Daniel E. Burns: Don’t appoint bishops. Elect them.

U.S. bishops receive Communion during Mass in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary Jan. 3, 2019 at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois (CNS photo/Bob Roller).

This essay by Professor Daniel E. Burns on the problems and possibilities of electing bishops in the Catholic Church is part of a conversation with Professor Massimo Faggioli, whose essay can be read here.

I am grateful to Professor Massimo Faggioli for his generous response to my article in The New York Times proposing that our local clergy elect our bishops. I hope many others will join the conversation we are starting. If the structures of governance within our church are ever to be reformed—and the case of the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick strongly suggests that they need to be—then we will need a great many minds to work together in helping the church think this through.

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In my article I said that my proposed reform should transcend the tired liberal-conservative divisions within our church. I am delighted to see that at least our discussion does transcend those divisions. By focusing on a practical question of governance reform, Mr. Faggioli and I have found a great deal of common ground—more than he and I might have had in a debate over narrowly theological questions.

Here are the chief points, as stated by Mr. Faggioli, on which we are in perfect agreement:

“The narrative that the pope has always had exclusive right to appoint bishops has...become part of a certain papalist and ultramontanist ideology.”
“The process for the appointment of bishops should be updated.”
“We have to make sure that the local church has a role in both the selection and reception of the bishop.”
“The church’s institutional culture is still largely shaped too much by anti-democratic and monarchic, clericalist culture.”
“The church has a specificity that cannot be assimilated to political institutions.”

I am tempted just to stop here, as I am much more attached to these propositions as a basis for future reform than I am to my specific proposal. If we could get educated Catholics in this country to agree on what Mr. Faggioli and I already agree on, we would have laid the foundation for some very important collective thinking that needs to go on in the coming months and years. But since I do also remain fond of my proposal for the election of bishops, let me address Mr. Faggioli’s main criticisms of it.

“We have to make sure that the local church has a role in both the selection and reception of the bishop.”

Mr. Faggioli warns that the charming stories of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are not what we should expect from the messy and often acrimonious process of electing a bishop. The point is well taken. Augustine himself was deeply upset by the scandal of divisions in the Fussalan church over their arrogant and rapacious bishop Antoninus. But Augustine was much more upset at the sins of Antoninus that caused those divisions, and he never faulted the Fussalans for trying to expel Antoninus. Do we wish that they had patiently accepted this moral cadaver as their bishop?

Where bad men are in danger of being made bishops, we will have to choose either to accept them or to undertake the messy and acrimonious process of repelling them. That choice will always involve difficult tradeoffs between peace and justice. But right now, I would love to imagine any U.S. diocese showing one one-hundredth the level of interest in the choice of its bishop that the Fussalans showed for theirs. Overly rambunctious concern for ecclesial affairs is simply not a vice that the average American Catholic is prone to.

Long-distance historical analogies are helpful but inevitably weak. In Augustine’s Africa, a diocese was barely larger than our largest parishes. A better comparison would be to the 21st-century German-speaking dioceses in Europe that Mr. Faggioli refers to. Is their clergy’s election of bishops really so messy or acrimonious as to frighten us away from their example?

Where bad men are in danger of being made bishops, we will have to choose either to accept them or to undertake the messy and acrimonious process of repelling them.

Second, Mr. Faggioli warns that the move toward a Roman monopoly on bishop selection was historically “necessary for the freedom of the church in a growingly hostile political environment.” I hope that Mr. Faggioli will repeat this warning to defenders of the Vatican’s recent and still-secret agreement with China. If our only options were selection of bishops by the Roman Curia or nomination by the Chinese Communist Party, I would gladly concede the point and resign myself to the Curia’s vices. But our American priests and deacons are not the C.C.P. Is Mr. Faggioli worried that they may be unduly influenced by their hostile secular environment? I share the worry, but we have to ask what our alternatives are. In any fight with the powers of this world, I trust the current and upcoming generation of American clergy to last much longer than all the Curial officials who dipped their hands into the stream of money that former Cardinal McCarrick allegedly channeled through Rome.

