The Imperative of the Imperium: A Response to 'The End of the Imperial Episcopate'

Recently on social media I penned a quick response to some ideas put out by Fr. Jay Scott Newman in his article, The End of the Imperial Episcopate, which was published online by First Things on August 20th. This response gained some interest from various quarters and, to make a long story short, I decided that a more detailed response was in order.

To be clear there are some ideas that I think are good in Newman's piece, mainly those of a more structural and organization nature. His suggestion, however, that prelates should drop their prelatial dress is, to my mind, a grave mistake and not only would not help matters in the Church today, they might actually formalize and cement the harm that we have seen done.

You can read the full text of my piece, The Imperative of the Imperium, on First Things, but here are the opening paragraphs.  (Much more could be said on this subject than I had the space to say I will admit, but I hope you will find of value and interest.)

In “The End of the Imperial Episcopate,” Fr. Jay Scott Newman speculates about the Church's current situation. One of his premises is that many bishops have become too much like distant managers and administrators, and that this has contributed to today's problems. He also suggests “the clerical culture in which bishops and priests live is in many ways diseased and deformed, requiring renewal.“ I fully agree with Newman on these points. We do not need politicians and administrators. We need bishops who act like bishops: teaching, shepherding, and, when necessary, disciplining like bishops. We need priests who don’t act like camp counselors, committee chairmen, facilitators, or socialites; we need priests who focus on their priestly, liturgical, and sacramental mission. Further, we need religious who are not secular social justice activists but who remain faithful to the particular charisms of their founders. In short, we need faithfulness to particular callings across the board.

In his article, Newman proposes various reforms. These include requiring bishops to spend more time in their own cathedrals, eliminating the auxiliary bishop model, and reducing diocesan bureaucracy. While I might offer a few caveats, in principle I think these suggestions have merit. Where I believe Newman goes off the rails is in his proposal that certain elements of the "imperium," such as traditional episcopal vesture and titles, "need to go." Newman presents some rather specious arguments that are neither consistently applied nor rooted in a fulsome view of Church history or the Christian East. These proposals do not address the current situation, and, if implemented, may even compound the Church's problems rather than eliminate them.

Many of today’s issues stem from a crisis of clerical identity. Reclaiming that identity—both its internal and external dimensions—is paramount if we are to have a healthy revival and foster solid vocations. Clerical and prelatial dress are external manifestations of this identity—uniforms, if you will. As Paul Fussell writes in his general study on the subject, Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear, “meddling with classics usually backfires.” One need only bring to mind the many religious orders that significantly modified or even abandoned their habits following the Second Vatican Council. The end result was hardly a smashing success, yet Newman proposes that we have another go at this tired trope and tinker now with episcopal dress. Newman argues, for example, that prelates should “abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black." His rationale? "Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms . . . tend to distance bishops from their priests and people, and also subtly nudge them toward self-important and self-referential ways of thinking and acting. As the recent catastrophic scandals demonstrate, too many bishops have proven unable to act as pastors and evangelists and have instead behaved as managers and bureaucrats."

First, let's define our terms...

Continue reading the full article on First Things.

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