Picking the brain of Fr. Neuhaus (Warning: Long!)

Figuring it couldn’t hurt to try, and not being in a position to write the Pope, I figured I’d try asking Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, if he could give me some clues on what the rhyme and reason is to getting rid of bad bishops. Here’s my note to him:

Dear Fr. Neuhaus:

If I may, could I pick your brain? Unlike many in cyberspace, my opinion (unhampered by interfering things like “knowledge and understanding of how church governance works”) has been that John Paul has deliberately chosen to leave bishops–even, in my opinion, extraordinarily bad ones such as McCormack–in office, not because he just can’t be bothered, nor because he is part of some clericalist old boy network, but because, as George Weigel says, you can’t understand him if you don’t understand his thought is informed by the Tradition. In this case, I have argued that the Tradition demands that neglectful bishops embrace the Cross they hitherto neglected, which means staying in the office you have so thoroughly soiled and facing the lifetime of opprobrium, scorn, anger, derision and other pleasantries you’ve earned, rather than cut and run. I argue that the “fire them all!” mentality is, paradoxically, secular and part of the problem. It reflects corporate America, I think, not Catholic ecclesiology. The vast majority of my fellow cyber-Catholics think I’m making excuses for papal dereliction of duty, but I can’t, for the life of me, square JPII’s intense love for the human person with the portrayal of a Pope enamored of greasing the wheels of The Machine, human beings be damned. I don’t believe this scenario. So it seems to me, rather, that John Paul’s choice to leave bishops in office is active, not passive, and is part of a calculated gamble in the hope that the grace of office will bear some fruit in our episcopacy.

Does this seem reasonable to you? I must confess there are bishops I wish he would just fire. And I think there may come a time when it’s obvious that this calculated gamble is not working and that some bishops are obstinately choosing to hire PR firms, dump on priests or victims, or do other revolting things rather than do the hard work of taking up the cross. I’ve read you and Weigel reject the “fire them all” rhetoric and agree with you that the Pope can’t just run around the world kicking out bishops everytime one of them does something stupid or corrupt, but my ignorance of Church governance is such that I don’t understand why exactly some get the ax and others don’t. Clearly, in the case of people like Reginald Cawcutt, something was done to expedite an exodus. Likewise Gaillot. I know these things are rare. And I know it’s preposterous to demand the heads of dozens of American prelates on platters. But I don’t understand the details. The basic question that arises repeatedly is: if Gaillot and Cawcutt can get booted, will it be possible for similar removals to happen should a bishop simply be a chronic wreck who refuses to take his job as shepherd seriously?

So, my question: what *does* it take for John Paul to remove a bishop? Is there some system or criteria or is it totally discretionary? I don’t know how it works, which makes me not terribly helpful to people who write my blog to ask the same thing. Any illumination you can provide would be much appreciated.

Graciously (thanks!) Fr. Neuhaus replies:

To your question about removing bishops:

It really has to be egregious, and public, as in the cases of Cawcutt and Gaillot.

In response to the ³fire them all² crowd:

1. You¹re right about forcing them to bear the cross of cleaning up their messes, and about reliance on the grace of office, which is, after all, solemnly taught as a gift of the Spirit.

2. There is an exaggerated fear in Rome of a formal schism in the Church in the U.S. It is thought a more direct or heavier hand might provoke that. As you know, many of the Lidless Eye People would welcome that. Rome would not, and I think for very good reasons.

3. The Church just isn¹t set up that way. The Curia is a very small operation with probably no more than twenty real decision makers. There is no way that they could, even if they wanted to, closely supervise four thousand bishops. Something has to become egregious, public, and persistent. Just as it¹s not easy to get yourself publicly excommunicated from the Catholic Church. For instance, the mildest action against Hans Kung — declaring that he is not an official teacher of CATHOLIC theology — came after years of his egregious and public insistence that he does not teach what the Church teaches. CDF finally said no more than, ³Fr. Hans, we agree with you. You are not teaching what we recognize as Catholic theology.²

4. If it was thought that bishops could be dismissed for incompetence or sloth, too many bishops would feel threatened, leading to even less cooperation with Rome, and creating issues that could consume the full attention of the pontificate. Add to this that John Paul II long ago decided that authentic renewal comes not through administrative or organizational fixes but through bold witness to the Gospel and the encouragement of individuals and groups that join in that witness.

5. And this is the most important consideration: These bishops are successors to the apostles as much as is the Bishop of Rome. They are, to be sure, ³with and under² Peter, but ³with² is chiefly a matter of sacramental communion, and ³under² is qualified by the aforementioned institutional factors. We believe they were made such by the Holy Spirit, and we cannot unmake them unless they have demonstrated beyond moral doubt that they have repudiated what the Spirit did or have otherwise created grave public scandal. They do not work for the Pope. The bishop is the head of the local Church. The chief ministry of Peter is to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness and to strengthen the brethren. Luke 22:32, displayed in bold eight-foot letters above the altar in St. Peter¹s, is the operative text. If Simon and Jude (to take but two examples from the calendar of the week) were doing a lousy job, and if the papacy were then set up along the lines of the last thousand years, I can¹t imagine that Peter would or could tell them they¹re no longer apostles. Despite all, these are the bishops God has given us. Maybe to test our faith. Thank God some, also in the U.S., are conscientious and even courageous shepherds. But you know that.

The question is not about the removal of bishops but about the selection of bishops. Here George Weigel¹s new book is particularly helpful. The chief criteria would seem to be that they have not publicly blotted their copy books, they have a decent record as managers, and they are ³unifiers² — the last defined at a base level of keeping everybody on board and, as much as possible, avoiding controversy. That this is the case is a curial problem, and a problem with the nuncio system. Apostolic zeal, theological depth, pastoral devotion, and a passion for real reform — in short, the gifts that mark JPII — are not on the usual list of qualifications. Could JPII have done more to remedy the selection process? Probably, and maybe in retrospect he wishes he had. But I don¹t think we should expect such initiatives in the remainder of this pontificate. And I need not tell you how grateful we must be for all he has done.

I hope the above is, at least in part, responsive to your question. Number 5 is the heart of the matter. One has frequent occasion to observe, only half tongue in cheek, that Christ has more to answer for than we do, considering that he constituted the Church as he did. One day, I have no doubt, he will explain it all, and we will feel very foolish for not having caught on earlier.


(The Rev.) Richard John Neuhaus