Massimo Faggioli: Electing bishops will not solve the church’s problems.

U.S. bishops pray during Mass in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary on Jan. 3, 2019 (CNS photo/Bob Roller).

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

The systemic failure of leadership shown by the bishops in the clerical sexual abuse crisis has revived the centuries-old debate on the procedures for the recommendation and appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church.

Advertisement

Remembering a few historical realities can help us frame the issue. The first is that the power of the pope alone to appoint bishops is a quite recent development in church history. The appointment of bishops has been for most of the history of the church in the hands of no one person only but of a quite diverse typology of actors (local clergy and laity, brothers in the episcopate from the same province, canons of the cathedral, Catholic emperors and kings, and local aristocracy). These players in the institutional life of the church took part in the selection of bishops in different forms that were often unwritten and shaped by customs—and distinct from what we mean by “democratic election.”

The most important element in the appointment of a bishop was not the prelate being chosen by the pope but being in communion with the pope. This is why the recent agreement between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China about the process of bishops’ appointments there has many precedents in history.

The problem with letting the clergy elect bishops is not a theological problem, but mostly a historical and institutional one.

Things changed with the French Revolution. It was a disaster overall for the Catholic Church, but it paradoxically resulted in the papacy accelerating its assumption of the exclusive power of episcopal appointment at the expense of all other ecclesial and non-ecclesial actors. The narrative that the pope has always had exclusive right to appoint bishops has since become part of a certain papalist and ultramontanist ideology.

So what is the problem with the proposal of letting the clergy elect bishops, as it was articulated by the University of Dallas professor Daniel E. Burns in an op-ed published in October in The New York Times? It is not a theological problem, in my opinion, but mostly a historical and institutional one.

The historical, or historiographical, problem is that the accepted narrative on bishops who had been elected per clerum et populum gives us a very selective picture of what happened when “the clergy and the people” were in charge of electing their local bishops, mostly in the first millennium. The frequency of canonical legislation (mostly in conciliar decrees) in the first millennium on the rules for the election of the bishops tell us that there was a history of contested elections, of candidates imposed on local churches, of clashes between the people and their bishops. See, for example, the case of the disastrous tenure of Antoninus, the bishop of Fussala (circa 415-423)—a bishop opposed by his own people and a famous case that St. Augustine talks about in his letters.

A second historiographical problem is that much of the scholarship produced to make a case for a return to the selection of bishops by local churches rather than by Rome was clearly influenced by Gallicanism and the various forms of episcopalism in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. What that historiography does not tell us is that Rome’s assumption of the exclusive right to appoint bishops was necessary for the freedom of the church in a growingly hostile political environment. Local “elections” of bishops took place in a church embedded in a Christian, Roman Empire and its institutional successor in Europe and the Mediterranean in the first few centuries of Christianity. Post-revolutionary France or post-unification Italy was another matter.

If there ever was a time to institute democracy in the church, that time is not now, given the sorry state of our democratic institutions today.

There is no question that the process for the appointment of bishops should be updated. At the Council of Trent in 1563, a deep rift between different proposals for a reform of the procedure prevented a conciliar reform of the matter. And the bishops at the Second Vatican Council were explicitly prohibited from addressing the issue because the procedure of episcopal appointment had become part of the concordats between the Holy See and many countries—some of them being negotiated by papal diplomats while Vatican II was in session.

But now there are good reasons to be skeptical about the adoption of procedures of direct democracy in the selection of bishops. The church has a specificity that cannot be assimilated to political institutions. Moreover, if there ever was a time to institute democracy in the church, that time is not now, given the sorry state of our democratic institutions today.

That being said, the church’s institutional culture is still largely shaped too much by anti-democratic and monarchic, clericalist culture. The role of local churches in the selection of bishops should be stronger. In some cases, especially in some German-speaking dioceses in Europe, we still have different forms of participation (for example, of the canons of the cathedral), which Rome tried to neutralize in recent decades (for example, the Diocese of Chur in Switzerland in 1957 and in 1988-1990, when Rome appointed coadjutor bishops with right of succession, thus neutralizing the prerogatives of the chapter of the cathedral in terms of choice of the bishop to be confirmed by the Holy See). These examples of participation of the local church in decision-making should be preserved and strengthened.

Rome’s appointment is only the first step in the process to be a bishop: The reception of the bishop by his diocese will have more importance in a post-Christendom Catholicism.

But there should not be a direct election of the bishops by all the diocesan clergy; rather, there should be a wider process of hearing from the local church—clergy and laity—about what candidates should be recommended to Rome. Also, in the context of the sexual abuse crisis, it is more and more clear that Rome’s appointment is only the first step in the process to be a bishop: The reception of the bishop by his diocese will have more importance in a post-Christendom Catholicism.

We have to make sure that the local church has a role in both the selection and reception of the bishop in order to bridge the disconnect between the urbs and the orbis. But the election of bishops with procedures similar to democratic elections would only exacerbate all kinds of rifts in the Catholic Church today.

