The Election of Bishops

The Election of Bishops January 19, 2013

Resolved:  the Church should move back towards the practice of the early Church, in which laity, clergy and other local bishops played a central role in the selection of new bishops.

This question has been raised forcefully by Benedictine Abbott Peter von Sury of Mariastein, Switzerland.   This would not be a panacea, but I wonder if the current system, which combines high centralization with a “good-old-boy” network (the role played by Cardinal Law in this process was legendary) really serves mother Church well, particularly give the crisis in leadership we are currently facing.

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  • Melody

    I agree that it would be a good thing if “…laity, clergy and other local bishops..” could somehow have more input toward the selection of new bishops. However what we experienced and are still experiencing in the wake of the last presidential election ought to send up caution flags, that we don’t want to politicize the Church (any worse than it is already politicized). Anything resembling a popular election has the potential to further polarize the Church which is already riven by factions, each convinced that they are on a mission from God to remake the Church in their image (having only the highest and most altruistic motives, of course.)

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I agree that democratic, majority rule elections would be problematic and could serve to polarize the Church further. However, theorists who study voting (both mathematicians and political scientists) have suggested some interesting alternatives. For instance, approval voting often yields “centrist” candidates who have the support of large majorities.

      Historically, there have been a number of models used, including having the mass of lay Catholics seize a candidate and force him to become their bishop. On a more mundane level, several European bishoprics were filled by an election of the Cathedral chapter; the first bishop of the US was nominated in the same way and his name forwarded to the Pope for approval.

      I would be interested in hearing what Orthodox practice is. The election of the Coptic pope also suggests an interesting model: clergy and distinguished laity (I am not certain how these are defined) caucus and form a list of three candidates; these are placed in a chalice and in a ceremony one name is drawn by a young child.

  • Bill Wilson

    An additional consideration: In the early church, the bishop was considered married to his diocese and was not permitted to leave his post except under very grave circumstances. Wouldn’t it be heartening if this practice were reinstituted, so that Rome couldn’t use “bush league” small dioceses to test possible candidates for advancement in the old boys’ network. Years ago, a seminary professor told us, “Ambition is the lust of the clergy.” Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!”

  • No real argument here. Have the local chapter of canons or entire Presbyterium select the bishop, have it confirmed by the metropolitan, give Rome nothing more than an extraordinary veto. I think something like this is still vaguely in place in the Eastern Catholic churches, involving their synods. I dunno about “laity,” though. I tend to think the best role for us in governance would be to have the laity “control the purse strings” rather than directly electing the leaders.

  • Mr. Smith

    Not laity. Clergy of the said diocese certainly can have their say, or rather suggestions. I suppose I agree with MSW’s remarks on the matter.

  • Kerberos

    Laity definitely. But Rome would never allow it – it has never freely let go of power it has gained; it has done so only under compulsion. And compulsion has no place in the organisation of the life of a Church, however just one’s cause. So we shall have too see.

  • Mark VA

    In my view, perhaps the only thing we Catholics will agree on in this proposal is expressed in this quote from Abbott Von Sury: “It is in point of fact a matter of power”.

    First, from my Traditionalist perspective, Abbott Von Sury’s proposal reads like something from an ideological propaganda pamphlet. It is void of any specifics, but dwells on generalizations expressed in inflammatory language:

    “serious systemic problems”, “doggedly resist”, “break down”, “disintegrate”, “put up a fight”, “stand up and defend themselves”, “matter of power”, “sows discord”, “disastrous”, “destroy”, “must step down”, and “great mistake”.

    I doubt the proposal for what is essentially an indoctrination of the laity so that they will vote for the “right” Bishop is going anywhere. If such a change were to be instituted, it would essentially open this process to political and ideological pressures from outside groups following their agendas.

    An unintended satirical aspect of this would be the spectacle of candidate priests (and their backers) campaigning for the coveted post. Should we hold debates as well? Recounts? Recalls? Impeachments?

    At any rate, a parallel situation already exists in the symbiotic political relationship between some parish councils and ideological groups such as the Gamaliel Foundation ( ).

    The essence of this proposal, as Abbott Von Sury rightly said, is a bid for (raw) political power. His side wants more of it. I doubt it will get it – there will be no parallel magisterium.

  • Marv

    Yes, “laity, clergy and other local bishops..” could somehow have more input toward the selection of new bishops. That’s how the Episcopalians do it and its done wonders for their ecclesiastical community!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      But this was the practice of the early Church: so you are saying that the Fathers of the Church got it wrong too?

      • Marv

        I get rather tired of the selective use of the “Fathers of the Church” argument.

        The “Fathers of the Church” approved of public penance by sinners. Should the Church dismantle the Confessionals (the few that remain) and break out the “sackcloth and ashes.”

        The “Fathers of the Church” did not condemn slavery . . . did they have it wrong?

