As the annual Fall General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approaches (Nov. 12-14 in Baltimore), we do well to ponder a critical work of bishops (along with priests and deacons) — that of governance.

Governance is suggested in the very title of the sacrament received in its fullness: the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Sacramentum Ordinis). The word “order” suggests, well, order! Maintaining order is generally understood to mean keeping things in good condition, directing things or people to their proper purpose and end.

To be fair, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points to a richer meaning etymologically:

The word order in Roman antiquity designated an established civil body, especially a governing body. Ordinatio means incorporation into an ordo. In the Church there are established bodies which Tradition, not without a basis in Sacred Scripture, has since ancient times called … ordines. And so the liturgy speaks of the ordo episcoporum, the ordo presbyterorum, the ordo diaconorum. Other groups also receive this name of ordo: catechumens, virgins, spouses, widows, … (CCC 1537)

So, the primary meaning of Holy Orders does not pertain simply to keeping things in good order but to ranks or distinctions within a larger group. However, key to the ancient Latin term was the idea of governance. Hence, while we sometimes use it in its wider sense (e.g., Order of Catechumens) the term is usually restricted in the more formal sense to the ordained clergy. The Catechism states:

Integration into one of these bodies in the Church was accomplished by a rite called ordinatio, a religious and liturgical act which was a consecration, a blessing or a sacrament. Today the word “ordination” is reserved for the sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters, or deacons, and goes beyond a simple election, designation, delegation, or institution by the community, for it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a “sacred power” ... The laying on of hands by the bishop, with the consecratory prayer, constitutes the visible sign of this ordination (CCC 1538).

Thus, the Sacrament of Holy Orders does speak clearly to the maintaining of order, to governance. The very word “bishop” in its Greek roots also indicates this: ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) comes from epi (upon or over) + skopos (to see or look). Therefore, a bishop is one designated to oversee a local area or diocese.

Of a bishop, St. Paul writes that he must

be able both to encourage with sound docrine and to convict those contradicting it. For there are also many insubordinate, empty talkers, and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision. It is necessary to silence them, as they overthrow whole households, teaching things that they ought not for the sake of base gain (Titus 1:9-11).

To Titus, whom Paul ordained bishop in Crete, Paul wrote:

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and ordain priests in every town, as I directed you… (Titus 1:5).

Hence, at the heart of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the keeping of order through the munus regendi (the office of governance). Indeed, this office is part of the tightly woven triple office of Christ conferred upon bishops and priests: teaching, governing, and sanctifying. The very word “hierarchy” most literally means rule by priests — hiereus (priest) + archon (rule).

There’s no getting around it: One of the essential functions of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the keeping of order in the Church through governing, teaching, and sanctifying.

So, how are we in Holy Orders doing? By any reasonable measure, terribly. Indeed, some of the gravest disorder is to be found within the very ranks of Holy Orders. There is a shocking yet persistent picture of disorder, confusion, and denial up to the highest ranks, both nationally and internationally. There are, to be sure, notable exceptions in which holy and courageous bishops, priests, and deacons have sought to stand in the gap and heal the breach, often at great personal cost. The overall atmosphere, however, is one of unholy disorder, brought about by the very ones ordained to bring Holy Order:

The faith is openly betrayed and denied by renegade bishops—even whole conferences of bishops—and heads of religious orders. Synods sow confusion and division rather than clarity or unity. 

Teaching is on holiday, silence in the face of error is rampant, and listening without limit is called “magisterial.” Ambiguous euphemisms that violate Catholic anthropology, doctrine, and sacred tradition are adopted uncritically. 

There are wandering “celebrity priests” who promote the LBGT agenda without any reference to repentance or chastity. Policies that deny the Lord’s clear words on divorce/remarriage and ignore St. Paul’s admonitions about Holy Communion are proposed and adopted. Legitimate questions and requests for needed clarifications are met with silence.

Catholic colleges openly teach dissent without any correction from the bishops and there is a tolerance of a moral life among their students that would shock even the most pagan of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Liturgical abuses have abounded and remained uncorrected for decades.

