New ARCIC document issues call for episcopal and ecumenical accountability

Is now the time for the Catholic Church seriously to consider local election of bishops and their accountability to the local people in synod?

Pope Francis delivers a joint blessing with Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios of Italy and Malta and Anglican Archbishop David Moxon, the archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican, during an ecumenical prayer service to conclude the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome Jan. 25, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Having spent the first twenty-five years of my life in the Anglican Church of Canada, I have long hoped for Anglican-Catholic unity. Starting as a high-school student in the 1980s I read all the documents of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) over the past four decades. By the end of the 1990s, however, after traveling the globe with and for the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies, I came to realize that unity within Anglicanism was increasingly imperiled. And unity between Anglicans and Catholics looked more in doubt than ever, leading such distinguished theologians as the English Dominican Aidan Nichols to begin calling unity an ‘eschatological prospect’.

That led some Catholics to wonder why we still bother with ecumenical dialogue. Pope St. John Paul II had several answers to that in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint. There and elsewhere he spoke of an ecumenical “gift exchange” (cf. Lumen gentium 13). That concept abounds through a new ARCIC document released just last week, titled “Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church — Local, Regional, Universal”.

This document is striking not just for its ideas, whose relevance could not be clearer in this difficult moment in Church history, but also for its tone. I’ve read many ecumenical documents, and they are almost always relentlessly chipper—but this newest document from ARCIC is much more sober, restrained, and realistic. Indeed, surprisingly, in places it speaks of the need for self-criticism, which is a very welcome thing.

The usefulness of this document comes, to my mind, in its timing. Catholics are being inundated just now with news about sex scandals and bishops: Cardinal McCarrick here in the United States; the Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson just sentenced to a year’s detention for covering up abuse; the mass resignation of Chile’s bishops, some of them now accepted by Pope Francis; and Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jullundur in India under investigation after a nun alleged he raped her. Increasingly the question frustrated Catholics are asking is: what is to be done?

One thing Catholics could do is read this new document and to consider the gifts that Anglicans have to offer in their polity and practices of lay and priestly involvement in church governance. As the document notes, we need “to look humbly at what is not working effectively within one’s own tradition, and…to ask whether this might be helped by receptive learning from the understanding, structures, practices, and judgements of the other” (no.78; their emphasis). What is painfully, overwhelmingly clear by now is that we Catholics lack an effective system of episcopal accountability.

Here is where an ecumenical exchange may find its most valuable gift to date: the Anglican model of bishop-in-synod, with mutual lines of accountability. This will be a great novelty to Catholics, not least because, for all its reputation as a ‘progressive’ or ‘pastoral’ council, Vatican II was actually highly regressive in that the resulting 1983 Code of Canon Law, updated to reflect the council, actually downgraded the role of diocesan synods and regional councils from the stricter requirements Trent had put in place. And in 35 years, few have seen that as a problem—until this new ARCIC document was published.

Prior to entering the Catholic Church in 1997, I grew up in the Diocese of Huron, an Anglican jurisdiction hugging the lake of that name in southwestern Ontario. At the time of its foundation in the mid-nineteenth century, it pioneered a polity that would go on to become common around the Anglican world (except England): a diocesan synod electing its own bishop and meeting annually with that bishop for mutual accountability. The synod, several of which I took part in myself as a youth delegate, is composed of lay delegates and clergy from each parish. Its job is to elect the bishop and then work with him each year by passing legislation whose implementation is left up to bishops as the executive authority deciding how, or whether, to implement it. In some cases, bishops have a veto. Bishops, in turn, must report each year to the synod on what they have been doing. Synods can pass motions of censure, or vote to refrain from giving the bishop money for his budget.

This model is similar in part to that used in some of the Orthodox Churches, as I show in great detail elsewhere (see my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy). Two in particular stand out: the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Both have much that we could learn from, for both give prominent and important roles to their laity and parish clergy in regular synods. The Armenian Church is particularly unique in giving lay people and parish clergy a vote in electing all their hierarchs—from the local bishop to the regional patriarch, to the universal Catholicos of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin.

After Vatican I, whose centralizing tendencies Vatican II uncritically repeated, the perception—quite faulty—grew up that synods and other local and regional bodies would somehow detract from papal authority, and they have largely disappeared in the Western Church. But this new ARCIC document reminds us that they remain hugely important as a means of ensuring greater local accountability, and thus quite possibly preventing much of the cover-up of abuse now coming to light.

Beyond such pragmatic goods, there are serious and solid theological reasons for this model of bishop-in-synod with his parish clergy and people. This new ARCIC document is at its strongest when it argues, with pellucid orthodoxy, that the Catholic Church’s lack of involvement of the laity and clergy in episcopal election and accountability does “not give adequate recognition to the anointing of all the baptized and their share in the Good Shepherd’s pastoral ministry. The reciprocal dependence on and ordering to each other of the laity and the ordained is not sufficiently expressed” (no.94). Such a lacuna in Catholic teaching and practice is made all the stranger—as the document notes earlier on (no.83)—when one considers just how many lay people fill crucial roles in the church today—most parishes, schools, universities, charities, and chanceries would collapse overnight if their lay staff left.

