Who Should Elect The Bishop? A Suggestion

Since December 2015 the diocese of Innsbruck in Austria has been waiting for the announcement of a new bishop. Nobody knows why it takes so long. There are no obvious reasons, such as a scandalous dismissal of the predecessor or difficult struggles within the diocese. The highly respected former bishop, Manfred Scheuer, was in office since 2003. In October 2015 his relocation to Linz was announced. Linz is his home diocese and the second biggest in Austria. So the public regarded this as a sign of appreciation by the Pope – even if we all know that the transfer of a bishop from one see to another is a big ecclesiological issue.

The former vicar general, Jakob Buergler – also highly respected –, was quickly elected as diocesan administrator, and since then nothing has happened. Well, nothing except rumors: Who might be the apostolic nuncio’s favorites, who might be the bishops‘ conference’s favorites, who might be the Roman curia’s favorites, does the Pope have any control over the procedure, and – believe it or not – what influence do regional conservative politicians have on the Roman curia? By the way: The latest rumor says that Pope Francis himself rejected the candidate who was presented by the Congregation for Bishops – but nobody knows for sure if this is true.

The entire process is not just annoying and disrespectful to the episcopacy as a foundation of the Catholic Church. It also gives the impression of a mysterious collusiveness. Some people somewhere in the papal hallways make decisions that nobody can ever reconstruct. Eventually those decisions are published as a sort of divine judgement, and finally Christians somewhere in the world have to live with them whether they like it or not. All this is not appropriate for the dignity of the baptized. If baptism is priestly, royal, and prophetic vocation, then the baptized should in some way take part in the election of their new liturgical president, decision maker in ecclesiastical affairs, and teacher of faith.

I also respect that a diocese must remain integrated into the neighbor dioceses and even into the worldwide church. It is one of the meanings of episcopacy and papacy to guarantee unity among the worldwide Catholics.

So here is my suggestion for what a better and more reasonable procedure of finding a new bishop might look like:

First of all: The apostolic nuncio should not be part of the entire process. He should mainly be an official of international diplomacy, not a mediator and mailman between the pope and the dioceses. So there remain three players: The pope, the bishops’ conference, and the diocese itself.

First step:

When the office of a bishop ends, the bishops’ conference (let’s say, two or three of the neighboring bishops, preferably assisted by experienced advisors) undertakes a visitation of the diocese. They talk with priests, deacons, and laypersons, trying to find out what skills and charism the prospective bishop should have. (This step is currently done almost secretly by the nuncio, nobody ever knows how exactly he does it. I have in mind a more open procedure, even with public meetings for all Catholics who are interested.)

Second step:

The bishops’ conference discusses the results and creates a list of three, four, or five candidates. (At least that might work in smaller countries like mine. In bigger countries this step might be done by a group of neighboring bishops – not the entire bishops’ conference –, somehow mirroring the ancient tradition of regional bishops’ synods.) 

Third step:

The list is sent to the pope who is free to eliminate names on that list. If eventually less than three names remain on the list, the procedure is repeated as often as necessary until three names are found.

Forth step:

The final list of at least three candidates is published.

Fifth step:

A diocesan body – the priests’ council, a diocesan synod or something similar – elects one of the candidates by the method of “approval voting”. The candidate who draws the best consensus wins. If none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the votes, the procedure returns to the first or second step.

Sixth step:

Done! The new bishop is elected and solemnly announced, embraced, and blessed by the pope. The ordination can take place.

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10 comments

  1. I would suggest that history offers an additional suggestion: the use of lots at points in the process. While some would argue that the example of Matthias doesn’t obtain after Pentecost (because the narrative in Acts positions it between the Ascension and Pentecost), I don’t recall that being a Traditional bar. (Witness the use of lots in the selection of the Coptic Pope of Alexandria.) The witness of the example of the Venetian republic is instructive: the combination of long preparation via a cursus of training, with lots alternating with election at points in the election process, and an audit after death, helped promote deep accountability with a certain frustration of insider gaming of the system. Sound like familiar concerns? S.E. Finer considered Venice to have been the best-governed polity in the historical record for about 4-5 centuries.

    One thing about Pope Francis that has gone almost entirely unremarked is that he appears to have significantly reduced the phenomenon of long-distance transfers of ordinaries that had become common under his predecessors.

    1. I am absolutely open to the use of lots – as long as they are used between candidates who have already drawn big consensus. Venice and the election of the Coptic pope are good examples for how such a process could look like.
      By the way: In Germany and Austria Pope Francis has transferred several young bishops after very short tenure from less important to more important dioceses (or, as in case of Cardinal Woelki, from a very important diocese – Berlin – to an even more important one – Cologne). Austria is currently waiting for two new appointments.

  2. It seems to me that more honest transparency and concrete structures of horizontal accountability might be beneficially applied to more areas than just this one!

  3. Great suggestion. But until and unless the paradigm of clerical rule gives way to that of servant leadership nothing much is likely to change. Far too many of the successors of the apostles seem to think that Jesus’ response in the aftermath of the question put to him by the mother of James and John was a mild suggestion rather than a command: You are not to rule over others as the non-believers do. When pastors are servant leaders they will welcome a sweeping reform of the manner in which their successors or helpers are chosen. Lots of traditionalists seem to be afraid that if we tamper with the system by which bishops are imposed on their diocese or pastors upon their parishes, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are likely to go the way of the Anglican Communion. They seem to forget that we have a successor of Peter with the authority to encourage, to correct, unite, and discipline. The Pope himself is elected by the college of cardinals. Abbots and other religious superiors are also elected in a similar process which involves conversation, dialogue, consultation, and balloting. The church may not be a “democracy” but it certainly would benefit from broadening its use of democratic processes.

    1. “Certainly?” That’s a dubious claim, in my opinion.

      If you believe the polls, most self-identified practicing, Mass-going Catholics don’t believe what the Church teaches about a whole host of things. Are these really the people who we want to be selecting bishops? As you can probably infer from what I’ve written so far, my answer is a resounding, “No!”

      1. Though, on the flip side of that equation, I would likewise caution that people who assume that “democracy” –> more “progressively-oriented” results on a wide array of topics are likely kidding them/ourselves. In my experience of grass-roots empowerment in intentional communities, such as it was, that equation was frequently tested, shall we say. Indeed, this reality may be the reason I witnessed attempts to game “democracy” in a variety of ways, often involving some form of pre-hoc invalidation or exclusion of certain categories and methods of input, not always transparently. Which in the long run tends to corrode the credibility of the mechanisms. Progressive in method does not equal progressive results, and assuring seemingly progressive results often means illiberal means of some sort.

        In any event, this is one reason I believe the use of lots can be an important tool to frustrate those who seek to game systems (even – indeed especially – when they won’t admit that’s what they are doing, but cloak what they are doing in noble rationalization).

      2. I share a good deal of Francine Smith’s apparent skepticism about democratic elections in the Catholic church. But on the other hand, Liborius Lumma, in the original post, describes a genuine issue:

        “Some people somewhere in the papal hallways make decisions that nobody can ever reconstruct. Eventually those decisions are published as a sort of divine judgement, and finally Christians somewhere in the world have to live with them whether they like it or not.”

        A bishop may be in charge for a couple of decades or more. How about term limits? Or lowering the age at which a bishop must submit his resignation to 65? Or a system of performance evaluation, which solicits heavily-weighted input from the people of the diocese? It seems to me that none of these suggestions would require the Holy See to change the way a bishop is selected, but any of them would increase episcopal accountability to his people, or at least limit the pastoral damage that a bad bishop can wreak. And I assume that is what is really desired by the proposal to elect bishops: accountability and disaster mitigation.

      3. Whatever lay people end up voting in a procedure such as is contemplated here would not be the faithful who are “not so faithful”. A diocesan synod is not a free for all where anyone can just walk in and vote. Considering the poor job being done by the US Catholic bishops, it seems to me that the current system is not producing faithful and orthodox but instead, at least in the United States, has produced “nationalist bishops” more loyal to their American politics than to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

  4. While I like the concept of transparency and democracy in general, I have observed episodes of elections at various levels in Protestant denominations here in the Deep South. It works sometimes, but when it doesn’t it can be ugly, and frequently results in a split of some kind. I am just not sure it’s a risk worth taking.

  5. I was once told that many diocesan appointments are made by people who have no access to priests’ “files”, and so appointments are made on the basis of “anecdotal information”, i.e., gossip. A police detective, working on abuse cases, told me he found that priests love “trash talking” about each other– “You guys sure don’t have any ‘black wall’.” And so many would-be prudent decisions turn out to be anything but.
    How to find ‘consultors’ who have no agenda or bias but who sincerely seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in discovering the truth and making well-informed, just recommendations? Gone are the days of Matthias’ Urim and Thummin. But not by much.

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