How a Theologian Would Reform the Selection of Bishops

The story by Pray Tell contributor Liborius Lumma, “Who Should Elect the Bishop? A Suggestion,” attracted international attention, and Lumma was interviewed about his Pray Tell post at katholische.dePray Tell is happy to reprint the interview.

by Kilian Martin

In German dioceses, some things run differently than in the rest of the universal church. Including the selection of bishops: according to the concordat in force in Germany, the final word rests with the cathedral chapter. For Liborius Lumma, that is a good start. In a blog story the liturgy scholar from Innsbruck proposes a new process for selecting bishops.

Lumma’s program is divided into five stages: first the diocese is visited by neighboring bishops to explore the needs of the local church. Then the bishops’ conference or the bishops of the ecclesial province draw up a list of candidates. This is presented to the pope, who then selects three candidates from the list. In the fourth stage the list is published. Finally, a commission in the diocese – perhaps the presbyteral council or a diocesan synod – elects the new bishop.

In interview with, Lumma clarifies how he arrived at this proposal and what is particularly important to him in it.

Question: Dr. Lumma, in your article you propose new regulations for the election of bishops. What brought you to do this?
Lumma: There was no concrete reason, even as the Diocese of Innsbruck was in the background in some way. For a long time I’ve been interested in methods of election and decision-making processes, and not only in the church. A few days ago I had time to pour my ideas into the form of a brief online article. I certainly did not expect that I would stir up interest in Germany too, since it is mostly Americans interested in liturgy who bounce around at that website.

Question: What is the most important change in your proposal for the selection of bishops?
Lumma: Most important for me was to sketch out a process in which three levels interact: first, the local church, the community of the baptized and bearers of the Holy Spirit, should participation in the selection of their bishop. And this in an accountable and transparent manner. Second, the bishops’ conference and neighboring bishops. One can assume that they are most familiar with the local situation, but at the same time have a view from the outside and can thus advice the local church well. And third, of course, the pope as guarantee of the church’s unity, without whose consent no bishop may be named. But this doesn’t at all mean that he has to decide everything alone – Pope Francis himself made this clear in Evangelii gaudium. With all concrete proposals about the process – which others have already put forth in similar form – one must always keep in mind the possibilities of adaptation. Just think of the differences between the western world and those regions where the church suffers from state repression or, for whatever reason, has difficulties with its organization and development.

Question: In the Federal Republic of Germany, thanks to the concordat in force, there already are similar regulations. Did you take this as your model?
Lumma: The stipulations of the German concordat are somewhat known to me – I spent my first 30 years in the Archdiocese of Paderborn – but these were not the conscious model for my reflections. Rather I drew upon my thoughts in general about election and decision-making processes, including in other Christian churches.

Question: In your proposal you explicitly refer to the papal nuncio, who should play no role in the process of selection of a bishop. Why do you think that is so problematic?
Lumma: First: I have no personal grudge against any nuncio. The current nuncio in Austria seems to play a very helpful role in the nomination of bishops, from what I gather. My objections is more of a fundamental nature. A nuncio is, above all, a state diplomat. This means that he mediates between the Holy See and the Federal Republic of Germany or the Republic of Austria. But communication between the Bishop of Rome and the local churches is something entirely different from communication between states. Therefore I see no sensible place for the office of nuncio in the selection of bishops. As an intermediate level between the diocese and the pope there is already the bishops’ conference, which to a certain extent is a continuation of the ancient instrument of bishops’ synods, which played a very important role in the first millennium. This function should be strengthened.

Question: What role should laity take on in the selection of bishops?
Lumma: All members of the church are bearers of the Holy Spirit by virtue of their baptism and confirmation. Therefore I see no reason why laity should be structurally excluded from crucial decisions, not least when they are immediately affected. The Catholic Church could profit from the experiences of the Orthodox, Anglicans, or other churches. There, for example, “electoral synods” consist of half priests – elected by priests – and half laity – elected by laity; or one-third each of priests, monks, and lay people. Which concrete model is the best for a Catholic diocese presumably cannot be set uniformly for the entire world.

Question: There have been long selection processes in recent years in Germany, as you now have in Innsbruck. In Limburg, for example, other questions had to be clarified first. How would your proposal deal with such situations?
Lumma: Particular situations require particular measures, and that also holds true in the church. In any transparent process it must be possible to come to the realization that we are not yet ready; entirely other things must be taken up before we can make a long-term decision. In the model I have sketched out, this understanding would presumably arise in the visitation of neighboring bishops. But the pope or the diocese itself could hit the stop button at any time.

Question: In Innsbruck you are still waiting for a new bishop. What would convey to the deciders if the selection were run according to your proposal?
Lumma: Apart from any particular process, I would hope that all who have to select a bishop would approach the process without have their minds already made up, and certainly not with one preferred candidate in the back of their minds. Everyone should be open to surprises which could result from dialogue with others, or in personal pondering, reflection, and prayer.

© Internetportal Translated and reprinted with permission. Translation: awr.

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