The credibility of the bishops as pastors

The episcopate, we are often told by their critics, have lost their authority and credibility because of the response of some bishops to the abuse crisis. Revulsion to the abuse crisis and to particular episcopal misconduct in connection to it is understandable, cf. MP: The Finn Indictment, 1 MPA 51 (2012), but the effort to translate that revulsion into a broader indictment—smacking, as it does, of pretext and cynical opportunism—fails.

The personal conduct of the bishops would bear on their credibility as heralds of Christ and shepherds of their flocks if the source of their authority and message was they themselves; if someone like Joel Osteen should be found on the take, for example, that would be devastating to his credibility because his authority is self-generated. Episcopal authority, however, is not ex homine but ex officio. Cf. MP: The democratic fallacy, 1 MPA 142. It may be supplemented by personal authority—Cardinal Burke, for example, because he is learned, or Cardinal Dolan because he is personable—in ways that make people more apt to listen to them on particular issues, but when they speak and act within the scope of their episcopal authority, cf. MP: Catholic social teaching and public policy, 1 MPA 151, that authority is not rooted in who they are but whom they represent.

I am certainly not arguing that the bishops ought to misbehave, still less defending the misbehavior of particular bishops. My point is that the misbehavior of a given bishop changes nothing of our obligations to other bishops; indeed, it doesn’t really diminish our obligations to their individual exercise of episcopal functions. Cf. Mt 23:2-4. It’s fair to ask the obvious question of symmetry: Do the critics  think that the sacerdotal capacities of a bishop who misbehaves are compromised? That his misbehavior has deprived him of the power to act in persona Christi and thus to confect the Blessed Sacrament or to forgive sins in the confessional, or—to hang a massive weight over the question—to continue the apostolic line through conferring orders and episcopal consecration? Surely not. And if not, why would they think that the magisterial capacities of that bishop are compromised? That his misbehavior has deprived him of the power to speak (so to speak) in persona Christi, cf. Lk 10:16, and thus to proclaim the authentic word of God?

Perhaps we would be happier ducking or camouflaging so astringent a point, but I think that this is a time for hard truths not comfortingly-anodyne euphemisms.

And perhaps all that is meant is that bishops with dirty hands will not make for very good evangelists, because their “moral authority” is compromised in the eyes of people who don’t believe in moral authority. But that doesn’t go far either, for several reasons. First, what could we do about it anyway? What’s done is done. Second,what moral authority did the bishops have in the first place to those who need evangelizing? “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” 1 Cor 1:23. Third, while no one doubts that we’d do better to have saintly bishops, that we would be more credible with the world if the enemy couldn’t point to some bishops and say “look how bad this guy’s sins are,” to point at the bishops is to point three fingers back at oneself. My sins were pretty ugly—still are, some days—so let’s turn it around: Would we not do better to have saintly laymen? Would we be more efficient if the enemy couldn’t point to me and say “look how bad this guy’s sins are”?

The abuse of minors by some priests, and the failures of some bishops to deal forthrightly with the perpetrators, remains an abhorrent period in the Church’s history. It should not, however, be used as a cudgel with which to attack bishops with whom one disagrees on other matters.