The End of the Imperial Episcopate

by Fr. Jay Scott Newman 

The Empire – in all its forms – is long gone. Christendom is dead. The Church is reeling from grave scandal, and Christians are crying out to heaven for reform and purification. It is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.

After the gospel triumphed in the Roman Empire, the Church gradually acquired forms of life borrowed from imperial organization. Many of those forms still serve us well. But over time some of those forms have ceased to make sense and have become impediments to the evangelical freedom of the Church. I believe this is evident in significant aspects of how bishops now live and exercise their Catholic ministry.

Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms, for example, tend to distance bishops from their priests and people, and also subtly nudge them toward self-important and self-referential ways of thinking and acting. As the recent catastrophic scandals demonstrate, too many bishops have proven unable to act as pastors and evangelists and have instead behaved as managers and bureaucrats. The current crisis in the Catholic Church reveals that the clerical culture in which bishops and priests live is in many ways diseased and deformed, requiring renewal through the fire of divine love and the revealed truth of the Word of God.

Grotesque unchastity is an obvious symptom, but perhaps even more dangerous to the priesthood is the habit of mendacity that hides unchastity and other sinful habits. Superficial flattery and fawning over the person of the bishop can deprive him—unless he has an uncommonly strong and healthy personality—of the evangelical simplicity and candor he needs to fulfill his duties. While deference to the bishop may begin with true reverence for his office, it too often leads to the growth of vanity, ambition, and clerical careerism. And so it is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.

Deep reform will, of course, depend primarily on the bishops themselves, but there are many ways in which priests and lay faithful can assist them. Some of the following suggestions may seem superficial, but taken together I believe they constitute a good place from which to begin the retrieval of the episcopate as an Order in the Church for the preaching of the gospel—rather than as a clerical caste in which narcissism can twist good men into caricatures of prelatial pomposity. Therefore, I suggest the following simple reforms.

“In Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel,” wrote Saint Paul to the Corinthians, and from antiquity bishops and priests alike were called “Father.” The bishops of all the ecumenical councils are known as the Council Fathers, the early bishop-theologians are called the Fathers of the Church, and to this day the Bishop of Rome has Father as his formal and everyday title. It is time to restore the practice of calling all bishops Father, while letting all the other titles slip into history along with ostrich feathers and buskins. The titles Your Eminence, Your Excellency, My Lord, Your Grace, or Monsignor do not come from the gospel, the sacrament of Holy Orders, or the pastoral office of bishops. They are echoes of the Imperial Court, now the Papal Court, and they obscure the scriptural and familial nature of the episcopate—both from the bishop himself and from those he serves. The sacred liturgy still refers to the bishop as Father when he is asked to ordain new deacons and priests, and that is what we should call bishops every day. For example: Father Charles Chaput, OFM Cap, is the Archbishop of Philadelphia, and his priests and people should greet him as Father. After all, fathers relate differently to their brothers and children than lords relate to their subjects.

We should encourage bishops to abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black. Like the Eastern Orthodox clergy, let all bishops, priests, and deacons wear the same black cassock, with bishops identifiable by their miters, pectoral crosses, and rings. The glory of the Papal Court is a wonder to behold and can be deeply stirring. Anyone who has ever seen Saint Peter’s Basilica or Square filled with cardinals and bishops in their finery knows that the sight is grand. But what has that spectacle wrought among the men themselves? How does that pageantry serve the gospel now, if it ever did? For the purification of the priesthood and the authentic reform of the Church, everything that is of Imperium rather than Evangelium needs to go.

Every diocesan bishop is known by the title of his See city because it is the place of his cathedra, the apostolic chair from which he teaches the gospel. For this reason, every diocesan bishop should celebrate at least the principal Sunday Mass in his cathedral church every week. This will require ending the common practice of bishops moving around their dioceses on Sunday to celebrate Mass in different parishes. A diocesan bishop is not the pastor of all the parishes in his diocese; each parish has its own proper pastor, a priest appointed by the bishop. Rather, the bishop is the pastor of the entire diocese because he is first the pastor of a particular congregation of Christians in his cathedral church. When bishops move around the diocese on Sunday rather than remain in their cathedrals, they break the practical link and damage the theological link with their deepest identity as a shepherd of souls. If the bishop remains in his cathedral on Sunday, then he will remain rooted in priestly ministry rather than in bureaucratic administration, and he will build a strong pastoral relationship with his congregation that can serve as an example to the priests who serve the other parishes of the diocese. Finally, if the bishop is actually in his cathedral on the Lord’s Day, then not only can he celebrate Mass there, he can also lead the singing of Vespers each Sunday evening and show his priests and people how and why to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the salvation of the world.

