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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