11 Nov 2022

7 November 2022, North Sydney

Recently three Catholic University of America researchers published Well-being, Trust and Policy in a Time of Crisis: Highlights from the National Study of Catholic Priests. It paints a rather bleak picture of priests’ fears of false accusations of abuse and of being abandoned by their bishop if that happened.[1] Ever since the U.S. Bishops’ instigated the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (2002), priests have feared that if accused they will effectively be presumed guilty and “thrown under the bus”.

It’s confronting reading. Many American priests think the “zero tolerance” policy is too harsh and has depersonalised the relationship with their bishop. While most bishops see themselves as fathers, shepherds and co-workers with their priests, most priests see them as more like CEOs, bureaucrats or guardians of Church assets. Only a quarter of the 10,000 priests surveyed said they had confidence in the bishops in general. “Perhaps some bishops see themselves through rose-coloured glasses,” the study concluded, “or perhaps priests, in a beleaguered and prolonged state of stress and uncertainty, unfairly characterise their bishops through a lens of cynicism and fear. Or perhaps there is some truth to both perspectives.”

Today’s Gospel (Lk 17:1-6) is a ragbag of λόγια—sayings and utterances of Christ—faithfully preserved and then lumped together as if the evangelist didn’t really know how they fit with the rest of Jesus’ teachings. Watch yourselves, don’t scandalise, correct, forgive, be faithful: there are a lot of lessons in a few verses and little to connect them except repeated mention of the sea. Of course, whatever the Scripture scholars tell us this was originally all about, when we hear the Lord today say it’s better to be cast, if not under a bus then into the sea, than lead a little one astray, it’s immediately redolent of the child abuse crisis. Jesus does indeed seem to be recommending a zero tolerance policy to us bishops here!

Yet, the very next verse is about reproving and forgiving, both of which we bishops have to do our share of in this area of ‘safeguarding’ as elsewhere. It’s hard to get the balance right, between justice and mercy, between being a father and a judge, between being there for the accusers and for the accused, between being a man of truth and a man for the institution. Paul tells young Bishop Titus today in our epistle (Tit 1:1-9) that it’s his job to lead the Cretan Christians and so to find and appoint “elders” for them in every parish. These bishops and presbyters must not be arrogant or hot-tempered, drunk, violent or greedy—which Paul could only be mentioning because it was already a problem somewhere. Titus must find pastors of irreproachable character, sensible, moral, self-controlled, devout, loyal to the tradition, sound in doctrine, hospitable, “a friend of all that is good”. In the face of such expectations, it’s no wonder the apostles cry out “Lord, increase our faith”!

How can we hope to offer God’s people such pastoral leadership in the face of human vices already evident in Paul’s time? In a recent book, The Ideal Bishop, Michael Sirilla reviewed all of St Thomas Aquinas’ texts about the episcopate, especially his lectures on the pastoral epistles including the one to Titus from which we heard today. Aquinas thought bishops ought to enjoy a profound, mystical intimacy with Christ and so lead others to that same intimacy or perfection. In so doing, he said, the bishop secures his own salvation and that of his flock. As “God’s vicars in governing the Church which is built on faith and sacrament”, bishops are given a particular sharing in Christ’s triple munus of teaching, governing and sanctifying. But the efficacy of their ministry, St Thomas thinks, depends less on their office and its associated charism, than on each having a holy and virtuous heart and a well-informed mind.

Aquinas suggests that Christ chose simple rather than exceptional men as his apostles so He could form and grace them for spiritual greatness, that is for intimacy with Him and for being fishers of men. They let go of family, wealth, security and public regard in order to give themselves completely to Him and His mission. As Paul says today, Christ then granted them the wisdom to lead others to knowledge of true religion and to hope for eternal life. As their successors, the bishops seek similar graces: to be holy, virtuous, wise, faithful, fearless, humble, assiduous, patient. Aquinas was not naïve about all this: when St Paul wishes “grace, mercy, and peace” upon the young bishop Timothy the commentator Peter Lombard said bishops only need mercy so they can dispense it to others on God’s behalf; but Aquinas thinks they need mercy because bishops are themselves sinners, and that it is only after they have been sanctified themselves that they can minister well to others, sinner-to-sinner. Sirilla notes that on Aquinas’ account:

Because the bishop is bound by his office to perfect others in charity… he himself ought to have extraordinary fraternal charity… The excelling love he has (or ought to have) for God and his neighbours impels the bishop to work tirelessly so that his subordinates may acquire the supernatural love of God above all else.[2]

So, on St Thomas’ account, bishops must above all be great lovers! Only then will our fraternal correction, reproving and forgiving, safeguarding and judging, hit the mark. And to cultivate such love, Paul suggests, we bishops must pray, intercede and offer thanksgiving for all, while cultivating in ourselves “unfailing patience” (1Tim 2:1-4; 2Tim 4:1-3).

What kind of faith do we ask the Lord to increase in us bishops? Not increase in creedal orthodoxy, or in theological sophistication, though these are important; not renewal of governance structures or multiplication of meetings, though these matter too. Rather, the faith for which we ask is true dependence on God, dependence so complete that were we to command a mulberry tree to leap into the sea it would be God commanding it. Those first bishops needed a trusting faith that would speak to their own anxieties and those of their fellow pastors; a hopeful faith that would point them forward in hard times, when things seemed as impossible as arboreal swimming; a loving faith that would unite them to their priests and people as Christ was united to the Twelve. And so with our predecessors we cry out today: Lord increase our faith!

[1] Brandon Vaidyanathan, Christopher Jacobi and Chelsea Rae Kelly, Well-being, Trust and Policy in a Time of Crisis, reported in Rhina Guidos, “Study of priests shows distrust of bishops, fear of false abuse accusations,” National Catholic Register October 19,2022.

[2] Michael Sirilla, The Ideal Bishop: Aquinas’ Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles (CUA Press, 2017),, The Ideal Bishop, p. 13, citing Aquinas, STh II-II 183-85 and following Noel Molloy, “Hierarchy and holiness: Aquinas on the holiness of the episcopal state,” Thomist 39 (1975) 198-252, at pp. 206-9. Likewise Sirilla, The Ideal Bishop, pp. 15, 40-41, 135-50.