There's an old saying, "It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good." It appears in many places, but its classic source seems to be Shakespeare's Henry IV.
For our purposes, the "ill wind" is the negative reaction of over 60 U.S. Catholic bishops to the University of Notre Dame's invitation to the President of the United States to deliver this year's Commencement address and to receive an honorary doctorate of laws.
What "good" did this "ill wind" blow? It focused the attention of many in the Catholic church on the quality of recent appointments to the hierarchy.
By "recent," I mean since the election of John Paul II to the papacy in 1978 and especially since the dismissal of Archbishop Jean Jadot as the Holy See's Apostolic Delegate to the United States in 1980.
Prior to that time, Archbishop Jadot, with the full support of Pope Paul VI, saw to the appoint-ment of so-called "pastoral" bishops, that is, bishops who placed a higher premium on their ministry to their own people than on their obligation of loyalty to the Holy See.
During the past decade this column has been addressing the question of episcopal appointments with some frequency, and as recently as three weeks ago on what I referred to as "the leadership crisis" in the Catholic church.
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In the week of May 18, 1998, I acknowledged that there had been a "growing concern" about the quality of appointments to the hierarchy, and that this concern has been expressed even by bishops themselves, who felt that their opinions of potential candidates were neither sought nor respected by the Vatican.
In the summer of 2002, the year in which the sexual-abuse scandal erupted with uncommon force and exposed the failure of some of the bishops to deal with the crisis effectively, I did a series on the selection of bishops. I pointed out that it is a relatively new development that the pope appoints all the bishops in the Roman Catholic church.
For most of the history of the church, especially during the First Christian Millennium, the selection of bishops rested with the clergy and laity of each diocese, in keeping with Pope Leo the Great's dictum, "He who is to preside over all must be elected by all."
Today's common practice in which bishops move up a career ladder from a smaller diocese to a larger diocese, and from bishop to archbishop, was explicitly prohibited by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and again by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
A reform movement in the 11th century tried unsuccessfully to restore the ancient practice where the clergy and laity as well as the neighboring bishops played a key part in the selection process.
Pope Pius VII's concordat with Napoleon in 1801 had the unprecedented effect of vesting in the pope alone the power to appoint and remove bishops anywhere in the Roman Catholic church. It is a system that has remained in place ever since.
"The fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with the will of Christ or with the authentic tradition of the church," I wrote, "seems to escape many Catholics, even many bishops" (week of 8/12/02).
I ended the following week's column with these two paragraphs:
"Few people would actually favor a process in which every baptized Catholic within a diocese could vote for a new bishop. The question of active-versus-inactive Catholic would legitimately arise, and so, too, would the concern about political-style campaigning that relies heavily on advertising and media sound-bites."
"However, any system that increases participation would be better than the present one" (week of 8/19/02).
Four years later I wrote that "the crisis of pastoral leadership is a major contribut-ing factor to almost all the problems now facing the church" (7/3/06). Afterward, a retired bishop sent me a letter of support, noting that "many on the parish level feel alienated and ... the divide between them and the hierarchy continues to widen."
Later that summer I pointed to the other, perhaps darker, side of the appointment problem, namely, the deliberate exclusion of good priests from serious consideration (9/4/06). I listed the names of auxiliary bishops who would have made excellent bishops in their own right if they had not been frozen in place after Archbishop Jadot's removal (11/5/07).
I also noted the contrast between the bishops recommended by Archbishop Jadot and appointed by Paul VI with those of a more recent vintage–the kind that believes, for example, that abortion "trumps" all other moral issues and that confrontation rather than seeking common ground is the only sure path to the church's missionary success.
© 2009 Richard P. McBrien. All rights reserved. Fr. McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.