The current method of selecting bishops runs contrary to church tradition

Robert Mickens' column calling for a new way of choosing bishops is most timely. Although the Code of Canon Law of 1983 (c. 377) says that the pope freely appoints bishops, papal appointment is contrary to the church's centurieslong tradition of the election of bishops by the clergy and people of the diocese.

Pope Leo I the Great emphatically affirmed that right when he declared: "The one who is to preside over all should be elected by all." He added: "When the election of the chief priest is being considered, the one whom the unanimous consent of the clergy and people demands should be preferred. ... No one who is unwanted and unasked for should be ordained, lest the city despise or hate a bishop whom they did not choose."

The right of the clergy and people of the diocese to choose their bishops is hallowed by usage from the earliest times by canons enacted by church councils and by repeated papal affirmation.

Today, however, scarcely any vestige remains of that venerable custom. Rather, the pope, without the active participation of the clergy and people, appoints the bishops, choosing men known for their fidelity to the papacy and their doctrinal orthodoxy. The pope also exercises the right to transfer bishops, thereby encouraging the popular conception that they are merely branch managers of a centralized corporation whose primary allegiance will always be to the pope and not to the people they serve.

The transfer of bishops is so common that it seems like an embarrassing game of musical chairs. Bishops are seldom chosen to govern a diocese where they served as priests and thus are strangers to the priests and people committed to their care. Smaller dioceses are often viewed as stepping stones to more important prizes. In ancient times, the bishop was described as wedded to his diocese and his ring was the visible sign of that nuptial bond. Pope Callistus I described a bishop who transferred to another diocese as a "spiritual adulterer."

Sign up for Copy Desk Daily to receive a daily email with our latest news stories.

Vatican officials, including Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, decried the careerism of men ambitious for promotion to wealthier and more prestigious sees. "To be bishop," he said, "should not be considered a career with a number of steps, moving from one seat to another." In 1970, Ratzinger joined Hans Küng and other members of the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Tübingen in proposing an eight-year term for bishops. If bishops can be required to resign at 75, there is no reason why they cannot be elected for a limited number of years.

For many years, theologians, canonists and church historians have called for reform of the process of making bishops. Reform is essential, but it will have little meaning if the bishops do not alter their governing style to be more attentive and accountable to their people. If a bishop is again to enjoy the confidence and respect of the faithful, he must know his people, abandon all imperial pretense and mingle with them regularly.

He must seek their counsel and consent in all that touches their faith and Christian life. He must acknowledge that he is accountable to them, and setting all secrecy aside, he must be transparent in his leadership. He must abandon forever medieval pomp and pomposity and adopt a simpler lifestyle indicative of his role as the servant of God and God's people. He must understand that while he is leader and teacher, the people are his equals inasmuch as both he and they, by virtue of baptism, are equally disciples of Jesus. If he truly shows himself to be a follower of Jesus, the faithful may indeed take up the ancient cry used in episcopal elections: "He is worthy!"

[Joseph F. O'Callaghan is professor emeritus of history at Fordham University. He is the author of Electing Our Bishops: How the Catholic Church Should Choose Its Leaders.]


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement