Our bishops are generally holy men. But we ought to distinguish between private piety and the public office

Following my blog about the restoration of the Friday abstinence, thanks to our good bishops – who are now also “reflecting” on bringing back our transferred Holy Days of Obligation – a friend has sent me this email (she is the recent widow of a Catholic priest, formerly an Anglican minister):

“I had a lovely surprise yesterday afternoon. I was just sitting down when the Archbishop of Birmingham knocked on the door. He was on foot, and looked just like an ordinary Catholic priest with nothing to show he was even a bishop; he just came to see how I was, as the widow of one of his dead priests. He had not even known my husband, because he was appointed archbishop too recently. He had already spoken to me twice on the phone since my husband died and also called at the house shortly afterwards, when I happened to be away. He is the kindest, most approachable, and genuinely concerned priest you could possibly hope to meet. When you consider the size of the archdiocese and his immense responsibilities, I felt truly humbled by his visit. We talked about all sorts of things. We are so blessed to have such men as our bishops.”

This is praise indeed and I felt a twinge of guilt in reading it. Why? Because I have often joined in negative conversations with Catholic friends that have begun with “Oh, our bishops…!” and then proceeded to list their many perceived failings in exasperated tones.

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However, I think we must distinguish between private piety and acts of personal kindness and the public office. I am sure that our bishops are generally good and holy men and that my friend’s anecdote could be multiplied many times over. Nonetheless, thinking of the bishops in general – and not in any way pointing to the Archbishop of Birmingham in particular – I am reminded of the writer Philip Trower’s analysis of our episcopate in his excellent book, Turmoil and Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church.

In his chapter entitled “The Shepherds”, he writes, inter alia: “Misconceptions about the right way of being a servant have unfortunately resulted in the autocrat too often being replaced by the bishop who wants to be loved. The bishop who wants to be loved is frightened of losing his reputation for being ‘caring’ and ‘compassionate’ by doing something unpopular, even when this is what real love demands. Or he tries to ‘serve’ like a politician. When his flock goes into apostasy and heresy, he keeps it together by saying contradictory things to please all shades of opinion, or when the going gets tough, hides behind his diocesan bureaucracy. Or he becomes a kind of religious salesman. If he wants to attract Communist voters, he makes the faith sound as much as possible like Marxist Leninism. If, on the contrary, he is aiming at prosperous or hedonistically inclined sheep, he will refrain from speaking too harshly or too much about vice…”

We need our bishops to be braver in the public arena, when politicians enact anti-Christian laws; to proclaim the hard truths of the faith, however unpalatable to our hedonistic ears; to care passionately about the salvation of the souls in their dioceses, so we know that Heaven, not niceness, is the goal; to love their sheep more than their good standing with the bishops’ conference. And so on.

There I go, grumbling again. Memo: pray for bishops as well as priests.

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