The coming crisis in episcopal demographics

As of June 1, the diocese of Birmingham had been without a bishop for two years, while the diocese of Pittsburgh (not to mention the entire state of Arkansas) had been bishop-less for over a year. Without significant change, and soon, this glacial pace in the appointment of bishops is going to create a severe crisis of absentee Church leadership.

An exaggeration? Try this thought-experiment:

There are 222 months between July 2007 and December 2025. During that period, 165 diocesan bishops and 52 auxiliary bishops in the United States will reach the canonically prescribed retirement age of 75. That might suggest that a total of 217 bishops will have to be replaced between Independence Day 2007 and Christmas 2025 – which is a lot of bishops. Things are actually more complicated, however, for such a simple calculation doesn’t take into account the Ordinaries who will be transferred from one diocese to another, the bishops who may die before 75, or the bishops who may have to retire (or be retired). Nor does that simple calculation reflect the need for new bishops to fill the new dioceses that must be created as the Catholic population of the United States soars from 65 million today to perhaps 100 million in 2025. Taking all of these factors into account, a conservative estimate would suggest that the Church in America must be given at least 250 new bishops between now and December 2025: one new bishop about every three and a half weeks.

Which will come as something of a shock, I expect, in Birmingham, Little Rock, and Pittsburgh — and perhaps in both the Nunciature in Washington and the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

For the past two centuries, the Catholic Church shrewdly and tenaciously wrestled with various kinds of governments in order to regain (or, in some instances, gain) the power to order its internal life according to its own standards — to appoint bishops without political interference. In the mid-19th century, the Pope had a free choice of bishops in a small minority of dioceses around the world; today, the Pope enjoys the freedom to appoint bishops in the great majority of dioceses in the world. This remarkable freedom, unprecedented in Catholic history, is one of the signal accomplishments of Vatican diplomacy since the French Revolution.

Yet that accomplishment is now being jeopardized, not so much from external enemies as from internal sclerosis. The present system for vetting candidates for the episcopate, and then getting them appointed and installed in a timely fashion, needs a major overhaul. Not only does it work too slowly; it doesn’t work strategically. The actuarial tables have made clear for more than a decade that the senior episcopal leadership of the United States would have to be dramatically reconfigured in the last half of the first decade of the 21st century. Yet there seems to have been no strategic plan to guide this process. Appointments to both diocesan and metropolitan sees are handled independently, one at a time; on only the rarest of occasions does consideration seem to be given to how a move on one part of this complex chessboard affects other possible moves down the line.

Moreover, there is virtually no consultation on the appointment of bishops with knowledgeable members of the Church outside the ranks of the clergy (and such consultation is exceedingly rare with the lower clerical orders). Reformed, evangelically-focused criteria for judging a man’s fitness for the office of bishop, for which many rightly called in the wake of the Crisis of 2002, do not seem to have been devised, much less implemented. And all of this is happening — or, better, not happening — at a moment when episcopal credibility remains the most severe casualty of the Long Lent of five years ago.

The risk of business-as-usual? Congregationalist ultramontanism, if you’ll pardon the phrase: a Catholic Church in America in which people love their parish priests, love the Pope – and have little sense of connection to the local bishop. That’s not what Vatican II intended in its reform of the episcopate, nor is it what Christ intended for his Church.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.