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Opinion: Riots or Tea? On the office and selection of bishops today

The question often arises: “How did that man become a bishop?” That’s probably the wrong question.

Bishops listen to a speaker during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Every time we hear of some failure on the part of a bishop, the question re-surfaces: “How did that man become a bishop?” That’s probably the wrong question; the right one might well be, “How did he become a priest?” That said, some reflection and a few suggestions might be helpful. Being a friend and advisor to dozens of bishops over the years, I think I might have something to offer in this regard.

First, while Catholics believe that the institution of the episcopate is of divine origin, we need not (and should not) believe the selection process is. In point of fact, that process has taken many forms over the centuries and admits of several possibilities even today. Bishops have been elected by their priests; have been appointed by civil officials; have been named directly by popes; have been chosen by synods of bishops, whose choice has been subsequently ratified by popes (employed presently by many of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome) – and many variations on those procedures.

Often, frustrated clergy and laity alike complain about the caliber of bishops in the United States in terms of their orthodoxy and/or their pusillanimity. I am old enough to remember the bishops created by Archbishop Jean Jadot during his tenure as our apostolic delegate (1973-1980). Few of them were pusillanimous, indeed most were quite bold, in their heterodoxy. Having attended the fall meetings of the episcopal conference for twenty-five years, I can attest to the viper’s nest that Archbishop Pio Laghi inherited when he took over the reins (1980-1990), however, he slowly but surely re-fashioned the membership, a process continued by Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan (1990-1998). As a result, it is fair to say that while many American bishops are still pusillanimous, theological dissenters could be counted on one hand. In reality, our episcopal conference may actually be one of the most “conservative” in the world (a reason many give for Pope Francis’ intense dislike for them).

The first difficulty in the selection process is that there is a very clear “career path” to the episcopacy. Check out the Vatican website on any given day and look at the biographies of the newly appointed bishops: personal secretary to a bishop; diocesan official; seminary rector; a Roman post. Pope Francis had committed himself to changing that path; it has not changed one iota. Having any or all of those positions as a priest is not a bad thing, but the reason men are chosen from those ranks is, simply, the expectation that such a priest will be “safe,” he will not “rock the boat,” he is a “team player.”

A wag of an Anglican bishop of the last century commented: “After St. Paul preached, there were riots; after I preach, they serve tea!” In fact, I am not aware of any priest who led the charge for reform in liturgy, our schools, or the re-assertion of orthodoxy in the 80s and 90s who was made a bishop. Why? Because any priest like that was too bloodied up by the battles; he had been involved with too many “controversies.” An ideal candidate, then, is one given to conflict avoidance; however, as a result of that trait, all too many bishops find themselves regularly embroiled in conflicts!

Francis has made a big deal of what he terms “missionary discipleship.” If that is the expectation of the average Joe in the pew, ought it not be so for a successor of the apostles – to the n-th degree? Some key questions to ask about a candidate: How many converts has he personally brought into the Church (not can he preside over the annual acceptance of converts at his cathedral on the First Sunday in Lent)? How many young men has he personally sent to the seminary (not simply how he may have handled them once they go there)? One bishop jokingly admitted to me that he had never administered the Sacrament of the Sick in his 40+ years as a priest and bishop!

While the vast majority of U.S. bishops are doctrinally sound, as a group, they are not scholars or even scholarly. Those with advanced degrees are generally canon lawyers, causing them to function like CEO’s (and most don’t do a good job as that, either), with a goal of mere institutional maintenance. Because the “career path” is so predictable, it is perversely amusing to hear so many of them declare at the de rigeur press conference announcing their appointment: “I was stunned, shocked, amazed when I got the call from the nuncio!” Some cynical observers smile and say, “Yeah, sure. He had that magenta cassock in his hope chest since his First Holy Communion.”

Honesty goes a long way on the road to effective ministry. Archbishop Fulton Sheen very honestly declared: “From the day of my First Holy Communion, I prayed to become a priest; from the day of my priestly ordination, I prayed to become a bishop.” There’s nothing wrong with that desire; as a matter of fact, St. Paul says that it’s a good thing to want to be a bishop (see 1 Tm 3:1).

So, how do I envision the selection process?

