How to Escape the Influence of Bad Bishops
As a Practicing and Faithful Catholic blogger, I get some interesting messages every now and then. I won’t reveal any of their content here, but one common theme I’m asked is how to escape the influence of a bad bishop. Believe it or not, there are ways of going about this. But before we go into that, we must first define what a “bad bishop” actually is.
Bad bishops come in a variety, and it would be a mistake to think they all fit the same mold. They do not…
Some of them are extremely bad, and might actually be classified as “predators” in a legal sense, especially if they sexually assault or molest people (adults and minors). Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was one example of this. The man rose to the highest ranks in the US Catholic hierarchy, and reigned as the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington DC from 2000 to 2006. No young man was safe in his presence. Rumors of his sexual escapades with seminarians were legendary. Everyone knew of his abusive nature, and little was done to stop him until he was severely restricted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. He was subsequently rehabilitated in 2013 by Pope Francis until he was publicly exposed in 2018. Francis was later forced to laicize (defrock) him in 2019. Another example of an extremely bad bishop would be one who tries to protect other sexual abusers in his diocese.
Other bishops may not be so criminal. They might, on the other hand, give material cooperation in the evil of abortion by coddling Catholic politicians and celebrities who promote abortion. Others might simply allow all sorts of liturgical innovation in their parishes. Still others might teach heresy or allow others to do so within their dioceses. Finally, some might distort the message of the gospel, putting a greater emphasis on “social justice” (which has become code for “socialism” these days), rather than the dangers of the sin and the necessity of salvation in Christ Jesus.
All of these are “bad bishops,” just bad in different degrees and type. When finding such a bishop at the head of your diocese, it can be very unsettling. Thus, I am regularly asked the question: “How can I escape the influence of my bad bishop?” For these people, simply worshiping at a reverent Mass may not be enough. They want to take it a step further. They’re asking me how to escape the influence of such a bishop entirely, so they no longer have to deal with him, send him money, or follow his edicts. That’s a bit of a sticky question, which I will address below. First off, it can be done! Secondly, it requires resolve. It’s not a sin for Catholics to flee from the presence of those who present a clear and present danger to their spiritual formation, or the formation of their children. Canon law does allow for some possibilities in this area. Of which, I am aware of four lawful options for Catholics. Please note: I will NEVER tell another Catholic to do anything that would put one in disobedience to the magisterium of the Church. Everything I write here is 100% legal, viable and acceptable Catholic practice, which allows Catholics to stay in full, regular and unquestionable communion with the mainstream Catholic Church.
Option #1: Move out of the diocese…
A bishop’s authority is limited. He only has the right to govern that which the pope has given him. This usually (not always but usually) consists of a territorial area, limited by geographical boundaries. Outside of those boundaries he has no jurisdiction. So the simplest way for Catholics to escape the influence (and jurisdiction) of a bad bishop is to just move out of his diocese.
Of course, this would require some research as to where one is moving to. You wouldn’t want to find yourself moving away from the diocese of one bad bishop and into the diocese of another. However, some Catholics do move for the sake of orthodoxy, and lately, it seems like a growing number. Usually, Catholics will take other factors into consideration before moving. Some of the biggest would be job availability, geography, climate, culture, politics, etc. I am personally knowledgeable of some Catholics who moved away from a bad Cardinal-Archbishop in a major city, and to a relatively conservative bishop in a more rural area in another state. How many? To date, I know about a dozen. That being said, don’t assume that just because a bishop reigns over a rural area, he’s more conservative. Religious politics and secular politics don’t always correlate. It’s not uncommon to find liberal bishops over rural areas as well as big cities. So when I say “do your homework first,” I mean it. Do it before you move.
Option #2: Join a Latin Mass Fraternity or Institute…
If you don’t want to move, there is another option. I’m speaking of organizations like the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP), just to name a couple. There are more. In parishes such as these, you’ll usually get traditional worship and orthodox teaching, and yes, you will be away from the direct influence of a bad bishop.
