The hazardous job of being a bishop

being a bishop

It is no fun being a bishop these days.

After the recent resignations of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon and Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris, and then the controversial legacies left by Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz in Avignon and Bishop Emmanuel Lafont in Cayenne (French Guyana), as well as the severe sanction that forced the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon to postpone the presbyteral ordinations planned for the end of the month, one wonders who’s next…

Certainly, these cases cover different situations. But they all show how difficult it is to be a bishop in France today.

No wonder it is becoming increasingly difficult to find candidates who are qualified or even willing to accept an episcopal appointment.

This is a cause for concern, given the pastoral role of the bishop as the foundation of the institution and guarantor of the Catholic unity.

This is not just a Church crisis, but it’s more generally a lack of confidence in institutions.

Politicians are not spared either! Those who accept public responsibilities find themselves on the front line of criticism.

In an increasingly “archipelagic” society, where social media is a formidable accelerator of division, it is clearly no easier today to “make society” than to “make Church”…

It is also true that bishops have been extremely weakened by the CIASE report on sexual abuse in the Church, which was published last October.

The liberation of victims’ voices greatly destabilized priests. But the abuse report also directly affected the bishops.

Indeed, there should be no doubt about this: for some, it was a cause for deep soul searching; for others, it was something impossible to hear.

In speaking of a “systemic crisis” of abuse, the authors of the CIASE report clearly blamed the institutional Church for concealing the truth. And thus, those at the head – the bishops – were also blamed.

The 20th Century made the bishop the strong man of the Church. Everything rests on him, which was not the case in the past, when princes, lords and other canons were involved in governing — and controlling — religion.

Today, the bishop alone embodies the institution, for better or for worse.

Vatican II took note of this evolution, without providing for more collective forms of governance.

The result is an excessive centralization of power that isolates them and makes them vulnerable, all the more so in a period of crisis. We have passed from a generation of builder bishops at the beginning of the 20th Century to a generation of exhausted prelates who manage a crumbling patrimony.

In the eyes of public opinion, they are quickly becoming the first to be held accountable for a situation of which they are not guilty.

How can this be remedied?

Through synodality, answers Pope Francis. A synodality that consists in putting all Catholics in a position of responsibility. The goal is to move from a Church of people obeying a leader, to a Church where everyone is a witness to the Gospel.

It would still be necessary for Catholics to agree to take their part… And for bishops to be capable of allowing a form of creativity and initiative to be expressed outside themselves, while ensuring the coherence of the whole.

Basically, this is not surprising.

We feel the same need to find new forms of citizen participation in politics. And the business world is also well aware that management is no longer the same as it was in the past, but that creating a network requires skill.

The same is true for the Church.

It is necessary to rethink the training of managers, to diversify their profiles, to foresee procedures for collegiality, to have places where all believers can speak, and to have bodies for regulation, evaluation and control.

Plain and simple, Church governance has to be brought into the 21st Century.

  • Isabelle de Gaulmyn is a senior editor at La Croix and a former Vatican correspondent.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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