Every diocesan bishop should look at each employee in his chancery and ask this question: If this person’s job disappeared, would anyone in our parishes ever know the difference? If not, then why does this job exist? Chancery bureaucracies generally do not serve the mission of our parishes in which most of the Church’s vital work takes place; rather, the main function of chancery staff is to serve the bishop, and from there it is a short path to a larger staff signaling a more important bishop. Of course each diocese must have enough employees to insure that the bishop can exercise all his essential functions of oversight, but we should know which functions are essential and let go of all the rest.

Every diocesan bishop’s most important task is to be pastor of the pastors, and each bishop should know all of his priests personally and intimately. Why is each man a Christian? How and why did he become a priest? What are his joys and sorrows? What are the main obstacles in his life to greater holiness? Is he happy and effective in his ministry? The business of getting to know priests in this way cannot be delegated to vicars. This is at the heart of being a father in Christ Jesus through the gospel, and it is the sacred personal duty of the bishop himself. Knowing his priests and walking with them in the Way of the Cross will also help the bishop appoint the right priests to all ecclesiastical offices and identify the men who are not leading lives of authentic Christian discipleship. This approach to episcopal ministry will also help the bishop cultivate the same kind of relationships with his seminarians; no bishop should ever ordain a stranger to the priesthood.

Currently, not all bishops are the pastors of dioceses, and this must stop. Titular bishops are those given the name of a diocese that no longer exists except as a memory, and so their connection to a real Christian congregation is a juridic fiction. These titular bishops come in two varieties: officials in the Roman Curia, and those who assist diocesan bishops, called auxiliaries. No one but the pope can do anything about the Roman Curia, but surely it is time to ask if a man really needs to be an archbishop to serve as the secretary of the Pontifical Council of Whatever.

As for the auxiliaries, who are by far by the most numerous of the titular bishops, these exist primarily for one reason: to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation in the parishes of large dioceses. I submit that this is a deformation of the episcopate. If a diocese is too large for its proper pastor to serve, perhaps that diocese should be broken into smaller local churches. And even if the bishop cannot personally celebrate Confirmation in each parish, he can teach his people that he is the original minister of that sacrament and is present to the people in the sacred Chrism he consecrates every Holy Week in his cathedral. Then the bishop can delegate to priests the duty of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation without in any way diminishing the essential role of the episcopate in the sacramental life of the Church.

Eliminating auxiliary bishops would also remove a chief temptation to clerical careerism. At present, priests work to become auxiliaries so that later they can become diocesan bishops and eventually be promoted to metropolitan archbishop. But the custom of moving bishops from one diocese to another is deeply contrary to the spousal significance of the bishop’s ring. The bishop who is united to his diocese as the groom is to his bride cannot be a mere functionary; he is a pastor after the heart of Christ, who gave his life for his bride, the Church. And living as a shepherd in precisely that way will be the end of the Imperial Episcopate and a source of deep reform in the Church.

Reprinted with kind permission of the journal  First Things. Pray Tell thanks the author and  First Things editor Matthew Schmitz for reprint permission.

Jay Scott Newman is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston and the pastor of Saint Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina.


  1. Certainly, the present moment can serve as an impetus for valuable and needed reform/rethink in this area, but I think that the proposals are of mixed value. Sometimes, the line between “imperium” and “evangelium” is not as clear as the author would seem to draw. Some might go further, and others less. Take Mass vestments, for example. Or mitres. Or pectorals….

    Or to look at a larger issue: it is a bit of an overstatement to consider auxiliaries solely as Confirmation machines. It possibly is the case in some places, but I know equally of many places where auxiliaries also assist in the governance of (arch)dioceses. While on one hand, formation of new dioceses may seem reasonable, I’m sure the author knows that there are often financial and logistical reasons that mitigate against this. Similarly, especially in modern society, population change can be rapid and there has to be some way to avoid constant splitting and amalgamation of dioceses.

