When Bishops Lose Their Authority

While on the scaffold awaiting his execution, St. Thomas More famously declared, “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” Throughout the controversy surrounding King Henry’s divorce and remarriage, More was adamant about one thing: he was a servant of the king, and accepted the king’s authority over the land. Although he could not consent to Henry’s rejection of the Church, More still acknowledged that he was the rightful king, and that as such, Henry had authority given to him by God.

That was the genius of More: he was able to distinguish the office of the king from the personal failings of the man who held that office. He didn’t call for the abolishment of royal rule; instead, he refused to support the sinful actions of the current king.

While we don’t live under kings anymore, Catholics today are faced with a similar dilemma. Some who exercise spiritual authority over us—our bishops—have shown themselves to be unworthy of this authority. As Catholics, how are we to respond? Do we simply ignore their egregious sins and say nothing, fearful that any criticism might be disrespectful of the episcopal office? Do we see the profound failings of these men and decide that the office itself is flawed and should be jettisoned? Or is there a third path for Catholics in this time of crisis?

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Two Levels of Authority
All authority—including the authority of bishops—is comprised of two types. The first is the authority inherent in the office, which flows from the position. The second is that which comes from the office-holder based on his actions, i.e., his “moral authority.” A king who is just and wise will be beloved by his subjects, and they will work hard to serve him. A king who is wicked and corrupt will be hated by his subjects, and they will only begrudgingly (if at all) serve him, and may even seek to overthrow him. But in both cases the king retains the authority of his office: he can still make laws, start wars, and rule his people. In the former case, however, the good king has extended the authority of his office with the authority of his person. The good king exercises both types of authority, but the bad king clings only to the authority of his office since he has lost any moral authority he might have to influence his subjects.

The office of bishop is no different. A bishop is given authority that comes directly from Christ himself. As a successor to the Apostles, he has authority within the Church. He rules his diocese with almost complete autonomy. He can, when together with other bishops and in union with the pope, declare doctrine in areas of faith and morals. He is charged to lead his people to deeper holiness and moral living. All these things are part of the office of bishop, and no one can take away from a bishop. This authority comes from God.

Yet a bishop also has moral authority. If a bishop is a holy, humble man, he will be respected by his people. If he uses his divine authority to protect the Faith and lead people to salvation, he will be a saint who is followed by many. If, on the other hand, he is a corrupt, immoral monster, who uses his authority for his own power and pleasure, he will lose the respect and the following of his people. Even worse, many might be so scandalized that they mistakenly reject even the authority of his office—i.e., his divine authority.

Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater
That’s what happened with the Protestant Reformation. The vice and corruption in the Church in the early 1500’s cannot be overestimated. When Catholics visited Rome, they were struck less by its grandeur and catholicity than the blatant immorality that pervaded the Eternal City. The hierarchy had so abused its human authority that vast swaths of people rejected its divine authority as well. Although it might be easy in hindsight to judge harshly those who left the Church, it’s something Our Lord himself warned would happen. That is why he bluntly stated that it would be better for the one who causes scandal to be “drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). Through the abuse of its authority, the Reformation-era hierarchy opened the path for millions to be separated from communion with the Catholic Church.

A similar tragedy is occurring today. The Church’s hierarchy is in crisis. What has only been hinted in the shadows in previous years is now coming to the light of day. The Cardinal McCarrick scandal is likely only the tip of the iceberg. This crisis has led to a loss of the human authority of the bishops as a whole. Who, after all, takes them seriously anymore when they opine on political or economic matters? The USCCB belches forth document after document, grasping at relevance, while no one is listening. All the while too many bishops are keeping their heads in the sand about the rising indignation directed at them from the laity.

I would say that we’re in danger of another Protestant-style revolution happening, but the truth is that it’s already happened. The vast numbers of Catholics who have stopped practicing the faith in recent decades make the Reformation look like a warm-up act. All those fleeing Catholics didn’t leave simply because many bishops failed to live up to their office, but, if nothing else, they essentially put a doorstop in place to keep the exit doors open.

Opposing Bishops Without Undermining Their Office
So what can Catholics who want to remain in the Church do? Should we mentally reject the authority of bishops, yet attend Mass and receive the sacraments while keeping our distance from the hierarchy? I don’t think that’s the answer, for that way eventually leads to schism. It makes us no different than Henry VIII.

No, Catholics need to doggedly uphold the divine authority of the bishops. Yes, a Catholic can safely ignore the bureaucratic abomination known as the USCCB, for it has no divine authority. But we must always acknowledge—and submit to—a bishop’s legitimate authority in his diocese. While acknowledging this divine authority, we must call bishops to account for abusing their authority. Monsters like Cardinal McCarrick—as well as those who have enabled and promoted him over the years—must be exposed and removed from office. Although painful, the laity must continue to push to expose all the deep pink secrets the bishops have been hiding for so long. Only through shining the light of truth into these nasty crevices can the bishops hope to regain any semblance of credibility.

Ultimately, our goal is to replace the men, not the office. Cardinal McCarrick does no more to invalidate the divine authority of the hierarchy than any of the Borgia popes. Yet, in both cases, the scandal of their reigns must be opposed and brought to an end as quickly as possible, before countless souls are lost.

One practical way to do this is via the pocketbook. One of the primary concerns of a bishop is keeping the lights on in his diocese. He doesn’t want to be the bishop who had to declare bankruptcy. This underlying priority is behind many—if not most—of the decisions a bishop makes. Why do you think most bishops will assign liberal pastors to “liberal” parishes (and conservative pastors to conservative parishes)? Because to do otherwise would lighten the collection plate. This is not to accuse bishops of personal greed. It’s simply to state the obvious: it’s their responsibility to pay the considerable bills of the diocese, and to do so, they need a steady flow of donations.

So perhaps it’s time to dry up those donations. If bishops begin losing money, perhaps they will hear the cries of the laity to clean up their act. This doesn’t mean Catholics stop being charitable, of course. It means redirecting our contributions to non-diocesan apostolates. And it means we increase those donations to make those non-diocesan apostolates even stronger. So if you currently put $20 in the collection basket, consider giving $30 to the local pro-life pregnancy center or a solid religious order. Doing this has a two-fold impact: it lessons the power of the bishops to protect themselves from their misdeeds, and helps with the renewal of the Church going forward.

Pray and Fast
Needless to say, we must pray and fast. It might at times appear that the hierarchy has all the power and the laity has none. Yet if we are on the side of justice, then we have God on our side, and therefore all the power. Wayward bishops deserve divine retribution for their gross sins. We should pray and fast that this retribution comes swiftly and ends swiftly. Prayer and fasting will also help us grow in holiness. This is essential to the revival of the Church; after all, where will the next batch of bishops come from? From today’s Catholic families. If those families are not practicing virtue and avoiding vice, then how can we expect their sons—our future bishops—to do so?

The Church has seen many times of crisis in her long history. During this crisis, let us cry to the Lord and beg him to overcome our enemies and bring justice to them.

How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him”;
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in thy steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

∼ Psalm 13


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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