The Danger of Criticizing Bishops and Priests (4)

It is not wrong to acknowledge the errors of priests or bishops, or gently point them out. But, when it becomes a zealous sport to pontificate about such errors, and to verbally attack these clerics personally, it goes too far.

As a seminarian I once was visiting my sister, and we proceeded to tear apart all the dissenting theologians in the Church. It seemed like such fun. But, then we caught ourselves, and I said, "You know, we probably should not take such delight in criticizing the theologians. It can be a pride thing." She agreed, "Yes, by saying how wrong they are, we are proclaiming how right we are."

It's an easy trap to fall into. We call it the "Isn't it awful syndrome."

As a priest, I don't believe I am exempt from the warning from the Lord to St. Catherine about judging other priests. I don't have any more right than a layperson to criticize my brother priests. Sometimes this involves biting my tongue when the subject is a less-than-perfect priest.

As I mentioned earlier, it is not wrong to acknowledge the errors of priests or bishops, or gently point them out. But, when it becomes a zealous sport to pontificate about such errors, and to verbally attack these clerics personally, it goes too far.

Love the Bishops

People have a rather rose-colored idea of the life of a bishop. It's not so pleasant. About 15% of his work is making decisions. The other 85% is dealing with headaches.

I remember well the quip of my pre-ordination retreat director: "Isn't it interesting that in this age when we have so few vocations to the priesthood, we have so many vocations to the episcopacy." And, we might add, to the papacy!

 
St. Bernard of Clairvaux

When people publicly criticize a bishop, or any man, for that matter, the one criticized will often dig in his heels for his position even he may not care that much about it. He does that to show that he won't be manipulated by those who try to strong-arm him, even if the criticism is well-intended or well-placed.

On the other hand, people such as St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bernard of Clairvaux had tremendous influence over bishops by their letters. It is not hard to see why: their letters were humble and respectful, and full of love. "But they were saints," one might argue. They became saints, but if you examine their lives you will find that many did not recognize their sanctity when they were alive. Furthermore, it was their sanctity that inspired them to urge reform with love, and so it will be with our sanctity, if we strive for it.

The priests and bishops are probably no worse than they were in the time of St. Catherine of Siena, or St. Francis of Assisi. In fact, they are much better, in general, despite the shameful scandals of a few, in recent years. We have a choice to make: to give in to our sadness and become a "priest-basher" or "bishop-basher," always ready to lament with great energy the faults of our clergy; or, while acknowledging the errors of the clergy, we can become morale-builders in the Church, always emphasizing the positive, always ready to build up, not tear down. And, if we look closely, we'll see a lot of positives in the Church today, and in every age.

St. Paul said it well: "Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thess. 5:11-13). This is the way to true holiness, and the joy which always accompanies it. And, this Christian joy, unlike sullenness, is infectious.

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Reverend Thomas G. Morrow has a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. His book, Saints for Families (Emmaus Road), a compilation of 27 lives of the saints appropriate for family reading time, appeared in 2002. He is a parochial vicar of St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton, Md. His published booklets and leaflets can be seen at http://www.cfalive.org/.

Copyright 2007, Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Posted with permission.



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