That being said, however, you’ll still technically be under the bad bishop’s jurisdiction. You just won’t be under his direct influence. Organizations like the FSSP and the ICKSP have some limited rights in the (arch)diocese that hosts them. For example, the local bishops cannot tell them how to do liturgy or how to preach doctrine. So these parishes can be places of safe refuge from the influence of a bad bishop. However, when you need something like a wedding or confirmation, the bad bishop will have to be notified. It’s best to let the FSSP or ICKSP priest handle this for you. Chances are, he already has some sort of a working-relationship with that bishop anyway. It’s better to let your FSSP or ICKSP priest become your mouthpiece in your relations with the diocese.
In these types of Latin Mass fraternities and institutes, you can expect a return to traditional Catholic worship (in Latin) along with traditional Catholic teaching.
I do not recommend irregular organizations, such as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), until such organizations have been fully regularized. I truly believe Catholics should make a regular practice of seeking out institutions like the FSSP and ICKSP, which are fully regularized within the Catholic Church, to avoid canonical problems with the mainstream Church. Membership in an FSSP or ICKSP parishes (including a few other organizations), will present no canonical problems with the mainstream Catholic Church, allowing you to be removed from a bad bishop’s influence, without having to deal with questions about your obedience to the magisterium. In contrast, membership in an SSPX parish can cause all sorts of canonical problems, as well as misunderstandings about your obedience to the magisterium of the Catholic Church. I understand that the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) permits Catholics to attend SSPX chapels, but I should point out here that the CDF does not encourage it.
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not disparaging the SSPX, and I do understand that their situation is irregular and not schismatic. I look forward with anticipation to their eventual regularization. Rather, all I’m saying is this. I will not point my readers in a direction that could potentially complicate their canonical relations with the Church. So until the canonical situation with the SSPX is resolved, I do not recommend attending their chapels.
Option #3: Join an ordinariate parish…
If you don’t want to move, or go Latin, there is another possible solution. As I said above, every bishop is given a jurisdiction. Most bishops are given territorial jurisdictions with defined and limited borders. Some bishops, however, are given personal jurisdictions, over persons not territories. So their range of jurisdiction may be much wider, with either broad or no territorial boundaries at all, but only specific to certain persons. For example, the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA has jurisdiction over all Catholics in the US military, regardless of where they live, anywhere in the world. The ordinariates have a similar situation.
I’m speaking of the ordinariates of English Patrimony here, formally called the “Anglican Use.” In North America, that would be the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (POCSP), which has jurisdiction over certain persons living in North America. These are particular Catholics who have a strong attachment to the English Patrimony. All English-speaking Catholics have some attachment to the English Patrimony, but some Catholics are more deeply attached. Under the POCSP you can expect a return to a very traditional and formal expression of Catholic worship, using English instead of Latin. This does allow for a quicker and easier transition from a regular diocesan parish. Ordinariate parishes are also well known for staunchly orthodox teaching, according to the historic Catholic faith.
Because ordinariate parishes are under the jurisdiction of their own bishop, placing yourself into one of these parishes removes you entirely (100%) from the influence of a bad bishop. You’re still technically under his jurisdiction, but the liturgy and teaching you’ll get at an ordinariate parish will be ordered by a priest who is not under the bad bishop’s jurisdiction. Furthermore, that priest will be under the protection of his ordinariate bishop instead, who has jurisdiction over him. It makes members of an ordinariate parish virtually untouchable when it comes to the influence of a bad bishop.
Any Catholic may become a member of an ordinariate parish. There are no restrictions on ordinariate parish membership. However, becoming a member of an ordinariate parish doesn’t automatically remove you from a bad bishop’s jurisdiction. It may remove you from his influence (entirely), but you’re still under his jurisdiction. So when you need something like a wedding or confirmation, the bad bishop will have to be notified. Like the FSSP and ICKSP, it’s best to let the POCSP priest handle this for you. Chances are, he already has some sort of a working-relationship with that bishop anyway. It’s better to let your POCSP priest become your mouthpiece in your relations with the diocese.
