The Office of a Bishop

John Donnelly, Marquette University

John Patrick Donnelly. The Office of a Bishop. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2002. Permalink:


ust months before Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses Contarini wrote his treatise at the request of a young Venetian nobleman, who had recently been named bishop of Bergamo. In 1517 Contarini was still a lay scholar on the cusp of distinguished career as a Venetian magistrate. In 1534 Paul III appointed him a cardinal and put him in charge of a committee to draw up plans for reforming the Catholic Church. Later he supervised important doctrinal discussions with Lutheran leaders which led to agreement on some important points but which ultimately broke down.

The Renaissance produced many treatises on how princes, courtiers and bishops should fulfill their duties. Contarim’s treatise stands out because it presents a layman’s view of what a bishop should be. His treatise contains two books. The first book outlines what a good man should be since a good bishop must first be a good man; it relies heavily on the writings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas and is highly theoretical. The second book is much more practical and explains how a bishop should arrange his day and how he should deal with the myriad of problems confronting a good pastor, effective administrator and a devout Christian.

Few of Contarini’s writings were published in his lifetime. His nephew determined to gather his manuscripts and publish his complete works, which appeared at Paris in 1571, with subsequent editions at Venice in 1578 and 1589. The Catholicism of 1571 was far more defensive than that of 1517. To avoid trouble with the Inquisition Contarini’s nephew and his assistants had to excise several passages which echoed Erasmus’s criticism of popular Catholic practices. The two Venetian editions under-went even stricter censorship. This volume is the first Latin edition since 1589 and the only complete English translation. By presenting the Latin text and English translation on facing pages, it should help students of Renaissance Latin. Footnotes clarify the sources of Contarini’s ideas. Readers will also be able to see how Counter-Reformation censorship worked because differences between the manuscript original, the Paris edition, and the Venetian editions are clearly indicated.