And yet lay people have no official, regular, and stable role in episcopal or priestly election and accountability. As a result of this, ARCIC continues, “sometimes bishops and parish priests have an authority of governance that is without sufficient checks and balances on the part of those governed” (no.95). Never have Catholics been more painfully aware of this than in 2018.

Never, then, has the moment been more ripe for Catholics, as Pope John Paul II suggested, to be open to the Anglican gift of annual diocesan synods with full priestly and lay involvement. There is nothing in Catholic ecclesiology or history that says bishops cannot be elected by, and accountable to, their people once more. Indeed, the very best ecclesiology says that they must be so elected and accountable. With both the Eastern and Anglican models in mind, and following the strong encouragement of this latest ARCIC document, I propose that bishops again be required to meet with their clergy and laity in annual synods in their dioceses, and that these synods be charged with the responsibility of episcopal election under the supervision of the metropolitan (another under-utilized office in the West). Moreover, these must not be purely ‘consultative’ affairs entirely run by the bishop but genuine exercises in mutual accountability, with the opportunity for people to demand answers to their questions, and to bring motions of censure (backed up by the power of the purse) against the bishop where justified.

If the notion of elections startles some people, the idea of censure causes them to collapse completely on their fainting couches. For too long Catholics have been bred to show an unhealthy deference to bishops and popes, proving at least one part of Freud’s thesis in Future of an Illusion to be correct: an institutionally inbred infantilization in the face of omnipotent father figures always leads to disaster.

In proposing that bishops be held to account, and censured, I am merely echoing words of one Catholic bishop whom many of us consider to be a saint: Andrey Sheptytsky. In September 1899, at breakfast immediately following his episcopal consecration in Stanyslaviv in Habsburg Galicia (today’s western Ukraine), Sheptytsky visited with his priests and uttered words memorable for their singular humility:

The people are completely right to demand certain things from a bishop, and it is absolutely correct to censure him if he shirks the task that he has to perform on behalf of the Church and his people.

Sheptytsky really lived these words—an astonishing feat not just for a Catholic bishop, but also one who was a wealthy descendant of Polish nobility. He would go on, as primate, to lead the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church through the First and Second World Wars, and repeated Russian and German occupations of Galicia before dying in November 1944. While still awaiting official canonization, he is thought by many Catholics to be a saint, not least for saving scores of Jews from the Nazis (on this point see, e.g., Kurt Lewin’s 1993 book A Journey Through Illusions).

For his part, Sheptytsky was not a radical, either, in uttering these words. Fluent in the biblical languages (he wrote very gracious letters in Hebrew to local Jewish leaders—for his correspondence see the book Peter Galadza and I put together, Unité en Division: Les Lettres de Lev Gillet, «Un Moine de l’église d’orient», à Andrei Cheptytsky 1921-1929, published in Paris in 2009), his comment merely echoed his deep understanding of a lesson that Saint Paul has been trying to get through our thick skulls with limited success since he first wrote to the Corinthians: when one part of the body suffers or screws up, we all suffer the consequences.

In this light, Cardinal McCarrick’s sins—and those of other bishops in the headlines today—are sins for which we can all do penance and make sacrifice. But the sacrifice now demanded above all others is for McCarrick and other bishops in the war against this extremely destructive sin to follow the words of that fiery Welshman David Lloyd George in the final dark days of the Chamberlain premiership in 1940: ‘there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.’

ARCIC is right to remind us that Catholics must further sacrifice the usual ways of filling that office. For solid theological and practical reasons, now is the time, as the international dialogue encourages us, for the Catholic Church seriously to consider local election of bishops and their accountability to the local people in synod. After nearly thirty years of these stories (those of us in Canada began reading about these scandals in 1989 when the horrors perpetrated at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland emerged), the time for drastic reform is long overdue. As George said earlier in that speech in May 1940 (quoting Cromwell to the Long Parliament), so I say now to all the bishops who have covered up these sins: ‘“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go”.’

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


    • For the most part, no; in the USA, most dioceses are organized as a not-for-profit corporation consisting of a single member, the bishop (in California called “a corporation sole”), and that corporation owns all diocesan and parish property.

  1. “Is now the time for the Catholic Church seriously to consider local election of bishops and their accountability to the local people in synod?”


    And I’ve yet to hear that the bishops the Anglican Community are anything about which to write home.

