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The problem with women helping select bishops is not what you think it is

Pope Francis’s decision to appoint two women to the Dicastery for Bishops was devoid of consultation – and from a pontiff who is constantly tooting the horn for “collegiality” and “synodality.”

Pope Francis looks on during an exclusive interview with Reuters at the Vatican July 2, 2022. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

When word surfaces that Pope Francis has given another interview, I think it’s not much of an exaggeration to say there is a world-wide ecclesial holding of breath. His latest, to Reuters on July 2, was no exception, being released in dribs and drabs. The most recent shoe to drop was his declaration that he intended to appoint two women to the Dicastery for Bishops – the body charged with the selection of bishops, among its other duties. The dicastery consists of a permanent staff and a group of bishops and cardinals from around the world who meet regularly to vote on potential candidates for the episcopate.

The normal process for episcopal nominations calls for names to be submitted to the apostolic nuncio of the country in question by the ecclesiastical province where the vacancy exists. Those priests are then vetted by the nuncio’s staff, which should involve consultation of clergy, religious and laity regarding the suitability of the candidate (all conducted in confidentiality). The nuncio then presents the Dicastery for Bishops with a terna, that is, a billet of three names he proposes for consideration. Those names, along with the files detailing the candidates’ fitness for the office, are presented to that group of hierarchs for their evaluation. The one they select is then brought by the Prefect to his regularly scheduled meeting with the Pope for his determination. The Pope can approve the individual in question; he can reject him and call for another round of nominations; or he can name anyone he wants.

The “finalist” is then contacted by the nuncio informing him of the nomination and seeking his acceptance. A standing joke for decades was that the file drawer in Rome with refusals was quite small; that is no longer the case since large numbers of clergy are, in fact, turning down these promotions. That said, it is always rather amusing to hear the vast majority of bishops-elect inform all at their inaugural press conference how shocked they are at this development and how their only desire was to be a simple parish priest!

That’s the process in a nut-shell. So, what about these female additions? At the outset, it is important to say that this in no way involves doctrine; indeed, the dicastery itself is not of divine institution (although some members over the years may have acted so). Will they be voting members or merely consultants? What are their qualifications? Lay women, or women religious, or one of each? Let’s put this matter into some perspective.

First, like all too many of this Pope’s actions, this one is devoid of consultation – and from a pontiff who is constantly tooting the horn for “collegiality” and “synodality.” How demeaning and unprofessional that the bishops of the world have to read a Reuters report to learn about such a papal decision. In point of fact, this “decentralizing” proponent has arrogated more authority to himself than any pontiff of the past six decades.1 He governs the Church with motu proprios. Recourse to such a means, of course, is necessary when the person in power knows he does not have the troops behind his agenda. The failure to consult also results in bad documents; John Paul II and Benedict XVI consulted broadly – even though they were eminently more qualified than the current pope across the theological disciplines.2

Second, if the nomination process is properly conducted at the local level, there should be many women already engaged in the vetting. As I indicated earlier, the diocesan and national phases of the process envision representative input from all of Christ’s faithful – clergy, religious and laity. Let’s make sure that is happening.

Third, returning to the Roman phase, why add only women to the mix? What about men? Lay men, religious Brothers? Even more to the point, what about priests? After all, they are the ones most directly affected by any episcopal appointment. If we’re going to “pack” the Dicastery, why not be really inclusive?

Which leads to the truly big elephant in the ecclesiastical living room: So many people, including Francis, seem to be greatly exercised about giving space to women in the Church. My concern is to give some room for men! Consider the following facts of Catholic life (at least in the United States):

• At the average Sunday Mass, it is not uncommon for the priest to be the sole male in the sanctuary as cantor, lector, servers, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are all females! However, does the average priest feel he can really echo Elizabeth’s greeting to Our Lady: “Blessed art thou among women”? Surely, many priests (particularly of the younger generation) feel quite alienated.

• Parish and diocesan staffs are also overloaded with women, in some instances, almost exclusively women.

• For decades, women have served on seminary/vocation admissions boards to determine the suitability of aspirants. While I have no problem with that practice, I am unaware of any religious community of women who have priests involved in vetting their candidates.

