The imperative of fraternal correction

Every September, the Congregation for Bishops in Rome hosts a seminar for newly-ordained bishops from around the world; the seminar is widely known, at least “sotto voce,” as “Baby Bishops’ School.” I have a modest suggestion for the curriculum: everyone attending the seminar should be given a copy of the classic World War II novel, “Twelve O’Clock High!,” which is far less a story of B-17s over Europe than a lesson in paternal, masculine leadership.

About halfway through the book, when General Frank Savage has dramatically reversed the disastrous morale of the 918th Heavy Bombardment Group by ignoring an order and hitting a difficult target, a once-skeptical lieutenant (and Medal of Honor winner), Jesse Bishop, admits that he’s misread the fiery commander and asks Savage if he’d, “mind very much kicking me in the tail?” Bishop bends over, Savage obliges -- and then asks the youngster to do him a favor: “All right, Jesse...I want you to be the one guy in the group that doesn’t believe I’m a general. That door is always open. Any time you think I’m not doing so hot, come in and tell me. Let me know what the boys are thinking. I need you plenty, and I’ll count on you to keep me straightened out.”

I hope it’s not considered impious if I suggest that every bishop needs a Bishop. Or several Bishops.

Catholic bishops don’t have wives. But like every other high-achievement male in the world, Catholic bishops need someone to keep them “straightened out,” as Savage put it -- especially when they’re “not doing so hot.” A bishop with a particularly close and open relationship with his presbyterate might find a Bishop or two among his priests, but the dynamics of contemporary clerical culture mitigate against that kind of frankness. No, bishops need to find Bishops among their brother bishops.

Father Thomas Reese, S.J., would appear to disagree. Several weeks ago, Archbishop Raymond Burke of the Apostolic Signatura gave an interview in which he suggested that some bishops in the United States were not doing all they might do to protect the integrity of the Eucharist, and the souls of those in their care, by not making it clear to pro-abortion Catholic politicians that they should refrain from receiving holy Communion. At a subsequent Washington press conference, Archbishop Burke’s remarks were unfairly used by a pro-life activist to try and settle some scores with bishops of whom the activist disapproved. During the ensuing media fuss, Father Reese, who would not object to being described as on the far side of the Communion-for-pro-abortion-politicians debate from Archbishop Burke, saw his chance and took it. According to the Jesuit master of the Catholic sound-bite, Archbishop Burke “really violated ... episcopal etiquette. You don’t criticize other bishops in public and you don’t tell other bishops how to run their diocese.”

One wonders precisely what “episcopal etiquette” is being evoked here. The “etiquette” of a Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote the Patriarch Nestorius and informed him that his sermons questioning Mary’s title, “Mother of God,” were dubiously orthodox? The “etiquette” of a Cyprian, who engaged in what the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church calls a “violent correspondence” with Pope Stephen I over the validity of baptism administered by heretics and schismatics? Or the “etiquette” of a men’s club in which it’s considered bad form to confront a fellow member of the club, even if he’s embarrassing himself and the club?

With an eye to the Frank Savage Rule of Fraternal Correction, I’ll take the hard-knuckled but canonized Fathers of the Church -- Cyril, who was right on the issues, and Cyprian, who in this instance was wrong -- over Father Reese’s genteel men’s club. Catholic bishops need someone like Savage’s Jesse Bishop to tell them when they’re “not doing so hot.” The likeliest candidates for administering such fraternal correction are a man’s brother bishops. The privilege of fraternal correction, which is really an exercise of fraternal charity, should not be abused, and it’s usually best done outside the media circus. But can anyone seriously doubt, after the debacles revealed in the Long Lent of 2002, that it’s absolutely imperative?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.