The Current Method of Selecting Bishops runs counter to Church tradition

This article is taken from the National Catholic Reporter. It is very relevant to what is happening in the recent appointment of bishops here in Ireland
Robert Mickens’ column calling for a new way of choosing bishops is most timely. Although the Code of Canon Law of 1983 (c. 377) says that the pope freely appoints bishops, papal appointment is contrary to the church’s centurieslong tradition of the election of bishops by the clergy and people of the diocese.
Pope Leo I the Great emphatically affirmed that right when he declared: “The one who is to preside over all should be elected by all.” He added: “When the election of the chief priest is being considered, the one whom the unanimous consent of the clergy and people demands should be preferred. … No one who is unwanted and unasked for should be ordained, lest the city despise or hate a bishop whom they did not choose.”
The right of the clergy and people of the diocese to choose their bishops is hallowed by usage from the earliest times by canons enacted by church councils and by repeated papal affirmation.
Today, however, scarcely any vestige remains of that venerable custom. Rather, the pope, without the active participation of the clergy and people, appoints the bishops, choosing men known for their fidelity to the papacy and their doctrinal orthodoxy. The pope also exercises the right to transfer bishops, thereby encouraging the popular conception that they are merely branch managers of a centralized corporation whose primary allegiance will always be to the pope and not to the people they serve.
The transfer of bishops is so common that it seems like an embarrassing game of musical chairs. Bishops are seldom chosen to govern a diocese where they served as priests and thus are strangers to the priests and people committed to their care. Smaller dioceses are often viewed as stepping stones to more important prizes. In ancient times, the bishop was described as wedded to his diocese and his ring was the visible sign of that nuptial bond. Pope Callistus I described a bishop who transferred to another diocese as a “spiritual adulterer.”
Vatican officials, including Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, decried the careerism of men ambitious for promotion to wealthier and more prestigious sees. “To be bishop,” he said, “should not be considered a career with a number of steps, moving from one seat to another.” In 1970, Ratzinger joined Hans Küng and other members of the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Tübingen in proposing an eight-year term for bishops. If bishops can be required to resign at 75, there is no reason why they cannot be elected for a limited number of years.
For many years, theologians, canonists and church historians have called for reform of the process of making bishops. Reform is essential, but it will have little meaning if the bishops do not alter their governing style to be more attentive and accountable to their people. If a bishop is again to enjoy the confidence and respect of the faithful, he must know his people, abandon all imperial pretense and mingle with them regularly.
He must seek their counsel and consent in all that touches their faith and Christian life. He must acknowledge that he is accountable to them, and setting all secrecy aside, he must be transparent in his leadership. He must abandon forever medieval pomp and pomposity and adopt a simpler lifestyle indicative of his role as the servant of God and God’s people. He must understand that while he is leader and teacher, the people are his equals inasmuch as both he and they, by virtue of baptism, are equally disciples of Jesus. If he truly shows himself to be a follower of Jesus, the faithful may indeed take up the ancient cry used in episcopal elections: “He is worthy!”
[Joseph F. O’Callaghan is professor emeritus of history at Fordham University. He is the author of Electing Our Bishops: How the Catholic Church Should Choose Its Leaders.]

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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    The original article by Robert Mickens is at He writes about the procedures for appointments.
    Another reflection offered by Paul A McGavin of Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia suggests 12 criteria for the selection of bishops. This is at
    He writes about personal qualities he considers important in anyone being considered for episcopal appointment.
    Both these approaches have something of value to offer. Are there other dimensions we could well consider?
    How would such reflections relate to the appointment of a Bishoip of Rome?

  2. Soline Humbert says:

    …or “SHE is worthy!”,when we have renounced the evil of sexism.

  3. Richard O'Donnell says:

    I like many others believe the people of a diocese should elect their religious leaders. But this needs a bit of thought. Democracy is not a perfect system or even a very good system either.We elect our political leaders and many of them are hardly much of an advertisement for people power.

  4. Martin Harran says:

    I share Richard O’Donnell’s reservations about bishops being elected by the people of a diocese but I see no reason whatsoever why a bishop should not be elected by the priests of the diocese. Cardinals in turn should be elected by the bishops of their country or region, not selected by the Vatican.

  5. For some time now various contributions have centered around dissatisfaction with Bishops – they don’t listen, don’t respond. their leadership leaves lots to be desired,they are way behind their people etc etc. What puzzles me is why then is there resistance to have ‘outsider’ appointed to vacant Sees?
    I should have thought the aim would be to break the cycle of cronyism within the clergy – seeking locals to fill the vacant bishopric is asking for the ‘same again’.
    When one examines the moribund state of affairs in the Irish Church surely some drastic measures are required?
    A friend suggested recently tha,t with the scarcity of priests, we should be glad to have anyone at all… even go foreign for a fresh view and mindset. But maybe there is also a scarcity abroad. The African continent seems to have a sufficiency. Do you think they might begin a missionary drive in Ireland? It’s payback time!

  6. Prodigal Son says:

    Tradition in the selection of bishops has varied over time. Initially, bishops were chosen by the local clergy and lay Christians with the consent of neighbouring bishops, By the time of the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the metropolitan bishop had a role of the greatest importance in the selection. The Council decreed that the consent of the metropolitan bishop was normally required.
    Later, state authorities demanded their consent for the election of bishops. In medieval times, rulers demanded not only their consent to an election made by others but the right to choose the bishops directly. The Investiture Controversy changed that to some extent, but many kings and other secular authorities continued largely to exercise a right of appointment or at least of veto until the second half of the nineteenth century. The Code of Canon Law of 1917 stated that in the Latin Rite, the decision rested with the Pope. Remaining privileges enjoyed by secular authorities have gradually diminished, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), which said that these should no longer be granted.
    In relation to Pope Saint Leo, in 446 he wrote to the African church in Mauretania, forbidding the appointment of a layman to the episcopate, or of any man who had been twice married or who had married a widow.

  7. Nessan Vaughan says:

    The process for the appointment of Bishops (and Cardinals) is an affront to the local Church and to the overall community of believers in Christ, i.e., the authentic Church. Under John Paul and Benedict, orthodoxy, as they perceived it, rather than orrhopraxis, was the main criterion.
    It would be useful if the ACP (and the ACI and other worthy bodies) could facilitate a discussion on this topic with a view to developing some relevant recommendations. Let us attempt to discern the wishes of the Spirit by open discussion and prayerful reflection.

  8. Mary Burke says:

    A comment on the always interesting blog of Michael Commane O.P. reports that at a recent Mass in Ardmore, the new bishop, Phonsie Cullinan said that those who felt unworthy to receive Communion should approach the priest for a blessing.
    Has he taken anything from Pope Francis to heart?
    The process used by Nuncio Brown has already been critiqued here. This report is further proof that such criticism is justified.

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