• Having spent my entire priestly life in the education apostolate, I have worked closely and effectively with lay women and women religious. I have had women as my “bosses” and have been the “boss” of women. To be sure, there are a number of faithful Sisters leading Roman institutions at present: the Franciscan who heads the Antonianum; the Nashville Dominican who is the dean of the theology faculty of the Angelicum; the Salesian who is the secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; the Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist (another American congregation) who serves as secretary general of the Governorate of the Vatican City State. On the other hand, I think of the American nun – in lay clothes – who held positions in the Vatican and the USCCB, as well as the French nun (also elegantly attired and coifed) who is the current “number two” in the very powerful dicastery for the Synod and is a known “liberal.” So, once more, the question becomes who is promoting what kind of woman? If we could resurrect Mother Angelica, she might be just what the doctor ordered!

• I am also tired of hearing about the patriarchy of the Catholic Church. Truth be told, every traditional Catholic culture is a matriarchy. Historically, mothers and grandmothers have ruled the roost in any Catholic home. And, in the United States, during the pre-Vatican II era, it was Sisters who formed the Catholic community through our schools, and it was they who commanded the respect and affection of Catholics – and most of the rest of the American population as well. Indeed, it never dawned on any Catholic school graduate that a Sister – or any other woman – was inferior. Further, if you were told in the 1950s or 1960s that a woman was a college president or hospital president, you knew it was a Catholic Sister. Unfortunately, when the vast majority of American nuns lost their way, they also lost their influence – and the esteem of the faithful.

While we’re talking about episcopal appointments, let me offer a few other salient proposals:

• The modern selection of bishops procedure is not sacrosanct. Throughout history, bishops were elected by their clergy or even by popular acclamation of the faithful. Even today, there are still some dioceses where the canons of the cathedral chapter elect a bishop (who is then confirmed by the Pope) or in the Eastern Churches where bishops are likewise elected by the synod (and subsequently confirmed by the Pope). Rather inexplicably, we have just witnessed a mere cardinal-designate arrange for his current auxiliary to become an ordinary (that’s got to be one of the fastest processes in memory).

• Can we dispense with auxiliary bishops? Beyond being “Confirmation machines,” what is their purpose? The theological foundations for this office are so weak that they have to be assigned “titular” sees (that is, defunct dioceses).

• Can we move in the direction of eliminating the transfer of bishops? If the ring on a bishop’s finger means anything, moving him around is little more than ecclesiastical “wife-swapping.” The possibility of episcopal transfers feeds into the worst forms of politicking, clericalism, and careerism. The Fathers of the Church would find this practice revolting.

• Why must the whole selection process be shrouded in secrecy? In my estimation, the only forum requiring secrecy is the confessional. Experience demonstrates that demands for secrecy in the Church usually signal skullduggery afoot.

Is it reasonable to imagine that Pope Francis has thought about any of the issues raised here? Or, is this just another example of papal tokenism – and poorly conceived, to boot – like so many other papal “initiatives”?


1For example, he has insisted that bishops must have Roman approval for a newly ordained priest to celebrate Holy Mass in the usus antiquior or to establish fledgling religious communities.

2Mitis Iudex, the motu proprio supposedly streamlining the annulment process, had all kinds of glitches that have had to be remedied after its promulgation. The document reorganizing the Roman Curia seemed to suggest that a lay person could head any of the dicasteries. In this Reuters interview, Francis walked that back, noting that perhaps the departments for communication, education and culture could be led by a lay person. The issue is that laity do not possess the charism of governance; I would maintain that even the Dicastery for Catholic Education and Culture could have need of governance competence at times.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 267 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. You’re right, Fr. Peter. The problem isn’t that Bergoglio has decreed that women be involved in the choosing of bishops.

    The problem is that they are not trans women of color.

    Also, that they are erroneously referred to as “women” at all, since we know that the X and Y chromosomes no longer place limits on anyone’s identity.

    I would have thought Nancy or Joe would have given Bergoglio the latest directive from the leftist hive on these important matters when they met with him.