In addition to being removed from the influence of a bad bishop, it is possible, in some cases, to be removed entirely from his jurisdiction as well, through the ordinariate itself. This is done by becoming an official member of the ordinariate, under the jurisdiction of that ordinariate bishop. In other words, you’re just transferring your Church membership from the local territorial diocese, to the personal ordinariate. No longer would you be under the territorial jurisdiction of a local diocesan bishop. Instead, you would fall under the personal jurisdiction of the ordinariate bishop. However, certain prerequisites are necessary to make this happen. If this is something you want, you should speak directly with a POCSP priest to determine if this is possible, and plan a way forward in your individual case.
POCSP parishes consist of members who are under the jurisdiction of either the ordinariate bishop, or the local diocesan bishop. Parish members transfer into, and out-of, the ordinariate all the time, and this is allowed under canon law. I’ve seen people transfer into the ordinariate shortly after joining an ordinariate parish, and I’ve seen people transfer out of the ordinariate when joining a new diocesan or fraternity parish. The point here is that membership in the ordinariate is voluntary. Anyone can come in, if they meet the prerequisites, and anyone can leave for any reason, or no reason at all. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes, because I am a member of the North American ordinariate (POCSP) myself!
I will give you a word of advice about this, because I have personal experience. Join the ordinariate parish first, and “try it on” so to speak. You’ll be instantly safe from the influence of any bad bishop. Then, after a year of living a fully integrated parish life in one of these communities, and if you like it, then you should talk to the priest and see if you qualify for ordinariate membership too. You can only gain, and you have nothing to lose by just asking. If you meet the prerequisites, great! If not, don’t worry, nothing has changed. Just carry on as you have been.
Option #4: Join an Eastern Catholic parish…
If you don’t want to move, and Latin isn’t your thing, and you really just want to get back to the roots of ancient Christianity, joining an Eastern Catholic parish may be a solution. Like the ordinariates of English Patrimony, any Catholic may join an Eastern Catholic parish. This immediately removes you from the influence of a bad bishop, but not his jurisdiction.
To be removed from his jurisdiction, you would need to actually change rites, and come under the canonical jurisdiction of an Eastern Catholic bishop. In the West, this is a lot like joining an ordinariate, except there are no prerequisites. Any Catholic can do this. This is something which should be taken very seriously though, because unlike the ordinariates of English Patrimony, transferring to a new rite is permanent. Catholics are only allowed to do it once. For some, this makes sense. For others, it might not. This is something that would need to be discussed, at length, with an Eastern Catholic priest.
Eastern Catholic churches are not the same as Eastern Orthodox churches. The former is in full communion with Rome, the latter is not. I do not recommend joining an Eastern Orthodox church. If you do that, you’ve left the Catholic Church entirety and have become a schismatic.
Eastern Catholic churches, however, are wonderful options for Catholics seeking refuge from a bad bishop. Keep in mind, you can join these parishes, and still remain a member of the local diocese. You’ll still be under your bad bishop’s jurisdiction, but not his influence. That is, unless you decide to change rites. In which case, you’ll be free of both his influence and jurisdiction. Just remember, when it comes to changing rites, it’s a one way trip. There is no coming back.
For most Catholics, I suspect temporary membership in an Eastern Catholic parish may be a viable solution, without changing rites. It all depends on what you really want. I know a few Catholics who have changed rites and are very happy.
We’re living in very difficult times, and it’s understandable why some Catholics would try to simplify their lives by removing themselves from at least the influence of a bad bishop, if not his jurisdiction entirely. The good news, it’s possible to do one or both. Before doing so, however, Catholics should take all things into consideration, and try to make a wise choice the first time, rather than having to bounce around from jurisdiction to jurisdiction until getting it right. Figure out what you really want, as well as what’s most practical, then explore (or experiment) for about a year before making any commitments.