The Church in the West is facing profound challenges as it seeks to evangelize. By most visible metrics—those that rely on data from surveys and professional research on religious practice and belief—the Church is in decline. This decline can be attributed to many factors, especially the Church’s apparent inability to withstand the many pressures of life in a liberal, relativistic, consumerist society. The Church’s public image in the developed world has certainly fluctuated over time, but the trajectory in recent decades suggests that complete cultural irrelevance is practically inevitable. On questions of morality and politics, Catholics are—at least according to the numbers—indistinguishable from society at large.
But we can’t put all the blame on others, cultural trends, or unchristian ideologies. The Church has been challenged, and we have largely failed to respond adequately in our rapidly changing society. This isn’t simply the result of irreverent liturgy or not enough insistence on moral doctrine from our clergy. Nor can we place all the blame on liberalism or individualism. If we did, that would suggest that cultural forces are more powerful than the Creator of the universe. Our “post-Christian” culture took shape because each of us is a sinner. We have failed to increase the faith because each of us has failed to be increased in faith. We have failed to cooperate with the grace of God.
Bishops and pastors are charged with shepherding and cultivating the holiness of their flocks. Though it is hard to place a direct causal relation between personal holiness and bishops’ leadership (or lack thereof), perhaps we can all agree that if bishops had done better—whatever “better” means is up for debate—the Church might have been confirmed in holiness and avoided this deepening crisis. It’s for this reason that the individual and collective failings of the Church are often pinned on the bishops. Of course, railing against bishops is a pastime as old as the Church itself. As long as there is sin, there will be something we can pin on the bishops.
Bishops are regularly blamed for much more than their failure to inspire greater holiness, however. For example, Bishop Robert Barron wrote recently about how we often blame them for not doing more. In Barron’s case, he and his fellow California bishops were blamed for not taking stronger action to protect the statues of St. Junipero Serra on public display in the state of California. We also blame our bishops for not doing more to combat the nefarious philosophies and cultural forces around us. We often look to them to do something that gives us pride and allows us to say, “Now, that’s the kind of bishop I like to see.”
This best describes a “champion” model of pastoral leadership. Many Catholics today, including myself, prefer to sit on the sidelines of social media and put our collective support, “likes,” and retweets behind those bishops who are outspoken in opposing our political and cultural enemies. We rally behind bishops who speak truth to power and put their reputations and careers on the line in order to give the laity the sense that they have a dog in the fight. We’re not really looking to bishops to help or teach us; in fact, it increasingly appears we don’t want to actually learn anything from the bishops. Instead, we want the bishops to be on the vanguard so we can play the part of the barrier guard, shooting down anyone who dares to abandon their post. We want bishops who seem larger than life and serve as avatars of divine wrath battling the forces of Satan on Earth. Their humanity looks pathetically frail in contrast.
The champion bishop model, of course, is an understanding that gets Church teaching completely backward. The bishops are not politicians or policymakers. They do not have more than one vote nor are they talking with our friends and neighbors about the Good News. They are not confronting the casual racism we see in our workplaces nor feeding the homeless we come across in our daily lives. They aren’t teaching our children or reforming parish ministries. They can’t make that difficult call to our estranged family member for us nor are they pressuring companies in our investment portfolios to be more supportive of working families. We expect our bishops to do the heavy lifting, but when it comes to “doing” what Jesus asks, we often find ourselves passing the buck. The laity is responsible for this failure.
Bishop Barron quotes Lumen Gentium’s teaching that it is the laity who live in the world and who are responsible for transforming the secular world.
[The laity] are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer. (31)
Lumen Gentium describes a robust partnership between priests and laity. It is priests who support and help to enliven the faith in their flocks, but it is the laity who must go into the world to transform it. In turn, the laity must also support priests, catechists, and teachers, to help them evangelize our parishes and dioceses more effectively.
There is still a wide gap between the vision of lay-clergy dynamics presented in Lumen Gentium and the reality of the Church today. Yes, the laity should expect a level of pastoral leadership that will inspire them to respond more fully to God’s universal call to holiness, but then the laity must go into the world. Likewise, bishops are at their best when they are servant-leaders who respond to the specific needs of their dioceses and engage in evangelization that helps the people in their spiritual care to know and love the Lord more deeply. Only when they are rooted in the love and mercy of God can the laity be effective in their work.
A bishop truly at the service of his people will rebuff the attempts of anyone who tries to drag him into an ecclesiastical street fight. A servant leader will avoid the implication that he is recruiting foot soldiers in single-minded policy crusades. A bishop in this model does not reduce the Gospel to a limited number of causes or a handful of political issues. This might lead to greater zeal for some of the faithful, but it does not lead to greater holiness for his entire flock. Members of the faithful who want “champion bishops” will likely be put off by this, as Bishop Barron acknowledges. But according to the vision articulated in Lumen Gentium, we should both expect and appreciate when a bishop responds to our complaints or concerns about social and cultural issues with, “What are you going to do about it?” These issues are primarily our responsibility, not theirs.
Criticism of bishops often misses the point. Frequently, it is just a cover for our own failure to take responsibility in the world. To be fair, bishops and laity have both created and fed into the “champion bishop” model for a long time, and breaking out of that mold can disrupt the status quo. Still, as we have learned from the clergy abuse crisis and various civil rights movements around the world, robust lay leadership is often markedly more effective. At a time when the influence of bishops—both inside and outside the Church—is waning rapidly, it is vital that the laity take the lead in responding to the challenges of contemporary society. We Catholics certainly need holy bishops, because the world needs holy laypeople.