  2. In his superb article Fr. Stravinskas makes a multitude of points which are as plainly evident as they are incontrovertible. However, “the problem with women helping select bishops” is, I would submit, far deeper than a lack of “consultation” by this monstrous pope. It is Bergoglio’s malicious abuse and widening corruption of what Stravinskas refers to in footnote 2 as the “charism of governance” that has engulfed the Church in pervasive apostasy, heresy, de facto schism, homosexuality and homosexualism, and major financial crimes and scandals. The Church is in such an advanced state of decadence and decay today that it appears to be the counterfeit of what it was only 60 years ago.

  3. #1. It is clear, from a pattern of actions taken by Pontiff Francis, that “power” is the pre-eminent motivating principle in his life.

    #2. With regard to the Committee to Elect Bishops, the motu propio now insures that women will have a say in the selection of bishops – with one MAJOR exception: in the Catholic Church in China, it is the Communist (officially atheistic) Party that selects bishops. Good work, Pontiff Francis!

    #3. Because of moves such as the most recent one by Pontiff Francis, when a young man tells me he is discerning a call to the priesthood, I usually encourage him to consider one of the Orthodox religious orders (i.e. NOT the Franciscans or the Jesuits) and NOT diocesan priesthood. I tell him that, once professed, he’ll get to vote on his provincial superiors and/or Superior General but if he’s a diocesan priest, everybody but him will get to select who he will report to. But with “bishop shuffling” being ‘de rigeur’ in the Church, your boss today won’t necessarily be your boss tomorrow. I once was asked by the bishop who ordained me to be his Director of Catholic Charities which meant quitting my full-time job. This I did and then 18 months later my bishop was transferred and I then had to work for someone who hadn’t chosen me and with whom I didn’t enjoy the same kind of relationship.

    #4. How was it that priests like McCarrick and his ilk got selected to be bishops? Was it their spectacularly stellar lives of piety, holiness, humility, and Christian charity? Or was it their ability to engage in the “power games” we see so vividly at work in the Church?

    But don’t mind my comments as they are the ravings of a “unrecovered restorationist.”

  4. For the most part, Peter Stravinskas articles leave a bad taste in my mouth. The bitter whining is too much. Whiners always perceive things through the cloudy lens of their whining. The world is always much larger and more complex than their whiny conceptual framework permits. CWR needs to pay attention to the overall tone of the journal. Too many whiny cranks. We need more Chapp.

    • Agree! Looks like the real problem is that Fr. Stravinskas is disappointed he’s not made bishop yet. So the whiny tone.

      • “Looks like the real problem is that Fr. Stravinskas is disappointed he’s not made bishop yet.”

        And you are basing this on…what? If you have an actual point about the actual article, then make it. Otherwise, take the junior high theatrics elsewhere.

    • You need to get yourself a wheel of Camembert – described as having hints of garlic, barnyard and ripe laundry – to accompany your whine, Tom.

  5. Was it specified that the women need be Catholic?
    I will guess not or rather it is understood they do not have to be…so probably wont be.

  6. Given the current state of affairs perhaps the women in question should have credentials in the field of psychology. They could also provide service during the next conclave.

  7. Ignoring the mean-spirited, insider-up-on-the-latest-Vatican-gossip tone of this piece, a reader must acknowledge that all the points made about selection of bishops are right-on. Where did the notion of “auxiliary bishop” come from anyway? Is he really the bishop of, say, the mythical lost city of Atlantis but is temporarily on loan to the Archdiocese of Chicago? When I covered the religion beat in the 1970s for a major metropolitan newspaper, the archbishop’s priest secretary
    knew more than any of the auxiliary bishops about what was really going on. The start of breaking the cult of secrecy in the Church needs to start by voiding canon law that codifies institutional secrecy. The only secrecy protected by canon law should be for Confession, as Fr. Stravinskas says here.

  8. One very strong appeal of the traditional mass is that it requires men (and only men) to serve on the altar. The priest is the lector and Eucharistic minister: No help needed there, thank you very much! Women lend their voices to the beautiful traditional music emanating from the choir loft. God bless them. But leave the altar to the man God has chosen to approach him. And the men and boys selected and trained to serve there beside him.

  9. I think history speaks loudly to this. A female-dominated Church is a dying Church. Compare the modern church with totally patriarchical Islam. Islam is dynamic. It is aggressive and growing even though culturally backward. I see no future for the modern Catholic Church.