    Similarly, because of the size of my diocese, the bishop ends up being in the cathedral for a good part of the year, and celebrating both daily and Sunday Masses – which is always favourably commented on by visitors. That is a good thing. On the other hand, while I can certainly appreciate the theological point being made about the Bishop being pastor of his cathedral – most people come once a week to their parish church. Of course, it would be wonderful if the mentality changed such that people flocked to big diocesan occasions – but that isn’t going to happen overnight. Sunday visits (or better, staying a day or so prior) is one way in which people will get to meet the bishop, and he be exposed to other demographics. Nothing prevents him (in smaller places, at least) returning to his cathedral for an evening service, whether for Mass, Vespers or something else.

    I’m running out of the word limit, but I think I’ve made my point. FWIW, I have usually always adhered to addressing my bishops as “Father” (“Most Reverend Father” in more formal correspondence) since my seminary days.

  2. I have no disagreements with the author proposes. I would suggest we need to back up the move to make bishops pastors by removing their names from Church property. They would quickly become the servants of Christ and the people of God. Pastors hold no title to the property in the parish, same should be true for bishops. I agree should be selected from the diocese

  3. Thank you. You express well my sentiments. But this is only a beginning- but an important beginning.

  4. I welcome any suggestions that might make it more likely for bishops to live as humble servant leaders. This could be facilitated if bishops chose to wear simple wedding bands as symbols of their being irrevocably joined to the flocks they shepherd. And could they not voluntarily lay their miters aside and be saisfied with being distinguished as shepherds by wearing black skull caps and simple crosses? Let good and faithful bishops be distinguished by their works of service and mercy.

    1. Jack, why not just use the crozier as a bishop…who needs skull caps, unless it is really cold. All the allegory of the miter is really non-nonsensical. The palluim could be worn by all bishops since it originally was a symbol of the shepherd carrying his sheep on his shoulders. It was not some “tie” of archbishops to the bishop of Rome…another late twisting of an ancient tradition. All bishops wore the pallium all the time and not that stingy one in current use. The early palliums were longer and wider. They were like the ones Benedict XVI wore in the early day of his papacy.

  5. The bishops in large cities will always be able to rub elbows with the rich and powerful, will always have their remarks and Holy Day celebrations make the local (even national) news, and will always have power over the priests and faithful under their care. This will be true regardless of how they are addressed or what they wear. The power and influence is what will always attract some people who have abusive personalities and it is what will corrupt others. If anything, putting a humble gloss over it might make it easier to cover up abuse since most people want leaders who seem humble and folksy.

    What I’d like to see is more accountability and a system set in place that will actually prevent the abuse of power from continuing to happen.

  6. Good article and helpful suggestions. I hope many take them on board.

    I particularly liked your point about ending the practice of having Auxiliary Bishops (why is it that a local Priest cannot confirm someone? Where is that in the Bible?), and about Bishops having a Congregation in their Cathedrals. That would also strip away some of the hierarchy in terms of ‘Cathedral Deans’ etc. (though I have nothing against them personally), and could get more ministers doing grassroots ministry and (hopefully) mission!

    One critical point, which is perhaps just semantics, but also perhaps important?

    Matthew 23:9 says: “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” So, in calling a Bishop a ‘father …’ it would seem the church has deviated from following Jesus’ instructions. When Paul called himself a ‘father’ of churches in the NT, it seems to me that this was a functional descriptions of his role as the one who led them to Christ and planted the churches of which they were now members.

    He was their ‘spiritual father’, so to speak, as they were not ‘around’ before him, but are born again and in community because of his ministry. I do not think he meant this to be a title. I imagine he would have been happy to be called by his name. Seems a lot more humble way of doing things. If we really do need a more specific title or reference for Bishops other than that, then ‘Overseer’ would probably be an accurate and helpful one.

    Thanks again for the thoughts. Encouraging to see people like you calling for honest reforms to questionable traditions. I hope your voice is heard, and your points actioned! Well done.

  7. Discussions of vesture are a sign that distractions have distracted us. I would love to see very hard evidence of how vesture is a proximate cause of the abuse and mafia prelatial/chancery culture. I’ve certainly met more than my share of imperious hip or I’m-down-with-the-people clerics (and of course those who would probably prefer purple piping, cappae magnae and precious mitres if they could get their greedy hands on them, too); indeed, classic grooming behaviors include the get-down-with-the-family approach of “uncle” clerics. I doubt we will find material solutions in considerations of vesture, but would be happy to be proven wrong.

