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The McCarrick Report and the choosing of bishops

If the Vatican has no problem allowing Chinese communists to have a central role in choosing bishops, what rational objection could it possibly have to letting faithful Catholics merely observe the process?

Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The Vatican document tracing the rise of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick through the hierarchy’s ranks has been praised for its unprecedented transparency in shedding light on a dark episode in the life of the Church. But the practice of transparency shouldn’t stop there.

The McCarrick report, coming after the fact, gives us an eye-opening picture of misjudgment and bungling at the upper levels of Church officialdom that enabled a man to ascend far up the ecclesiastical ladder despite continuing rumors of sexual misconduct on his part.

So far, so good. But more is needed–specifically, a meaningful degree of proactive transparency regarding the process by which bishops continue to be appointed and promoted. This a necessary step to prevent mistakes like the McCarrick disaster from happening again or at least make them less likely.

It hardly needs saying, of course, that even to suggest such a thing touches a sensitive nerve among Church officials accustomed to keeping the selection and promotion of bishops strictly to themselves. In the Church as elsewhere, this is the typical mistake of imagining secrecy bolsters authority rather than–as is often the case–leading in time to its diminishment and rejection.

And is what I suggest really all that crazy? Consider that the Holy See lately renewed its controversial agreement with the communist government of China under which the government nominates candidates for the episcopacy. If the Vatican has no problem allowing Chinese communists to have a central role in choosing bishops, what rational objection could it possibly have to letting faithful Catholics merely observe the process?

I am not proposing direct popular election of bishops, which would be a mistake in several ways. I only suggest that the clergy and people of a diocese have a role in proposing and vetting candidates as a routine part of the selection process. Besides helping to head off mistakes, doing so would encourage the emergence of supporting testimony on behalf of worthy individuals.

As matters stand, the secrecy of the current process of bishop selection is an undesirable carryover from an earlier era. Now, by contrast, there is ample support in authoritative Church documents for adopting a reasonable degree of openness in this important matter.

For example, here is what Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, says in speaking of the Catholic laity:

To [the pastors of the Church] the laity should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. By reason of the knowledge, competence or preeminence which they have, the laity are empowered–indeed sometimes obliged–to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church. If the occasion should arise, this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose.

Or, more recently, here is the words of the former Pontifical Council for Social Communications, in a document called Ethics in Communications which it published in 2000:

A two-way flow of information and views between pastors and faithful, freedom of expression sensitive to the well-being of the community and to the role of the Magisterium…and responsible public opinion all are important expressions of ‘the fundamental right of dialogue and information within the Church.’

Other documents could be cited, but the point should be clear. It’s time to act on the principles these documents endorse by initiating a prudent and responsible opening up of the process of choosing bishops through the practice of proactive transparency.


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About Russell Shaw 216 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

7 Comments

  1. Here’s a simple question…Might the problem be less the identification of the three candidates’ names sent to Rome for final selection (isn’t this the process?), but rather the later whispering in back rooms–from outside the process altogether(as by McCarrick or now his coattail residue)–that can either derail the best of the three candidates or even substitute a new name not even among the three? Just asking.

  2. “I am not proposing direct popular election of bishops, which would be a mistake in several ways.”

    It would be a mistake now as Roman Catholic churches are not ordered in such a way to allow that this be done well.

    “I only suggest that the clergy and people of a diocese have a role in proposing and vetting candidates as a routine part of the selection process. Besides helping to head off mistakes, doing so would encourage the emergence of supporting testimony on behalf of worthy individuals.”

    I would add: 1. No transferring of bishops. 2. No transferring of pastors without sufficient cause.
    Let communities know those who are put in leadership positions over them and be in a position to judge.

    How Catholic parishes can be stable (and small) enough that members know those being recommended for ordination is a problem Roman Catholics need to be considering.

  3. Relax, Russell, there is no need to get into a dither about how it is so “prudent and responsible opening up of the process of choosing bishops through the practice of proactive transparency.” In case you haven’t noticed, the Holy Ghost is already taking care of this problem. Haven’t you been paying attention that institutional Catholic Church has been collapsing for the past 60 years around the ears of the financially corrupt sodomites posing as its priests and bishops and the contracepting, aborting, pro-gay pagan mob posing as its “People of God” who almost never go to Mass or Confession?

  4. After nearly forty years of priesthood,
    and watching the Bishop-making process take place many times,
    I think this to be the challenge:
    Everybody knows the process doesn’t work.
    But — when a priest is named, he begins to think, “I guess the process does work, after all.”
    Hence, no one with any authority wants to or feels the need to change the system.

  5. I agree, but involving priests and laity in the vetting process to produce the shortlist would not have helped in the mccarrick case. Mccarrick was reportedly only #16 on the list for the archbishopric of Washington, yet somehow he was the one selected. I find it hard to believe that all 15 of the men above him were offered the position and refused it. Rather, as Cardinal Pell said, the most important task is to “cleanse the Augean stables” in the Roman Curia, and sweep away the corrupt Lavender Mafia who (seemingly in concert with the actual original Mafia) exercise so much power over the hierarchy.

  6. Next step:

    Old Frankie in Vatican “Goes to Hollywood” and lets Biden, Harris, and Pelosi pick bishops. If Chi-coms can do it, why not US-coms?

  7. I would note that historically the Kings of France and Spain had an extraordinary right of input into the selection of their country’s bishops. Not a perfect system to be sure but as they had some knowledge of proposed selections, it gave a secular opinion though not an absolute veto. Today we have illustrations of Rome’s reliance on long distance reports on candidates for which there is little personal knowledge or for whom are part of someone’s personal agenda. I think we can all cite examples of selectees from red hat down that could properly be viewed as problematic.

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