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It is not enough for our bishops to be caring. They must speak unpalatable truths

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

By on Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Archbishop Longley: 'The kindest priest you could possibly hope to meet'

Archbishop Longley: 'The kindest priest you could possibly hope to meet'

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.

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.

  • Anonymous

    Does this mean that we will have to take Damian Thompson’s blog with more than a normal pinch of salt?

  • AgingPapist

    If he wants to attract Communist voters, he makes the faith sound as much as possible like Marxist Leninism. 

    You can be sure the bishops in the United States, with a couple of exceptions, will never be accused of being too Marxist.  It is more likely they will be bending over backwards catering to reactionaries and crypto -fascist Republican businessmen to secure their donations and support.  If the bishops are prepared to lie down in their cappa magnas with reactionary dogs, then they must expect to arise with fleas.

  • Anonymous

    I heard a story about Bishops which readers of this blog may know. It is rather insulting but always raises a laugh because there is some truth in it and links in with Francis Phillips’ blog.

    During a Mass to create a Bishop or two, a young member of the congregation asks, “Why are they
    lying down?”
    Reply from older member of the congregation, “So they can have their spines removed.”

    I realise that this is a bit unfair but, when priests rise in the ranks, it is rarely those who speak strongly about anything who get promoted to Bishop. The Bishops are the model priests who toe every possible line and are often canny statesmen. They aren’t boat-rockers. And the Church wouldn’t really want Bishops who are. They are meant to be Shepherds-of-their-flock and therefore their role is rarely one of sticking their necks out….

    BUT they should be prepared to do so if necessary. However, the statistics are not good if you look back to the Reformation: only one…St John Fisher…did so and thereby lost his head. 

  • GabrielAustin

    Bishops must be like doctors. It does no good to say  smooth things while allowing bad habits to proliferate That is not what bishops are for. Rather the contrary. The medicine however bitter is what is needed.
    Milton hit the note well:
    Blind moths, that scrace know how to hold

    A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least

    That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs! 

    What recks it them? What need they? They are sped; 

    And when they list, their lean and flashy songs 

    Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw: 

    The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, 125

    But swoln with wind and the rank mist they draw 

    Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread: 

    Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw 

    Daily devours apace, and nothing said:

  • Anonymous

    very true 

  • Ratbag

    Oh, how I agree with you that bishops need to be like doctors!

    Who has a good, approachable manner.
    Who tells you straight about what’s wrong, why it’s happened, what needs to be done and how you can help yourself – take the medicine etc. even if it is unpalatable but emphasises that you’ll benefit in the long run from the treatment.
    Who does NOT backside around trying to be popular by telling you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear for the good of your wellbeing.
    Who takes action when things are not functioning right.

    Indeed, GabrielAustin, bishops need to be doctors to BOTH priests and flock just as we, the Church, need to be good patients.

  • Peter

    One or two German Bishops stuck their necks out against the Nazis.

  • Anonymous

    Indeed they did Peter; but it always the minority and usually a small minority.

  • Anonymous

    At least doctors are willing to change the medicine they use as new cures are found, the Church will continue to administer the same old medicine – when it no longer works, and can cause more harm than good.

  • GabrielAustin

    Is there a chance you might give examples? Much of the history of medicine is a history of nostrums that cured symptoms rather than illnesses.

  • Ratbag

    Sometimes the old fashioned remedies are best!

  • Anonymous

    That’s why I rely on blood-letting to help to get over the flu.

  • J Kang

    And one of them is called Blessed Cardinal Von Galen, the lion of Munster. He was so outspokenly pro-life, If we had him in Bishop’s conference in England, we would have had not just 40 days but 365 days for life going on.

    By the way, Archbishop Longley is a great pastor, worthy of respect from everybody in and out of the Church.