Cardinal König wrote (Tablet, 27 March 1999): “In fact however, de facto and not de jure, intentionally or unintentionally, the curial authorities working in conjunction with the Pope have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who carry out almost all of them.” This statement can perhaps stand for a view held by many that the Curia has got too big for its boots.
But what boots do the bishops wear? We need to be clear about this if we, as the faithful under our own bishops, are to know what our expectations should be, and by what standards we should judge them.
The ruling document here is The Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium from Vatican II. This is of course easily available on the internet, so here I confine myself to what I think to be the major points. After looking at the Church as a whole, it turns its attention, in Chapter III, to the Hierarchy, and thus, to the bishops.
It is significant that it does not start with the pope but with the bishops themselves. These are to be the pastors who inherit the rôle of the Apostles. They preside in place of God over their flock, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing. It is only in this context that the pope is introduced as the visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. The bishops are the shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ. And they receive the special graces required for their office, just as the Apostles did. And this grace is inherited through their ordination.
Like the pope they receive the authority of binding and loosing but – and here the balancing comes in – they do so only within the college of the bishops, joined with their head. However, each bishop is the visible foundation of unity within his own church, which, in turn, represents the whole Church.
Their teaching of faith and morals requires the religious assent of the faithful, and, although they are not infallible, they can teach infallibly, in communion with their fellows and the Pope, on matters which are to be held definitively.
They are the prime ministers of faith, the sacraments and the liturgy, and so have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the liturgy. Nevertheless the emphasis here remains on the Good Shepherd which the bishop is sent by God to be. So his office is to serve, rather than to be served. And, as the Good Shepherd, he must be ready to lay down his life for his sheep, he must not refuse to listen to them and he must be compassionate to the ignorant and erring.
(A more detailed picture of a bishop’s office may be gained by reading Canon Law. I see that the word, bishop, occurs here 794 times – the majority of which I have not examined. But the section on schools – pertinent to our recent discussion – provides a good example.)
To bring us up to date, I glance at a recent address by Pope Francis to those who put forward possible candidates for the Episcopate.
“Be careful that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers; that they are gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life; that they do not have the psychology of princes.”
He warned them against the criterion of the “brilliant” bishop – who might give better service in, say, a university . And “we don’t want those who want to become bishops.” Nor should bishops move from see to see in pursuit of promotion, they should prefer to be spouse of one church – their own.
“Shepherds need to be in front of their flocks to indicate the path, in the midst of the flock to keep them united, behind the flock to make sure none is left behind.” (report, Tablet, 29 June 2013).
So how do our own bishops match up to the responsibilities which the Church requires of them? If you don’t know, perhaps that is, in itself, a reason for criticism. What has been your experience of bishops? In what ways can we help them? In our discussion, we must speak generally, and certainly avoid direct criticism of an identifiable bishop .The normal legal rules for statements in the public forum apply.