The People Should Elect the Bishop

The People Should Elect the Bishop December 29, 2018

I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone here. Christian Democracy is about the application of Catholic social teaching to civic life. That is its purpose. I leave theological questions, and issues regarding interior Church life to others more qualified.

But the other day I read that a report from Illinois “Attorney General Lisa Madigan finds the number of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse against children in Illinois is much higher than previously acknowledged.

“The report said accusations have been leveled against 690 priests, while Catholic officials have publicly identified only 185 clergy with credible allegations against them.” [1]

Now Pope Francis has demanded “that priests who have raped and molested children turn themselves in and vowed that the Catholic Church will ‘never again’ cover up clergy sex abuse.” [2] Pope Francis is a good man, but he can’t prevent a cabal of clerics from openly revolting against him. So it seems unlikely that bishops will stop covering up sex abuse simply on his say so.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve had enough of this. How did we wind up with bishops, who are supposed to be our moral leaders, engaging in such atrocious conduct? Ordinary people wouldn’t behave this way, and we expect our bishops to be better than ordinary. What’s more, this isn’t a problem that arose in one or two dioceses, but across the world. And how did 690 pedophiles sneak into the priesthood in one state? Even the 185 acknowledged by the Illinois dioceses seems like a lot. It’s as if a substantial segment of the clergy worldwide has become infested with a pedophile ring.

The question is what to do about it. Your humble servant will now present one suggestion.

For some time now it has been the practice for the pope to appoint the bishops. But it has not always been so. In the early Church they were often chosen by popular election. While we lack sufficient proof to say confidently “that bishops were elected by the clergy and people in every Christian church,” we do know “the popular election of bishops was a widely diffused custom and accepted as ordinary and traditional in many churches of both the East and the West.” [3]

To say that we should return to the practice today will alarm some and entice others, both for the wrong reason. Some will fear the elevation of heretics, as if an insider process isn’t more prone to such results. Others will rejoice at the prospect of seeing their own theological hobby horses elevated at the expense of even infallibly proclaimed Church doctrine.

Humanly speaking, these are dangers. But when we speak of the Church, we are not restricted to humanly speaking. The Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church, no matter how we select our bishops. We are promised that the Church will be kept free from error, and it is of the essence of the Catholic faith that such is the case.

There are many questions to answer as to how this idea would look in practice, and it would take a book to cover everything. But let me clear up a couple of things right now.

First of all, I am not angling for a change in any Church doctrine. As I just indicated, I think that’s impossible.

Secondly, I am not hoping to introduce into the Church certain trappings of modern democracies into the Church. There should not be terms or term limits. Once elected, a bishop should keep his office during good behavior. And campaigns and campaigning should be strictly forbidden.

What I am trying to accomplish is to get better men as bishops. The present system simply isn’t working. Anyone who would say that the Catholic people don’t have the requisite expertise to decide these things should ask themselves how the people could do worse than an international pedophile ring.


The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

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  • Rubbish. Rather, do what the Apostles did to replace Judas, and what the Copts do to choose their pope: Draw sacred lots.

  • Eric Barr

    There is a reason the Church has lasted 2000 years. It learns from its mistakes. Lay choosing of bishops, in the end, did not give good candidates. It gave the worst. Just look up the papal elections from 860-996 when the laity held power over the papacy. The worst popes ever were chosen. Granted we have to improve, but popular elections or elections by the laity won’t work. Been there, done that.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    In the period you refer to according (at least according to some internet research) papal appointments were being made by the dominant family of Italian nobility, not popular election, they having supplanted or taken over the previous process of (albeit apparently somewhat haphazard) popular election by a combination of Rome’s laity and clergy, which had previously been operating (fir good or ill) for 800 years before that. The system of appointment by cardinals was how the Church wrested control back from the nobility, not a direct replacement for popular vote.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    The apostles went through an appointment process to pick two candidates for the lot, and although the Coptic church selects their pope from one of three candidates by lot, the three candidates concerned are selected by an assembly of lay representatives and bishops.

  • pat

    you think things are bad now, Just wait till people are able to vote for (or otherwise influence) selection of bishops. We become the Church of England overnight, but not as Christian, and not as classy…

    you wonder how it got so bad, how could it not in the church of rainbows, unicorns and happy thoughts, where never is heard a discouraging word… A good man hardly had a chance.

  • I’m aware of that. In the end, however, it was left to the Holy Spirit. You can’t tell me that in places like Minnesota, the laity would pick other than a rank heretic (and they’d try to slip little Joanie Cittister onto the ballot). For good or ill, people with power tend to try and hang on to it, so this absurd notion won’t get play, or at least it won’t until long after I’m dead, thank God and the angels who look upon Him.

  • nicole

    Most of the sex abuse cases happened BEFORE the rainbows, unicorns and happy thoughts.

    Besides most of the other crimes the church assisted in (mostly in europe) are also more than 50 years ago.

  • nicole

    What about a type of sortism, where the bishop is randomly chosen from a short list of say 50 or so candidates. Let’s say only guys land on that list that objectively fullfill some criteria. If there are more than 50 possible candidates there is a popular vote to remove the surplus.

    On the topic of democracy, i doubt it would work. I’m Swiss and we have historically a very weird system where elected laypeople control the churches finances. The bishops (with the help of those laypeople) still happily covered up the sex abuse of their clergy. Besides even today this whole elected system is just one huge ugly swamp. One such elected body even finances pro-abortion groups.

  • BoscoNevada 5++


    Jesus said: “You did not choose me, no I chose you.” The Church is not a democracy. Jesus chose the twelve apostles from among all those who chose to follow him. Judas was also one of the twelve. The other eleven had a lot of growing to do, and only became Saints due to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Even if 10% of all the bishops go sour, the Church is still in good hands. Bishops were chosen by the Pope and other bishops, but they were men who had reputations among the people for being holy and filled with the Holy Spirit. So the response of the people had a lot to do with it. McCarrick’s reputation came from the people. If we want holy bishops, we need holy families. Priests and Bishops come from families upon the recommendation of their parishes and people who know them. The whole Church needs to be renewed–to undergo conversion, not just our priests and bishops. We need to follow the guidelines that Jesus and Scripture has set for the governance of the Church.

  • Michelle McClintock

    That’s the reason my brother became a Catholic in the first place. He got tired of the Baptists fighting over their preachers and he said he’d quit if they did it again (they did). Then after he became a Catholic, our church threatened to start a fight if one of the priests had to leave, though his flaw wasn’t sexual misconduct. Fortunately, my brother was able to avert the fight even though the priest still had to leave. If people tried to choose their own bishops like politicians, there would be more fighting like my brother tried to avoid.

  • James Van Damme

    “Ten minutes with a typical voter would destroy your faith in democracy.” — Winston Churchill

  • waltercarlson

    Elect Bishops ? Seriously ? First, how would anyone outside the Church know how holy a priest is in his life ? Secondly, how is this in keeping with Catholic law ? We need NON HOMOSEXUAL , HOLY, MEN in the Priest hood.

  • Kevin K

    As an outsider, it seems to me that what is needed is better oversight — asking a fox to guard the other foxes seems hopelessly naive. Having a separate secular/lay oversight function (that is actually productive and not deferential to the priests) is what’s needed.