Bishops would have an easier time acting like chief pastors if they could tighten their bonds with our shepherds on the ground.

Finally, Mr. Faggioli warns that it would be strange to adopt democracy in the church when our secular democratic institutions seem to be faring so poorly. Yet he also rightly insists that church governance will never be perfectly analogous to political governance. I advocate elections by the clergy, not the laity, and I trust that our clergy will manage to avoid forming SuperPACs. Nonetheless, I believe we agree that the church can learn from secular institutions with similar governance structures. The church might, for example, benefit from a more independent judiciary, as Joseph Ratzinger suggested emphatically in both 1970 and 2000. The church would also benefit if bishops felt more like local leaders and less like regional managers in a Rome-based nonprofit. One way to move in that direction would be to have the clergy elect their bishops.

I close by summarizing the main points from my article that Mr. Faggioli has not touched on. Our trust in our bishops has been shaken; our trust in our clergy, on the whole, remains intact. The Curia’s role in (and reaction to!) the McCarrick scandal has shown that Rome cannot adequately address the problem of sexual abuse in our church. Rome’s habit of shuffling bishops from diocese to diocese has contributed significantly to the crisis we are dealing with today. Bishops would have an easier time acting like chief pastors if they could tighten their bonds with our shepherds on the ground.

If my proposal stimulates Mr. Faggioli or others to come up with reforms that do a better job of addressing these and related problems in our church, it will have more than served its purpose.

[To read the essay by Professor Massimo Faggioli to which Professor Daniel E. Burns is responding, click here.]

Mike Macrie
1 week 2 days ago

I like it, Bishops elected by the Clergy of Priests, Nuns, and Deacons from the Parishes.

Frank Pray
1 week 2 days ago

There is a more fundamental question to be debated: is the laity qualified or even engaged enough to vote intelligently? As in Protestant denominations, would not this democratic “parish populist” movement easily turn into political infighting? Mike Marcie [commenting] takes a different and more manageable approach: priests, nuns, deacons and elders as the qualified voting population. I would include the participation of the Archbishop or Cardinal to allow a veto but only upon a clear showing of misconduct in the selection process. I would also include a select number of lay persons qualified to vote based on demonstrated faithfulness in following biblical and magisterial principles as leaders in the parish and dioscean community. See 1 Tim. 3:1-7. But let’s get even more practical: all bishops (and for that matter all clergy) should be required to pass a thorough background check, including interviews with friends, family, work associates, committee members, fellow clergy, and yes, seminarians and altar boys and girls, who are assured of freedom from any form of retaliation.

Jeanne Devine
5 days 22 hours ago

It hadn't occurred to me that clergy, and in fact anyone in ministry with access to children, youth and vulnerable adults, would NOT have been subjected to regular criminal background checks, especially after the Dallas Charter and "Spotlight". Silly me. Such sensible steps would have prevented some, though not all, of the abuse which has taken place so often. Yes, there's a first time, but after that time there should be a criminal record. And after the first time, the perpetrator should never be permitted to engage in ministry with children, youth and vulnerable adults.

Charles Erlinger
1 week 2 days ago

Would ALL clergy be eligible to vote? Hmmm.

Dan Riley
1 week 2 days ago

Professor Burns,

"Our trust in our bishops has been shaken; our trust in our clergy, on the whole, remains intact." Really? It does?

arthur mccaffrey
1 week 2 days ago

Right on Dan! makes you wonder where Burns has been for the last century. His proposals only make sense to me if you substitute laity for clergy as the proper folks to elect Bishops--and the laity --both men and women-- should be allowed to run for office as Bishop or Cardinal as well--otherwise we get the same "closed shop " of good ole boys that is at the root of all our current problems. Catholic laity need to be able to hire and fire their clergy, AND their Bishops/Cardinals....the time is long overdue for the emergence of an American Catholic Church instead of a Roman Catholic Church...the days of unaccountable little monarchs appointed by Rome are OVER!--no more vows or oaths of loyalty or secrecy to the Pope-- local elections of local candidates by the People of God, period!

