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.

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