Firstly, the vetting process should be totally transparent and public, so that anyone with an objection can voice concern; in addition to the virtue of honesty being promoted, it would also avoid embarrassing situations once an announcement has been made if a skeleton in a closet emerges at that late date. Further, there should be broad consultation, so that any member of Christ’s faithful be eligible to present a name, giving a detailed rationale for the nomination (in theory, that is currently possible but noted in the breach far more than in the observance). I would maintain the nuncio’s role as the final arbiter this side of the Atlantic since popular election by either clergy or laity doesn’t guarantee any better candidates, if history serves as guide.

Now, onto some more vexed considerations.

Eliminate the role of auxiliary bishop. There is no need of them; most priests, rather disparagingly, refer to them as “Confirmation machines.” If the administration of Confirmation were properly reformed, their role would disappear. Any Latin rite priest, with delegation, can confirm; every Eastern rite priest does so normally. That would streamline the ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Some years ago, a clerical wit dubbed an archbishop who then had seven auxiliaries: “Snow White with his seven dwarves.” The institution of auxiliaries is so unnatural that we have recourse to the legal fiction of giving them “titular” sees (defunct dioceses). No, the critically important theological truth needs to be highlighted : One bishop (husband) for one diocese (wife).

Which leads to the next matter: No episcopal transfers. If the wedding ring on a bishop’s finger means anything, moving a bishop constitutes ecclesiastical wife-swapping. At a practical level, that change would go a long way to cut down on politicking to move up the episcopal ladder. This could not be an absolute norm since it would be somewhat foolhardy to promote a parochial vicar to the archbishopric of New York, but the exception proves the rule (and that was the rule in the Early Church).

And now, I am really launching out into the deep (but St. John Paul did urge, duc in altum!). No priest should be appointed bishop below the age of 65, with mandatory retirement at 75 (and yes, I would include Bishops of Rome in that policy as well). I think it is reasonable to conclude that if you can’t do the job in a decade, you can’t do it.

In a time of “safe” and “nice” bishops, it would behoove us to note that very few Fathers of the Church would be nominated today. Jerome was notoriously cantankerous; Nicholas gave a whack to Arius at the Council of Nicea; Ambrose had the temerity to ban Theodosius from the sacraments for his massacre at Thessalonika. Bishops of the patristic era were not concerned about what the New York Times or CNN would say about them; they were, however, very conscious of what Christ would say about and to them on Judgment Day.

As I have penned these reflections, the poem of the nineteenth-century Englishman, Charles Mackay, has kept coming to mind:

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.

You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

Bishops should not be dictators, but they should be leaders – and “leading from behind” (à la Obama) is not leading; it is exchanging the post of a shepherd for a sheep. In 1997, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once expressed similar sentiments:

The words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers rang in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive.

Nothing of what I have proposed in any way compromises Catholic doctrine; in reality, it reinforces it. Very challenging times are coming upon the Church in our nation (and in the world in general). The late Cardinal Francis George assumed the prophetic mantle on one occasion when he declared: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

If the Church is to survive under very adverse conditions, she will need bishops who have taken to heart yet another mantra of St. John Paul: “Be not afraid!”

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 283 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. “Every time we hear of some failure on the part of a bishop, the question re-surfaces: “How did that man become a bishop?'”

    I doubt few are asking such questions with Francis as pope.

    • Despite the Catholic Church and its body (all of us religious and laity together that when electing a Pope, we hope, trust and pray that the Holy Spirit guides those electors. Yet, this process seems to be more “politicking” amongst the “leaders” as opposed to prayerfully putting the election into God’s hands. Liberal, Moderate, Conservative are not supposed to be theological terms, though they have become that in our Church. The matter should be as Father suggests based in the foundation of our Faith, the Apostles led and taught by Christ for the ONE person who is chosen by the Holy Spirit to lead, guide and strengthen the Church. Unfortunately, too many have fallen into the malaise of our society and today’s culture, bending to what they view as “being more in tune with modern culture”…. see where that has gotten us today.

