The Case for Electing Catholic Bishops

Charles McMahon, October 11, 2006

It is probably fair to say that the average American Catholic paid little attention to the bishop of his or her diocese before the events of recent years, specifically the child-abuse scandals and the intrusions of some bishops into the presidential election of 2004. Catholics tend to be focused more on their parishes than on the chancery downtown. Now, we have experienced the bankruptcy of dioceses and the possibility that parish properties will be liquidated to pay the damages caused by child-molesting priests. The damages have already passed the one-billion-dollar mark and are expected to ultimately pass $2 billion, to say nothing of the costs that dioceses have been paying to lawyers to defend themselves.

The role of the bishops in the recent scandals has largely been to cover up child abuse by transferring abusing priests to new parishes and to resist the efforts of attorneys to obtain settlements for victims and to open up personnel records through the discovery process. This has inevitably brought the office of bishop into disrepute and has damaged, and in the eyes of many Catholics, destroyed the credibility of a large number of Catholic bishops.

In order to carry out his function as a pastor and teacher, a bishop must have credibility. The situation in the U.S. has reached the point where the a priori credibility of a person with the title of bishop has been severely damaged.

  • In Florida, two successive bishops in one diocese have resigned after accusations of child abuse.
  • In Massachusetts, a cardinal archbishop was forced to resign because of his infamous and repeated cover-ups of priests guilty of child abuse, later to be rewarded with a prestigious post in Rome.
  • In California, a cardinal archbishop is accused of shielding child-molesting priests and sending one of them back to Mexico to avoid prosecution.
  • In Pennsylvania, a grand jury report made it clear that only a limited statute of limitations saved a cardinal archbishop from indictment and possible incarceration.
  • In Colorado, a bishop convinced the state legislature to kill a bill extending the statute of limitations for child molesters by falsely contending that it was intended as an attack on the Catholic Church.
  • In Missouri, a bishop has decimated the lay organizations built up over decades to serve the people of the diocese so that he could gain total control over the diocese.
  • In Nebraska, a bishop has refused to take any part in the national bishops’ efforts to investigate child abuse and to devise methods to eliminate it; so far, he has received no resistance from his fellow bishops, as far as is known to the public.
  • In New York, a group priests of a major archdiocese are campaigning for a vote of no-confidence in the Cardinal Archbishop, characterizing his relationship with his priests as “defined by dishonesty, deception, disinterest, and disregard.”
  • In Illinois, a recent statement signed by a third of the priests of a diocese states that the recently appointed bishop “makes decisions without consultation, is unavailable for advice or discussion, and has an arrogant, off-putting manner.” One priest said that the bishops’ style “is often described by people as pretentious and arrogant, and it just drives them crazy. We have a difficult situation here and it’s gotten more difficult from the beginning.”

 This is only a small sample of the kinds of abuses that have been perpetrated in recent years by American Catholic bishops.

A critical question to ask is: How did the Catholic Church in America become burdened with so many dysfunctional bishops? The vast majority of them were appointed by the recent Pope by a process in which the papal nuncio collects secret recommendations, mostly from American bishops, and then passes on a short list to a Vatican body that makes a selection and presents it to the Pope. The Pope would generally not have the slightest acquaintance with the candidate. The main criteria for selection would appear to have been not just the candidate’s commitment to the promulgation and defense of the Catholic Faith, but also an unwavering commitment to the policies of the Vatican Curia and little appetite for independent thinking and action. The evidence for this is that a significant number of American bishops have demonstrated that they are willing to protect the image and reputation of the Church at the expense of vast numbers of abused children. This situation raises the question of how this state of affairs is to be avoided in the future. To examine this question, we need to review the history of the selection and appointment of bishops in the Church from the earliest times forward.

Ministry in the Early Church

The Church in the first century is best seen by considering the middle third of the century, following the death of Jesus, as separate from the final third, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul. (It appears that we know nothing for certain of what became of the rest of the Eleven and Matthias.) What we know about the Church in the middle third is contained in the authentic letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans – the other six letters attributed to Paul are now widely believed to have been written in his name after his death). There is scant evidence in the Pauline letters that there was any office of what we would call a bishop during the middle third of the century. As leaders, Paul mentions apostles, prophets, and teachers.[1] In any case, present-day scholars (including Raymond Brown and John Meier) find no convincing evidence for the existence of what we now know of as a bishop during the first three decades of the Church.

The principal writings of the last third of the century are the four Gospels (with the Acts of the Apostles) and what have been called the deuteropauline epistles. In the latter, the titles presbyter and bishop (episkopos) are used interchangeably, so the office of bishop as we know it is not yet well defined. Moreover, there is no evidence from the NT writings that bishops were consecrated by members of the Eleven or that Peter was a bishop in Rome or even that Rome had a single bishop/overseer until the mid-2nd century at the earliest.

At the time of the letter of Clement of Rome to the church at Corinth in around the year 96, the leaders of the house churches appear to be referred to as presbyter/bishops. However, in the letters from Ignatius of Antioch to various churches between about 108 and 117, the office of bishop as we now know it began to be more clearly defined, primarily in the churches that Ignatius knew. For the next three centuries, the bishops of the local churches acted as independent leaders in communion with each other, and one of their main functions was to collaborate in the definition of the canonical scriptures and to combat various heresies. There is a clear tradition that the bishops were elected locally, or at least communally approved.

In the letter of Clement of Rome (I Clem. 44:3) he stated that the presbyters were to be appointed by men of good standing “with the consent of the whole Church.”

In the 15th chapter of the Didache it is stated that “You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord, men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried.”

The Apostolic Tradition written by Hippolytus in Rome around A.D. 215 clearly emphasizes that bishops are to be elected by the whole people: “Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people.”

In the Apostolic Constitutions it is stated that “a man be consecrated bishop who is blameless in every respect and who is elected by the people.”

Cyprian of Carthage noted (Ep. 67, 5) that a bishop is instituted “in virtue of the vote of the whole brotherhood and of the judgment of the bishops.”

Thus, there can be no doubt that bishops were elected by all the people in the pre-Constantinian era.

The Post-Constantinian Era

In 313 Constantine, who was at that time the emperor of the Western Roman Empire and Licinius, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, issued the Edict of Milan, which made legitimate all religions of the Empire, especially Christianity. After that, the Church began to be increasingly integrated with the State, and the office of bishop assumed increasing political importance. As the prestige of the office increased, it became more and more coveted by the upper classes of the society, but the people continued to play an active part in the election of bishops. A famous case in point is the election of Ambrose by acclamation in Milan in 374. Later Pope Celestine (422-432) stated that “the one who is to be head over all sho