America’s Catholic Bishops

Short of the Pope himself, there is no one who can challenge the Catholic bishop for leadership or power in the American church today

Possibly the only area in which they receive enthusiastic support is in their dedication to the parochial school system. This also happens, though, to be one of the few causes which they support with a full-fledged publicity drive and systematic organizational work (the same can hardly be said of their work for peace or the eradication of poverty). To judge by the obsequious attention lavished upon bishops during Catholic ceremonial occasions—the eager attempts to shake their hands or to kiss their rings—or by the frequency with which their pictures appear in the diocesan newspapers, one might easily be led to imagine them as charismatic figures among their people. It doesn't happen to work out this way. The bishops' theological and symbolic role as wise, dominant shepherds is not matched by their actual power to shape opinion or command a special loyalty on issues going beyond the narrowest matters of Church law and ritual. The hierarchy has shouted against federal and state birth control programs; public opinion surveys show that nearly 60 percent of American Catholics favor such programs. None of the strong episcopal statements favoring racial justice have managed to make the slightest dent in the adamantly white ethnic Catholic neighborhoods of Cicero, Illinois. They have called (rather vaguely, it must be said) for peace in Vietnam, but recent polls show more support for Administration policy among Catholics than among any other religious group.

The curious thing is that the bishops don't really seem to care. They appear remarkably content to remain quiet, benign figureheads among those they are supposed to guide and inspire, saving their major energies for administrative work well away from the public eye. Only a handful of Catholics could say where their own bishop stood on most issues. They could probably guess he was against sin and in favor of goodness. But how does he feel about this housing bill, or that school integration busing scheme, or about napalming villages in South Vietnam, or about what percentage of the American tax dollar should go to foreign aid? There is hardly a diocese in the country where one could come up with answers to such practical, immediate, important questions as these. Many Catholics would count it progress if their bishops took even the most outlandish positions on specific issues; it would at least indicate signs of life. The few bishops who do speak to concrete issues on occasion—Archbishop Lucey in San Antonio supporting efforts to unionize migrant workers, Archbishop McGucken in San Francisco calling on Governor Brown in the last days of his term to commute death sentences, Bishop Mussio in Steubenville, Ohio, protesting against right-to-work laws—are often lionized out of all proportion to the significance of their stand. But when the normal course is to do nothing, even the smallest action becomes news.

t has not always been this way. The first bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore, saw immediately that the Church in America would have to be different. Toward the end of the eighteenth century he wrote that "the Church as an institution-in-law in Europe had to become in the new nation merely another private corporation... In a sense, the whole history of the Church in the United States has been the gracious accepting of that change, a constant adaptation to that life in a new and secular environment." He did his part in making that adaptation possible, giving unusual freedom to both laity and clergy in order that the internal life of the Church could, so far as possible, reflect the American democratic temper. Others, like Bishops England in Charleston, Cheverus in Boston, Hughes in New York, Ireland in St. Paul, and Gibbons in Baltimore, brought some degree of distinction to the Church during the nineteenth century, the great century of immigrant growth.

Yet outstanding bishops like these have been few and far between. The system for appointing bishops is designed to ensure that only the safest possible priests have a chance to win the favor of Rome, which makes all the choices. Through an elaborate, secretive system of biennial recommendations, the names of potential bishops are forwarded to the papacy by those currently holding office. The present system, laid down by Rome in 1916, specifies the type of priest most suitable for recommendation: "The candidates should be mature, but not too old; of good judgment, tried in actual service; of learning, sound and above the ordinary; devoted to the Holy See; especially noted for rectitude and piety. Besides, attention should be paid to the candidate's executive ability, financial condition, character, and state of health. In a word, the question is whether he has all the qualities which are required in an excellent pastor, so that he may rule the people of God with success and edification." This is a perfect formula for what the bishops have by and large been: solid, respectable, pious citizens, accomplished administrators, good with figures, sound enough of mind and limb to withstand the rigors of an endless round of ceremonial occasions and bureaucratic routine (they live a long life; their average age is sixty-two). The fact that all recommendations are channeled to Rome through the apostolic delegate in Washington—at present a reactionary, Egidio Vagnozzi—hardly helps matters. His influence is thought to be heavily responsible for the conservative cast of those bishops pointed in recent years.

Inevitably, such a system ensures that few mavericks will slip through the tight-meshed ecclesiastical net. It is almost inconceivable that a priest who made a public name for himself as a picketer, as an imaginative innovator, as an opponent of corrupt politics, as a known advocate of "controversial" church or public policies would pass muster. The bishops might well support such a priest in all these things; they just wouldn't recommend him to Rome to be one of them. Not surprisingly, those elevated to the episcopacy are often unknown at the outset to the great mass of Catholics. They are, as a rule, drawn from deep within the administrative structure, many in fact having spent much of their priestly lives doing office rather than pastoral work. One needs little insight into the sociology of large institutions to guess the net result: those finally appointed as bishops are likely to be highly congenial to those already in office, domesticated to traditional priorities and routines, and out of touch with grass-roots opinion, especially lay opinion.

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