  2. I too grew up in the Anglican Church of Canada (I became Catholic about 20 years ago). I was also a member of my Anglican parish council at the time. I remember when it came time to elect a bishop, bishop candidates would publish his or her biography in the diocese’s newspaper and essentially campaign for the position. I remember voting blocks being formed to favour a particular candidate. While there is room for reform in the RC process I would NOT like to imitate the Anglicans where bishops act like elected officials and major doctrinal/disciplinary decisions are decided by simple majority at national synods with lay and clergy acting in voting blocks to “win the day” on a particular issue. Besides, I don’t know how this process would improve accountbility because once an Anglican Bishop is installed it’s next to impossible to have them removed (just like Catholic Bishops). In my opinion this would only increase in-fighting and division in the Church. As the old saying goes: Anglicans don’t want just one pope. They prefer to have hundreds where every bishop is a pope in his or her own diocese.

  3. If we had a king in this country perhaps McCarrick’s head could be lopped-off. I believe that would be a more just outcome.

  4. While this may open a whole other kettle of fish, the reality is bad catechesis and dissent from Church teaching has never been higher, even among church going Catholics.

    How long would it take before elected bishops start reflecting the whims, dissent and ignorance of the laity who elect them?

    For an answer, look at the Anglican Communion in the West and how it’s orthodox adherents have been marginalized, pushed out and even persecuted over the last 50 years.

    One of the benefits of the present Catholic way of appointing bishops is that they tend to be above the fray. Generally speaking our bishops usually represent a broad adherence to Catholic orthodoxy that isn’t beholden to the loudest demands of one sub-set of the laity or another. An elected bishop is beholden to those who elect him. How long before practicing orthodox Catholics (who are probably the minority in any diocese) are elected right out of their own Church? I’m sure there are many members of the Anglican Ordinariate who could describe the pitfalls and dangers of the system that has given birth to the many divisions in the Anglican Communion.

  5. This is an excellent article, well worth pondering. While I do not think Anglicanism is a true model, certainly it should be noted that Vatican I and Vatican II caused an ecclesiological shift of major proportions by deifying, respectively, the pope and the bishops. Prior to V2, a pastor had genuine authority with which most bishops were loathe to interfere. Now, most pastors live in terror of their bishops and, even worse, their apparatchiks. Those priests not terrified of seeing the chancery number come up on their screens have an unhealthy disdain for their bishops who, for the most part, are not the fathers and brothers to their priests which the Council and the Code of Canon Law propose. I say this as one who travels the country (and beyond) extensively, having spoken in more than 90 dioceses of the United States.

    As regards the laity, for years I have encouraged them to use “the power of the purse”: When heresy and liturgical abuses go unaddressed, I have urged parishioners to hand in an empty envelope in the collection basket, with the note: “This envelope is worth $xx, payable upon redress of grievances already presented.”

    I have further suggested that no man be appointed a bishop until the age of 65 and that his tenure automatically end at 75 — including that of the Bishop of Rome. None of this affects doctrine. In many ways, it ensures that doctrine will not be perverted.

    • “Vatican I and Vatican II caused an ecclesiological shift of major proportions by deifying, respectively, the pope and the bishops. ”

      Really? I must have missed the part about declaring the pope and the bishops to be gods.

      “I have further suggested that no man be appointed a bishop until the age of 65”

      Well, that would have left out John Paul II.

      “that his tenure automatically end at 75”

      Cutting off quite a few Popes’ reigns, including that of Pius X.

      I never thought I would think this about one of your articles comments, but this one is just silly.

  6. Doctrinal drift should be reason enough to say ‘no’ to the local election of bishops. The massive doctrinal drift away from Apostolic Christianity within Anglicanism, especially in the ACoC, TEC and CofE, e.g., the complete inversion of social mores, should make patently clear the serious liabilities that come with politicizing the office of bishop.

    Furthermore, lets not pretend that the local election of bishops has protected Anglicanism from episcopal and presbyteral malfeasance.

  7. Ever so grateful that my journey across the battle field of post-conciliar Catholicism began in peaceful days before Armageddon descended upon all of us on October 13, 1962. In all these years since I have witnessed one atrocity after another, until recently believing nothing could exceed either the tragedy or lunacy of the last catastrophe. But this particular proposal exceeds all my preparations to be armed against the next assault on reason.
    Even in an age which we enjoyed not so long ago – when the laity had a firm and basic understanding of the faith and of their rights and responsibilities – such a proposal would have appeared as absurd and would have been known to be so before it could find expression.
    In the current epoch when the episcopate itself from the very pinnacle of authority down to the local cathedra is inhabited by the mute, the cowardly, the narcissistic, and by the domesticated leashed heterodox to the boldly heretical, the idea of such an enterprise is tantamount to providing an arsenal of AK-47s to a pre-school for delinquents.
    To be more polite, the Anglican model has not worked in Canterbury nor the colonies.
    How can you run a Church whose belief system has been consigned to the circular file by those entrusted with maintaining it, let alone asking the uncatechized baptized to participate in some coven of discernment?
    Catholics reason theologically with Holy Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the perennial Magisterium of the Church. All reason has been lost and in more ways than one.

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