    Rather, if one wants to de-imperialize the prelature and clerisy:

    1. Replace the current seminary formation model;
    2. Change how pastors are appointed and serve.
    3. Gut the current episcopal nomination and appointment system, which is less than 200 years old, and does not require any change to doctrine. This is where I believe Pope Francis has had a signal failure to take an opportunity, and he’s still failing.
    4. Create effective and accountable synodal governance at the provincial, national and supranational level.
    5. Inclusion of laity in all of the above.
    6. Institute remorseless independent non-financial auditing that is published.

    I would welcome married priests, but understand they are far from a panacea and would involve much greater practical change on the ground for the faithful than most people realize – that is, most people underestimate the practical effects of celibacy of priests on the experience of the faithful. I think that conversation is even more complex than the six illustrative points above (and, as a practical if not doctrinal matter, the ordination of celibate women would be simpler in terms of practical effects).

    1. I don’t think changes in vesture (or titles) will solve this by themselves. But I definitely think it is part of the solution. Symbols both express and cause – this I believe firmly. I think it is appropriate to think hard about reforms that would change the symbols (vesture, titles, etc) so that they both reflect what we believe and help reinforce what we believe.

      1. Father, most bishops or abbots who want to have fancy, extremely expensive vestments, miters, croziers and such are making a statement. The statement is “Not only am I more important that you are but I am more privileged that you are. I rule over you”. This can lead to hierarchs to think they are above the law and the lower clergy and laity are subservient. This also can allow bishops to think they can control and use people. Maybe not always but often. Simple vestments can often, but not always denote a shepherd-servant mentality.

  8. I’m struggling to understand what is wrong with a bishop visiting the parishes of his diocese on a Sunday. The reality is that this is the only time that the majority of people are at mass, which means that if the bishop confines his visits to weekdays, he will not have the opportunity to meet them. And if the bishop is to be the pastor of his pastors (as he should be), what better time is there for him to nurture that relationship than at the weekend? And whilst it may be nice for him to preside at Vespers in his cathedral because of the availability of choral resources, it would surely be better for him to promote the singing of the Liturgy of the Hours in his parishes?

  9. I wonder if bishops have not become more ‘imperial’ (or ‘chief-executive’?) in the last decades – not only because they can be more present via the media, but also because of a weakening of the employment rights of priests. In Germany, it becomes increasingly common to appoint priests not as rectors but as parish administrators so that they can be moved at every whim of the bishop – in the old days a rector could only be moved against this will after being deposed from his old parish in a canonical trial.

    I fully agree about what is said on bureaucracy – I once calculated that one of the major German archdioceses had more people employed in its administrative headquarters than priests had been ordained for it since the 1960s.

    However, the bishop is not the parish priest of the Cathedral – many Cathedrals in Europe were never parish churches in the past and some have no parishes to this day. In large parts of Europe it is also the chapter, not the bishop, who is in charge of the cathedral.

  10. I like the idea of making Bishops the “first amongst equals” (Primus Inter Parus) of the clergy. Yes they do dress like their priests, but sadly it is only when they’re wearing the clerical shirt and suit.

    As for eliminating Auxiliary Bishops, it should only be done for the Suffragan Dioceses within the province: Metropolitan Archbishops should be able to retain at least two as the metropolitan see usually the home of a seminary (thus one Auxiliary Bishop would be Rector of that seminary), while the other Auxiliary Bishop should carry out parish visitations for the Archbishop. Also, the practice of electing Co-Adjutor Bishops need to be brought back, and made mandatory, when the Ordinary turns 75 (no more retirements; Bishops are elected to the Diocese for LIFE).

    And yes, more diocese need to be erected (between 30 to 50 parishes in urban areas; 50 to 100 in rural areas; Metropolitan Archbishops being confined to the “corporate boundaries” of the city their cathedral is located) and the Auxiliary Bishops need to be made Ordinaries. Even in the Church of England, when an Ordinary or a Suffragan steps down, either they retire or return to parish ministry; only their honorific (“Right Reverend”) is the only indication of their consecration to the episcopacy.

  11. When I think of bishops parading about in full regalia, I think of Ven. Fulton Sheen.

    When I think of the bishops most implicated in this scandal, I think of men rarely ever given to wearing most of that to which their office entitles them.

    A show of humility is not humility. We’ve already gotten the show. Now let’s get humble shepherds who wear and understand the purple, or indeed the scarlet, as the heavy burden that it is.

    If anything, we needed throughout this crisis bishops who were *conscious* of their power, their authority, and willing to use it to protect the vulnerable and depose the predators.

    If we tell the old boys club to wear black, they will wear black, and pat themselves on the back for their great progress and bold reform-minded steps.