Tim Donovan
1 week 2 days ago

Although I believe that most priests are good men faithful to their vows of celibacy, I agree that some priests have engaged in the horrible crime end mortal sin of sexually abusing children or vulnerable adults. I also agree that it would be beneficial if we laypeople had the right to comment on the selection of potential bishops. However, given the fact that according to surveys many Catholics don't believe in fundamental Church teachings, I don't believe it would be wise for the laity to elect bishops. For instance, surveys indicate that many Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Also, many condone or have engaged in pre-marital sex. Many Catholics also live together rather than get married. Also, many Catholics support gay marriage. I should point out that many years ago, as a Catholics who'd gay, I had sex with men. However, I regretted my acts, and received forgiveness and consolation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I also believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. I believe that it would be acceptable as a matter of equality for women as well as men to be ordained as priests. However St. Pope John Paul made it clear that only men can be priests. Nor do I support laypeople being able to fire our priests. I certainly have many friends who are Protestants. Also, my sister -in-laws and niece are Presbyterians. I certainly respect and often love these good people. However, I believe that if someone wants to have the right to hire and fire clergy, then one certainly has the right and ability to join a Protestant church where the congregation has the right to hire and fire clergy. Finally, I 'm saddened by your contention that "the time is long overdue for the emergence of an American Catholic Church..." The Church was founded by Jesus, and He gave authority to Peter ( who was the first Pope) to lead the Church in union with the bishops. Scripture teaches us Jesus said, "... that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it." ( Matthew 16: 18).

William McGovern
1 week 2 days ago

We need elected delegates from individual parishes along with priests, deacons, brothers and sisters to elect bishops. And those bishops should be subject to a term limit. That is the only way to assure accountability

Mark Miller
1 week 2 days ago

I agree that it would be good to have bishops with strong ties to a local community and that electing them would be helpful. Iirc, Frank Sullivan and Michael Buckley were both in favor of this when they taught grad students at Boston College. One of them also (again, iirc), suggested a three-part electorate: (1) local clergy, (2) local laity, and (3) bishops in the neighboring areas. Seems like a good system to me.

Mark Miller
1 week 2 days ago

I agree that it would be good to have bishops with strong ties to a local community and that electing them would be helpful. Iirc, Frank Sullivan and Michael Buckley were both in favor of this when they taught grad students at Boston College. One of them also (again, iirc), suggested a three-part electorate: (1) local clergy, (2) local laity, and (3) bishops in the neighboring areas. Seems like a good system to me.

Todd Witherell
1 week 2 days ago

Mr. Miller’s post seems quite solid to me. Andrew Greeley was also in favor of this to combat what he called “mitred bird brains”.

Bev Ceccanti
1 week 2 days ago

Why bother, many..'churches' already do that. The author doesn't accept that the authority that comes by ordination through the Successors of the Apostles comes from Jesus Christ Himself. What kinds of suckers allow themselves to be led around by a self designed fairy tale?. Oh.. I get it. They could design their church around whatever' 'sins' they wish to overturn....and live a convenient, self indulgent life called by a different name... of course. . a nice comfortable democratic church. What a bright idea.. but, as I mentioned, not a novel one. (Who is this guy?....... Keep him in Ecology)

Michael Bindner
1 week 1 day ago

The authority is pastoral and it is to witness to the resurrection of the Christ and of humanity. It is to serve, not to take honors as the Gentiles do.

Franklin Uroda
1 week 1 day ago

"Witness" yes. But we followers of Jesus need spiritual help on the various levels of our everyday lives: personal, family, local and state/national/international societies. "Pastoral" refers to the impelling needs of these areas.

barry colmuck
1 week 2 days ago

As for me, the topic is very complex. I completely agree with the author. The process of choosing bishops will be decided only by the church. I advise you to look more here. Thanks to the author.

Timothy Cardoso
1 week 1 day ago

I think the campaigning would be even worse than it is now. I think bishops should have terms and then go back to being a priest instead of a king.

Michael Bindner
1 week 1 day ago

I would have parishes hire lay deacon(ess)s who are ordained with no promises of celibacy, sacred continence, or obedience to anyone but their parish or diocesan agency. They, along with other clergy, would elect the bishop.

