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What authority does a Bishop Have? How Obedient should I be?

ISSUE: As a Catholic, I understand that the pope has authority over the entire Church. What, then, is the role of my local bishop? What should my attitude be toward him?

RESPONSE: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church teaches that “the faithful should be closely attached to the bishop as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father” (no. 896). In communion with the whole Church, and under the guidance of the pope, bishops are called to exercise authority in the name of Christ in their respective dioceses. Because the bishop is truly a successor of the apostles, our attitude should be characterized by charity, respect, and obedience.

DISCUSSION: While God’s Family in the Old Testament was built on the twelve sons of Israel, God’s New Testament family is built on the firm foundation of the Twelve Apostles. In selecting these apostles, Christ brought them together in a permanent assembly (Catechism, no. 880). At the head of this single apostolic assembly, or college, Christ placed Peter, who was chosen from among the Twelve (cf. Catechism, no. 880).

The pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles “belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope” (Catechism, no. 881). Vatican II affirms that “bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.”[1]

In a lawless age that disrespects the authority of God—the Source of all authority—and of parents, it is not surprising that the authority of bishops as successors of the apostles is not respected today. It is thus more important than ever that we understand and manifest in our words and actions the respect due to the sacred authority that our Lord has entrusted to our shepherds.

On the Same Team

It is important to understand that our bishop is neither a mere representative of the pope nor an authority apart from the pope. He exercises authority in the name of Christ in his diocese in communion with the entire Church (cf. Catechism, no. 895).

Catholics are obliged to remain staunchly loyal to all bishops who are in communion with the pope, particularly to one’s own bishop. It is not the layperson’s role (nor even within the layperson’s authority) to judge whether a bishop is in communion with the pope. Rather, only the pope makes this decision. We cannot drive a wedge between the universal Church, represented by the pope, and the diocesan (or particular) Church, headed by the bishop. There are only two possibilities: Either we’re in communion with the pope and his bishops, or we’re not.

In an address given on November 20, 1999, Pope John Paul II gave the following teaching on how the laity should relate to their bishops, and derivatively to their priests, quoting extensively from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium:

I likewise point out the attitude that the laity should have towards their Bishops and priests: “To their Pastors they should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. . . . If the occasion arises, this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence and with reverence and charity towards those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.”

Unity with the Bishop is the essential and indispensable attitude of the faithful Catholic, for one cannot claim to be on the Pope’s side without also standing by the Bishops in communion with him.Nor can one claim to be with the Bishops without standing by the Head of the College.[2]

All those who have been reborn in Christ through baptism are called to cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ (cf. Catechism, nos. 871-73). A proper understanding of the complementarity of roles in the Church, particularly the relationship of the lay faithful with their pastors, is especially important today as the laity strive to take their rightful place in the life of the Church and the “new evangelization.” Vatican II stressed the laity’s baptismal dignity and consequent call to holiness and mission. The clericalism that may have characterized past generations, whereby the faithful are encouraged to “leave everything to Father,” must be rejected.

Conversely, an active, evangelizing laity cannot fail to maintain communion of mind and heart with the local Church. God saves us as a people, as a family, and not as isolated individuals.[3] Accordingly, the laity’s approach to the apostolate must be that of collaborators, not “lone rangers.” On this point, the Catechism quotes St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of Saint John the Apostle: “Let no one do anything concerning the Church in separation from the bishop” (no. 896).

Visible Sources of Unity

Unity is an attribute of God. God is one. Christ is one with His Father and fervently prayed that His disciples would fully experience that unity (cf. Jn. 17:20-21). Unity in the family, in the Church, and in all social structures is a reflection of God’s unity; the disunity we encounter reminds us of the lingering effects of sin in our lives and in the world. Unity requires obedience to lawful authority, and all such authority is derived from God. Those to whom God has entrusted authority should exercise such authority for the sake of unity.

Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, no. 23) emphasizes that “individual bishops . . . are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches (see also Catechism, no. 886). How do bishops exercise their authority in the service of unity?