[To read a response to Professor Massimo Faggioli by Professor Daniel E. Burns, click here.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Charlie Cosgrove
4 months 1 week ago

Every priest who is proposed for elevation to Bishop (or any position with “Bishop” in the title), should be required to have a minimum of 20 years experience as a parish priest for elevation to Bishop in every instance with no exceptions. Every proposed nominee to Bishop (or any position with “Bishop” in the title), Archbishop or Cardinal must include a criminal background investigation. The review should also include a public announcement of the name to include a biography of the individual and an opportunity for the laity to comment on the proposed nomination. At a minimum, the public announcement and opportunity to comment by laity should be publicly announced in every diocese and parish where the nominee has lived or served as a priest. Apparently the Chinese government will provide nominees for Bishops. Thus, we are presented with another real disconnect between the Church hierarchy and the laity – the Communist, totalitarian, atheistic government of China will provide recommendations on Bishops, but not the Catholic laity - res ipsa loquitur.

Tim Donovan
4 months 1 week ago

I agree that it would be beneficial both for candidates to be bishop as well as the laity that each one first serve for many years in a parish. Such service would help a future bishop learn about the needs of the people. Prior to becoming a teacher, I was required to have a criminal background check. I believe that it's necessary for potential bishops to be vetted in order to assure that they are good men who (hopefully) won't engage in any immoral or criminal behavior. Finally, although I believe that it's the responsibility of the Pope to appoint bishops, that it would be helpful for the Pope to have the input of the laity.

Randal Agostini
4 months ago

I agree with C. Cosgrove, with one exception: ten of the twenty years could be served elsewhere, such as a college chaplain, again with appropriate laity input.

Randal Agostini
4 months ago

I agree with C. Cosgrove, with one exception: ten of the twenty years could be served elsewhere, such as a college chaplain, again with appropriate laity input.

Chivas Dudley
4 months 1 week ago

We believe the process is guided by the Holy Spirit. So why would there even be a problem.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 1 week ago

I guess the answer is that it's "guided," not "controlled."

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
4 months 1 week ago

I agree that bishops should not be elected. Christ presumably knew what he was doing when he chose the apostles. The apostles presumably were following the Holy Spirit when they selected fellow bishops and their successors, e.g. St. Paul, the successor to Judas Iscariot. As well, presumably the apostles followed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when they created the Order of Deacon.
I think the problem is really one of people having the courage to speak-up and force the issue. Even I, who have never had any contact with Archbishop McCarrick, heard rumors. Archbishop Vigano tried to tell the present Pope; evidently, Pope Benedict took some sort of protective action, but what about the other people who knew for a fact that the archbishop was diddling seminarians? Why didn't they speak-up? Why were the settlements in Newark not a factor in choosing him for Washington, D.C. and his elevation to cardinalatial privilege? And he is not the only bishop who was ordained a bishop and moved-on despite on-going investigations of accusations.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
4 months 1 week ago

I agree that bishops should not be elected. Christ presumably knew what he was doing when he chose the apostles. The apostles presumably were following the Holy Spirit when they selected fellow bishops and their successors, e.g. St. Paul, the successor to Judas Iscariot. As well, presumably the apostles followed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when they created the Order of Deacon.
I think the problem is really one of people having the courage to speak-up and force the issue. Even I, who have never had any contact with Archbishop McCarrick, heard rumors. Archbishop Vigano tried to tell the present Pope; evidently, Pope Benedict took some sort of protective action, but what about the other people who knew for a fact that the archbishop was diddling seminarians? Why didn't they speak-up? Why were the settlements in Newark not a factor in choosing him for Washington, D.C. and his elevation to cardinalatial privilege? And he is not the only bishop who was ordained a bishop and moved-on despite on-going investigations of accusations.

arthur mccaffrey
4 months 1 week ago

see my comments on Burns's article. There is no problem with democratic election of Bishops in democratic America--but there is a problem with autocratic appointment of Bishops by a foreign power =the Vatican.
The current system is institutionalization of all appointments, and we have seen how institutional priority and protection trumped care and concern for abuse victims ---in fact it fostered collusion by Bishops who covered up many crimes in order to protect the institution over children--that collusion and coverup being a crime in itself. Unaccountable little monarchs who thumb their noses at the American justice claiming that they are only accountable to the Pope need to be exposed for the dinosaurs that they are in 21st century America.

