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.
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.)
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.)
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.
The final list of at least three candidates is published.
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.
Done! The new bishop is elected and solemnly announced, embraced, and blessed by the pope. The ordination can take place.