Somebody Needs to Be Dad

First Things

February 22, 2021

By Francis X. Maier

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.

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