Episcopal throughput

Fr. Z has a reader’s letter relating a priest’s experience of making changes in his parish. The priest, new to the parish, “wanted to make some changes that would put us more in line with the new liturgical movement,” including “offering all Masses ad orientem … and changing our Mass schedule and format to include one EF Low Mass and one EF High Mass each week.” 1 At any rate, Fr. Z’s correspondent tells us that while many parishioners were thrilled by these changes, inevitably a “a small but loud minority of our parish called our Bishop and complained.”

It’s what happened next that I want to pick up on: ” Within a matter of days, our Bishop called a meeting with our new priest and told him (as the Bishop claimed to have received ‘a number’ of complaints) that he was to not make any changes in the Mass schedule or format, and that he was not to offer Mass ad orientem. He also told our priest that he would be watching his every move and that he didn’t want to hear any more complaints about him – not so much as a blip.”

On the one hand, we should be careful to remember and respect the ordinary prerogatives of the bishop over his diocese. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that the faithful shouldn’t, in appropriate circumstances, take their concerns to their bishop, or that the bishop shouldn’t, in appropriate circumstances, act. Liturgical abuses happen, for example, and although one should always try to resolve it with the pastor first, episcopal intervention may become necessary.

But on the other hand, here’s the problem with this kind of episcopal micromanagement (by which I mean swift intervention in parish-level events where no kind of abuse of discretion is alleged; obviously liturgical abuse is abuse of discretion). If people get to thinking that bishops will precipitously react to any criticism they receive by supposing it to reflect parish sentiment, the only rational response for those who are delighted by the change is to provide a counterweight, writing supportive letters to the bishop. So what happens? The result is an increase in the amount of correspondence received, reducing the bishop’s ability to evaluate each letter himself—even if he happens to be a good bishop who, remembering Balthazar’s warning, 2 wants to do so. (Of course, the bishop may simply have used the complaints as cover for imposing his own preferences, but the same analysis applies if so.) Overwhelmed, the bishops are more likely to delegate correspondence to staff, removing them from the direct loop. 3 The result of micromanagement is that bishops become even less able to govern their dioceses, because the time available to do so becomes sucked into this kind of exercise.

I recognize that it’s a delicate balancing act, but more circumspection on the parts of both the priest and the bishop would have been advisable in this case.


  1. All good changes, in my view, although the wisdom of the timing is an open question. Fr. Richard Kaley (our pastor for several years and now at St. Bonaventure in Minnesota) once said that when you move to a new parish, it’s usually a good idea to change nothing for a year, to give the parish a chance to get to know you and vice versa. I think that’s good advice (and not just in ecclesial contexts) unless there are grave abuses happening that require immediate correction.
  2. Hans Urs von Balthazar warned that “Jesus always designated persons for service, not institutions. The persons of bishops belong to the fundamental structure of the church, not bureaucratic offices. There’s nothing more grotesque than to think of a Christ who would want to establish committees!” Quoted in Richard Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority 171 (1997); I last quoted that observation in SF: Rule by Committee (Oct. 26, 2010).
  3. Which is precisely what Balthazar was warning about, and correctly in my view.

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  1. Bishop belthazar | Blackbadgerinc on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 3:02 am

    […] Episcopal throughput < MOTU PROPRIOJul 2, 2011… but loud minority of our parish called our Bishop and complained.” … bishop who, remembering Balthazar’s warning, 2 wants to do so. … […]

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