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Diocese on a Diet: Reducing the Temporal Power of the Bishops

As frustration and anger toward bishops grow, Catholics are asking what they can do to resist the corruption that has infected the episcopate. Ideas include prayer, fasting, writing letters, and protesting at USCCB meetings. All these are valid responses, but some are advocating for something more concrete – specifically, withholding financial support to the men who have enabled and promoted predatory monsters in their midst. The bishops receive most of their funding from the laity; discontinuing funding is one of the only mechanisms by which the laity feel they have some pull.

Yet many Catholics are hesitant to make such a move. If money is withheld, do we really think it will restrict the lifestyle of most bishops? How many bishops will cut their own salaries or sell their houses? More likely, it will mean less money to diocesan programs as well as to parishes, including some important services and outreaches. As a former diocesan director of evangelization, I can attest that these concerns are valid. The most likely outcome of a financial shortfall is that diocesan services will be decreased. But I have to ask: would this necessarily be a bad thing? Perhaps it’s time to rethink how dioceses operate.

Growing Fat

Taylor Marshall recently argued that the “mega-diocese” – a diocese so large that one man cannot effectively oversee it – is a contributing factor in the rise of clericalism and sexual abuse. I agree – there’s no reason to have dioceses with ridiculously high Catholic-to-bishop ratios, as can be found in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere in the United States. It creates an unnecessary – and dangerous – distance between a shepherd and his flock. I’d also argue that not only should we split up a number of dioceses in the United States, but we should put every diocese on a strict diet, reducing its size and scope.

Dioceses have become bloated bureaucracies, expanding their outreaches beyond their natural mandate and at the cost of diminishing of their essential mission. This bloating has given bishops an outsized view of their own role in politics and society, distracting them from their fundamental mission to administer the sacraments and teach the faith. Instead of a diocese directly paying employees to perform many of their current services, it could allow those services to be performed by lay-run, independently funded apostolates in which a bishop serves in an advisory role.

Before we consider the practical implications of this proposal, we should be clear about the reason we have dioceses in the first place. Dioceses were set up early in the history of the Church for practical purposes. There needed to be a way to organize the work of the Church in the Roman Empire (and beyond). For example, in the city of Antioch (where disciples of Christ were first called “Christian” [Acts 11:26]), there was a strong Christian community that needed to be overseen. Thus an episcopos (i.e., bishop), which means “overseer,” was appointed to make sure that the spiritual needs of the Christians were met, particularly that they were able to receive the sacraments and be taught the faith. Implicit in the term “overseer” is that the bishop, although he had ultimate authority, was not the sole person responsible for all the Christian activities in the diocese – he simply oversaw them. So a diocese was a means to organize which bishops had authority over the Christian activity in which areas.

Over time, dioceses have evolved in both size and scope. Diocesan bureaucracies have become directly responsible for engaging in all areas of Christian work. The presumption is that if it’s a duty of Christians, then there needs to be a paid diocesan staffer involved in it. A diocese must have on paid staff someone in charge of social services, education, evangelization, etc.

As an example, let’s consider the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. I pick this diocese because it’s a typical one, and it’s my home diocese. It’s not unique in how it operates – one could pick almost any diocese in the United States for this exercise.

According to Cincinnati’s archdiocesan website, there are 46 total ministries and offices within the diocese. These offices can be broken down into six categories: Sacraments, Vocations/Religious Life, Education, Social Outreach, Evangelization/Apostolates, and Internal Services:

Is it necessary to have paid staff in all these areas to fulfill the mission of the diocese? I propose that the only categories absolutely necessary for a diocese to operate directly would be Sacraments and Vocations/Religious Life. The other outreaches – Education, Social Outreach, and Evangelization/Apostolates – could be run by independent lay groups, who are simply advised and “overseen” by the bishop, not directly hired and paid by him. Of course, if all those offices were eliminated, then Internal Services offices would be greatly reduced in size as well. A typical diocese following my proposal would be reduced in staff size by at least 50%, likely much more.

