Cardinal: Francis considers mandating consultation of laity in bishop selection

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, attends a Vatican news conference held to sign a document appealing for action on climate change in October 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, attends a Vatican news conference held to sign a document appealing for action on climate change in October 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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One of the members of the Council of Cardinals said the group is considering whether to advise Pope Francis to make it mandatory for Vatican ambassadors to consult with laypeople before making recommendations for possible new bishops in the Catholic Church.

Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias suggested the nine-member group might recommend that ambassadors be instructed to consult with members of a diocese's pastoral or finance councils before passing on names of who to consider for bishop.

"This is a central matter for the church," Gracias said in a June 15 NCR interview. "The bishop is a central figure and the choice of a good bishop is very important for every church. If you choose the wrong person, things can be set back by years in the pastoral life of the church."

The pending recommendation from the Council of Cardinals could mark a significant shift for the church and for the role of Vatican ambassadors, known as apostolic nuncios.

While nuncios are currently allowed to consult laypeople when considering bishop candidates, they are not obligated to do so, and frequently put the focus of their consultations on current clergy members.

"We've had good nuncios," he said. "We're happy with the nunciatures. But we have left it to the discretion of the nuncio whether he will consult A or B, religious or laity. Somebody can decide, 'Well, it's not important for me.' "

"We were reflecting whether we should not make it obligatory," he said.

In a half-hour interview at the Vatican's Domus Sanctae Marthae, Gracias also spoke about his hope that the Vatican will decentralize more authority to local bishops and indicated his openness to the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.

On bishop selection, the cardinal said the council is also considering how to avoid allowing any kind of bias to enter into the process.

"If you know the diocese well ... you will know what this man would think and what that man would think," said Gracias, who leads India's Bombay archdiocese. "You could, without realizing it, ask only those who think in a particular way."

"Unconsciously a bias can come into the people you consult," he said. "So, remove that discretion to some extent to make it more objective."

More authority to bishops' conferences

Gracias also said the Council of Cardinals is considering how to decentralize more authority from the Vatican to local bishops. He said that with the growth of the church in different areas around the world in recent decades the Vatican might now consider relying more on national bishops' conferences.

"The church is so big ... you cannot have centralization," said the cardinal, who leads the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India and the pan-Asian Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. "One office here cannot know everything. It has got to give general directions."

"Ultimately, many permissions have got to come here which I think need not come here anymore," he said. "There was a time maybe when we did not have formed personnel in the local churches. Now we do."

Gracias cited figures that there are now about 5,100 Catholic bishops around the world. Under current canon law, he said, "there's the Holy Father and the bishop. There's no one else in-between. We report directly to the pope."

"There's got to be something else ... to help the Holy Father [and] to help the bishops also," said the cardinal.

"It's unthinkable for me today to go back to a system where there's no [bishops'] conference," he said. "It helps the dioceses so much in catechetics, in liturgy, in family apostolate. We share our experience [and] enrich each other."

One area Gracias said he thought bishops' conferences might be able to take the lead on is liturgical translations.

"[It] has been often asked for by bishops all over the world to help us to get this done at the local level," he said.

"One reason is they have knowledge of the language," he said. "How will you possibly check a language if you don't know it yourself?"

"We have to decentralize," said Gracias. "This church is too big. And today with the modern means of communication you can take advice and therefore conferences can play a very big role, a very big role in all of this."

Related: Bishops' president 'losing hope' Francis will visit India in 2017 (June 16, 2017)

Women deacons

One issue Gracias said the Council of Cardinals has not discussed at length is how to implement Francis' frequently mentioned desire that women have a more "incisive" presence in the leadership of the church.

"The Holy Father has expressed a desire more than once of not just having a superficial presence but a decision-making role" for women, he said. "I confess we have been so preoccupied with the Curia structures that we have not gone to this."

"It's something that will have to be on the agenda," he said.

Asked about the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, Gracias said he was waiting for the results of the commission Francis has created to study the matter.

"We're waiting for the result of that," he said. "We have to see what happened in the early church. I personally would have absolutely no difficulty with that."

'Amoris Laetitia' and church teaching on conscience

The cardinal also spoke about how the Indian bishops' conference is implementing Francis' 2016 apostolic exhortation on family life, Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love.")

He said that while commentary about the document in the western world has focused on whether it has developed church teaching on divorce and remarriage, the Indian bishops have focused more on its passages about how priests can accompany couples in the first years of their marriage and help those facing difficulties.

Gracias said the Indian bishops had decided at a recent meeting not to make a statement about Amoris Laetitia's eighth chapter, which calls for "pastoral discernment" towards Catholics who have entered into second marriages without seeking annulments of their first unions.

"We said we were not making any statement on chapter eight," said the cardinal about the Indian bishops' meeting. "We felt that it restated the position of the church and moral theology, while leaving open discussion."

Gracias said he thought the exhortation developed the church's teaching on respecting decisions an individual makes in conscience.

"I felt that it was a development but with its roots in Familiaris Consortio and traditional moral theology," he said, referring to Pope John Paul II's 1981 apostolic exhortation on family.

"I think it's a development in a sense that now we're paying attention to this and applying it, but it is not a change," he said. "That's what's rather clear to me."

Gracias, who has a doctorate in canon law and led Bombay's church tribunal court in the 1980s before becoming a bishop, said Amoris Laetitia puts more responsibility on individuals to determine what is possible in their lives.

"I know from close-up there are cases which really are clear but you can't prove it," said the cardinal, referring to people who are seeking annulments but cannot prove the invalidity of their marriage.

"What do you do?" he asked. "Should that person be stuck for life without sacraments?"

"I must say it's unclear," said Gracias. "We've got to think it over, reflect on it, discuss it and develop it."

"Somebody had to face this question sometime," he said. "I'm happy the pope has brought it out into the open. Perhaps many weren't ready for that, the shock, but it is true that we've got to face that reality. They just can't be left on the roadside."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 30-July 13, 2017 print issue.

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