7 April 2016

"Bishops' Conferences" and Dom Gregory Dix.

The great Anglican Benedictine Church Historian Dom Gregory Dix wrote (in 1946) about episcopacy in the fourth century; and, of course, things may have changed a bit since then. But it seems to me that there is something quite fresh and thought-provoking about the following passage.

Dix has been writing about the old notion of the Bishop as the 'man of his own Church' and the damage done to this idea by the careerist notion of 'promoting' bishops by translation. He goes on:
"In the West, translation was still rare down to the eleventh century. But what proved far more unsettling to the old system was the new habit of holding frequent episcopal councils. The pre-Nicene bishop had had to decide his policy chiefly in conjunction with his own Church. He had been obliged to pay heed to his own council of presbyters, still in many ways the governing college under his presidency, and to take into account local wishes and the 'tradition' of his own Church. If he went to a council, he went to it to represent his Church and to voice its mind in deliberation with other Churches. In the fourth century this is altered. The bishop now decides policy not at home but away from home, in a gathering where the final decision rests with him and his brother bishops only. Councils assume the right of intervening in the self-administration of local Churches, and of over-riding local wishes and decisions. The bishop in synod no longer represents his own Church in the conference of a number of independent societies. Instead he represents the external controlling authority of the synod to his own Church; he is becoming the local representative of an ubiquitous organisation of government rather than the fount and centre of spiritual life in a local society ... The mediocrity of the Christian leadership ... is striking in all the records. The fact is that the new system promoted administrators rather than leaders. And there can be little doubt that it was the new irresponsibility of bishops towards their flocks which made possible the interminable distraction of the Church from her urgent missionary task by the long-drawn-out Arian struggle. The government and the bishops open to its influence were Arians or Arianising; the bulk of the lower clergy and laity were steadily orthodox, but had no real say in the innumerable councils of the time. Taking them by and large the bishops of this period are an unlovely lot, venal, unscrupulous, and intriguing ... there was probably much truth in the remark of Nazianzene, himself a Bishop, that he had never known a synod of bishops end in any good, nor one that did not increase mischiefs rather than ending them."

This reads to me very much like Blessed John Henry's survey of the same period! And I think Cardinal Ratzinger may have read those remarks of S Gregory Nazianzenus (in Epistula 120 alias 55) about councils! It is most telling that the 'mediocrity' of the modern episcopate became really acute in the years during and since Vatican II, when the bishops met together for long periods apart from their dioceses and passed a succession of resounding decrees about ... the importance of bishops! And now their increasing preoccupation is ... the importance of Episcopal Conferences!

Where have all the bishops gone? Long time passing! Where have all the bishops gone? Long time ago! Where have all the bishops gone? Gone to Conf'rences every one! When will they ever learn? When will they e...ver learn?


Tom Broughton said...

The description you gave sounds like a socialist government. Maybe that is too harsh of a description; nevertheless, the Church is unfortunately a bureaucracy.

mark wauck said...

Hey, nonny, nonny and a kumbaya!

mark wauck said...

But doesn't this raise the whole question of how to maintain unity in a far flung society? The view that local loyalties are a danger to overall unity and the technique of breaking down those local loyalties by frequent translations certainly didn't originate in the 4th century. I'm sure you can see these same dynamics at work in ancient empires as well as in modern corporations and governmental organizations. It seems the Post Tridentine Church attempted to address these issues by more rigorous education and formation, but as we see this is hard to maintain against the twin dangers of ossification and the constant tendency to laxity within an old boys network.

mark wauck said...

If you read between the lines of Sandro Magister's account of What’s Inside Amoris Lætitia?, with it's quotes from Baldisseri and Schoenborn ...

“Doctrinal unity in pastoral plurality.”

“The problem is not that of changing doctrine, but of inculturating the general principles ...”

“It is necessary to recontextualize doctrine in service of the Church’s pastoral mission. Doctrine must be interpreted in relation to the heart of the Christian kerygma and in the light of the pastoral context in which it will be applied ..."

and so on, I think you can see the appeal to decentralization, to local governance and local norms and pieties. And we all know what that means.

The perennial problem of governance.

Liam Ronan said...

Dear Father,

You missed the bit "Gone to graveyards every one." Just sayin'.

Ben of the Bayou said...

Dear and Revd Father,

Certainly, every right thinking Catholic will sympathise with the sense of regret concerning the lack of zealous and pious leadership amongst a good number of the Bishops. Evidence can be found in John Fisher's time, for example, of this same, sad state of affairs.

Nonetheless, I do not know how a Catholic in the fullest, orthodox sense of the word, can accept the view of Church polity evinced in this passage of Dom Dix's writing.Indeed, is it not directly contrary, in spirit at least if not yet fully in word, to the observations here posted recently concerning the great debate between Ratzinger and Casper? Do not Dix's descriptions seem to presume the temporal (if not ontological) priority of the local church over the universal?

I should very much appreciate your thoughts on the matter.



Anonymous said...

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz is a good modern example of a bishop leader -- 20 years in one diocese in flyover country. I think he has some opinions about episcopal conferences, too...

Donna Bethell said...

Retired Bishop Rene Gracida from Texas is interviewed this week on ChurchMilitant.com. He reveals that most bishops are introverts, never say anything at conference meetings, and allow the extroverts, who love to hear themselves talk, to run the meetings and the committees, along with the very liberal staff. I think that most bishops are chancery mice who learned early on how to stay out of trouble and get promoted. No doubt being an introvert helps. And the few extroverts love having the compliant and silent majority to provide the supporting cast. God help us.