We are indebted above all to the martyr bishop Cyprian of Carthage for a thorough theology of the episcopal office. His sentence ‘episcopatus unus et indivisus’ is well known. This sentence stands in the context of an urgent admonition by Cyprian to his fellow bishops:
Quam unitatem tenere firmiter et vindicare debemus maxime episcopi, qui in ecclesia praesidimus, ut episcopatum quoque ipsum unum atque indivisum probemus. [And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the church, that we may also prove the episcopate one and undivided.]
This urgent exhortation is followed by a precise interpretation of the statement ‘episcopatus unus et indivisus’. ‘Episcopatus unus est cuius a singulis in solidum pars tenetur’ [The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole.] (De ecclesiae catholicae unitate, 1,5).
Such statements and admonitions recur again and again in Cyprian’s letters (Ep., 55,21; 59,14 et al.). Most familiar is the statement that the Church is the people united with the bishop and the flock devoted to its shepherd. ‘The bishop is in the church and the church is in the bishop, and if anyone is not with the bishop he is not with the church.’ But Cyprian goes even one step further: he not only emphasises the unity of the people of God with its own individual bishop, but also adds that no one should imagine that he can be in communion with just a few, for ‘the Catholic Church is not split or divided’ but ‘united and held together by the glue of the mutual cohesion of the bishops’ (Ep., 66,8).
No bishop should feel free to march to his own drummer. (or dance to his own liturgical dance tune) When he does, he not only puts the spiritual welfare of his diocesan flock at risk, but that of the entire Catholic communion as well. Only prideful arrogance can account for a bishop’s decision to ignore the primacy of Peter and discount directives from Rome. As the bishops meet this summer, I hope they can grasp that they are Roman Catholic Bishops in America, not American Catholic Bishops. While America may set the standards for the world in economics, technology, fashion, and entertainment, Rome must set the ecclesiastical standards for Catholics in America.