“He’ll be a bishop someday.”
That was the prediction in the parish I attended fifteen years ago. Our pastor was a nice man – likable and affable. No one had anything negative to say about him. The best word I can use to describe him is “safe.” He didn’t court controversy and did his job in a head-down kind of way. He was an able administrator and ran the parish efficiently. Because of these traits, Father was often involved in various diocesan responsibilities, helping the archbishop and chancery as needed. Almost everyone in the parish assumed that one day he would be made a bishop.
Everyone was right: this past year, he was made a bishop. And that’s the problem.
I want to be clear that I have nothing against my old pastor. At the same time, I don’t have anything really for him, either. Even though he was pastor for my first five years in the parish, I can’t remember one homily he gave, or much else about him, other than the fact that I considered him a nice guy. In contrast, the pastor who succeeded him, I remember quite well – he dramatically increased confession times at our parish, preached against contraception, and encouraged us to go door to door to evangelize the neighborhood. Perhaps not surprisingly, the joke after he came was, “Well, he won’t ever be a bishop.”
Crickets from the Episcopacy
Why is it that during this time of the Cardinal McCarrick scandal, less than a handful of active bishops in the United States have made a statement that could even be called Catholic? Instead of lamenting sin and urging repentance, we’ve mostly seen lawyer-ese and calls for more policies. And even though a couple of bishops have made decent statements, not one bishop has actually yet done something. Statistically speaking, selecting 250 random practicing Catholics in the United States should result in at least a dozen who “get it.” But with more than 250 active U.S. bishops, you still can’t find one who is willing to expose the filth that infects the episcopacy. Why is that?
I would say a big reason is the selection process. The process as it’s currently set up results in choosing priests like my old pastor. Although ideology is one factor in bishop picks, I think pragmatism is a much bigger factor. The Church wants “safe” bishops – bishops who won’t rock the boat, who maintain the status quo. The Church wants bishops whose first priority is protecting not the Faith or souls, but the institutional Church.
It’s this very process that has gotten us into this mess. Right now we have two main types of bishops: those who are morally compromised and those that are too weak (or too “safe”) to speak up and act. Yes, there’s likely a significant number of bishops who are homosexual and perhaps have sexual scandals in their closets. There are also many bishops who sincerely want to serve the Lord. Yet these latter bishops have personalities that loathe conflict and make them naturally “company men.” These are not natural leaders who will endure pushback and ridicule for the truth. These are men who wilt under pressure and look for ways to “compromise” in order to protect the institution.
Whether a bishop is himself morally compromised or is simply too weak to speak up, the result is the same: deafening silence in the face of diabolical scandal.
Making Better Selections
What can be done to fix this problem? I think we need to consider radically changing how bishops are selected. It’s important to remember that how bishops are selected today is not part of the Deposit of Faith, nor is it how the Church has always done it. In fact, it’s a relatively recent innovation.
As the process currently stands, the selection of new bishops rests almost entirely in the hands of the local and regional bishops, along with the apostolic nuncio for the country. Essentially, a list of candidates is compiled in consultation with the outgoing bishop (if not deceased), regional bishops, and perhaps some local leading priests (i.e., priests close to the outgoing bishop). This list is narrowed to three candidates, which is forwarded to the Vatican for final selection. The pope officially makes the selection in consultation with the Congregation for Bishops. As should be obvious, this bureaucratic process essentially ensures that the status quo is maintained. If a potential candidate has at any time “rocked the boat,” he will be passed over for a “compromise” choice. There’s almost no chance of a radical selection. In a sense, it’s an oligarchy: a small number of men have all the power in determining who will become a bishop.
Can this process be improved? Absolutely. During the pontificate of John Paul II, many “liberal” Catholics wanted lay involvement in the selection of bishops. Most “conservative” Catholics quickly rejected this idea, since they assumed that picks from John Paul II would be better than picks from Call to Action members. Yet many of the problematic bishops we have today were selected by none other than John Paul II. Due to the selection process, though a pope can influence certain assignments, he has little influence in the list of candidate priests. They are all “company men,” through and through. The problem isn’t the pope; it’s the system.
Perhaps, then, it’s time to consider more involvement from the laity when it comes to the selection of bishops. Have a selection committee consisting of priests and local lay people who pick the priests under consideration. But two important points: (1) give them real power – the group’s picks should be the only ones sent to the pope, and (2) make sure the laity represent more than 50% of the committee’s membership. Also, the lay people selected shouldn’t just be prominent Catholics; homeschool moms and working-class fathers should be as likely to be included as CEOs and politicians.
For those who are hesitant to endorse such a plan, remember the story of St. Ambrose. One of the great Church Fathers (and the man who brought St. Augustine to the Church), Ambrose was the bishop of Milan in the late fourth century. How was he selected? By a mob. The city of Milan was in an uproar because its people didn’t have a bishop. A large crowd gathered to demand a new bishop (interestingly, they made their demand to the local governor, not the pope). A small child called out, “Ambrose bishop!” At this point, Ambrose was a beloved leader, but he was also an unbaptized catechumen! Yet the crowd took up the call, and the governor relented. Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and installed as bishop – all in the span of a week.
No Quick Fix
Lay involvement in selecting bishops isn’t a panacea. Most lay-selected bishops won’t be in the mold of St. Ambrose. In dioceses that have historically been overrun by heresy, it’s likely the selection committee will make bad selections. But let’s be honest: it’s unlikely their selections will be worse than what we have now. In dioceses that are more faithful, however, we could see strong candidates chosen: priests who are willing to be bold in their proclamation of the Faith and do what it takes to clean up the mess we’re in. At the rate we’re going, the only laypeople who will be left in a few years to form the selection committee will be faithful Catholics, anyway.
There are no quick fixes or easy answers for reforming the Church’s hierarchy. But we need to stop ignoring the problem and begin to take concrete steps to address it. Perhaps overhauling the selection process for bishops should be one of those steps.
OnePeterFive supports open discussions on how to solve the problem of deep-seated and widespread sodomitical infiltration and abuse in the modern Church. We are as fed up as anyone and want to see a change. While we don’t necessarily endorse the solution prescribed here, we do endorse engagement from good laypeople and good clergy, working together to put the “militant” back in “Church Militant.”
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.