In the seminaries and within the priesthood, homosexual predation by an apparent network of priests has gone on for years along with coverups, denials, and secret payouts.

The number of states initiating grand jury investigations is increasing daily. The federal investigation into abuse by Catholic priests now includes every diocese in the country.

Mass attendance has been declining for years, leading to the closing of numerous parishes and schools. There has been an almost complete loss of Christendom in the past 60 years.

Scandals continue to arise. The Vatican Bank has been plagued by scandal for years. A drug-fueled homosexual orgy reportedly took place in the summer of 2017 in the apartment of a high-ranking Vatican prelate. There have been seemingly arbitrary dismissals of bishops and priests both within the Vatican and elsewhere.

The Holy Father himself is surrounded by questionable figures who are at the very heart of the current crises. He has received credible, largely corroborated allegations by a former nuncio that he and others knew of the illicit activities of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In response to the crises, from Rome there has been silence, name-calling of those requesting investigations, and only occasionally promises to look into the matters.

The faithful are dismayed by the chaos. Even prior to the current sexual and financial scandals, the general stance of this pontificate has been artfully described as “weaponized ambiguity.” Some of the most confusing and strange things have been said and done by the Pope and then left unexplained. Many of the faithful, who love the Church and the Holy Father, have been placed in the highly awkward position of having to openly express their dismay, sadness, and confusion.

If my picture of disorder is too extreme, I beg your mercy. If some of the facts I have presented are erroneous, if my conclusion is too strong in some area or regarding some particular person, I repent. Along with many Catholics, I am dumbfounded and feel most uncomfortable speaking in this way. With so many of the faithful I am grieved that I even have to mention these things publicly. My preference has always been to remain discreet.

I also repent because I am a member of the very hierarchy and cadre of those in Holy Orders I describe. I have been a priest for nearly thirty years now and this disorder has only increased on my watch. I cannot exempt myself from all blame. While I have not committed any moral crimes, I have at times in the past been impatient with some of the faithful who raised concerns such as the ones I have written about today. I would often scold them for speaking against Church leaders and remind them that dissenters spoke in such a way. It goes against my training and my nature as a Catholic and a priest to recite this litany of disorder. I even admit to the fear of retribution for my words.

I would like to mention again that while the big picture is bleak, there are many bishops who have spoken courageously and taught well during these dark days. May they be confirmed by the Lord and preserved in their ministry.

As our bishops prepare to meet I beg them to hear a cry of the heart, not just from me, one of their priests, but from so many of the faithful who must live with the disorder in the Church that we who are in Holy Orders have every obligation to correct. Our credibility is nearly nonexistent. The only path forward I can reasonably see is a repentance not only of sorrow but of strong amendment. We clergy must amend our lives by recommitting to the Lord’s doctrinal and moral teaching; we must strive to live it ourselves and be serious about reproving dissenters and serial violators and removing them from our ranks. We must honestly call out sin and refer to it by its proper name. We must speak no less plainly than did our Lord and His apostles, who used words like sodomy, fornication, adultery, greed, hatred, divorce and heresy. Resorting to vague terms like woundedness, clericalism, and abuse of power only diminishes our credibility. People can see right through such obfuscation.

It is not my place, nor is it my goal, to set forth an agenda for the upcoming gathering of bishops. However, we who share in the Sacrament of Holy Orders are currently presiding over a landscape of terrible disorder and have no one to blame but ourselves. Even if we have not personally committed moral offenses, too many of us have remained fearfully silent and/or indecisive. We have not courageously witnessed to the truth. The heroic example of the martyrs is almost unknown among us. We must change. Indeed, we must seek a remarkable transformation wherein our collective cowardice is converted, as if by miracle, into a clear, loving witness that is willing to endure the scorn of the world to reassert the truth of the Gospel. May our love for God’s people be so great that we refuse to lie to them or water down the truth that alone can set each one of us free.

May we who share in the exalted Sacrament of Holy Orders, by God’s grace, restore order to the Lord’s Church, an order that both he and his good people deserve and require, and may God’s good people pray and fast for our bishops as they prepare for their upcoming meeting.