Ethics & Public Policy Center

A Changing Church

Published in The Catholic Thing on December 19, 2019


Sometimes big changes in the Church happen all at once and in obvious ways. Think of certain reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Other changes – even some monumental changes – happen much more slowly, and so can be difficult to perceive as they are happening. And sometimes, it is clear that the way things have been is coming to an end, but what might come next is uncertain. Such are times of apprehension – and hope.

The episcopate is changing. Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality and collegiality are part of this. His reshaping the College of Cardinals to include bishops from the peripheries is another. But perhaps the most significant change is subtler than these: the laity’s expectations for their bishops are changing. Lay deference to clergy – especially bishops – is at a low ebb. Trust has worn thin.

Most of this, of course, has to do with the scandals of the past eighteen months. It is hard to imagine a Catholic bishop today enjoying the kind of national prestige and adulation of the sort Theodore McCarrick enjoyed in his heyday, long before his depredations became public. These days American Catholics are as likely to view prelates with skepticism, or even suspicion, as they are to view them with admiration.

Add to this mix the polarizing effects of our social and political situation, the vitriol of social media, intra-ecclesial squabbles (some very serious, some very silly) and all the other inducements to cynicism we are marinating in. The result, in the short term at least, is bishops that are both less exalted (which is probably good) and more distant from their flock (which is clearly bad).

If lay people’s view of our bishops is changing, it seems that our priests are also taking a different, perhaps dimmer, view of high ecclesial office.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet recently told a Spanish news outlet that almost a third of the men chosen by the pope to become bishops end up declining the appointment. According to Ouellet, who has been the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops since 2010, the refusal rate has tripled from just a decade ago.

The news that more men are declining appointments is not exactly a surprise to most close observers of the Church. There has been speculation about this trend for some time. In fact, this is not the first time Cardinal Ouellet has mentioned that the rate of refusal has been growing, though it is the first time he has put a number on it. It is worth noting that the trend predates the latest iteration of the abuse crisis.

As for why more men are declining, Ouellet offered only a general explanation, “It may be because they do not feel capable, lack faith, have some difficulty in their lives, or prefer not to risk causing harm to the Church.” That is probably as much of an explanation as we are ever going to get from anyone who really knows. Still, it is hard not to wonder: Is the Church missing out on good bishops, or is she being spared bad ones?

A priest who accepts an episcopal appointment in the current ecclesial environment is agreeing to submit himself to the most intense, even hostile, public scrutiny. The tremendous challenges of being a bishop these days means that the men who eagerly accept the duty must be especially humble and generous . . . or unusually ambitious and careerist.

Many of our bishops find themselves in an almost impossible position. They are expected to be pastoral and personable – smelling like their sheep, and all that supposedly good stuff – while spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on the administrative and bureaucratic demands of their office. These days, lest we forget, those duties might well include thankless jobs like navigating a diocese through bankruptcy, or shuttering dozens of parishes, or dealing with grand jury investigations.

What the long-term cash out of all this will be, I don’t pretend to know. But it seems certain to me that, as the expectations for our shepherds change, expectations for the flock need to change, too. Assigning all the responsibility for the Church’s health and vitality (or the opposites of those) to our bishops is a kind of bottom-up clericalism. It places impossible demands on our shepherds while oh-so-conveniently exempting ourselves – the laity, the vast majority of Catholics – from the responsibility of our own baptismal mission.

The point is not to reassign blame for the sins and crimes of priests and bishops. The point is that men chosen to lead the flock in the years and decades to come will need – if they are to succeed in their mission – the help and collaboration of a laity fully engaged and dedicated to the work of discipleship. This won’t be accomplished by blurring or breaking down the distinctions between laity and clergy, or even by tinkering with the division of labor within chanceries and diocesan ministries so as to preference lay involvement. The latter reforms may be prudent, they may even be necessary, but they will never be adequate to the Church’s true mission.

I am increasingly convinced that the question for the Church in the coming years and decades is this: If the lay vocation is lived fully and well – with all the lay faithful taking seriously the gift and responsibility of their Baptism – what then might the Church look like?

I am convinced that such a Church would be a real Church, strengthened and confirmed in her mission. A Church renewed.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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