The Empire—in all its forms—is long gone. Christendom is dead. The Church is reeling from grave scandal, and Christians are crying out to heaven for reform and purification. It is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.
After the gospel triumphed in the Roman Empire, the Church gradually acquired forms of life borrowed from imperial organization. Many of those forms still serve us well. But over time some of those forms have ceased to make sense and have become impediments to the evangelical freedom of the Church. I believe this is evident in significant aspects of how bishops now live and exercise their Catholic ministry.
Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms, for example, tend to distance bishops from their priests and people, and also subtly nudge them toward self-important and self-referential ways of thinking and acting. As the recent catastrophic scandals demonstrate, too many bishops have proven unable to act as pastors and evangelists and have instead behaved as managers and bureaucrats. The current crisis in the Catholic Church reveals that the clerical culture in which bishops and priests live is in many ways diseased and deformed, requiring renewal through the fire of divine love and the revealed truth of the Word of God.
Grotesque unchastity is an obvious symptom, but perhaps even more dangerous to the priesthood is the habit of mendacity that hides unchastity and other sinful habits. Superficial flattery and fawning over the person of the bishop can deprive him—unless he has an uncommonly strong and healthy personality—of the evangelical simplicity and candor he needs to fulfill his duties. While deference to the bishop may begin with true reverence for his office, it too often leads to the growth of vanity, ambition, and clerical careerism. And so it is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.
Deep reform will, of course, depend primarily on the bishops themselves, but there are many ways in which priests and lay faithful can assist them. Some of the following suggestions may seem superficial, but taken together I believe they constitute a good place from which to begin 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. Therefore, I suggest the following simple reforms.
“In Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel,” wrote Saint Paul to the Corinthians, and from antiquity bishops and priests alike were called “Father.” The bishops of all the ecumenical councils are known as the Council Fathers, the early bishop-theologians are called the Fathers of the Church, and to this day the Bishop of Rome has Father as his formal and everyday title. It is time to restore the practice of calling all bishops Father, while letting all the other titles slip into history along with ostrich feathers and buskins. The titles Your Eminence, Your Excellency, My Lord, Your Grace, or Monsignor do not come from the gospel, the sacrament of Holy Orders, or the pastoral office of bishops. They are echoes of the Imperial Court, now the Papal Court, and they obscure the scriptural and familial nature of the episcopate—both from the bishop himself and from those he serves. The sacred liturgy still refers to the bishop as Father when he is asked to ordain new deacons and priests, and that is what we should call bishops every day. For example: Father Charles Chaput, OFM Cap, is the Archbishop of Philadelphia, and his priests and people should greet him as Father. After all, fathers relate differently to their brothers and children than lords relate to their subjects.
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. The glory of the Papal Court is a wonder to behold and can be deeply stirring. Anyone who has ever seen Saint Peter’s Basilica or Square filled with cardinals and bishops in their finery knows that the sight is grand. But what has that spectacle wrought among the men themselves? How does that pageantry serve the gospel now, if it ever did? For the purification of the priesthood and the authentic reform of the Church, everything that is of Imperium rather than Evangelium needs to go.
Every diocesan bishop is known by the title of his See city because it is the place of his cathedra, the apostolic chair from which he teaches the gospel. For this reason, every diocesan bishop should celebrate at least the principal Sunday Mass in his cathedral church every week. This will require ending the common practice of bishops moving around their dioceses on Sunday to celebrate Mass in different parishes. A diocesan bishop is not the pastor of all the parishes in his diocese; each parish has its own proper pastor, a priest appointed by the bishop. Rather, the bishop is the pastor of the entire diocese because he is first the pastor of a particular congregation of Christians in his cathedral church. When bishops move around the diocese on Sunday rather than remain in their cathedrals, they break the practical link and damage the theological link with their deepest identity as a shepherd of souls. If the bishop remains in his cathedral on Sunday, then he will remain rooted in priestly ministry rather than in bureaucratic administration, and he will build a strong pastoral relationship with his congregation that can serve as an example to the priests who serve the other parishes of the diocese. Finally, if the bishop is actually in his cathedral on the Lord’s Day, then not only can he celebrate Mass there, he can also lead the singing of Vespers each Sunday evening and show his priests and people how and why to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the salvation of the world.
Every diocesan bishop should look at each employee in his chancery and ask this question: If this person’s job disappeared, would anyone in our parishes ever know the difference? If not, then why does this job exist? Chancery bureaucracies generally do not serve the mission of our parishes in which most of the Church’s vital work takes place; rather, the main function of chancery staff is to serve the bishop, and from there it is a short path to a larger staff signaling a more important bishop. Of course each diocese must have enough employees to insure that the bishop can exercise all his essential functions of oversight, but we should know which functions are essential and let go of all the rest.
Every diocesan bishop’s most important task is to be pastor of the pastors, and each bishop should know all of his priests personally and intimately. Why is each man a Christian? How and why did he become a priest? What are his joys and sorrows? What are the main obstacles in his life to greater holiness? Is he happy and effective in his ministry? The business of getting to know priests in this way cannot be delegated to vicars. This is at the heart of being a father in Christ Jesus through the gospel, and it is the sacred personal duty of the bishop himself. Knowing his priests and walking with them in the Way of the Cross will also help the bishop appoint the right priests to all ecclesiastical offices and identify the men who are not leading lives of authentic Christian discipleship. This approach to episcopal ministry will also help the bishop cultivate the same kind of relationships with his seminarians; no bishop should ever ordain a stranger to the priesthood.
Currently, not all bishops are the pastors of dioceses, and this must stop. Titular bishops are those given the name of a diocese that no longer exists except as a memory, and so their connection to a real Christian congregation is a juridic fiction. These titular bishops come in two varieties: officials in the Roman Curia, and those who assist diocesan bishops, called auxiliaries. No one but the pope can do anything about the Roman Curia, but surely it is time to ask if a man really needs to be an archbishop to serve as the secretary of the Pontifical Council of Whatever.
As for the auxiliaries, who are by far by the most numerous of the titular bishops, these exist primarily for one reason: to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation in the parishes of large dioceses. I submit that this is a deformation of the episcopate. If a diocese is too large for its proper pastor to serve, perhaps that diocese should be broken into smaller local churches. And even if the bishop cannot personally celebrate Confirmation in each parish, he can teach his people that he is the original minister of that sacrament and is present to the people in the sacred Chrism he consecrates every Holy Week in his cathedral. Then the bishop can delegate to priests the duty of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation without in any way diminishing the essential role of the episcopate in the sacramental life of the Church.
Eliminating auxiliary bishops would also remove a chief temptation to clerical careerism. At present, priests work to become auxiliaries so that later they can become diocesan bishops and eventually be promoted to metropolitan archbishop. But the custom of moving bishops from one diocese to another is deeply contrary to the spousal significance of the bishop’s ring. The bishop who is united to his diocese as the groom is to his bride cannot be a mere functionary; he is a pastor after the heart of Christ, who gave his life for his bride, the Church. And living as a shepherd in precisely that way will be the end of the Imperial Episcopate and a source of deep reform in the Church.
Jay Scott Newman is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston and the pastor of Saint Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina.