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.
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.