The Benedictine abbot of Mariastein in the diocese of Chur in Switzerland, Peter von Sury, has harsh criticism for the system of appointing bishops in the Catholic Church. He spoke recently in the context of ongoing turmoil around the leadership of Bishop Vitus Huonder in Chur. He said, “A bishop is of central importance. He is a pontifex, which means ‘bridge builder’; he must be a person who integrates. Unfortunately, we repeatedly experience the opposite, as is the case now in the Diocese of Chur. Here the bishop is obviously not a bridge builder, but a divider.” The abbot said “It is disastrous in every respect when a bishop is divisive. In my opinion, he is morally obligated in such cases to resign from office. The same holds true for an abbot or a pastor.”

In an interview published at KIPA the abbot said, “In our church we have serious structural problems. It is important to me that questions [such as clerical celibacy and women’s ordination] simply be dealt with. Topics can only be solved when the structures are minimally functional and the procedures are worked out. One unresolved question concerns the selection of bishops. Many other problems in the church stem from this.”

On the naming of bishops, the abbot said, “Today only the pope names bishops. This practice stands in contradiction to many theological convictions. It must be changed. Through exclusive naming by pope the system reinforces itself and is not renewed. In these nominations, issues of church politics are oftentimes emphasized more than the good of the diocese. But that is what it is about. On this issue, bishops and theologians must offer decisive resistance. There were other criteria for bishops’ selection in the first millennium of our church. Three levels were decisive in the election: the faithful of the diocese, the clergy of the diocese, and the bishops of the region. Today this would be the Swiss Bishops’ Conference. Such a process makes sense.”

[Benedictine Abbot Martin Werlen of Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland recently called for church reforms, including greater involvement of all the baptized in the selection of bishops. See Pray Tell's report.]

The Diocese of Chur was in turmoil in the 1990s under the highly controversial leadership of Bishop Wolfgang Haas. The Swiss bishops’ conference backed the statement of an auxiliary bishop that a new beginning was not possible under Haas, and at one point the Swiss government asked the Vatican to intervene in the diocese. When Pope John Paul II appointed two auxiliary bishops to diffuse the crisis the situation did not improve, and one of the new auxiliary bishops stated that it was not possible to work with Bishop Haas. In 1997 Pope John Paul II made the tiny principality of Lichtenstein, previously a part of the diocese of Chur, into an archdiocese and named Haas as the first archbishop. The pope claimed that the move was in recognition of Lichtenstein’s deep bonds to the Holy See historically, but it was obvious to most observers that the real reason was that the pope needed to solve the personnel problem he had created. Under Haas’s successor, Vitus Huonder, tensions have continued.

Abbot von Sury has strong criticism for centralism in the Catholic Church. “Even if it is denied, in fact the dioceses are treated by Rome as administrative entities. The problem is that bishops achieve their position through this system, and consequently they have no interest in questioning the current system. The church thus becomes a closed system. Perhaps it eventually has to collapse or fall apart before anything happens. Or the money runs out and brings the system to a still stand.

“A closed system is no longer capable of accepting critique or correction from the outside,” he said. “And then when the local churches are disempowered, it is especially dire.”

The abbot stated, “Church institutions, and also the pope, must have a counterweight. In economics or politics we speak of ‘checks and balances.’”  He lamented that this is lacking at the level of the universal church.

Abbot von Sury criticized bishops’ synods, in which selected bishops from around the world come to Rome every few years to discuss questions proposed by the pope. Because the questions to be treated are named exclusively by the pope, the abbot said that it is a “one-way street.” He said that the bishops should “rise up on their hind legs and defend themselves.” He suggested that any contingent of bishops or bishops’ conferences should have the ability to propose topics for discussion.

“In the monastery there are venerable procedures for this prescribed by the Rule of St. Benedict. They are not democratic in the contemporary sense, but all participants are engaged with a view to the whole when it concerns important questions. At the same time the abbot maintains his authority which he cannot delegate.” The abbot recalled that, according to canon law, the faithful have the right and obligation to express their opinions to their shepherds. “This is a good statement of intention. But when no implementation stipulations exist, it’s worth absolutely nothing.”

The abbot returned to his main point: “I emphasize forcefully that the important question of bishops’ selection is primary and absolutely must be regulated differently. In terms of church history and theology, the process now in force in the church stands on weak footing.”