We need a new way of choosing bishops

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Certain Catholics love to repeat ad nauseam that the church is not a democracy, especially when it comes to decision-making and the selection of leadership.

And thank God it is not.

Nor should it aspire to be if the democratic model is the dysfunctional political and electoral system at work in places like the United States.

But that doesn't mean all is well with the way the Roman church makes its pastoral-administrative decisions, discerns the call of the Spirit, or chooses its bishops.

Quite the contrary.

The inadequate leadership displayed by too many bishops in the United States and other parts of the world the past couple of decades has made that point painfully clear. One wonders how some of these men were ever put in a position of such weighty responsibility.

The most recent case that has American Catholics scratching their heads is that of Archbishop John Nienstedt.

The 68-year-old Detroit native resigned June 15 after seven disastrous years as the head of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. (He had an extra year there as the coadjutor archbishop.)

Some may think it uncharitable, but, no, it is not unfair to call his time in the Twin Cities a true disaster. And one that ended even worse.

Just about anyone in New Ulm could have predicted this. That's the smaller Minnesota diocese where the Vatican sent Nienstedt in 2001 to prepare him for promotion to the state's major see. His task was to "clean up the mess" (a favorite expression of conservative American monsignors in the Roman Curia) that Bishop Raymond Lucker left behind.

Lucker was a St. Paul native and was auxiliary bishop in the Twin Cities when he was appointed to New Ulm in 1975. Lucker was named when Belgian Archbishop Jean Jadot was apostolic delegate to Washington, and he came to be seen as one of the leading Second Vatican Council progressives in the U.S. hierarchy.

But within a few years after the election of John Paul II in 1978, he and other so-called "Jadot bishops" were being replaced by a more conservative crop of priests.

During Jadot's tenure (1973-1980), the tendency was to appoint "homegrown" bishops; that is, men who were natives of the diocese or area they were sent to be ordinary.

But when Archbishop Pio Laghi followed him as papal delegate (and then nuncio), that trend was gradually reversed. With all but rare exceptions, new bishops were appointed to dioceses that many of them had never even visited before and in states in other parts of the country.

It was a deliberate and, some say, cynical policy decision made by the cabal of cardinal-members and other officials of the Congregation for Bishops to keep the new "shepherds" more loyal to their masters in Rome than the unknown people they were sent to rule as if on a foreign mission.

Only a tiny minority of the priests and an even more miniscule section of the people in these dioceses were ever consulted about the candidates to be their new bishops. That trend has continued right up to the present. Who in New Ulm had ever heard of John Nienstedt? He was from Detroit, in a totally different ecclesiastical region, where he had been auxiliary bishop since 1996.

"Imported" to New Ulm and then to the Twin Cities, he was typical of most of the bishops in the United States.

In fact, only four of the 32 Latin Rite metropolitan archbishops in the country are "homegrown." The situation is similar in other parts of the world. Pope Francis was one of those who actually led his home diocese when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In any case, this is only one and perhaps the least bad feature of a very problematic episcopal appointment system.

While the apostolic nuncio is supposed to make discreet inquiries among a representation of the diocesan clergy and respected laypeople when he draws up the terna (or list of three names) of candidates that he submits to Rome, the process is extremely subjective and arbitrary.

There is an old boys' network of current bishops that tends to act as a self-preservation dynasty by promoting their protégés and friends to the episcopacy. Cardinals, especially those who are members of the Congregation for Bishops, are fundamental in pushing forward a candidate, especially for promotion to major posts.

Cardinal Edmund Szoka, for example, was largely responsible for making Nienstedt (his former secretary) a bishop. The late cardinal was known to have catapulted a number of other Michigan priests into the episcopacy, as well, including the current archbishops in Detroit and Hartford.

When Nienstedt resigned last week, the Vatican appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda as temporary administrator of St. Paul and Minnesota. The mechanisms surrounding this appointment make it problematic, too. Hebda, a church centrist with degrees in both civil and canon law, not even two years ago was named coadjutor to the embattled Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J. With some sort of acrobatics, he evidently intends to make frequent three-hour flights each way and do both jobs.

Perhaps Hebda, who was bishop of Gaylord, Mich., from 2009-2013, has become the Vatican's new troubleshooter to sort out problematic situations. But is he the only and wisest choice?

It certainly follows the same familiar pattern of the old boys' network.

Hebda, 55, is a priest from Pittsburgh, where he was personal secretary to then-Bishop Donald Wuerl (Rome classmate of Myers, who is originally from Illinois). Well aware that loaning a priest to the Vatican is an investment for a future dividend, Wuerl sent Hebda to Rome, where he worked for more than a dozen years at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. Incidentally, Myers was a member of that council.

And Wuerl is now Cardinal Wuerl, the latest (transplanted) archbishop of Washington and a member of the Congregation for Bishops.

How many priests and other baptized faithful had a voice in any of these appointments? Where are the concerns of any of them listened to seriously? The "election" of bishops (that's what the Holy See calls such appointments, underlining the more ancient practice) need not be done by widespread popular vote. In fact, that would be disaster.

But there should be a more serious and involved process that involves a significant representation of the entire community in identifying the most qualified and gifted leaders. And it should be the rule, not the exception, that the choice (or recommendation) of candidate generally be from the local clergy, especially in long-established dioceses.

Such an "election process" needs to be re-established, albeit with provisions for changed modern-day situations. While it is true that the church is not democracy, neither is it an oligarchy.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Robert Mickens' column, A Roman Observer, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the July 17-30, 2015 print issue under the headline: Disasters of the old boys' network.

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