Effective Apostolates

The most important thing to consider is whether the work of the Church would be better or worse off under such a plan. I believe that it would improve how the Church exercises her mission.

Currently, most dioceses operate under the same principle as governments: they receive funds whether they are effective or not, and often the funds they receive have no connection to the people they serve. Thus, there is nothing that tracks how well a diocesan service is performing and whether it should continue. Instead, the diocese just continues as it always has, regardless of the results. An independently funded lay apostolate, on the other hand, must provide a useful service in order to continue in existence. Just look at OnePeterFive itself. If 1P5 were serving no real need, then no one would visit the website, and no one would donate to the cause. (And while the subject is broached: donate today!) Yet if 1P5 is serving a need in the Church, then it will continue through financial support. This is true of all apostolic work, including education, social services, and evangelization outreach. In a diocese, on the other hand, an office could be horribly ineffective in its mission and still continue by means of bureaucratic inertia.

Another strength of a diocese “outsourcing” apostolates is that it reduces the temporal influence of a bishop. Too often today, a bishop gets involved in politics and other popular causes in an effort to appear relevant. Just consider Cardinal Cupich of Chicago stating that the “work of the Church” is environmentalism and protecting migrants. Bloated dioceses foster this sense of self-importance among bishops; they feel they are VIPs in the community who should naturally be invited to the fanciest cocktail parties and soirées. More often than not, bishops are simply useful idiots to the cultural elites: they supply a veneer of religiosity to fashionable pet causes. More importantly, bloated dioceses detract from a bishop’s essential mission: to preach and teach the Gospel and bring salvation through the sacraments.

Objections

I realize that my proposal to reduce the paid outreaches of dioceses radically changes how modern dioceses currently operate. One objection to my plan is that historically, bishops have often served as social and political leaders in their communities. For a long time, they have been directly involved in politics, education, and social services, particularly in those societies where Church and State are intermingled. Yet these involvements reflect a different, more Catholic, age, and are later additions to the core mission of a bishop and the core purpose of a diocese. If these temporal responsibilities take away from that core, then they should be jettisoned, not clung to. Leaner, more focused dioceses could prevent bishops from thinking the “work of the Church” is primarily about secondary issues like environmentalism or immigration.

Another objection is: what about the employees who would be laid off under this plan? Won’t hundreds, perhaps thousands of Catholics be put out of work if dioceses across the world adopt it? Yes, they will, and as a former diocesan employee, I have great empathy for those who would lose their jobs. (In fact, I’m arguing that my own past position was unnecessary to the running of a diocese.) Yet this argument cannot be a reason to avoid improving how a diocese operates. First, many of these employees could find work in the lay-run, independently funded apostolates that would emerge from the smaller dioceses. Second, such an argument succumbs to the prime weakness of every bureaucracy: failure to improve because it upsets the status quo. If a business has a department that’s failing and losing money, it can’t afford to continue that department for fear of letting its employees go – even if those employees were hardworking and not the cause of the department’s failure. If a business does that, then it risks that failure spreading to the whole of the organization, leading to a much greater disaster. Some might argue that a diocese is not a business; it’s more like a charity. But a charity still needs to be run efficiently and successfully; the charity is directed toward those it serves, not to the people employed by it.

A final objection: Where would the money come from for all these lay-run apostolates? First, a lot of money would be freed up by discontinuing the annual heavy-handed “Bishop’s Appeal.” Second, Catholics would be more incentivized to give to specific apostolates, instead of worrying that their donations are just falling into an endless diocesan pit. If your passion is for Catholic education, wouldn’t you be more motivated to give to the local solid lay-run Catholic school than a system of diocesan schools that are barely Catholic?

Rediscovering the Roots

The current crisis facing the Catholic Church has many causes, but a primary one is how bishops operate. Unfortunately, too many bishops live a life detached from the lives of those they are to shepherd. By overseeing vast diocesan operations, they have become more administrators than apostles. Along with dividing up mega-dioceses, perhaps it’s also time to cut down the direct services offered by a diocese so each bishop can focus again on the core reason for his episcopal office.

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