Published February 22, 2021
For Catholics, the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) stands as the key event of the last 60 years. It renewed the Church’s self-understanding. It reimagined her relations with the Jewish people, other Christians, and the world. It also acknowledged in a new and powerful way the importance of the lay vocation.
It did not, however, break radically with the past, notably regarding authority. In the person of the local bishop, stressed the council, “the Lord Jesus Christ . . . is present in the midst of the faithful.” Every local bishop has the authority to teach, encourage, govern, and correct the faithful entrusted to him. Thus, as “father and pastor” of his people, he should be “an example of sanctity in charity, humility, and simplicity of life,” with the duty to “mold his flock into one family” so that all “may live and act in the communion of charity.”
Those are beautiful words. They’re also profoundly sobering. Reading the council’s documents about the duties placed on a bishop is a bracing experience. Ambition in the Church is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s naïve to assume otherwise. But any man longing for the job had better think twice and carefully. Any privileges that once went with the work of a bishop have thinned out over the past few decades as the demands have fattened up. The abuse scandal of the last 20 years, the hostility of today’s cultural and political environment, and the toxic nature of criticism within the Church herself have led many men—some claim as many as a third of candidates—to turn down the episcopacy when offered. Mediocre, incompetent, and even bad men still do become bishops. The remarkable thing is how many of our bishops, the great majority, are good men doing their best, and doing it well, as a “father and pastor.” I saw this firsthand in 27 years of diocesan service. I observed it again and again over the past two months.
In November 2020 I contacted 33 bishops—31 in the United States and two in Anglophone countries abroad—for a project I’m pursuing in cultural and Church renewal with the Constitutional Studies program at the University of Notre Dame. The project’s purpose is simple. If the Church seeks to be an agent of renewal in the life of a nation and its culture, then she herself must also be renewed. So how do we do that? Between December 1, 2020, and February 17 of this year, I conducted confidential interviews with 28 of those bishops. Two more interviews are pending; two bishops did not reply; and one bishop—Glasgow’s Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, whom I met and assisted at the 2015 synod—died before our interview could take place. In the coming months, I’ll conduct similar interviews with clergy and religious, followed by interviews with laypersons—the final and largest group.
The American bishops I spoke with serve in 20 different states in every region of the country. They have very different personalities, resources, backgrounds, and skill sets. They also face unique problems: Local issues in America’s rust belt, farm country, and south/southwest can differ widely. They do, nonetheless, share certain views and experiences worth mentioning briefly here.
On average, COVID has done less immediate financial damage to many American dioceses than expected. Most bishops reported a 4 percent to 8 percent virus-related revenue decline over the past year. Poor parishes have suffered the most. In a few places the annual diocesan appeal or Catholic Charities drive has actually increased revenue. But as the virus and lockdowns drag on, this can’t continue, and the deeper worries of most bishops I spoke with focus on the decay of long-term lay involvement in Church life. COVID and its potential lethality have not produced any noticeable uptick in people’s concern about where they’ll spend the afterlife. Most bishops project between a 25 percent and 40 percent permanent fall-off in Mass attendance and parish engagement even after the virus is history. Combined with already-existing trends in sacramental decline, this suggests a smaller, leaner future for many dioceses, sooner than many planned.
Relations with civil authorities vary. One bishop, moved by Rome from an eastern diocese to one in the Midwest, compared the belligerence of his former state’s governor with the personal warmth and support of the governor in his new state. Overall though, “we’re generals without armies, and the civil authorities know it” was a common theme. Worry about the negative spirit and potential damage of the Biden administration was unanimous.
Most men, asked about the biggest shocks they experienced in becoming a bishop—even those who were former vicars for clergy or vicars general, and thus knew the terrain—named the weight, number, and unending stream of administrative burdens. These have a serious crippling effect on their ability to connect intimately with their people. Doing a bishop’s work well leaves little room for rest, and most outsiders are oblivious to the personal cost. All acknowledged their reliance on the collaboration of lay advisers and staff, and the growing need to develop lay leaders.
At the same time, most men said they are deeply satisfied in their ministry and believe the selection process for bishops is sound. They support a wide, confidential consultation in the nomination of bishops involving more well-informed lay faithful. But they oppose any public “democratization” of the process as dragging the worst of American pressure politics into the life of the Church. They do worry—this was a recurrent theme—about interference with the selection process at the Roman congregation level. This typically involved an implied, and sometimes quite explicit, distrust of a particular American cardinal who will remain unnamed. Most bishops expressed satisfaction with the state of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Several voiced irritation with Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory for undercutting conference leadership on the issue of Communion and President Biden’s problematic sacramental status.
The most sensitive matter in my various interviews involved bishops’ attitudes toward Pope Francis. All of the men I spoke with expressed a sincere fidelity to the Holy Father. Many praised his efforts to reshape the Roman curia toward a more supportive, service-oriented posture in dealing with local bishops. But many also voiced an equally vigorous frustration with what they see as his ambiguous comments and behavior, which too often feed confusion among the faithful, encourage conflict, and undermine bishops’ ability to teach and lead. Francis’s perceived dislike of the United States doesn’t help. In the words of one baffled west-of-the-Mississippi bishop, “It’s as if he enjoys poking us in the eye.”
When pressed, none of the bishops I queried could report a single diocesan seminarian inspired to pursue priestly life by the current pope. None took any pleasure in acknowledging this. The seminarians they do have, however—and some dioceses are doing surprisingly well in this area—tend to be strongly motivated men. Some come from fractured families, others from homeschooling backgrounds. Still others have some powerful encounter with God, an unexpected religious conversion or spiritual experience, that leads them to the seminary despite their deficiencies in formal religious education. This makes a seminary’s propaedeutic or “spirituality” year a vital preparation for formal seminary education.
Boiling down dozens of hours of interviews into a single web column is a hopeless task, and I won’t attempt it here. But I will share one final experience. I asked each of the bishops I interviewed a concluding question: At the end of the day, what worries and what encourages you the most? In case after case, a bishop gave the same answer to each question—young people. The greatest pain is the number of young persons exiting the Church. The greatest source of hope is the zeal and character of the young people who remain faithful and love Jesus Christ. And this is why, at some mysterious level, every bishop I interviewed was both vividly alert to the challenges he faces and simultaneously at peace.
Families need fathers. As my own father said with irritating but accurate regularity, whatever the warts of the man, “somebody needs to be dad”—for the sake of everyone else. The extraordinary fact of Catholic life in the United States is not the few bishops who humiliate us so bitterly, but the many who do the job so well.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.