    • I guess many (from The Sanhedrin), asked themselves a similar question about Jesus. How did he become to be the Messiah? i guess a possible answer from God the Father: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. In human lay words: this is my business not your…

  2. We read: “’How did that man become a bishop?’ That’s probably the wrong question; the right one might well be, ‘How did he become a priest?’”

    Take for example, Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who will be the relator general of the upcoming synod on synodality. Respectfully, might we look forward to clarification of his own words:

    [regarding a married clergy] “I love my celibacy, I stand by it, but I see that married deacons can preach differently than I do, and I find that, in itself, it is a wonderful addition.” Apparently, no grip on the distinction between the alter Christi identity and the functionalist role of preaching.

    [And then, regarding doctrine] “The position of women in the Church: I am not saying that they have to become priestesses; I just don’t know [!]. But I am open to it [!]…” What about the living Tradition, especially as reaffirmed in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994, and recently endorsed by Pope Francis)? Hollerich [of the German synod] has “great respect for daring to ask very big questions,” which, he added, “must also be asked.” Might we ask, then, why the priest/bishop/cardinal [!] didn’t read that memo either?

  3. I think these ideas about the appointment of bishops are on the mark and timely considering that former priest/bishop/cardinal McCarrick will be personally appearing before a criminal court in Massachusetts today.

    I would also require the following of EVERY deacon, priest and bishop and formalize into Canon Law: Each must have his own Spiritual Director and separate Confessor whom he sees regularly. Every cleric must frequent the Sacrament of Confession minimally once a month and that is to his own personal Confessor. There would be fewer McCarrick’s if such a law was in place.

  4. A mutual friend told me a while back that during his tenure in the U.S. Cardinal Laghi responded to his concerns about the socialist and modernist leanings of the American episcopate by saying that (in his opinion) most American bishops would prefer to paint the Star of Bethlehem red like those on the Kremlin.

  5. Cardinal George’s prediction about his successor dying in prison is laughably unlikely. It won’t happen to a bishop who is a lapdog for the ruling political party.

    • Amazing Grace — That saves us ALL Cardinal George Suffered Much — Should have a Direct Travels — Surrounded by God’s Angels,and our Blessed Mother.

  6. I think many of us look at the Church today as a house on fire, and the firemen are taking a snooze in the truck while it burns. It’s hard to say, but I just cannot grant respect to many of the bishops. How many have stood up and said enough to what is going on, whether it be the never ending sex scandals, the failure to condemn the outspoken pro abortion “Catholic” politicians, the open field assault by Hollyweird on anything holy and Catholic, and it goes on. Where are you, shepherds? Stand up, speak out, for our Lord’s sake, speak out! At what point do we laity cease picketing the abortion clinics and begin to picket the diocese? Would the bishop even put his tea cup down to acknowledge us? Where I come from, most would be charged with cowardice under fire.

  7. For a lot of my life I worked in positions in the government. One thing that particularly stood out was how little that people in administrative positions really understand about what is happening in the real world. They live in a fantasy world of their own construction. One principle that really does apply to those working in these organizations is the Peter Principle: “People are promoted to the level of their incompetence”. To do this successfully one needs to be good at ‘sucking up’ to those higher up than them. This is why the growing administrative arm of the church is such a very bad development, and should be minimized.

  8. I was living in Washington State when Bishop George was announced. The comment from one of the priests on the appointment was that “the boys in Rome” picked him. Father was disappointed the local priests were not given any input.

    • And, a good thing too, in this case, that the “boys in Rome” picked Bishop George. One need not wonder long about the disappointed local priest(s)…the later Cardinal Francis George (1990-2015) was one of the brightest stars of the hierarchy in the United States.

      Many of the local priests in the Seattle archdiocese at the time should have been given the door early–rather than any “input.” In all (a few going back to the 60s), 77 have since been laicized. By the way, the selection procedure involves the local submittal of three nominations through the papal nuncio, of which one is nearly always then selected “by the boys in Rome.”

  9. To summarize, the role of all too few Bishops is to serve God whereas we are all so aware that all too many bishops are vested in serving themselves. As noted, many bishops canon lawyers so no small wonder that legalism of the Pharisees and risk financial mitigation prevail at the expense of Truth.

