perhaps in a different locale. If the bishop’s sphere of responsibility went this far and no further, then he would be right to do as many of the bishops seem to have done”namely, to have covered up the abuses of certain priests while at the same time helping them with counseling, moving them from place to place, and looking for ways to give them another chance to serve God. Such is the behavior of a benevolent CEO towards a talented employee going through personal difficulties, and given that sphere of responsibility, such actions fulfill the demands of mercy and justice.

But the bishop has a larger sphere of responsibility than the benevolent CEO. He has direct responsibility for his entire diocese, especially the laity, and he has an indirect responsibility before God even for the non“Catholics in the boundaries of his diocese, and in a wider sense he has the responsibility of reconciling all creation to its creator. These responsibilities are not on the same level”he has to answer more directly for the souls of the Catholics in his diocese than for the souls of others”but they are quite real. And because they are real, and extensive, they put limits on how lenient and patient he can be with abusive clergy. As with the analogous cases of just war and capital punishment, the bishop must do all that he can to forgive and rehabilitate an abusive priest, so long as the priest is not likely to be dangerous to other people. But where the freedom and good reputation of the priest allow him to be dangerous to others, then the bishop must act: taking away the priest’s freedom either by putting him in a monastery or turning him over to the police, depending on the sort of danger he presents; and, if his unrepentant behavior threatens the reputation of other priests for whom the bishop is also responsible, even going so far as to remove him from the priesthood.

A bishop can sin if he restricts his sphere of responsibility to the clergy and the possessions of the diocese, forgetting the rest of his flock. He can also sin in another way, if he pays so much attention to the multitudes for whom he is responsible that he neglects his responsibility for the souls of the troubled priests. For the demands of mercy require that the bishop act not just for his flock as a whole, but that he show solidarity for and be concerned with each individual person in the full mystery of his or her personhood. And so he cannot hide behind universal, impersonal laws such as the crude, one“punishment“fits“all“souls policy of “zero tolerance” proposed last summer. We might better call this a “zero“mercy” policy, because it leaves behind the divine embrace of the tribunal of mercy for the cold winds of very human justice, complete with paparazzi, TV and radio talk shows, and angry mobs of protesters. Imagine the parable of the prodigal son rewritten by the National Enquirer , and one has some sense of just how inappropriate it is for a bishop to allow any member of his flock to have his dignity violated in this way. Fortunately, the Holy See has rejected this policy.

Augustine was right to think that becoming a bishop puts one’s soul in grave danger. When the Church calls someone to become a bishop, she entrusts him with countless souls for which he will have to give an account at his Judgment. This is the most theologically compelling reason why a careerist mentality corrupts the episcopacy. There are no easy ways for the bishops to respond to grave sins in a person’s past. A bishop sins if he deals with abusive priests the way a benevolent CEO deals with a troubled employee; he sins also if he acts like a strong CEO who distances the company from a disgraced employee. This means that a bishop cannot see himself as a CEO. He is a shepherd, a physician, a teacher, and most of all a father who has to educate, discipline, and form all his sons and daughters, while making it clear that they are always his children, and that while they might need to be punished, they will not be disowned, no matter what they do. This is “the heart of the gospel message,” according to the Pope, which the bishops are called to make present in the world.

Saints Augustine and Gregory might add: Or else.

Daniel P. Moloney is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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