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Finding the bishops we need

For Church leaders to imagine their role as “managing decline” may also reflect a lack of confidence in the Gospel’s power to win hearts, minds and souls today.

Bishops attending Mass Nov. 15, 2021, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

There was considerable excitement in some quarters this summer when Pope Francis appointed three women as members of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, which makes recommendations to the pope for episcopal appointments in much of Latin-rite Catholicism. Whether this innovation will make any significant difference at the final stage of a long, complex process remains to be seen; given the byzantine ways of the Roman Curia (and its boys club atmosphere and dynamics), I have my doubts. But we shall see.

In any event, deep reform in the process of selecting bishops in the Latin-rite Church would begin by bringing women, not to mention laymen, into the process at a much earlier stage.

Nuncios and apostolic delegates — the Holy See’s official representatives abroad — are, in theory, supposed to consult broadly in vetting the candidates for the episcopate whose names they forward to the Dicastery for Bishops for its consideration. In practice, however, that consultation about a given man’s fitness for the office of bishop is almost always limited to inquiries among bishops and priests. Such consultations have real value, but they risk filtering out candidates who may be evangelically and apostolically gifted in ways that make their more placid, less energetic colleagues in the clergy uncomfortable. And whether a man is “clubbable” ought not be a determining factor in his potential candidacy for the episcopate.

Throughout the western world today, the Church is in a de facto missionary situation. The culture no longer helps transmit and sustain “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). On the contrary, that faith is under constant assault culturally and, in some cases, legally. In these circumstances, Catholic leadership that’s focused primarily on institutional maintenance — keeping the machinery of parishes, schools and so forth ticking over, but not growing the Church — inevitably leads to “managed decline.”

That phrase, now heard in more than one northeast and rustbelt diocese in the United States, bespeaks a melancholy reading of the signs of the ecclesiastical times, often caused by severe financial problems. Those problems are real enough, thanks to the sexual abuse crisis, predatory tort lawyers and the effects of two years of Plague Time on Catholic practice. But for Church leaders to imagine their role as “managing decline” may also reflect a lack of confidence in the Gospel’s power to win hearts, minds and souls today.

In an increasingly post-Christian western world, the Church of the 21st century needs an episcopate of apostles. Management is important. But the bishop’s primary task is to bring people to Christ and to strengthen the faith of those who have already allied themselves to the Lord Jesus and his cause. That was the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church. An energetic, effective apostle can always find the help he needs to manage that portion of the Church given into his care.

But if he does not live his episcopacy as an apostolic witness, teacher and sanctifier — if he is not effective in encouraging everyone in his diocese to be the missionary disciples they were baptized to be, and if he is not supportive of his brother priests in their empowerment of an evangelically vibrant laity — all the management skills in the world will not prevent his diocese from sliding down the slippery slope of “managed decline.”

Lay Catholics can be helpful in identifying potential bishops with that apostolic zeal, and with the personal qualities and skills needed to be a leader whom others are eager to follow. Lay people see things in their pastors that fellow-priests may not see or may not take seriously enough. Thus serious consultation with committed (and discrete) laity at the local level helps guard against the episcopate becoming a self-perpetuating club — or worse, a higher clerical caste. Bishops should undertake this kind of consultation as they prepare for the provincial meetings where candidates for the episcopate are discussed. Nuncios and apostolic delegates should also be well-informed enough to know lay Catholics who can be trusted to give honest, non-ideological and apolitical evaluations of a priest’s fitness for the office of bishop.

Being a bishop in the western world today is a very, very tough job, which is why more than a few priests are declining an episcopal appointment when it’s offered. Finding the kind of men who can be true 21st century apostles starts at the local level. That’s where deep reform in the process of giving the Church the bishops it needs will begin.

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About George Weigel 438 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. We all know of exemplary priests who would make fine bishops. Perhaps we’ve encountered them in the confessional. Perhaps we have heard homilies they’ve given. Perhaps we’ve noticed their acts of charity or the reverence they have in leading the faithful in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Yet, how many lay faithful take the time to write to the Nuncio to propose said priest for consideration for the episcopacy? I’d guess hardly ever.

    And let’s not forget that historically it was not unknown for a man to be plucked from the Order of Deacon to be named bishop -even the bishop of Rome. It was also not uncommon for those in monastic life to be named bishop.

    I certainly would encourage all the faithful – lay and ordained – to write to the Nuncio in favor of a certain priest being named to the episcopacy.

  2. As a lay person I personally encountered priests worthy and capable to be bishops, in the mold and words of Pope Francis, who are “shepherds who smell like the sheep,” and those who truly receive Vatican II, able to “let go of their grandma’s lace.” Unfortunately, these priests cannot be bishops since they are not “clubbable” with the “gay lavender mafia” among the bishops.