    If we content ourselves only with personal holiness and integrity on the part of our bishops, and laugh off attempts to feign humility, contrition, and reform by stripping the lofty office of bishops itself, rather than the guilty men, of its dignities, we will, I think, be on a truer path, and make their feet squirm a little more fitfully.

  12. Fr. Newman’s critique of titular bishops of various sorts echoes that of Louis Boyer in his contribution to “Bishops, but what kind?”, but Fr. Newman is rather more measured in his choice of words than the late Oratorian, who never failed to call a spade a bloody shovel. I agree with both of them on this point: the continued existence of titular bishops, in all their forms, is wrong, theologically and pastorally.

    However, I would like to take issue with this assertion: “Rather, the bishop is the pastor of the entire diocese because he is first the pastor of a particular congregation of Christians in his cathedral church.”

    I’m not sure this is theologically or historically correct. There were bishops and “particular Churches” (dioceses) before there were cathedrals. And the single episcopal Sunday Eucharist bringing together the entire local Church may well be the product of wishful thinking on the part of liturgists. Ramsay MacMullen’s “The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400” may not have disproved the theory, but has certainly cast serious and founded doubts on it.

    Besides which there is the case of Rome, which didn’t have a cathedral throughout the whole of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (and in my own opinion, St. John Lateran is still only improperly so called). Rather, the stational system had the pope move about the “tituli” (quasi-parish churches) and the pilgrimage and baptismal basilicas, all of which were equipped with a… cathedra (except for St. Peter’s, which still doesn’t have one, at least that the pope can sit on). So the pope celebrated in Santa Sabina on Ash Wednesday (and he still does), in the Lateran basilica on Maundy Thursday, at Santa Croce on Good Friday, in the Lateran again for the Easter Vigil, and at St. Mary Major on Easter Sunday. I think John Baldovin says somewhere in his study of stational liturgy (I don’t have it to hand, so I can’t check) that this type of celebration transforms the city into a sort of vast, mobile cathedral. Why shouldn’t a bishop celebrating in the various churches of his diocese be seen this way? During the aftermath of the riots of 387 during which the statues of Emperor Theodosius and his family were toppled by rebels in Antioch, the priest John Chrysostom said, in his Homily 15 on the Statues, “turn where we will there are supplications, and thanksgivings, and tears, instead of rude laughter; there are words of sound wisdom instead of obscene language, and our whole city has become a Church, the workshops being closed, and all being engaged throughout the day in these general prayers; and calling upon God in one united voice with much earnestness. What preaching, what admonition, what counsel, what length of time had ever availed to accomplish these things?” (PG 49, c. 155, translation New Advent website). That the city become a church, an anticipation and a foretaste of the new Jerusalem: isn’t this what liturgy is supposed to be?

  13. As intriguing as some of these suggestions are, I’m at a loss as to how they address the fundamental causes of clergy sexual abuse and its coverup, which IMHO should be the focus of all such proposals for [needed] Church reform.

    I have a hard time believing, for example, that further confining a bishop to the already privileged parish boundaries of his cathedral, at the expense of those on the literal “peripheries,” would encourage more transparency. This would also effectively create an extra layer of diocesan bureaucracy, since the bishops office would return to being almost purely administrative (“pastor of the pastors”), which I think most would consider an unwanted regression into preconcilliar practice.

    Who ever said that the ideal number of parishes in a diocese is ~50? Big metropolitan dioceses exist because economies of scale work. Plus, carving up dioceses is expensive and risky, since demographic trends can reverse themselves quickly and unexpectedly. Look only to the Canadian frontier where many rural dioceses that were carved up in the last century are now having to remerge.

    This whole discussion is a necessary one, but I propose we focus our hypothetical solutions to address the real problems that led to this present crisis, such as inadequate channels of accountability and managerial negligence. Otherwise this exercise risks devolving into just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic (to borrow that old tired expression).

  14. Bishop Grafton long ago observed that Roman bishops are really only agents of the papal government, and admonished them to act like true bishops. All well and good for someone who liked to use extravagant Roman ceremonial and was quite fond of lace, as it were.

    I mention this because, as I see it, the bishops were simply acting to promote “la bella figura” ethos favored by the papal mentality. Wasn’t there a secret document sent out by Cardinal Ottaviani back in the early sixties enjoining this attitude? The bishops are to be blamed, but so too, even to a greater degree, must the Roman authorities.