The Church teaches that there are visible bonds of unity in the Church:

-profession of one faith received from the Apostles;

-common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;

-apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God’s family (Catechism, no. 815).

These three elements—profession of faith, sacraments, and Church governance—are directly related to the threefold mission of the bishop to teach, sanctify, and rule, which in turn relates to the threefold ministry of Christ as prophet, priest, and king.

The bishop’s primary task is to teach, to fulfill the Lord’s commandment to preach the Gospel to the whole world. An individual bishop—excluding the pope—does not possess the charism of infallibility, but as a successor of the apostles he nonetheless is an authentic teacher of the Christian faith “endowed with the authority of Christ” (Catechism, no. 888).

The bishop’s role is also priestly, and so he is called to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. As a high priest of the New Covenant, this does not involve offering lambs and calves, but rather the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest, through his sacramental ministry. Accordingly, the Eucharist is the center of the life of each diocese, and the bishop is an agent of salvation, through whom Christ nourishes His flock (cf. Catechism, no. 893).

The bishop is also vested with the authority and sacred power to govern the particular Church entrusted to him. This authority is not given as a means of lording it over the faithful entrusted to him (cf. Mt. 20:25-28). Rather, this fatherly authority is exercised in a spirit of service and pastoral charity. The bishop’s role is to foster ecclesial communion, gathering diverse people with diverse talents and gifts into one Eucharistic assembly, from which he commissions them to transform the world.

Building Family Ties

Cardinal James A. Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, DC, recently affirmed that our “true common ground” as Catholics “is found in Scripture and Tradition as handed on through the teaching office of the Holy Father and the bishops. Indeed, we are fortunate to have a reliable and complete expression of our ‘common ground’ in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”[4]

On occasion, we may have reason to believe that a bishop or one of his representatives is straying from this common ground. It is then our role as laity to engage in dialogue—charitably, respectfully, and privately—to build Catholic unity with the individuals involved. How do we do this?

There are three rock-solid principles always apply to all our dealings with bishops.

First, the Gospel commands us to love everyone, even when this love involves personal suffering and sacrifice (cf. Mt. 5:43-48; Jn. 15:12-27). Vatican II’s document on the apostolate of lay people reminds us that charity, drawn from the Eucharist above all, “is the soul of the entire apostolate.”[5] Without charity we can do nothing (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1-3), except make matters worse, and as Vatican II teaches us, “He is not saved . . . who . . . does not persevere in charity.”[6] We should pray regularly and fervently for those in authority (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-4), and even if a particularly difficult matter is not resolved to our satisfaction, as long as charity has permeated our actions, our Lord will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21).

Second, since bishops are our spiritual fathers, we are commanded to honor them as such by the Fourth Commandment. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, citing Matthew 23:2-3, teaches, “Christ the Lord commands obedience even to wicked pastors.”[7]

Third, since bishops have lawful authority from Christ Himself, we owe obedience to lawful exercises of such authority, as is true with any legitimate earthly authority.

CUF founder H. Lyman Stebbins used a biblical example to describe our actions if we feel our bishop is in error. Shortly after the great flood, Noah became drunk. The noble patriarch was undeniably wrong in his actions, but his faithful sons walked in backwards and covered their father’s nakedness (cf. Gen. 9:23). They proved their loyalty and received their father’s blessing. Should difficulties arise, we too must prove our loyalty (and not just our orthodoxy) if we desire our heavenly Father’s blessing. We prove this loyalty by using the procedures established by the Church for addressing difficulties. In this way, we remain faithful to the Church, and respectful of the role of the bishop.[8]

Bishops are human beings and consequently are not exempt from the frailties and weaknesses all of us experience in this life. The conduct or teaching of these “human vessels” may not always be worthy of an apostle of Jesus Christ, just as the conduct of many laity is not always worthy of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Yet Catholics should manifest a filial or “childlike” piety in all our dealings with bishops and priests by virtue of their office as our “spiritual fathers.” With patience, fortitude, and charity, we always must preserve unity in our pursuit of Christ’s truth.









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