  3. This is the dumbest idea Weigel has had yet. We don’t have enough pro-abortion, pro-contraception, sin-accomodating bishops already. Now he wants the anti-Catholic bigots who tend to populate lay organizations to apply even more pressure to have their lives of sin receive even more lowest common denominator sanctions from the episcopate?

  4. Bringing the laity in to recommend bishop appointments is an abysmal idea. The real evil in the Church today is lay (both men and women) clericalism. It has become pervasive at every level (and now, thanks to Bergoglio, it is reaching the Curia).

  5. Sorry, Mr. Weigel, that won’t happen. The assembly lines for making bishops are the clerical wing of the chancery and the seminary priests’ faculty dining room. That’s where the climbers are; that’s where the grapevine is in overdrive. Virtually every bishop comes from one or both of those places, and they aren’t about to let anything or anyone stop episcopal production there. It doesn’t matter how many laypeople get involved at the dicastery or in the pews. The products of those assembly lines, including nuncios, will never allow another way. It would mean their legitimacy is problematic. They will never bring themselves to admit that. Never ever.

    • I’m not a theologist, I’m a secular manager with considerable experience with private and public bureaucracies and your comment I think is spot on.

      The problem is that ever since the USCCB was formed, it has become a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies always and everywhere become focused on themselves and their members.

      These things do nothing but provide avenues for the worst sort of ambitious weevil, whether its the sordid such as Weakland or McCarrick, or the thinly veiled politicians McElroy, Cupich, Seitz, Stowe.

      Seitz received a call from the Pope when he took a knee to an overtly Marxist grifting organization.

      Mr. Weigel clearly doesn’t understand bureaucracies or this Pope and his priorities.

  6. I for my part, though I have my faith, am so very happy I left priestly ministry. The bishops in this country are out of control. I cannot believe that I would live to see some of the men Cardinals who are. I went to school in Rome and some of those who are American Cardinals today, well, we made fun of but also, above all like our newly appointed Cardinal, they knew about McCarrick. I am thankful I have my faith but I have no faith in the institution now.

    • The church needs men and women of integrity to stay in the church and proclaim the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

      For those thinking of leaving, instead, stay and honour God’s truth for it is His church. The spiritual and upright are the backbone of the church. After being warned three times, the godless need to be put out of the church. Church discipline is vital, we must esteem God rather than man.

      2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

      2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

      1 Peter 5:8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

      1 Timothy 3:16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

      Romans 16:17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

      Matthew 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

      Matthew 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

      The Lord is our Rock, let us give thanks for His Holy Spirit that dwells within us to make us profitable servants.

      God bless you.

  7. At least stay away from the German solution! It’s not about selecting bishops; there it’s about de-selecting dioceses…

    Still wondering why those 21 members of the “synodal way” who blocked the direct agenda to redefine sexual morality didn’t hold together on the subsequent votes? Probably had nothing to do with the later non-secret ballots, and next year’s distribution of the mandatory state-collected church tax.

    And we thought that Tetzel’s 16th-century sale of indulgences to the laity was a problem… Like the individual members of the laity of old, now are the members of the German hierarchy and their dioceses being institutionally simonized? Tradition lives! Cross-dressed and kicked upstairs.

    Just wondering, too, if any of the lucrative Deutsch marks (Marx?) are also finding their way into the Vatican? Now to deconstruct the Church, rather than to build St. Peter’s Basilica. After all, it was a giant German-made 27-foot-long brass cannon that pounded the bastions of Constantinople when it fell to Islam in 1453.

  8. Um, hey! Here’s an idea.

    How about we make sure that those individuals who are appointed as bishops — whether they be priests, deacons, laymen or women, U.S. House majority leaders or Vatican hedge fund corruptocrats — actually believe what the Catholic Church teaches?

    Or is that too much to expect?

  9. Let us not get too carried away with the presence of several laywomen in the Bishop’s Dicastery. It is still the Pope who calls the shots in all appointments. He is free to bypass highly regarded worthy men – Archbishops Chaput, Cordileone, Gomez- and to select clergy and lay people who will rubber stamp his agenda. He does not seem to care about the character or worthiness of his clergy as long as they support his political/social agenda.
    Sorry to sound so cynical, but there is plenty of evidence for this view.

  10. As long as this cabal of gay caballeros holds forth at the Vatican, the idea of laity influence in the appointment of worthy bishops, as worthy as the idea is, remains fanciful ideation.

  11. I welcome the discussion. The Second Vatican Council was supposed to increase lay participation in the Church, but this has not born the fruit that was hoped for. This maybe an opportunity to have input into the basic structure of our daily religious life. The problem, as I see it, is who identifies the laity and who asks them? If the local hierarchy is choosing the acceptable laity, how is that different than what currently happens? If there is a lay solution, are we risking a return to the philosophy of the Reformation? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

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