COMMENTARY: Even Jesus would have a hard time becoming a bishop

Print More

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ In an era when the human psyche is shaped by repeated free choices, church organizations need credible leaders. By that I mean they need leaders who emulate the teachings of Jesus _ leaders who win respect by their openness, by their kindness and by their strength of character.

Churches do not need leaders who presume that a position of authority automatically gives them credibility and respectability. A leader in this age, dealing as she or he must with free agents, must not expect that an order or an authoritative teaching will automatically win consent.

For weal or woe, such things are no longer possible. Religious leaders, like any good teachers in the contemporary world, are effective only if they are willing to listen, take into account what is said, and undertake the difficult work of persuasion.

It seems to me that recent appointments to the Catholic hierarchy fail on all these criteria. More often than not, new bishops and archbishops strike me as authoritarian and insensitive; few inspire respect. Small wonder that the laity and the clergy pay them little heed.

I am not alone. One Chicago priest, imagining an unsatisfactory successor the the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, put it this way:”If he doesn’t like the way I run my parish, I’ll turn the keys over to him and let him worry about it.” This kind of passive aggression is a far cry from the awe and fear a prelate once inspired in his priests and people.

Pope John Paul II clearly believes that laity and clergy should submit to him in blind obedience, just as Catholics did in Poland when he was an archbishop there. One may question whether Polish Catholics were totally submissive to church authority 20 years ago _ or only appeared to be. Clearly, there is no blind obedience any more, in Poland or anywhere else in the Catholic world.

There are those who yearn for the time when people instantly obeyed their religious leaders. Others argue that men and women shaped by a life of continuous free choice are more adult, more mature, more fully human than those who did what they were told. But few would argue that we all need moral guidance _ and the challenge for religious leaders is to be a credible source. It is no easy task.

Recently the pope announced that birth control turns men and women into sexual libertines. This is a harsh judgment on Catholic couples in Europe and North America, most of whom do use artificial means of birth control. Such statements threaten to erode the church’s moral authority.

Recent studies have shown that most Catholic couples are faithful to their spouses, most are hardly reckless or abandoned or without inhibition in their sexual lives. They would certainly contest the pope’s contention that they have become sexual libertines.

Rather, they would argue that they know from personal experience what the pope does not seem to comprehend: marital sex is essential to magnify the joys and heal the hurts of common life. But the pope, having made up his mind on the subject, is not disposed to listen.

You don’t win people over by denouncing them _ not today, probably not ever. You win them over by listening, by understanding, by trying to persuade. But somehow that approach is seen as weakening authority, when in fact it enhances it.

This conciliatory approach to human life is, after all, what Jesus taught. But given the repressive state of the Roman Catholic Church today, even Jesus would have a hard time becoming a bishop.


Comments are closed.