In “The End of the Imperial Episcopate,” Fr. Jay Scott Newman speculates about the Church's current situation. One of his premises is that many bishops have become too much like distant managers and administrators, and that this has contributed to today's problems. He also suggests “the clerical culture in which bishops and priests live is in many ways diseased and deformed, requiring renewal.” I fully agree with Newman on these points. We do not need politicians and administrators. We need bishops who act like bishops: teaching, shepherding, and, when necessary, disciplining like bishops. We need priests who don’t act like camp counselors, committee chairmen, facilitators, or socialites; we need priests who focus on their priestly, liturgical, and sacramental mission. Further, we need religious who remain faithful to the particular charisms of their founders instead of behaving like secular social justice activists. In short, we need faithfulness to particular callings across the board.
In his article, Newman proposes various reforms. These include requiring bishops to spend more time in their own cathedrals, eliminating the auxiliary bishop model, and reducing diocesan bureaucracy. While I might offer a few caveats, in principle I think these suggestions have merit. Where I believe Newman goes off the rails is in his proposal that certain elements of the “imperium,” such as traditional episcopal vesture and titles, “need to go.” Newman presents some rather specious arguments that are neither consistently applied nor rooted in a fulsome view of Church history or the Christian East. These proposals do not address the current situation, and, if implemented, may even compound the Church's problems rather than eliminate them.
Many of today’s issues stem from a crisis of clerical identity. Reclaiming that identity—both its internal and external dimensions—is paramount if we are to have a healthy revival and foster solid vocations. Clerical and prelatial dress are external manifestations of this identity—uniforms, if you will. As Paul Fussell writes in his general study on the subject, Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear, “meddling with classics usually backfires.” One need only bring to mind the many religious orders that significantly modified or even abandoned their habits following the Second Vatican Council. The end result was hardly a smashing success, yet Newman proposes that we have another go at this tired trope and tinker now with episcopal dress. Newman argues, for example, that prelates should “abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black.” His rationale? “Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms . . . 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.”
First, let's define our terms. What exactly constitutes “elaborate” dress and “exalted” titles? A layman might well suggest to Fr. Newman that a priest’s black clericals or title of “Father” are also “elaborate” and “exalted.” Why should one have the potential effect of distancing or fostering a sense of self-importance but not the other? Newman bases his call to abandon prelatial dress and titles on an entirely arbitrary construct and distinction.
Second, though he calls elaborate dress and titles a cause of the bishops' distancing and a potential source of “prelatial pomposity,” he ignores the actual facts of the situation. Newman speaks as though most bishops routinely utilize their cassocks as their day-to-day or even Sunday dress. The reality of the past half-century is quite different. Most bishops wear the same black clerical suit that priests or deacons wear, the only distinction being the addition of an (often concealed) pectoral cross and ring. It is the same with “exalted titles.” Newman refers to the forms of address that might be used in official correspondence or on certain formal occasions. Here again, few people or priests use these forms of address with any regularity, if at all—in fact, I suspect many do not even know how to use them. Most simply call their bishop “bishop” just like they would say “deacon” or “pope.” Regarding both dress and titles, then, Newman has constructed an argument around a fictitious set of premises, whereas the actual situation is almost identical to the one he presents as part of his solution. How then will his remedy possibly help?
Newman’s appeal to the example of the Christian East is also somewhat perplexing. He disregards the notable connections between Church and empire in the East (a connection arguably far more visible and entrenched than it is in the Latin West), and his portrayal of bishops in the Orthodox East is also over-simplified. For one thing, Orthodox prelates have special titles and forms of address just as prelates do in the Catholic West—some, like “Your All Holiness,” so effusive that they might well make some Latins blush. What’s more, Orthodox bishops have unique hierarchical forms of vesture just as their Latin counterparts do. For example, when an Eastern bishop arrives for services or attends them, he wears a cape called a “mantiya,” the color of which is determined by the particular rank of the prelate wearing it. Sound familiar? It should. If Newman’s proposals were followed, we would actually find ourselves moving further away from Orthodox practice, not closer to it.
Throughout his piece Newman attempts to set up an opposition between the “imperium” and the gospel—though even here he makes an arbitrary distinction between “those forms [that] still serve us well” and those he thinks don’t. As before, he presents little rationale as to what is still good and why. Newman also claims that these hierarchical titles and distinctions of dress “obscure the scriptural and familial nature of the episcopate,” though that would seem to make both the nature of the episcopate as well as that of the family—which scripturally includes hierarchies and hierarchical distinctions—very one-dimensional.
Ultimately, the problems Newman describes in his piece are not caused by titles, dress, or the “imperium”—they aren’t even problems limited to bishops. These are personality problems founded in particular individuals and their particular psychological makeup—problems that will emerge whether they are wearing black, purple, red, white, or blue jeans for that matter. If we wish to eliminate these issues in the Church—as we all surely do—we don’t need to start searching for a new tailor, we need to start searching for a better screening process.
While I will not attempt to make the inverse claim that the loss of traditional dress and titles has been the cause of our current crisis (that would also be overly simplistic), I will say that its loss does seem symptomatic of the root cause of the problem, which is a crisis of identity. One indication of that crisis is the watering-down of the episcopal and clerical “uniform.” While it is true that the habit does not make the monk, it doesn’t follow that dress is therefore unimportant. We see this with priests and the same holds true of bishops, cardinals, and popes; we also see it outside the Church.
The 19th-century writer, Thomas Carlyle, went so far as to say that “society is founded upon cloth.” There are many good arguments out there that would suggest recovering our traditional vesture could assist us in resolving this clerical identity crisis. These externals both witness to others and remind the wearers of their callings. If we want to successfully renew the episcopacy, the priesthood, and religious life, we need to do everything we can to accentuate and reclaim this identity and purpose—not enact reforms that minimize it even further.