Tim Donovan
4 months 1 week ago

A priest who was my senior high school theology teacher raped a teen boy. Fortunately, he was prosecuted, found guilty and imprisoned. I certainly agree that any priest, bishop of cardinal who is guilty of sex abuse should be laicized, and turned over to the civil authorities for prosecution and when found guilty, imprisoned for a lengthy period of time. However, although I believe that clergy and laity should be able to recommend candidates for bishops, I don't support democratic election of bishops by we laypeople. First, who would be eligible to vote? There are numerous people who identify themselves as Catholics but rarely attend Mass and dissent from fundamental teachings of the Church. I might add that I'm not claiming to be an ideal Catholic. Many years ago, being gay, I had sex with men. However, I regretted my acts, and received forgiveness and consolation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Also, in my early twenties (I'm_now 56) I deliberately skipped Mass without just cause numerous times. Why? Ironically, although I believed in the teachings of the Church, I doubted the existence of God, as I saw so much suffering in the world. Also, I find it to be very unfortunate that you refer to the Vatican as a "foreign power." It's true that Vatican City is recognized as a nation. But although he makes mistakes ( don't we all?) I believe that the Pope is primarily a spiritual leader, granted by Jesus (who made Peter the first Pope) the authority, in union with the bishops, to lead our church. I might add that several times I have contributed modest sums to SNAP, a group that provides emotional support and other forms of assistance to survivors of priest sexual abuse. Finally, in many countries there is no democratic government. I would be very leery of people who are ruled by dictators or authoritarian governments to be able to vote for bishops.

Todd Witherell
4 months 1 week ago

The time for more democracy in the Church is indeed now. The abuse crisis has exposed appointed Bishops across the world, and certainly here in the U.S., as cowards and failures. The Catholic laity must fight them. The Wheel is still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’.

Isabel Sinton
4 months 1 week ago

Electing bishops won't resolve the 'problem '? How about firing bishops? This slap on the wrist isn't much of a deterrent. Fraternal Correction is a toothless concept. Most of us remember how Bernie Law was whisked of to Rome are given a cushy, prestigious job after protecting numerous pedophile priests and lying about it. The self-serving 'Old Boys Network' is not an acceptable way of running a religion. Yes. I know some say I am going to hell for saying this. I won't be alone, you drive the bus.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
4 months 1 week ago

Why would we be on a bus to hell? If more people regularly spoke-up, as you did in this comment, the frequency of sex abuse in the Church would be alot less of a problem. But we all sat back and said, it's the pope and bishops who are in charge. They must be dealing with it or why would they hold their offices? Well, we've seen that they are unwilling and incapable of addressing the problem in real-world terms. Give this pope the boot and alot of the cardinals and bishops with him.

Todd Witherell
4 months 1 week ago

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the other forms ever tried by human beings” - Winston Churchill

This would certainly include other forms tried by the Roman Catholic Church and countries with anti-democratic, indeed fascist histories (Italy, for example).

Christopher McNally
4 months 1 week ago

I agree with Professor Faggioli. Actors in the political sphere have intruded into the life of the Church and have too much influence over Church affairs. Just as dark money has acquired unhealthy influence over the electorate and public officials. Similarly they have acquired influence over the laity and clergy to elevate their issues within the Church. I cannot agree to a system that would grant them more influence and control.

mary ann Steppke
4 months 1 week ago

As a lay person and a member of the catholic church for over 75 years and an educated by the benedictines,jesuits and etc. I believe that the lay should be selected to vote for a bishop locally. We have always been left out . We really didn't fit anywhere before Vatocan 2 we were the workers without dignity and they let you know this by they i mean the clergy and i still am angry with this feeling through the years. This coverup of lies and deceit has affected my faith in the church and I am strong in my faith with God.

Ernie Sherretta
4 months 1 week ago

The problem is essentially the culture of Clericalism which must be eliminated. This not insurmountable but requires an openness of all the baptized to fulfill their baptismal anointing as priest, prophet, and king. This means women and men can be candidates for ordination to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy. Celibacy should be optional. Then the structure of Church authority and residence can change as well. Two books to read: Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood by George Wilson, SJ and The Other Side of the Altar by Paul Dinter will provide some insight into the possibility of these changes.

James Carney
4 months 1 week ago

We don't need to elect bishops, we just need an annual performance review from both the diocesan priests and the laity. In fact, we need this annual performance review of all parish priests by their respective congregations. These performance reviews should then be published, in at least summary form, on the diocesan website and in the diocesan newspaper. This process would do wonders to improve the pastoral performance of bishops and priests. But the Church, sadly, like all human institutions (I am referring here to its institutional character, not the divine establishment by Jesus), clings to its power and refuses to share authority or even allow public criticism by its members. Herein lies the real problem.

Advertisement

The latest from america

ARABIAN SEA (May 16, 2019) Lt. Nicholas Miller, from Spring, Texas, and Lt. Sean Ryan, from Gautier, Miss., launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet from the "Pukin' Dogs" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 143 on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeff Sherman/Released)
This month the increasingly bellicose rhetoric and actions emerging from the Trump administration under the guidance of Mr. Bolton have meant a sudden surge of alarm in the region. Will it mean another war in the Middle East?
Kevin ClarkeMay 20, 2019
Though the ruling African National Congress party (ANC) has won the South African elections, it has done so with a dwindling support of the popular vote.
Anthony EganMay 20, 2019
God is continually inviting us to growth and continually enabling us to let some things in our life die so that we can experience new life.
James Martin, S.J.May 20, 2019
“One of the first things that dictators do is to remove the freedom of the press,” he said.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 18, 2019