  10. Lacking your experience I can also speak from a narrower impression of men who are adept at learning to become masters of politics, then gaming the system to suit their safe enclosed unwillingness to commit to the faith. Perhaps they fall into the category of pusillanimous. Ambitious at heart even if not in appearance. These are the homosexuals chosen by homosexuals. This doesn’t include the larger number of outstanding men of faith I met when completing graduate studies domiciled as a guest at the Casa Santa Maria. The Casa as you’re aware is where many prospective hierarchy candidates are sent. Otherwise, I read and learned from your experience and tend to agree with your observations. From earlier experience in the seminary there were many more overt some furtive homosexuals who went on to ordination, some who were manifestly so to the dismay of the rector. He intimated how he warned the bishop of a notorious deviate that the bishop nevertheless ordained. At the Casa late during John Paul’s pontificate that issue, homosexuality was much improved but nevertheless evident among a good number of men. Pusillanimity can’t be equated with homosexuality, nevertheless it fits with effeminacy. Fear of these acknowledged strong networks within the Church quells many orthodox priests from being more outspoken on moral issues. Homosexuals by nature of their elective deviation [when practiced] are inclined to liberalize moral doctrine to justify their behavior. This a leading contributor to lack of heroic witness to the faith, especially during this pontificate. A pontificate that by all appearance suggests its accommodation.

    • Many, many priests are homosexuals but celibate. Please, do not imply that they are all predators waiting to pounce on others. Personally, I am so weary of finger pointing and bad-mouthing of others; it is truly unbecoming for Christians and especially Catholics. God save us from ourselves.

      • Nancy, where do you conclude from my comment is what you allege? “Homosexuals by nature of their elective deviation [when practiced] are inclined to liberalize moral doctrine to justify their behavior”. Those who have attraction to their own sex and do not practice are not those who practice. And generally speaking not necessarily inclined to liberalize moral doctrine. And needless to say but I’ll say it for your edification, I’ve heard confessions from men with same sex attraction who were saintly.

  11. In days past there were “king makers” like McCarrick and Bernaedin. I fear the current archbishop of Chicago and/or Newark may be another. If so, I see no end to the problem.

  12. Fr. Stravinskas’ implication that filtering “bad” men from the priesthood would have kept them out of the episcopate addresses a very small number of men who should not be in such positions—as he discusses in this excellent essay.

    Sadly, there is no university to teach; no course of study to prepare a man for the position, and rightly so, as I believe the Roman church is too top-heavy to perform the mission: conversion and saving of souls.

    Yes, the Church is in a horrible state. Has been, is, and will be. Modern communications makes it possible to learn of almost all bad acts anyone commits, which is good yet has a serious down-side: I get very distracted by news of shortcomings of my wilting archbishop, or see some scandalous act of a parish priest and often lose focus on my primary objective of my own holiness.

    Sharing these ideas and suggestions are generous and inspiring, but we often get caught up and spend time in the news-stream at the expense of fasting and praying. jus’ sayin’

  13. This present malaise that American Catholics perceive in their bishops which this article highlights is I would say is a result of the centralizing papal leadership style during the reigns of St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Repudiating Vatican II’s teaching on episcopal collegiality, the emphasis was placed on papal primacy in a monarchical mode. The Vatican curia was functioning like a world headquarters of a multinational corporation and bishops around the world were chosen and expected to function to be like branch managers or local executives. Forget about being shepherd-like, good teachers, or guardians of orthodoxy, they were picked for being good and subservient administrators. A good number of them today are found to be also homosexual predators and who covered-up the same abuses of their priests because they live in the same mafia-like lavender club. Think of ex and late Cardinals McCarrick (U.S.), O’Brien (Scotland), and Groer (Austria) who were good and loyal administrators but today are icons of this episode of prominent homosexual assaults among bishops.

