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Paul D. McNelis, S.J.September 22, 2023
Pope Francis speaks with bishops from Colombia on the final day of their “ad limina” visit to the Vatican on March 24, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis speaks with bishops from Colombia on the final day of their “ad limina” visit to the Vatican on March 24, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)  

See an update, based on the synthesis document from the October 2023 meeting of the Synod on Synodality, below. 

As we prepare for the next phase of the Synod on Synodality, we have heard much talk from the information-gathering process about greater inclusion and diversity in church governance. However, there has been little discussion about the shape of the church hierarchy, particularly with respect to accountability for performance.

We often think of the accountability of the parish priest to the diocesan bishop or local ordinary. But for better and worse, the hierarchical structure stops there. Yes, each diocesan bishop reports to the pope. But there are over 3,000 diocesan jurisdictions in the Roman Catholic Church. Among the leaders of these local jurisdictions are “ordinaries” with the titles of bishop, archbishop and cardinal. While the variety of these titles give the impression of a hierarchical structure, there really is none. At the level of diocesan leadership, the hierarchy flattens out.

Yes, each diocesan bishop reports to the pope. But there are over 3,000 diocesan jurisdictions in the Roman Catholic Church.

Most countries have a national conference of bishops that, among other functions, makes statements about public policy, but it has no real jurisdiction over its members. There are also ecclesiastical provinces, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles and San Francisco in California, in which an archbishop, called a metropolitan, presides at meetings of the ordinaries, but the bishops are not officially accountable to their metropolitan. Finally, there are Vatican diplomats, called apostolic nuncios, assigned to particular countries, but they have no jurisdiction over the ordinaries in their countries, and their role is only advisory to the Dicastery for Bishops in Rome. In legal terms, each diocese is a “corporation sole,” under one person, with no corporate board of trustees.

So we have more than 3,000 ordinaries reporting directly to the Bishop of Rome, who is aided in the governance of bishops by the Dicastery for Bishops with a cardinal as its prefect. This is akin to 3,000 professors reporting directly to a university president, with department chairs and deans having only ceremonial authority.

What happens when an ordinary is not performing well? I am not referring here to episcopal negligence or misconduct related to finances or the abuse of minors. I mean normal performance evaluation.

I am not referring here to episcopal negligence or misconduct related to finances or the abuse of minors. I mean normal performance evaluation.

Of course, the ordination of a bishop includes a prayer for the charism of good governance. Bishops are carefully vetted by the nuncios and by the Dicastery for Bishops before they are assigned by the pope to their respective dioceses, but these appointments are made with less-than-perfect information. Some bishops are able to hit the ground running when they assume governance of their diocese, but others may need more guidance. Regular performance reviews, as found in most career fields, could help both them and the people under their pastoral care.

As a professor, I have benefited from feedback from students, peer reviewers at academic journals and regular merit reviews. Similarly, medical doctors must pass regular exams to maintain board certification. Again, I am not referring to disciplinary matters. (Universities follow special procedures for plagiarism and other violations of codes of conduct.) I am speaking about effective performance.

One important distinction is that bishops are not doing their jobs with an eye toward salary increases or promotion (at least we hope not). We can take it on faith that they want to be more effective in their apostolic mission. So the metrics for performance review should entail more than statistics about sacramental participation. Reviews should include intangible factors such as the morale of the local clergy, the participation of the laity in the governance of local churches, transparency in decision making, the ability of the bishop and pastors to communicate with one another and with their lay colleagues and confidence in the pastoral care and formation of young people in matters of faith.

Many diocesan bishops have clearly succeeded in these intangibles, but in dioceses where they have not, there is a loss of morale among the clergy and laity. Again, this is not about misconduct relating to finances or sexual abuse. This is about being an effective pastor. These intangible factors could be measured through confidential interviews with clergy and lay leaders by an evaluation team, and there could also be more extensive surveys of parishioners.

Some bishops are able to hit the ground running when they assume governance of their diocese, but others may need more guidance.

Yes, bishops do go on ad limina visits to Rome every five years to give an account of their governance, but that is directly to the Dicastery for Bishops. Every five years is too infrequent, and Rome is too distant from the conditions in the dioceses themselves for clear feedback.

In some cases, there is no real evaluation unless it becomes obvious that there is misgovernance by a bishop, in which case the laypeople and priests of the diocese, and sometimes neighboring bishops, write to the nuncio, who forwards these complaints to the Dicastery for Bishops. After further assessment, the dicastery may appoint several bishops to make an apostolic visitation to the diocese. After a visitation, often with consultation with the Dicastery for Bishops, the pope can remove the ordinary or to invite him to resign, perhaps “for reasons of health.” But these are rare situations and often come too late, after much damage has been done in a diocese.

Is this a good way to run a railroad, as the saying goes? Rather than leave matters to the nuncio, the Dicastery for Bishops and apostolic visitors, why not have regular performance reviews for diocesan bishops? Can we prevent problems in performance from turning into full-blown crises of misgovernance requiring intervention by the Vatican?

Bishops have the grace of office for apostolic governance, but we know that grace builds on nature. I am not suggesting a new level of authority between the pope and bishops, but the church can institute procedures for regular, formal and fraternal review.

Pope Francis has often warned against the spirit of clericalism, or an “elitist manner,” as detrimental to the church’s ministries and charisms. The Synod on Synodality would be a good starting point for exploring how to mitigate this ever-present spirit in favor of more humble and effective leadership in our church. As it has done in the past, the church can and should learn from other institutions how to reform itself and improve.

Update (9/15/23): The synthesis report from this year’s session of the Synod on Synodality includes the following:

It is necessary to implement, in forms legally yet to be defined, structures and processes for regular review of the bishop’s performance, with reference to the style of his authority, the economic administration of the diocese’s assets, and the functioning of participatory bodies, and safeguarding against all possible kinds of abuse. A culture of accountability is an integral part of a synodal Church that promotes co-responsibility, as well as safeguarding against abuses. [12j]

Let us hope that this recommendation is implemented soon. However, performance review should not be about actions such as abuse or the coverup of abuse, which are subject to federal or state law. Why is safeguarding against abuse a part of “performance review”? No one would suggest “performance reviews” about theft, would they? No, instead we have federal or state prosecution, and under canon law, there is already disciplinary action against theft.

Performance reviews should, of course, recognize such violations when they take place, but there should be broader forms of evaluation apart from official responses to abuse or theft. In corporate governance, board members represent the interest of the shareholders and regularly review the performance of a chief executive officer. The “shareholders” of a diocese, of course, compose both the universal and local church, and perhaps diocesan bishops should have similar accountability (mutatis mutandis) to this type of board, while remaining subject to the final authority of the pope and the Congregation of Bishops.

There are already diocesan consultors, and pastoral councils, to be sure, but they are either appointed by the local ordinary or elected within the diocesan organization, and thus subject to the authority of the local bishop. The board members who review the performance of a bishop should not be priests or laity subject to the bishop’s authority. Instead, they should be members of neighboring dioceses. Once in place, such a board could evolve on its own, with new members elected by the board members rather than appointed by the diocesan bishop.

The development of effective mechanisms for performance review of diocesan ordinaries will be an ongoing task for church governance, as noted in the synod synthesis report. There will be adaptations over time. But there is no reason not to start now, as an early outcome of the Synod on Synodality.

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