I'm always surprised when people tell me they have left the Catholic Church because of something a priest or a nun--or these days a lay minister--has done to them, or because of something the bishop or the pope has said. They usually announce the fact of their departure with an air of confidence that suggests, well, they've shown the person who offended them what's what. In truth, the offending figure is likely either not to know or give a hoot about whether you've left. All you've done is let another human being, arguably an idiot, deprive you of your religious heritage. Not a good idea.

Catholicism has no sacred persons. Or perhaps to put it more precisely, everyone is a sacred person in the eyes of the Catholic Church, because everyone is capable of reflecting God's beauty and love. You do not attain an extra dimension of significance before God because you are a priest or a bishop or a mother superior or even the pope. Rather, each role has an important, indeed a critical, function, but the function does not automatically bestow holiness, much less sacredness.

Let us take, for instance, the bishop. His special function is to preserve by word and deed the tradition that Jesus gave to his apostles. He must speak for the universal church to the local church and from the local church to the universal church. He must vindicate the laity's right to the sacraments against those who would deprive them of that right, as when priests refuse to marry couples who have been living together. These are critically important functions. But they do not make a bishop any better or any more intelligent or any more skilled an administrator than any other human being. In fact, some bishops clearly do not do a good job even at those tasks that are critical to those core functions I just described.

Fancy vestments, fancy titles, a claim to be a successor to the apostles, do not the sacred person make. Some bishops rather enjoy the vestments and the titles and the docile servility of their clergy and even some (though an ever-decreasing number) of their laity. They think, as a cardinal once quipped, that even God addresses them as "Your Eminence" or "Your Excellency." They forget that Jesus said, "I do not call you servants, I call you friends," and that they should imitate him in the way they behave toward their own congregants.

Nor should the title "successor of the apostles" give the bishops much cause for complacency or arrogance. Many prelates seem to forget that the apostles were a flock of mostly illiterate peasants and fishermen. Generally speaking, they were timeservers, poltroons, liars, and thieves. Jesus chose such men, presumably, to show that he didn't need well-educated geniuses to do his work, but very ordinary and in some ways not very admirable men.

I see no evidence that the quality of the successors of the apostles has improved over that of the original bunch. There are some wonderful men wearing the episcopal purple and the cardinal crimson. There are also some who give the impression that they can barely read and write. Some are so dumb that even other bishops notice and remark upon it, if only off the record.

If one dares to say those things aloud and on the record, one is dismissed as a "bishop basher." How dare you say that about your bishop? The person who asks that question must think that the current crop of bishops is somehow better than the original apostolic college.

My own archbishop, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, is a brilliant, gracious, and charming man who knows how to apologize--as he did to a black boy in 1997 who had been beaten by white youths from a local Catholic school. We're lucky here. Some dioceses in this country aren't so fortunate. If you got stuck with a loser in the lottery (and there are a lot of them out there), you have the right to complain all you want and even to think that someone let you down. Your bishop, however, is not God, though he may sometimes act as though he thinks he is. Nor is he an angel, even if he is more pompous than any angel would dare to be. Much less is he a genius, though he might think so.

He is instead a very limited human being in a church made up of very limited human beings. Human beings like Jesus' apostles. Human beings like you.

Ignore your bishop, or laugh at him. Carp about him all you like. But don't let him--or any other cleric or layperson--take away your Catholic faith, which is yours by right just as much as it is his.

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