    • Islam is dynamic? They are ruled by their priests, are strictly conditioned by doctrine, and chant long prayers, but they lack the “love thy neighbor as thyself” quality. Ask the Christians and non-Muslims in Africa and in the Middle East.

      • Mal, I think what Kocan means is that Islam is on the move (dynamic), while the Christian West is in self-doubting retreat.

        Islam is not “ruled by their priests;” Islam has no priesthood, but rather imams who are more equivalent to our theologians than an ordained priesthood. Theoretically more egalitarian in its own self-understanding; a bit like block-party synodality minus the Trinity and the Holy Spirit.

        Kocan is correct that Islam is culturally backward, but short-sighted to predict that the Catholic Church has no future.

        Such a prediction was made in 1870, and with more likelihood, when the Papal States and Rome itself were nationalized, and the pope became a “prisoner of the Vatican” for the next sixty years (until 1929). And, then, along comes Pope St. John Paul II who personally evangelizes some 129 countries and helps take down the archaic Soviet Empire, only to be followed by, yes, The Scandal, and a lurching trajectory toward decentralization, presumably still in line with the Church’s “hierarchical communion” from apostolic times, and as articulated in Lumen Gentium.

        It’s the so-called modern world and throw-back Islam, both, which have no transcendent inner life sufficient to protect of our truly human future. In a fallen world, a bumpy ride ahead, for sure. For the beginning of a comparison between Secularism, Islamic Jihad and Christianity, let me humbly recommend:

  10. Pope Francis is trying as best he can at this time to crest balance in the Church as an institution. The entrenched sexism in the Church bureaucracy can not be disputed. All the criticisms aimed his appointment of women to this bishop selection process come from that sexism that women can lead families and hospitals and schools but can’t be deacons. Why is that? This is not even biblical.Jesus was surrounded by women deciles. And look at Calvary. How long will the Church continue to deny women access to lead in the Church structure AND reap the salaries that all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests receive? The economics of the Church alone cries sexism. Jesus was not sexist; born of woman and in his ministry. The male monolithic Church structure is out man’s creation, not God’s, out of men’s feelings of superiority; antithical to Jesus’s teachings. If the Church is going to be relevant in generations to come eliminating all sexism in its structure will save it from a slow demise as a healthy society value diversity and equality in.. and in its Church. God loves and created us all equal. Also note women were at the last supper though DaVinci did not paint them there and this seems to be the only thing men cling to that ‘only men can be priests.’Let’s read between the lines. It’s time to acknowledge the God given gifts of women and balance the Church structure. Why do you think priest sexual abuse was rampant??.. There has been no female deacon/ priest culture to balance the institution and it became dysfunctional and morally deadly.
    Thank you.

    • Cynthia, why do you believe that women must do exactly what men do in order to be “leaders?” It seems to to me that, while God created men and women as equally eligible for salvation, that is very different from saying that they are, or ought to be, identical in all things. Since women attend Mass in much larger proportion than men do – especially young men – what do you recommend that we do to persuade the men to return/

    • You have raised some valid points, Cynthia, but during Jesus’ time they did have only male priests. He seemed okay with that.

      • Mal, what is striking about the male priesthood Jesus instituted was how it contrasts with the surrounding pagan world, in which priestesses and female deities abounded. To name just a few, there was the Egyptian cult of Isis, the priestesses of Athena who served the temple in the Parthenon and the Roman veneration of the Vestal Virgins. Christ was clearly a man out of step with His times, since he instructed us that God was to be called Father and the priesthood who served Him was to be male. Quite a contrast, don’t you think?

    • Why do you think priest sexual abuse was rampant??..
      One of the causes – among many – was that women, sitting on committees determining the fate of orthodox seminarians, were getting healthy, well adjusted, devout, heterosexual males expelled from seminaries resulting in the fostering of a culture where homosexuals were allowed to flourish.

