Why Not Elect Our Bishops?

by Joseph F. O’Callaghan, Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at Fordham University,

published by the American Catholic Council


“The one who is to be head over all should be elected by all.” That statement of Pope Leo I, the Great (440-461) stands in sharp contrast with the canon 377 of the Code of Canon Law: “The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected.” Although some may be familiar with Leo the Great’s declaration, most Catholics have come to expect that when their diocese is vacant the pope will appoint a new bishop without any significant input from the clergy and people of the diocese. In the seventies there was some discussion concerning the selection of bishops, but it died down during the pontificate of John Paul II. However, in the wake of the scandal of priestly sexual abuse and the attendant cover up by the American and Irish bishops, many of the faithful are asking “why should we not be consulted in the choice of our bishop?” “Why not elect our bishops?” Peter Steinfels commented that: “The idea of electing bishops renders most conservatives and virtually all the hierarchy and Vatican officialdom apoplectic.” Without any wish to cause anyone apoplexy, I would like to suggest some reasons why we should elect our bishops. We must begin by attempting to understand the historical evolution of the manner of making bishops. Thus we will be better able to evaluate the current process of papal appointment and to consider possible reforms. As we do so, we will also be led to reflect on the need to reform the office of bishop.

Historical Overview

Recognizing the need for leaders, the early Christian community elected them from its members. Thus, by casting lots Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (Acts, 1:15-26). The Seven, traditionally regarded as the first deacons, were also elected, though we do not know exactly how (Acts, 6:1-6). None of the earliest ministers of the Church was a bishop in the sense that we understand that office today. St. Paul described a variety of ministries that eventually evolved into the offices of priest and bishop. Those terms were used interchangeably in the New Testament to mean those in charge of a particular church. The Pastoral Epistles to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17-19) and Titus (1:5-9), dating from the latter part of the first century, set forth qualifications for presbyters and bishops, but used those terms without distinguishing one from the other.

Later liturgical and conciliar texts often refer to the Pastoral Epistles as the ideal to which bishops should aspire. Leadership of local churches by groups of presbyters or bishops gradually gave way to the monarchical episcopate that appeared at least in Asia Minor at the end of the first century, as evidenced by the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 107). From there the idea of rule by one bishop gradually spread throughout the Christian world. Early liturgical texts testify to the election and ordination of bishops.

The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, of the second century, states: “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.” In the early third century, Hippolytus of Rome, in his Apostolic Tradition, asserted that, “He who is ordained as a bishop, being chosen by all the people, must be irreproachable.” In the middle of the third century St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in North Africa (d. 258) emphasized that, by virtue of divine authority, the bishop should be elected by all the faithful and, that the provincial bishops, after consenting to the election, should ordain the one elected (Epistle 67). He added that the people “have the power either of choosing worthy priests and of rejecting unworthy ones” (Ep. 67.3). Speaking of the election of Cornelius as bishop of Rome, Cyprian remarked: “Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the vote [suffragium] of the people who were present, and by the college of mature priests and goodmen” (Ep. 55.8).

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit sometimes prompted a spontaneous election, as in the instance of St. Ambrose who was elected bishop of Milan in 373. Though some elections were contentious, most were probably without incident. In the early fifth century Pope Celestine I (422-432) stated emphatically: “no one who is unwanted should be made a bishop; the desire and consent of the clergy and the people and the order is required” (Epistolae 4.5, PL 50:434-35). Not many years later Pope Leo I the Great (440-461) declared: “the one who is to be head over all should be elected by all” (Epistolae, 10.6 PL 54:634). He also stated: “When the election of the chief priest is being considered, the one whom the unanimous consent of the clergy and people proposes should be put forward . . . It is essential to exclude all those unwanted and unasked for, if the people are not to be crossed and end by despising or hating their bishop. If they cannot have the candidate they desire, the people may all turn away from religion unduly” (Epistolae 14.5, PL 54:673).

Church councils, both provincial and ecumenical, reiterated the principle that the bishop should be chosen by the clergy and people assembled in a synod together with the metropolitan or archbishop and the other bishops of the province. The electoral process seems to have entailed three stages:

  1. the candidate’s worthiness was assessed by an examination of his knowledge of scripture and the laws of the Church and by the testimony of the clergy and people as to the honesty of his life;
  2. priests and people were then asked to vote, perhaps by making a mark on wax tablets, or by a show of hands, or by counting heads, or by giving consent by the acclamation, “he is worthy.”
  3. the one chosen had to be accepted both by the provincial bishops and the metropolitan or archbishop who ordained the bishop-elect. As the bishop was elected to serve a particular community, he should not be transferred to another see.