        The “Fathers of the Church” and early Christians did not have have pews, electric lighting, air conditioning or pipe organs in their Churches. Does that mean that we are wrong for having all of those things in our Churches. The Church of Christ uses the “Fathers of the Church” argument in not having instrumental music in their services.

        I would argue Rome is currently able – due to improved technology – to assert a right it probably would have asserted earlier if it was not being persecuted and the Pope had the technology to assert closer oversight and control over the appointment of Bishops..

        Finally, you totally ignored the argument that Episcopal Church selects its Bishops in the manner suggested and it is only hastening its demise.

      • Mr. Smith

        That is a stupid reductionist argument.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I will concede that the “Fathers of the Church” can be over-used. But in this case I think it is a valid one and speaks directly to your original question about the Episcopal Church. For centuries the Church had a system of choosing bishops in which the laity played a prominent role and the Church thrived. Therefore, you cannot simply point at the experience of our Episcopal brethren and dismiss the involvement of the laity as disastrous.

        Your argument about technology is dubious, since many of the examples of election of bishops from the early Church were on the Italian peninsula, close to Rome and therefore in places where the Pope could have exercised closer oversight.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Okay, rereading all the comments, one thing I find interesting is the almost visceral reaction to any role for the laity in the process of selecting bishops. Perhaps it is the Western, liberal/Enlightenment mindset, but there seems to be an immediate conflation of “role for the laity” with “majority rule elections” which need not be the case at all. As I noted above there are many ways to organize elections that build consensus. Nor does this role have to be expressed directly through voting. We could, for instance, adopt the early American model of “indirect” elections (a vestige of which still survives in the American electoral college). The laity could choose delegates (lay or clerical) and they could then participate in the process of choosing a bishop. Or the laity could be asked to express their non-binding preference for a slate of candidates selected by the clergy. Or some other process is possible.

    As for politicking, I imagine that the caucusing and outright electioneering behind a papal election can also get a bit tawdry, we simply are not allowed to see them. (They must exist, for why else would the rules governing conclaves continue to try to ban, or at least ameliorate the practice?)

    So let me ask straight out: what is the central problem, for you, with granting the laity a role in the selection of bishops?

    • David, good questions, and since I am late to convo, let me add that generally speaking I think that a move to a more synodal model which in some way reflects an ecclesiology of communion is preferable. Papal selection of bishops is a relatively new model and one which, when prudence allows, I think we will see replaced.

      Presently I think we’d have to be very carefuly about granting the laity as a whole a large role in the selection of bishops is because 1) even if explicitly stated otherwise, many may imagine the episcopal election to be something too similar to state elections. We don’t want campaigning etc to become a part of this 2) Many of us are too poorly catechized and are not commited enough to the ecclesial life to be able to discern teh needs of the church.

      Those are my reasons for being hesistant about lay involvement, but I think the ideal, as I said above, would be a more synodal model with some degree of lay involvement.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


        your points about the laity and their lack of preparation/engagement are well taken, though I must also point out that these can be used as excuses. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rome began asking why there were so few native priests being ordained in mission territory (most in Africa) and the response was always: “the natives aren’t ready yet.” This only changed when Rome began to say, in effect, “well, then, make them ready now please.” (Details are sketchy but this is my recollection from the last volume of the Penguin history of the Catholic Church.) If we want to move to a model that involves greater lay involvement, then we need to start getting them involved and preparing them to handle their responsibilities.

        • I agree completely! The other part of the prudential question may also be whether the individuals in the Magisterium and Episcopal conferences are ready. This would be a culture change, and culture changes are always slow, especially in an institution as old and “traditional” as the Church

    • Julia Smucker

      I like your suggestions here, David. They flesh out and refine your original proposal, as well as offering tangible illustrations of what participatory hierarchy looks like.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thank you Julia. I am glad someone understood. I love the expression “participatory hierarchy.”

      • Mark VA

        “Participatory hierarchy” already operates on the parish level in our country.

        Over the past few decades, it has produced sundry parish councils, ministries, programs, groups – all undoubtedly essential. It has grown an unnatural habitat for those who itch to lead, get involved, participate, prepare, habitually instruct, and otherwise afflict us non-joiners with acronyms and power point presentations.

        It has made “Extraordinary Ministers” ordinary, banished Latin and the Tabernacle, taught us how to fly on “eagle’s wings”, and stretched the Ordinary Mass horizontally from coast to coast. On the positive side, it has given some of us a preview of the Purgatory.

        I guess it now feels ready for the big time – the Bishop’s league. Yet with this kind of little league record, what part of “non possumus” is so hard to understand?

        “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control…”

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I have to say Mark, that this is incredibly bitter sounding and does not really reflect my experiences with the Church from coast to coast.

  • Kurt

    The role of the laity is legitimate and has a place in tradition.

    In fact current canon law requires consultation with the laity prior to an episcopal appointment.

    I would propose a modest step that doesn’t go beyond consultation.