  11. Fr Stravinskas makes the critical case, it seems, for the feminization of Church bureaucracy, chanceries dominated by females. And the liturgy, “At the average Sunday Mass, it is not uncommon for the priest to be the sole male in the sanctuary”. I would add the Mass ‘leader’ in parishes back East is regularly a woman who announces Church activities, finally gives a brief sermon on the Gospel, and finally the priest enters appearing as a nondescript functionary. I say it seems Fr Stravinskas is critical of the overpopulation of women in lower echelon bureaucracy now questioning appointment of women to the selection of bishop candidates. If it’s not what we may think it means then what does it mean?
    What’s obvious to this writer is the ad hoc determination of Pope Francis to feminize a Church that is already adrift theologically, doctrinally with an overload of effeminate priests who dare not address issues, and simply paraphrase the Gospel for each Sunday. “More authority [has been accrued] to himself than any pontiff of the past six decades”. And he rules with the motu proprio; a weak form of messaging that doesn’t require definitive pronouncement thereby serious accountability. But the message gets through with a hierarchy of bishops who are more inclined to obeisance than healthy obedience to the Chair as well as the Deposit of Faith. A process of secrecy in the hierarchy selection process is targeted by Stravinskas as skulduggery, which fits in with the usurpation of despotic authority by the pontiff.
    Overall among the many issues afflicting our Church, or best said Christ’s Mystical Body. What can we do except call a spade a spade if we wish to be more than functionaries, hirelings that tow the line? It’s infinitely better to express our manhood as priests for sake of personal integrity, and example to laity than not. After all, what is there left to fight for than stolid witness to the truth of our faith?

  12. We read: “For decades, women have served on seminary/vocation admissions boards to determine the suitability of aspirants. While I have no problem with that practice, I am unaware of any religious community of women who have priests involved in vetting their candidates.”

    Just a small side point of possible clarification, here, about women to be selected from religious orders to help select bishops—these women are not a vague side plate of pseudo-clergy, or a special rank or hybrid within the “hierarchical communion” of the Church (Lumen Gentium).

    Religious women are still lay women (!), but who happen to be vowed to life in a religious order or congregation. In time the motu proprio will never be interpreted, of course!, as bending the line between sacramental ordination and the role of the clergy, and the role of the laity “who differ in kind as well as degree” (ibid.) (“Time is greater than space?” Evangelii Gaudium.)

  13. As to the wayward man who is Pontiff Francis, as he pipes his path to his Synod-for-Sodomy, “decorated” this past week with his LGBT icon designed by one of Rome’s homosexual massage therapists, the faithful, be they faithful Cardinals or Bishops or priests or laity, can say in truth to the face if this pontificate, in the very words of Jesus: “Jesus is the head of the Church. Jesus is the vine, you are the branches…. Apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch snd whithers, and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love….”

    Arise O Lord, let your enemies by scattered, and let those who hate you flee before your face.”

  14. Islam is dynamic? They are ruled by their priests, are strictly conditioned by doctrine, and chant long prayers, but they lack the “love thy neighbor as thyself” quality. Ask the Christians and non-Muslims in Africa and in the Middle East.

  15. Thanks to Fr. Stravinskas for this article. I found it very informative.
    Pillar Catholic has a further reflection on the issue.

    • What could I add to these comments, both wonderful and whining…Peter is one disappointed Vatican 1 man and as such is never going to understand the early Church where Bishops e.g. Ambrose were elected by the acclaim of the people. Francis is merely trying to return to the early tradition which means that women need to begin having a voice.

  16. I have been saying what Fr said about women always taking over everything in the church, that’s why men are dropping out of going to mass. They even have women ushers now. It’s ridiculous.

  17. Francis is nothing if not a political calculator. He has admitted as much. And this is most definitely a politically motivated decision, being as it is public obeisance to the god of Political Correctness, and paving the way as it must for great advances of the kingdom of that god.

  18. Fr. Peter has really hit the ball out of the park. I applaud the introduction of women into the daily life of church as an organization, but any suggestion that it is novelty must be considered strained. For instance, as a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s, I would have been flabbergasted to hear that women were not pivotal in the life of the local parish, which, btw, IS the Church for the average Catholic. PLUS, kudos to Fr, Peter, too, for suggesting that MEN have been overlooked in this choice. Yes, Bishops are men, but their perspective is often too limited by the fact of their Holy Orders. And the suggestion that PRIESTS need to be added is right on the money as well. They are the ones who must work closest to the Ordinary. Often, however, they are evident by the absence of their point of view.

  19. Women ran the church prior to Vatican II and families functioned as matriarchies? That’s certainly not what I experienced and it has no connection to what my grandma relayed. That is some revisionist history at its worst.

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