31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 23:1-12
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees […] preach but they do no not practice. […] All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
It should give every priest of the New Law pause to recognize that the chief criticism which our Savior levels against the Pharisees is that they are vainglorious and ambitious. They sit in the chair of Moses and have accrued to themselves great pastoral responsibility, but have failed to exercise their authority for the good of the sheep and have instead sought only to gain worldly honor for themselves.
As the Fathers and Doctors of the Church consider this passage from Scripture, they comment on the danger of the vice of ambition (and also the sin of vainglory) which can be so injurious to the priestly vocation. Ambition in the priesthood can mean the desire for a “more important” parish or a more prominent role in the diocese, but it is most especially typified by the desire for the episcopal rank. The height of ambition and pride for a (diocesan) priest is seen in his desire to be a bishop.
Is it lawful to desire to be a bishop? What must the priest do in order to avoid the sin of ambition? For direction on this point, we look to the greatest doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.
What is required of a bishop?
First, it is worth noting that the Angelic Doctor discusses the episcopacy in the context of the state of perfection. Following the traditional explanation of growth in the spiritual life, St. Thomas affirms that there are three stages or ages: The beginners, the proficients, and the perfect – these correspond to what some spiritual writers call the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way.
St. Thomas (following the best of the Catholic tradition) maintains that only those who are perfect, who have passed through the dark night of the soul and have attained to the unitive way, are fit to accept the office of bishop. To become a bishop without being in the way of the perfect is not only a very foolish sin of pride, it also puts the flock at great risk.
Now, it is presumptuous for a man (even if he be a priest) to consider himself perfect – for even St. Paul did not judge himself. Therefore, he who desires to be a bishop is a fool, since he gains to himself great responsibility and the heavy burden of the care of souls.
St. Thomas writes: “On the other hand, he who enters the episcopal state is raised up in order to watch over others, and no man should seek to be raised thus, according to Hebrews 5:4, Neither doth any man take the honor to himself, but he that is called by God: and Chrysostom says: ‘To desire supremacy in the Church is neither just nor useful. For what wise man seeks of his own accord to submit to such servitude and peril, as to have to render an account of the whole Church? None save him who fears not God's judgment, and makes a secular abuse of his ecclesiastical authority, by turning it to secular uses.’” (ST II-II, q.185, a.1, ad 2)
Can a priest desire to be a bishop?
The Angel of the Schools considers this question in Summa Theologica II-II, q.185, a.1:
“Three things may be considered in the episcopal office. One is principal and final, namely the bishop's work, whereby the good of our neighbor is intended, according to John 21:17, Feed My sheep. Another thing is the height of degree, for a bishop is placed above others, according to Matthew 24:45, A faithful and a wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family. The third is something resulting from these, namely reverence, honor, and a sufficiency of temporalities, according to (1 Timothy 5:17), Let the priests that rule well be esteemed worthy of double honor.
“Accordingly, to desire the episcopal office on account of these incidental goods is manifestly unlawful, and pertains to covetousness or ambition. Wherefore our Lord said against the Pharisees (Matthew 23:6-7): They love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues, and salutations in the market-place, and to be called by men, Rabbi. As regards the second, namely the height of degree, it is presumptuous to desire the episcopal office. Hence our Lord reproved His disciples for seeking precedence, by saying to them (Matthew 20:25): You know that the princes of the gentiles lord it over them. Here Chrysostom says (Hom. lxv in Matth.) that in these words ‘He points out that it is heathenish to seek precedence; and thus by comparing them to the gentiles He converted their impetuous soul.’
“On the other hand, to desire to do good to one's neighbor is in itself praiseworthy, and virtuous. Nevertheless, since considered as an episcopal act it has the height of degree attached to it, it would seem that, unless there be manifest and urgent reason for it, it would be presumptuous for any man to desire to be set over others in order to do them good. Thus Gregory says (Pastor. i, 8) that ‘it was praiseworthy to seek the office of a bishop when it was certain to bring one into graver dangers.’”
St. Thomas’ basic answer is, “No”. Indeed, the Common Doctor holds that – even for those who have been chosen by Rome for the office of bishop – it is safer even to reject the episcopal nomination, so long as the Holy Father allows the priest the opportunity to reject it.
But, He who desires the office of bishop desires a good work.
It will be objected by some that St. Paul seems to affirm the lawfulness of desiring to become a bishop in 1 Timothy 3:1. To this, we first reply that any man who would apply the Apostle’s words to himself is clearly steeped in pride. Secondly, we refer to the answer of St. Thomas (reply to objection 1):
“As Gregory says (Pastor. i, 8), ‘when the Apostle said this he who was set over the people was the first to be dragged to the torments of martyrdom,’ so that there was nothing to be desired in the episcopal office, save the good work. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xix, 19) that when the Apostle said, “Whoever desireth the office of bishop, desireth a good work, he wished to explain what the episcopacy is: for it denotes work and not honor: since skopos [as in episkpopos, “bishop” in Greek] signifies 'watching.' Wherefore if we like we may render episkopein by the Latin 'superintendere' [to watch over]: thus a man may know himself to be no bishop if he loves to precede rather than to profit others.’ For, as he observed shortly before, ‘in our actions we should seek, not honor nor power in this life, since all things beneath the sun are vanity, but the work itself which that honor or power enables us to do.’ Nevertheless, as Gregory says (Pastor. i, 8), ‘while praising the desire’ (namely of the good work) ‘he forthwith turns this object of praise into one of fear, when he adds: It behooveth . . . a bishop to be blameless,’ as though to say: ‘I praise what you seek, but learn first what it is you seek.’”
It is much safer to merit a holy bishop through prayer as a holy priest, rather than to aspire to be a holy bishop oneself.
How would we get any bishops?
If Rome insists – and if the priest knows himself with moral certainty to be in the unitive way of the perfect – a man may lawfully accept the office of bishop to which he has in no way aspired.
Let us all continue to pray for our priests and bishops! May God guard and protect them always! May they be restored to the tradition of faith.