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Philippa Martyr: We don’t want bishops made in our own image, do we?

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Pope Francis concelebrates the Mass with fellow bishops in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 23 September 2021. Photo: CNS, Cristian Gennari, pool

Last week’s column on how the Catholics in Australia survey participants rated the Australian bishops’ leadership touched a nerve.

The Catholic Weekly’s Facebook page got rather animated. Some people think the data vindicates their view that the Church’s whole structure needs overhauling.

Other people think it vindicates their view about the fallout from Vatican II (not in a good way).  But looking at data can be like looking at clouds – people see what they want to see.

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As I said last week, rating a bishop’s leadership is different from rating him personally. But you can still sum up how you think he’s leading the local church.

According to Vatican II, bishops have three jobs: to teach doctrine, to lead sacred worship as a priest, and to minister to us through governing the church.

But when you rate your bishop’s leadership, you might just choose just one of these, and base your rating of “good”, “reasonable”, or “poor” on this.

Very few of my participants chose the “reasonable” option. Most of them chose either “good” or “poor”.

So let’s look at the comments section of the survey and see if we can find any clues about why. This section came just after the questions on bishops, so we might be in luck.

The good news is that 701 participants who rated the bishops also left written comments about a whole range of other very diverse issues. Some people offered me their phone numbers, or accused me of being a spokesperson for Q-Anon.

But there were also comments about bishops and church leadership – just over 50 of them. A handful of people said that we shouldn’t comment on this topic at all.

“Who are we to criticise our shepherds?” asked one. Another told me that “The ‘rating’ of Pope Francis shows that you are part of the church that is against his leadership.”

However, most people didn’t suffer from the same hesitancy, and were happy to let rip.

“Bishops must be more politically involved”, said someone who rated both the Australian bishops and their own’s leadership as “poor”.

But others complained about how the bishops acted during the COVID-19 lockdowns and told them to butt out of politics unless they were willing to excommunicate Dan Andrews.

There were multiple complaints about bishops covering up sexual abuse, manipulating the Plenary Council agenda, and being in the pocket of the late Cardinal Pell, Opus Dei, and traditionalists.

This would have come as a surprise to the traditionalists, who said that they were shut out by weak and “uncontactable” local bishops. They also complained that the bishops appeased the political left and didn’t show enough leadership in liturgy, moral teaching, and life issues.

Some tried to tread a middle path, and provided examples of what they thought was good and bad leadership by individual bishops. But one respondent simply said I should have included a “very poor” option, because “poor” didn’t cut it.

This is just a first pass over the data, and I haven’t matched it to age groups or genders yet. But it gives you an idea of the polarisation in the Australian church – in case you missed it during the Plenary Council.

Almost none of these comments had anything good to say about the Australian bishops collectively. Some said a few good things about specific named bishops and dioceses.

However, these same dioceses and bishops were harshly criticised by others who saw them as either bastions of the dark ages or havens of grotesque liberalism.

It brings home just how hard it is to be a bishop because you quite literally can’t please anyone. So maybe it’s better not to try – and just stick with teaching doctrine, leading priestly worship, and governing the church.

I never thought I’d start to feel sorry for our bishops, but after reading these comments, I did. It reminds me all over again that anyone who wants to be a bishop is already unsuitable for the job, because there’s clearly something wrong with him.

And as for involving lay people in choosing them – if you had to choose a bishop, which of the people above would you listen to? And why?

In-group bias doesn’t only apply when you’re rating a bishop – it would definitely apply if you were helping to choose one for your diocese. You’d choose a bishop in your own image and likeness.

Probably the one thing we can all agree on is that our bishops need a lot of prayers. So maybe let’s leave it at that.

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