    • I’d say that the problem long pre-dates JP II and Benedict XVI. Paul VI, while rigorously affirming the core tenets of the faith – in the 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei, the 1968 Credo of the People of God and in the same year Humanae Vitae – at the same time appointed many, many bishops who were deeply hostile to all that he had supposedly affirmed. He then chose to sit back and allow them to destroy what he was supposedly defending and upholding, while continuing to lengthen his string of disastrous appointments. John Paul in particular continued this bizarre practice and seemed to do so with joy, giving us the likes of Mahoney, Bernardin, Law, Pilarczyk, Trautman, Clark, McCarrick, Martini, Daneels, Marx, Kasper, and many others of similarly terrible quality. In the case of McCarrick, he cheerfully overrode the serious objections expressed directly to him by John Cardinal O’Connor, who warned him of McCarrick’s tendencies and troubling track record, and created him Cardinal in DC. I don’t think in many cases it is the faults of the process, but rather the bizarre personal decisions of the several popes that accounts for the wretched bench of bishops we must call our shepherds.

  14. Two modest thoughts about this excellent article. First, I worked for two bishops in one diocese; I have lived, volunteered, and worked in two other dioceses where I knew the bishop personally. I count 3 current bishops as past colleagues in ministry, and as “friends” whom I could call and they would take my call. But I have no need to do so and I rarely contact them. I offered workshops for bishops in 9 dioceses. Of all, only one would I consider a poor bishop and pastor who fit the institutional ladder climb. This is clearly a small sampling. All the men I knew, encountered, and know were/are orthodox and sincere pastors at heart who valued the vocation of marriage and wanted to strengthen marriage and family life, my area of service. They loved being a priest and it showed.

    Second, and at the same time, bishops spend way too many hours in meetings. The USCCB committees are numerous. My suggestions for a renewed hierarchical functioning of the Church, it would be (a) for bishops to stay home as much as possible, (b) delegate Confirmation, (c) visit parishes routinely just to be with their people, and (d) most importantly, develop and sustain a healthy relationship with and among their priests. The latter suggestion is, IMHO, a severe need. Being a parish priest is an arduous vocation, and to have a leader who cares, listens, advises, chides, and supports based on the relationship cultivated, not just his authority, it seems to me would benefit the Body of Christ immensely by the morale boost that is possible.

  15. Well, all the same I think serving tea is a good thing. I’m conservative & not a fan of riots.
    St. Paul gets a pass on that, though.

  16. Cardinal Ratzinger said it the best:
    The words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers rang in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive.

  17. My dad said that everyone joked when our suburban diocese acquired two new auxiliary bishops, to bring the total to five, “Now they can form a basketball team.” I agree with Father Stravinskas that auxiliary bishops should be eliminated and large dioceses carved into much smaller ones so that one bishop can lead them and know all his priests much better.

    While a lot of folks believe that translating bishops from other dioceses is generally bad, the other side has merit too. Universities historically have been averse to hiring their own graduates in order to avoid “inbreeding.” Fresh blood from outside can keep a diocese from veering too far in one direction or another and also can serve as a check against corruption. Of course, it also means that a new bishop generally has to start all alone, not knowing a soul in his new diocese– and not knowing who is trustworthy or not.

    I also have to agree about a certain career path making a difference. Two of the last three rectors of our cathedral were appointed bishops in other dioceses. You can tell when someone is being groomed. I knew our long-time vicar general was on his way out when he was appointed pastor of a parish– because that was missing from his resume. Shortly afterward, he too was sent to become a bishop elsewhere.

    Finally, we definitely need more pit bull bishops to balance all the smiling nice guys. How about some, ahem, “diversity” among the types of personalities in the episcopate? But the pit bulls need to be unleashed against an amoral society, not turned inward against orthodox Catholics.

  18. One of the problems not mentioned is lack of restraint. The Bishops, especially when assembled-seem to comment on any number of matters outside their charism or competence.

    They wax eloquent on government budgets, economics and to somebody with any knowledge of these things, they reveal appalling ignorance, with an invariable propensity to identify some “crisis” and then appeal to the federal government to “solve” the matter at hand.

    They also arrogate the right to opine on prudential matters reserved to the laity or other components of society-treating these matters as absolutes or imperatives.

    They need to be reminded that when the Church is not obligated to speak, it is obligated not to speak.

  19. How grievous that our USCCB cannot guide the flock with more direct and substantive teaching on the morality of voting. Dicta such as, “Catholics are not single-issue voters ” needs to be explained. A proposal to save our Democracy ought to be forthcoming. Do the faithful know there is no longer a Republican Party but a MAGA Party?

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