    I wonder if this horrid situation in Pennsylvania could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, indeed the beginning of a change in ethos in the direction of Vatican II goals; thus fulfilling the hopes of Bishop Grafton although he’d be most distressed by the abandonment of lace, ermine and precious mitres.

  15. As a Canadian, the only person in Canada I would address as ‘Your Excellency’ is the Governor General. No other Canadian has the right to that title.

    1. Hear, Hear. In England RC Bishops used to like being addressed as ‘My Lord’ – a title to which in law they have no right. I’d restore the Ecclesiastical titles act.


      1. Ah, the Ecclesiastical Titles Act, that now all-but-forgotten response to the ‘Papal Aggression’ of 1850 and Cardinal Wiseman’s absurdly over-the-top pastoral letter ‘From out the Flaminian Gate of Rome’!

  16. Some of Fr Newman’s suggestions have already been in place here and there. Mostly by bishops who would not be looked upon favorably by the writers and readers of First Things.

    I think Liam’s comments are helpful. I think the time has come to abolish seminaries. When a candidate is thirty or more years old, it might be time for a prospective priest to leave secular career for a life in a parish under the tutelage of lay ministers and a respected pastor. Ten years of part-time graduate school, service in the parish, and perhaps a tour or two in a mission frontier in or beyond the diocese.

    The suggestions for diocesan employees has a vindictive ring to it. Even if they were priests. It’s not like the Church doesn’t have loads of work to accomplish. I’m deeply suspicious of priests who think they can improve things by firing staff.

    Put Confirmation on the pastor’s agenda each year so it can be celebrated at a community’s convenience, maybe even on Sunday.

    I don’t have a problem with a bishop making rounds to the parishes. You hear that from more of the progressive bishops of the last century. It sure beats hanging out in airports or jetting to Rome a few times a year. One bishop I knew insisted his name be added to the list of sacramental priests to supply mostly rural parishes and other churches when his priests needed a vacation. Daily Mass at the cathedral couldn’t hurt either.

    I can imagine a bishop might have some degree of culpability in the current scandals that would fall short of requiring his laicization or early exit from active ministry. In such cases, I think it would be appropriate for him to be barred from wearing liturgical vesture other than a stole–no chasuble, and certainly no mitre or crozier. A cross could be worn within a shirt. And in public, a ban on wearing clerical clothing of any kind.

    Until bishops are more faithful to the diocese for which they are ordained, I think the episcopal ring can be done away with. In fact, I’d say the only bishop authorized to wear a ring would be when he is serving in his see of first assignment.

    1. I’m not sure turning diocesan priestly formation into that of the Jesuits is the way to go. Not only would this arbitrarily delay all ordinations until at least age 40 (severely limiting a priests’ years in ministry), but this idea seems to rest on a dubious assumption that one can’t accurately discern a priestly vocation in general until they make a significant effort to try all other options first. Many priests knew their vocation from a young age, and it’s nothing but a gift that they can give most of their life to priestly service. I don’t think I know a single vocations director who would advocate this concept, or turning an already lengthy 5-6 year program into a 10 year part-time commitment (nor do I know any Jesuit who thinks their model should be copied en masse).

      As for delinquent bishops, I don’t think the usage of priestly vestments should be turned into a badge of honor/shame since they represent the office, not the person. If a bishop has done something horrendous enough so as to disgrace that office, he should be fired and stripped of public ministry, let alone permission to wear ANY vestments in public.

      1. I think experience in the secular world and as a disciple in the Church is an adequate prerequisite for a priest. A bishop could certainly make an exception for an exceptionally gifted candidate. As it is, the current system short-cuts the careers of potential priests who have married relatively early and later develop the maturity to serve well. The current system is far more of a handicap for both individuals and the Church.

        Perhaps vocation directors are part of the problem we’re seeing. Better to put lay people in charge from the start, and leave other clergy to the role of mentors and spiritual directors.

      2. Count me as skeptical that a layperson would do a better job of facilitating priestly vocations than an actual priest (having been through this process myself). Not to argue for clericalism, but the role of vocations director requires a great deal of experiential wisdom in what they are being asked to promote, that which us layfolk would almost never have. Laypeople can excel in many chancery level jobs but let’s face it, some roles are just better done by priests (with a certain level lay accountability of course).

      3. Lay people: plural.

        A discernment for those who work with a candidate, not an administrator. Include priests as a minority representation on a review board, certainly. I might agree that the role of vocations discernment requires that “great deal of experiential wisdom,” but wisdom does not seat herself exclusively among the clergy.