Franklin Uroda
1 week 1 day ago

Is the present episcopal rule reality creating a dire-really bad-situation in the USA, or is there just speculation that it might become so?

Greg Krohm
1 week 1 day ago

Interesting article. Yes, the selection process could be improved. But, I think a necessary companion reform is to hold bishops accountable for the errors and misdeeds in their ministry, whether over ethical issues or management of the resources and personnel of his diocese. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Catholic bishops are given near absolute power to rule their diocese with no practical limit except the cannon law requirement for resignation at age 75. Bishops should serve for a term (say 10 years) and have an objective review of their performance before a renewal in office.

Greg Krohm
1 week 1 day ago

Interesting article. Yes, the selection process could be improved. But, I think a necessary companion reform is to hold bishops accountable for the errors and misdeeds in their ministry, whether over ethical issues or management of the resources and personnel of his diocese. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Catholic bishops are given near absolute power to rule their diocese with no practical limit except the cannon law requirement for resignation at age 75. Bishops should serve for a term (say 10 years) and have an objective review of their performance before a renewal in office.

Paul Hierholzer
6 days 2 hours ago

Wonderful articles and dignified exchanges.

"Overly rambunctious concern for ecclesial affairs is simply not a vice that the average American Catholic is prone to." True, but clearly the hierarchy has preferred it that way through the ages, inducing the majority of Catholics with overly rambunctious concern for ecclesial affairs to go somewhere else. The laity should be permitted more power in ecclesial affairs.

Joan Sheridan
6 days 1 hour ago

I think priests are asked for suggestions when it comes to choosing their bishop.

THE CHRISTOFFERSONS
5 days 22 hours ago

Burns makes the following helpful statement: "Our trust in our bishops has been shaken; our trust in our clergy, on the whole, remains intact."

It is about trust. Should we not give some attention to how trust can be restored, not simply trust in bishops but trust in the laity. Both Faggioli and Burns state the evident problems with the conventional democratic process. The implicit judgment is that the laity cannot be trusted with selection of their bishops, the examples of Ambrose and Augustine being the exceptions that prove the rule.

We should work on ways to establish trust in lay participation in selection of bishops. There is a model in common experience for doing this. For example, while we do not trust public opinion to decide the outcome of a dispute that makes headlines, we do entrust such decisions to a jury of citizens who are brought together for this purpose.

Could we not adapt this process to suit a different purpose? What the church needs is discernment, not a particular protocol for making decisions. "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am" (Matthew 18:20). Could we not gather in small circles of eight or ten to listen to one another in prayer to reflect upon who might be our next bishop?

The advantage of such a setting for community reflection would be that different viewpoints would have the benefit of hearing others out. The dignity of both the individual participants and the group would be preserved by writing down as many different reflections as needed so that every participant -- and the Spirit in every participant -- has a voice. Such a process, over time, might earn the trust of the larger community.

This kind of participation by the laity might not be decisive, but it would be real participation. Too many advocates of lay participation misconceive lay participation using the decisive model of monarchy, hierarchy and representative democracy. A more Christ centered model would focus on discernment and accept the diversity that emerges from that discernment as perhaps a gentle suggestion that consensus in the matter is of human rather than divine origin.

The human requirement is that there be only one bishop at a time in a diocese. But the long history of the various methods of choosing a bishop would surely be improved by adding a mechanism that frames lay participation in terms of gatherings for discernment in Christ's name.

Leo Sprietsma
5 days 1 hour ago

The problem with having 'clerics' elect their on 'head cleric' is that it perpetuates the 'clerical system'.
If we ever wish to eliminat 'clericalism' it will mean that we will need to devise a substitute for the whole 'clerical system'.

That will of necessity require that we consider appointing, ordaining, LAITY to do all those tasks that we now consign to 'professional' and perpetual Clerics.

Perhaps we might consider that the tasks might be distributed among many different people - those who have 'the gift' and ability, and that they might be consigned by the Bishop and people for as long as everyone is willing, and the person is able and capable. The assignment to a task need not be permanent and unchangeable.

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