When Christianity was acknowledged as a legal religion in the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, the number of Christians increased, and the emperors became Christians. Thus, ambitious men coveted the office of bishop as a means to power and influence. Recognizing the important role of the bishops, the emperors intruded into the electoral process by imposing their candidates. Imitating the example of the emperors, the Germanic kings who ruled the western provinces of the Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries also insisted on nominating bishops. Nevertheless, church councils reiterated the principle of popular election of bishops, opposed their transfer to other sees, and condemned absentee bishops.

Challenging the royal claim to nominate bishops, eleventh-century reformers insisted on free elections. In practice, however, the royal or imperial right to nominate the bishops remained intact. In that sense the reformers’ goal of an independent Church was not achieved. During the twelfth century, both the ordinary clergy and laity were effectively excluded from any participation in the electoral process. That responsibility was entrusted to an elite body of priests, the canons who formed the cathedral chapter and functioned as the bishop’s council, in much the same way as the college of cardinals were the principal advisors of the pope. The task of the cathedral chapter was a mere formality of approving the monarch’s nominee rather than of independently electing their own man.

One of the consequences of the Protestant Reformation was that it prompted the Council of Trent to debate the wisdom of returning to the ancient tradition of the election of bishops by the clergy and people of the diocese. Rather than endorse that idea, however, the Council, while minimizing the electoral role of cathedral chapters, strengthened papal influence over episcopal elections. Thereafter secular monarchs, working closely with the papacy controlled the appointment of bishops.

From the eighteenth century onward, the papacy entered a series of concordats or agreements conceding to secular rulers the right to name bishops, subject to papal institution. Meanwhile, John Carroll, the first American bishop, was elected by his priests in 1789, but thereafter the pope appointed the bishops. Lamenting the poor quality of the American bishops in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, witnesses attacked the system of episcopal appointments on the grounds of secrecy, patronage, intrigue, and the failure to consult priests. The provincial bishops and some priests were eventually asked to draw up a terna, or list of three nominees, from which the pope could select one, but the laity had no role in the choice of their bishops.

The Code of Canon Law in 1917 (c. 329) and the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983 (c. 377) forthrightly asserted the papal right to appoint all bishops. Vatican II’s Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops (Christus Dominus) stressed that the pope “has the . . . exclusive power to appoint and install bishops.”

Agreements with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco confirmed the papal right of appointment, provided, however, that the government had no political objection to the candidates. The irony is that secular rulers or their ministers, who were often non-Catholic or anticlerical, or, in the twentieth century, irreligious dictators hostile to Catholicism, had a greater voice in choosing bishops than faithful Catholics.

The Current Process Of Naming Bishops In the Church

Today scarcely any vestige remains of the ancient tradition of the election of bishops by the clergy and people of the diocese. Rather, throughout the Latin Church the notion that the pope, without challenge, appoints the bishops as he wishes is generally accepted. In response to Paul VI’s directive, the Vatican’s Council for the Public Affairs of the Church in 1972 issued a series of “Norms for the Selection of Bishops,” which were later incorporated into the Code of Canon Law of 1983.

The process of selection as described by Thomas Reese is as follows: (1) The process begins when the local bishop asks his clergy to recommend three candidates. Those names are forwarded to the archbishop and provincial bishops. The archbishop sends the revised list to the papal nuncio. (2) The nuncio (technically the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States) has the principal role in gathering information about a candidate. In addition to the recommendations of the bishops, the nuncio may also consult the diocesan consultors and lay persons “of outstanding wisdom.” In carrying out his inquiries the nuncio uses a questionnaire prepared by the Roman Congregation for Bishops. The candidate’s orthodoxy, loyalty to the pope, and his stand on celibacy, the ordination of women, and sexual morality are given the greatest weight. The nuncio then sends a list of three names (terna) to the Congregation for Bishops, which makes a final recommendation to the pope.

John Paul II (1978-2005) has had the opportunity to appoint nearly all the current bishops of the world. They are generally characterized by their fidelity to the papacy. As the theologian Richard Gaillardetz pointed out, the successful candidate would likely enjoy the patronage of a cardinal; have a Roman education; have served in the curia, or as a seminary professor or rector. Most importantly, he would have “no record of having written or said anything that might be construed as critical of official magisterial pronouncements or Church policies. Notably absent from this list is demonstrated ability as pastoral leader. Presumably, this qualification is currently viewed as ecclesiastical gravy.”

Under John Paul II the transfer of bishops from see to see has become increasingly common, so much so that it seems like an embarrassing game of episcopal musical chairs. Bishops are seldom chosen to govern a diocese where they served as priests and are thus strangers to both the priests and people committed to their care. The local community has no real knowledge of the new bishop or his behavior in his previous diocese. Smaller dioceses are often viewed as stepping-stones to more important prizes. In ancient times, by analogy with Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, the bishop was said to be wedded to his see and his ring was the visible sign of that nuptial bond, a fidei sacramentum, a pledge of fidelity. After a bishop’s death, the diocese was described as “the widowed church.” Pope Callistus II (217-222) portrayed a bishop who ruptured that bond by reason of transfer as a “spiritual adulterer.”