        We’ve been given an opportunity to put significant dings in clericalism. Frankly, I don’t think we can trust all the bishops to do the job for us. And since over 90% of a priest’s life and service is with and among lay people, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the work to be in the hands of a cleric-director and usually one or two part-time assistants.

      4. Having served as a visiting tutor at most of the diocesan seminaries in the UK over the years, as a lay member of the faculty of a large seminary in the US, and as a lay member of a diocesan seminarians discernment and support group in the UK, and thereby coming into frequent contact with seminarians and the finer details of their lives and their formation, I can assure Patrick Freese that lay people are much better placed than clergy, and especially than priest vocations directors, to discern exactly what is going on with the seminarians. This is precisely because we are not products of the system and so are not blind to its shortcomings, and because seminarians relate to those who are not ordained in a noticeably different way from the way in which they relate to priests.

        I can cite many instances where we lay people, men and women, together with religious sisters, recommended — often quite strongly — that ordination should be delayed or simply abandoned, only to see, not much further down the road, recently-ordained priests leaving the ministry, or being suspended, or running into significant problems in dealing with parishioners, because of ongoing problems that had not been resolved. All we could say was “We told you so”. The lay people and religious sisters that I have worked alongside in this work of seminarian support have certainly possessed far greater wisdom than many of the clerical gentlemen who were also engaged in the same work.

  17. Sounds pretty Protestant. The Holy Roman Catholic Church is the last Imperial Roman institution and the hierarchy is inseparable from it.

    1. As I read the proposal is to preserve and reform the hierarchy by separating it from its imperial Roman aspects. There is nothing in Catholic teaching to prevent this, and there is nothing in Catholic doctrine that says the hierarchy should function along the lines of imperial Rome. The hierarchy did not function in this way in the centuries before Constantine.

      We have to think clearly about what is of divine origin, what is a mandate of the Gospel, and what is a manner of inculturation which came later, is of human origin, and may or may not be helpful anymore.

      Such clear thinking would prevent us from calling the reform proposals “Protestant” – unless one thinks that the church was Protestant for several centuries before it gradually started to be Catholic.

      Finally, in light of the teachings of the magisterium at the Second Vatican Council, it should no longer be our practice to dismiss something as “Protestant,” as if that equals “bad” and “not Catholic.” Rather, we Catholics should discern whether or not something that Protestants have done should also be done by us in light of OUR teachings and OUR efforts to live out the Gospel. Martin Luther introduced vernacular worship, communion under both forms, preaching based on Scriptures – and so did Vatican II. These aren’t Protestant (bad) things – but things Protestants did which we’ve also come to do in order to be truer to ourselves.


    2. … and as others have said here, the symbols and garb used by clerics are symbolic of the power and grace of their office, not of themselves as individuals. Those men who cannot live up to that office, should be stripped, sure… but stripping every priest and bishop of these symbols won’t solve anything.
      Is anyone going to mention the fact that there actually IS a very sick homosexual subculture in the Church? That it must be addressed?

      1. Good leadership is about making symbolic actions. I might suggest that if a diocese such as Boston suffers grave scandal, then its status as a metropolitan be turned over to another diocese, that its automatic seat in the college of cardinals be assigned elsewhere, that the use of episcopal symbols be suspended at liturgy: black yarmulke, no mitre, a crozier be simple wood, and used only for diocesan functions.

        Good observation about gays. Now move on to the while of the problem. Two other observations about that tack:

        1. Some of the people most vocal about gays are themselves closeted in their sexual lives.

        2. Turning the scandal into a gay problem conveniently sidelines the twenty-percent-plus victims who are female. We also have a sick misogynist culture in the Church, and that needs to be addressed as well.

  18. I’m curious about the black and white picture PrayTell used for this article. Should I know who those bishops are? Are they complicit in the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Church today or did they otherwise abuse their power? Otherwise, I wonder why an old picture that doesn’t represent the current episcopate nor how they typically dress was used. It implies that this scandal is some long-ago far-off affair, or more the fault of people once-upon-a-time rather than something we need to deal with and come to terms with NOW. The header picture from First Things was better.

  19. I actually start wondering if the generation of bishops under whom the scandals developed can be justly called ‘imperial’. Is it not rather bishops acting like managers or politicians.

