Great events like the Second Vatican Council always have unintended consequences. Knowing that the office of bishop had gotten short shrift at Vatican I when that Council was prematurely closed by the Franco-Prussian War, the Fathers of Vatican II wanted to revitalize the episcopate according to the two conciliar goals of John XXIII: ressourcement (“returning to the sources” of Christian wisdom in Scripture and the early Church Father) and aggiornamento (Italian for “updating”). Christus Dominus, the Council’s decree on the pastoral office of bishops, did just that.
Deftly combining ressourcement and aggiornamento, Vatican II jettisoned the model of the bishop as a branch-manager of Roman Catholic Church, Inc., and proposed a retrieval of the ancient patristic understanding of the bishop as a preacher, pastor, theologian, and spiritual guide. This ressourcement, it was thought, would help implement the aggiornamento goal of strengthening the “collegiality” of bishops: collegiality within a region and throughout the world, and collegiality between local bishops, national conferences of bishops, the world episcopate, and the Bishop of Rome.
Some of that has happened. Yet something else has happened, too: in many parts of the Church, and especially in the United States, the bishop’s charism of religious leadership has gotten reduced to the “skill” of bureaucratic managership.
Reinvigorating the office of bishop according to the vision of Vatican II and challenging the prominent role played by post-conciliar Church bureaucracies seemed to be on Pope John Paul II’s mind on March 31, when he met with the bishops of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, then making their quinquennial ad limina visits to Rome.
The episcopate begins, not with sociology but with theology: its deepest roots lie in Peter’s confession of faith on the road to Caesarea Philippi — “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Thus the bishop’s office, the Pope urged, is first and foremost a teaching office in service to the Word of God. This means that bishops must set aside time for “study and scholarship” if they are to preach and teach effectively.
Speaking from twenty years experience as a diocesan bishop, the Pope told the Americans (perhaps somewhat ruefully) that he knew “the many demands that are made on a bishop’s time.” Yet his experience had also taught him that “it is essential to make time, intentionally, for study and reflection.” That was the only way a bishop could approach his problems in a truly episcopal manner, asking, “What is the truth of faith that sheds light on the problem we are addressing?” The Holy Father then gently suggested that, in some instances, “the bishop today may need to reorganize the way in which he exercises his episcopal office in order to attend to what is fundamental in his ministry.”
Which is not, the Pope seemed to imply, bureaucratic administration or management. In fact, the Pope went further and underlined the “personal nature” of episcopal governance, urging that administrative structures — bureaucracies — “do not impede the very thing they are meant to facilitate: a bishop’s contact with his people and his role as an evangelist.” The Pope recalled last year’s Synod for America, in which bishops from throughout the western hemisphere shared their concern that “it is all too easy today for a bishop to yield his evangelizing and catechizing responsibilities to others and to become a captive of his own administrative obligations.” The best way to deal with that temptation, the Pope suggested, was to think of the episcopate as a “witness to the truth about God and man…and a service for the good of all,” rather than as a “mere administrative necessity.”
The Holy Father also urged the bishops to rethink the operations of their national conference so that it can be “truly effective without weakening the teaching and pastoral authority which belongs to bishops alone.” The conference’s procedures and structures, the Pope said, “must not become ends in themselves, but always remain instruments of…evangelization and ecclesial service.” Which meant that the bishops’ conference had to function as a Church body, “and not as an institution reflecting the management models of secular society.”
It was a remarkable discourse. Taken seriously, it could dramatically redirect Catholic life in America in the 21st century.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.