One of the phenomena of the modern Church is the presence of auxiliary bishops usually in large cities. Usually auxiliaries are not named as successors to the bishop they served. When a new bishop comes in the auxiliaries are often moved to dioceses of their own. John Tracy Ellis commented that, when naming auxiliaries, archbishops tended to propose men who would not make waves. Often men of mediocre abilities, their mediocrity became a qualification for leadership. The existence of more than one bishop in a diocese contradicts the principle of unity of the local church symbolized by its bishop. In theory the office of bishop is a sign of unity that is contradicted by a multiplicity of auxiliary bishops in one see. To circumvent that difficulty the Roman curia in the thirteenth century invented titular bishops, bishops who were assigned to sees that no longer existed, usually in the Muslim world. Auxiliary bishops are named as titular bishops of these non-existent sees and are obliged to pray for the faithful there several times a year.

Many of the archbishops and bishops who crowd curial offices in Rome are titular bishops. A bishop assigned to a fictitious diocese can hardly be described as shepherd of a non-existent flock. Many bishops are men ambitious for promotion to more prestigious and wealthier sees. Vatican officials, including Joseph Ratzinger, lamented the careerism of men ambitious for promotion to more prestigious and wealthier sees. Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affirmed that a bishop should usually serve one diocese and that “there should be no sense of careerism. To be a bishop should not be a career with a number of steps, moving from one seat to another, but a very humble service.” He also stated that, “the view of the bishop-diocese relation as matrimony, implying fidelity, is still valid.” “Sadly,” he added, “I myself have not remained faithful in this regard.”

Ironically, Ratzinger was unfaithful to the archdiocese of Munich, the see for which he was first ordained, and did not refuse to accept the fisherman’s ring as bishop of Rome under the name Benedict XVI.

Proposals For Reform

Theologians, canonists, and church historians pointed to the need to reform the current system of selecting bishops and especially to broaden the participation of the clergy and people. To cite just three examples:

    • James Hennesey, S.J. a distinguished historian of the American church demanded “structured, public participation of the whole People of God in the episcopal selection process.”
    • The canonist John Beal, recalling Lumen Gentium’s teaching (23) that the bishop is “the visible principle and foundation of unity in his particular church” and “represents his own church,” concluded that a bishop appointed without significant community participation cannot be “considered a legitimate representative of that church.”
    • The Jesuit theologian, Michael Buckley, warned that: “If the present system for the selection of bishops is not addressed, all other attempts at serious reform will founder and ever greater numbers of Catholics will move toward alienation, disinterest and affective schism.”
    • In 1973 the Canon Law Society of America proposed a Procedure for the Selection of Bishops. A Diocesan Committee consisting of two priests, two female religious, two male religious, two laymen and two laywomen should enlist the faithful every three years in (1) assessing diocesan needs; (2) determining the qualities desired in a bishop; and (3) identifying three priests likely to best serve the diocese as a bishop. The names and accompanying recommendations would then be forwarded up the hierarchical chain, eventually reaching the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. The input of the laity, however, was limited to the initial work of the Committee.

    Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport offered two proposals for reform of the process. The difference between these proposals is signaled by two words: selection and election. Selection reflects the top-down model of Church government and acknowledges that the pope, on recommendations received from below, will make the ultimate choice. By contrast, the word election, used in the earliest texts, implies something much more radical, namely a return to the original custom of the Church. Sanctioned by centuries of tradition, election reflects the idea that ultimate authority rests with the whole body of the faithful, who confer the right to govern on those elected by the community.

    The first proposal urges that a Diocesan Committee, consisting of elected representatives of the clergy and people, should determine diocesan needs, the qualities desirable in a bishop, and identify the most qualified priests. The Committee would send its report simultaneously to the Congregation for Bishops, the American bishops, the archbishop and provincial bishops, and all the faithful of the diocese. In this way the desires of the faithful expressed by their representatives would go directly to Rome.

    The second proposal calls for the election of a bishop by a diocesan synod composed of the archbishop, provincial bishops, and elected representatives of the clergy, religious, and laity. After considering the candidates’ qualifications, the synod would elect a bishop and the archbishop would communicate the results to the whole Church.