  20. Although I sympathize with some of his argument, it seems dangerously close to the reductionistic “let’s all pretend to be poor!” vision you get from post-Vatican II and Pope Francis types, and the “let’s bash on the cappa magna” that confuses signs of honor to Christ with personal vanity. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is absolutely lavish with their liturgical vestments, signs of honor, and trappings of office, but this does not automatically mean that their hierarches are ambitious, vain, self-absorbed, or bureaucratic. I have known and worked with bishops who dressed plainly but seemed like people with a lot of problems, and with other bishops who dressed according to their station but were exemplary in their kindness, humility, and care. It’s just not as simple as the author presents it.

    1. I’d observe it is some bishops who confuse signs to honor Christ with personal vanity. I’d agree that it takes all sorts to make an episcopacy. It’s not about “pretending” to be poor, but to make an appropriate set of symbolic gestures that show penitence, a willingness for conversion and reform, and the beginning of a concerted effort of selflessness: placing others before themselves.

  21. Quite right, Robert Addington (above). The Act echoes the Articles of Religion of the Church of England (see the Book of Common Prayer) which state that ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no authority in this realm of England.’ Great stuff.


    1. The Ecclesiastical Titles Act was a dead letter from the start. There were no prosecutions and the Act was repealed in 1871, but Roman Catholic ecclesiastical titles are still not legally recognized in England. If you leave money in your will to the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nichols (or his successor), won’t get it because there is no such person in law.


  22. A good article, which doesn’t necessarily need the scandal as reason for its presentation. This sort of hierarchical downsizing has been the way to go for centuries. We just have not chosen the way. The pope received a lot of flack for the simplification of his papacy’s appurtenances. The shepherd is getting too close? Is it uncomfortable?
    Clerical imperialism is nearly dead. Indeed! It serves no good purpose. Does nothing to indicate the Reign of God that Christ lived and died for. It will take time to die. It has been around since Constantine. It is way past time for bishops to look and live like the apostles they claim to be their predecessors. Show some apostolic courage and leadership in these trying, challenging times. Don’t be sitting around, squabbling about who washes the vessels after Mass.

    1. “Don’t be sitting around, squabbling about who washes the vessels after Mass.”

      Exactly. Get rid of the unneeded extras. Let’s get back to propriety. Priestly character.
      Laypeople need to stop squabbling about taking the priest’s role after communion. Let him do the jobs that he is uniquely qualified to perform, and then let him walk home in his simple black cassock.
      We are now in a time of sackcloth and ashes.

      1. Propriety is not a gospel value. And with this scandal we are a long way from propriety, even if it were. Lay people cleansing the vessels is not a major problem in the Church. Like the Pharisees, we strain the gnat and swallow the camel. Directives are put out on trivial matters, and nothing is done about the elephant in the room. I hope the November meeting changes that.

  23. For the curious, I am certain that the bishop in the center of the picture is Karl Alter, at first bishop of Toledo, then archbishop of Cincinnati. The one to the right is John McNicholas, O.P., his predecessor as archbishop of Cincinnati. Given everyone’s age and the vestments, I would not be surprised if this were not Alter’s installation as bishop in Toledo. I have no clue who the one to the left is.

  24. From the Catholic Architecture and History of Toledo Blog an FYI on the photo:

    From left to right: Joseph Henry Albers, Auxiliary Bishop of Cincinnati and, later, Bishop of Lansing, Michigan; Karl Alter, Bishop of Toledo; and John Timothy McNicholas, Archbishop of Cincinnati.
    If they don’t look very festive, they had good cause. The Depression was in full swing and that was the day every bank in the country was ordered to close.
    The picture was taken in front of St. Francis de Sales, Downtown,then the cathedral of the diocese.
    From the 1950 history of Immaculate Conception Parish.

  25. The photo probably shows the consecration of a bishop – the main consecrator and the new bishop are in full Mass vestments, the co-consecrators (only one of two shown) in cope.

    1. I suspect it’s more a matter of the photography. Even S. Percy looks a bit worse for wear in his photographs although they are a bit older.

  26. No, you aren’t alone. I think prelates usually looked scruffy in those days because their robes and vestments were so hard to maintain. But nobody has yet observed that the negative was reversed. Maybe that’s a sign that the imperial episcopate is fading.

  27. Don’t forget, that in one hundred years someone is going to post photos of your bishops today, and will judge them, through those photos, on much more than whether they had on cappa magni and lace or post VII polyester albs and chasubles with tacky appliques.

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