Bishops and priests by virtue of their office are our spiritual fathers in the Church. Honoring them in a spirit of charity, obedience, and filial respect usually poses no problem when things are going well. However, when our pastor seems to be “part of the problem,” we tend to wonder to what extent we are to honor them.
Throughout the Bible there are many important lessons on how to relate to those in authority, especially during times of crises. From the example of Noah’s faithful sons, who covered their father’s nakedness (Gen. 9:23), to David”s refusal to lay a hand on Saul (1 Sam. 24), to Our Lord’s pithy command to do as the Pharisees and scribes say but not as they do (Mt. 23:1-3), a clear picture develops. This picture is reflected in the constant teaching of the Church, including in our time the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism, and the Code of Canon Law.
The “anatomy” of a godly response to Church authority requires not only backbone but also heart–in other words, strength and tenderness rooted in the truth. This is charity in action, which the Catechism calls “the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil, and the violence which under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse” (no. 1889).
All this might sound good in theory, but what about Bishop So and So? What about my pastor, who allows–or even mandates–that X, Y, or Z go on in our parish? Here are some general principles that usually apply: [more]
(1) Take personal responsibility. We are responsible for doing our part to build up the Church. Too often people lament about the deficiencies of local Church leaders, as though everything rides with them. The fact is, Baptism gives us the serious right and duty to be “apostles” in accordance with our state in life. We can’t control the actions of others, but we surely can take it upon ourselves to strive to become saints. At the judgment, we will not be asked about our bishop or pastor, but we will be accountable for what we did with our own talents.
(2) Offer it up. Difficulties and suffering within the Church can be the very stuff of our redemption. Do we believe that? Are we going to embrace these crosses (even as we legitimately and appropriately address our concerns), or are we going to respond with the “violence” that only makes things worse? Suffering of all kinds is a given in life; we can choose whether in our case it will be redemptive or wasted.
(3) Honor our fathers. Since bishops and pastors are our spiritual fathers, we are commanded to honor them as such by the Fourth Commandment. The Roman Catechism, issued after the Council of Trent, taught that “Christ the Lord commands obedience even to wicked pastors.” But the Fourth Commandment is a “thou shall” rather than a “thou shall not” commandment. It does not tell us to avoid negative behaviors, but rather encourages a healthy, positive loyalty and reverence toward our parents and also our spiritual fathers.
(4) Live the vision. Lastly, we should pray for an increase of faith, that we might see in our bishops and priests, despite their human frailty and any perceived shortcomings, “the Lord’s anointed.” If we do that, we’re well on our way toward imitating the example of David, who was, to his eternal credit, a man after God’s own heart (cf. Acts 13:22).
The foregoing is an excerpt from my article ”Laity on the Line,” which originally appeared in the May-June 2006 issue of Lay Witness magazine.