    In addition to electing the bishop, a limited term of office may also be of benefit as easing the removal of an incompetent bishop or the re-election of an excellent one. As bishops currently are required to step down on reaching the age of seventy-five, there is no reason why a fixed term of office cannot be established. In 1970 the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Tübingen, whose most distinguished members were Hans Kung and Joseph Ratzinger, proposed a term of eight years. Ratzinger subsequently withdrew his approval of that idea. Insistence on maintaining secrecy, fear of losing one’s influence and patronage in making bishops, and dread of democracy are among the obstacles to the implementation of this proposal.

    The arguments against election by the clergy and people are: (1) The Church is divine and therefore the democratic procedures of the secular world should not and cannot be applied to it; (2) Political campaigning, electioneering, political parties, factionalism and power struggles are not desirable; (3) Limitation of the choice to diocesan clergy will lead to inbreeding; and (4) An open process will result in a loss of confidentiality possibly detrimental to the reputation of losing candidates.

    Although Christ’s Body, the Church, is divine, the people who compose it are not. The Church borrowed the institutional practices of the Roman Empire and the papacy is the last remaining example of the absolute monarchies that dominated Western Europe a few centuries ago. There is no reason why the Church cannot adopt the democratic procedures of election and representative government. To suggest that politics is not inherent in the life of the Church betrays an ignorance of Church history. Aristotle described human beings as political animals and we know that by their very nature, human beings act in political ways. One might ask what the cardinals were doing in Rome before they elected Benedict XVI, if they were not politicking. In the Church today politicking is routine among the power elite who do not hold themselves answerable to the faithful as a whole.

    Is He Worthy? Reform Of The Office Of Bishop

    From the early centuries the question “is he worthy?” has been vital to every episcopal election. Reform of the electoral process is essential, but it will have little meaning if the bishops do not alter their manner of government so as to be more attentive and responsible to the people they serve. The willingness of a candidate for the episcopal office to listen to his priests and people and to hold himself accountable to them is a significant measure of his “worthiness.” If the bishops are again to enjoy the confidence and respect of the faithful, they must adopt a manner of leadership consonant with the core of the Christian message enunciated in the New Testament.

    Several fundamental reforms need to be carried out: The bishop should know his people, and his diocese should be small enough for him to be able to do so. If the concept of the bishop as a shepherd is not to be mere pious jargon, he must actively seek to know his people by living closely in their midst. A bishop who wishes to truly lead his people and give voice to their needs will recognize his obligation to seek their counsel and consent whenever he contemplates any important action. In accordance with the principle enshrined in canon law (c. 119.3) “what touches all should be approved by all,” the bishop should seek the counsel and consent of the faithful, who are making their journey to holiness under his leadership, in all that touches the faith and the Christian life. The most effective means of achieving this goal is through councils including elected representatives of the clergy and laity as well as the bishops on every level of Church government.

    The bishop must acknowledge that he is accountable to his people and, setting all secrecy aside, he must be transparent in his leadership. Two areas of greater accountability and transparency are (1) the publication of documents in chancery archives related to priestly sexual abuse and (2) more rigorous oversight of parish and diocesan finances by the faithful is necessary.

    As a disciple of Jesus, the bishop should abandon forever the medieval pomp and pomposity surrounding the modern episcopate and adopt a simpler lifestyle. Discarding titles and vesture more suited to a bygone age of kings and princes, he must adopt a style indicative of his task as the servant of God and of God’s people. The bishop ought to understand that, while it is given to him to lead and to teach, the people he leads are his equals inasmuch as both he and they, by virtue of baptism, are equally disciples of Jesus. The imperial mode of government to which Catholics have been subjected in modern times is in direct opposition to these words of Jesus: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” (Mt. 20:25-26; Lk 22:25-26).

    If these reforms are effected, then the faithful, when speaking of their bishop, may indeed proclaim: “He is worthy!”

    Restoration of the Unity and Health of Christ’s Body

    In earlier times the participation of the metropolitan bishop, provincial bishops, priests, and people in episcopal elections reflected the Pauline image of the Church as Christ’s Body. Each member offered his or her special gift for the well-being of the whole and no one, as St. Paul emphasized, could say to another, “I do not need you.” Yet that is what has happened. The exclusion of the rank and file of the clergy and the laity from the electoral process has caused many to identify the Church with the hierarchy.

    In this day and age when the implicit trust between bishops and people has been so eroded, it is imperative that all the faithful of the diocese should be free to elect a person whom they know to be worthy of the office. The bishop should be elected for a fixed, and possibly renewable term, and should serve the diocese for which he is elected, without expectation of being transferred elsewhere. By taking up again the ancient tradition of the popular election of bishops we will be helping to restore the unity and health of the Body of Christ. Pope Leo’s centuries-old admonition is still valid today: “The one who is to be head over all should be elected by all.”

  • *** For fuller information see my book, Electing Our Bishops: How the Catholic Church Should Choose Its Leaders (New York’Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).