The relation of Christ and the Church is often expressed in nuptial terms. Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is his Bride. By extension, the bishop (who acts in the person of Christ) and his flock have a spousal, familial relationship. The bishop’s ring symbolizes his “marriage” to the local Church. Moreover, the bishop typically wears a pectoral cross, not a crucifix. There is no corpus on his cross because the bishop himself is to be the corpus, laying down his life for his bride in imitation of our Savior (John 15:13; Eph. 5:25).
Spousal, covenantal relationships do not involve a quid pro quo. My fidelity to my marriage covenant is not dependant on my wife’s fidelity. I don’t assess my wife’s performance each day in order to decide whether she deserves my love. Rather, my commitment—and hers—must be total and unconditional.
This principle also applies to our relationship with bishops. And it should be noted that bishops’ obligations are weightier than our own. Yet the bishop may never say, “These people are a pain in the neck and oppose me at every turn; I will not love and serve them.” He will be judged ultimately on his fidelity to Christ played out through the exercise of his episcopal ministry, not on the fidelity of his flock.
Similarly, we have a duty of docile reverence toward our bishops as our spiritual fathers. This duty flows from the fourth commandment.
Of course, we must not accept error, but with patience, fortitude, and charity we must always preserve unity in our pursuit of Christ’s truth.
Taking needed corrective action with respect to one of our shepherds is not a cause for rejoicing or something to be publicly proclaimed so that we can take “credit” for being some sort of orthodox gunslinger. Rather, like Noah’s righteous sons who covered their father’s nakedness notwithstanding his drunkenness, we should take appropriate action while remaining very conscious of the harm caused by publicly airing our grievances against our spiritual fathers.
If my own father were to do something untoward, it would be wrong for me to ignore it or to cover it up for him so that he can get away with it again. But it would also be wrong, and indeed a violation of the fourth commandment, to treat him as anything less than my father and to lead the charge in publicly disgracing him.
The foregoing is an excerpt from my article entitled “How to Talk to (and about) a Bishop,” which appeared in the January issue of This Rock magazine. Here’s a link to the entire article: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2007/0701fea2.asp
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