    In the USA, each latin diocese already has a pastoral council of laypersons selected by the bishop. Before the Nuncio sends any names to Rome, the pastoral council should review each candidate and offer its views. This need not be we like Joe better than Bob, (though it could be) but here are the strengths and weaknesses we see in each candidate based on what we see as the pastoral needs of the local church.

    And in order to give competent advice, the pastoral council must have access to all information that has been gathered in the process so far.

    Still, there would be no right of veto or selection.

    I’m afraid however that this modest and reasonable proposal would still be met by firm rejection by the current authorities.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Kurt, could you point to the precise canon that requires consultation with the laity? I was not aware of this, and I expect many others are not either.

      • Kurt

        Canon 377, section 3 (in part) which says that in composing the ternus, the ponifical legate shall obtain the opinion of laity who are outstanding in wisdom, when it is expedient.

  • Brian Martin

    Well…what is up with the Swiss?

    Whatever it is, I hope it spreads

  • “So let me ask straight out: what is the central problem, for you, with granting the laity a role in the selection of bishops?”

    In my opinion not only would universal suffrage be a problem in the Church, it’s even a problem in secular society. People are fallen. Modern people especially, it seems to me, are too soft.

    The main difference, perhaps, between now and the time of the Fathers, is the rise of democracy as the predominant political paradigm. For the Church to submit the election of bishops and popes to the vote of the laity, would appear to endorse the notion of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” — which the Church has condemned as the basis even of *civil* government (see Leo XIII’s Libertas, 15), let alone Church government.

    Modern democratic people will vote themselves what they like. In the time of the Fathers, perhaps people did not have quite the sense of entitlement that they have today. Someone mentioned public penance. Can you imagine the Church instituting public penance today? People wouldn’t stand for it.

    With clergy, at least you have people who have basically “given away” their lives, by taking permanent vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience. While most are far from sinless, and many are far even from obeying their vows, nevertheless by taking these vows they have, in a sense, given up the idea of living for themselves and are instead living for the Church. It’s as if to be a member of Congress, you had to foreswear marriage and family and live in the Capitol building together with other Congressmen, for life. Naturally many of them would sneak out or sneak women in, but still, vowing to live that kind of life would say something about the seriousness with which they viewed their jobs.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      A couple points in response. First, you continue to confuse “granting the laity a role” with “universal sufferage” and majoritarian democratic elections. As I have repeated, these are not at all the same thing.

      Second, you are hopelessly romanticizing the role of the clergy to the detriment of the laity. Secular clergy do not take vows of poverty: this evangelical counsel is limited to members of religious communities. Yes, what you describe is the ideal, but at various times in the past (and I think even today) there has evolved a mindset in which the clergy (especially the hierarchy) view themselves and privileged, because of their “commitment”, to treat the Church as their personal fiefdoms rather than God’s kingdom.

  • Mark VA

    David Cruz-Uribe, you wrote:

    “I have to say Mark, that this is incredibly bitter sounding and does not really reflect my experiences with the Church from coast to coast.”

    Sorry, I was aiming for light sarcasm, yet it seems only managed “incredibly bitter”. I guess I’m an “incredibly bitter clinger”.

    It is interesting, though, how two Catholics can look at the same local Church, and come to such substantially different conclusions. Perhaps the differences lie, at least partially, in our respective psychologies and life experiences. But I doubt we can get to the bottom of this on a blog.

    If I may add an observation, hopefully sans bitterness, is that I find the energy level of the Catholic Left striking. It’s a continuously running conveyor belt of projects, proposals, innovations, remodelings, changes, and endless agitation. Perhaps that’s what some people with my (traditional) temperament find tiring – this inexhaustible nervous energy. It doesn’t allow for time to separate the wheat from the chaff – some may even say it is more serious that that, it purposefully avoids introspection.

    Whereas we on the starboard side would prefer to stick to our personal situations, small devotions, and local circles. For example, I think I can safely say it wouldn’t occur to most of us to ask for a voice in the selection of Bishops.

    • Brian Martin

      Mark, I would suggest that therein lies the beauty of the Church. In theory, anyway, one does not have to be cut from a “cookie cutter mold” and think exactly like our neighbor in the pew. Unfortunately, we seem to draw from our secular political atmosphere, and carry the us v. them attitudes over into our religious life. I may not be called to the same interests or projects or devotions as you, but I am drawn to the same core beliefs. as for the laity having a say in the choosing of a Bishop, this may at least help ensure that the Bishop chosen fits with the temperment of the Diocese.

      • Mark VA


        Certain type of diversity in the Church is fine, even necessary – St. Paul addressed this question.

        The issue is that these endless projects emanating from the Catholic Left need to be evaluated against an immutable standard, and then dealt with accordingly.

        Same would go for the projects emanating from the Catholic Right, if the Catholic Right could emanate anything to begin with.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          “Same would go for the projects emanating from the Catholic Right, if the Catholic Right could emanate anything to begin with.”

          Well, there are the repeated calls from some sectors for a return to a Christendom which existed only in partisan imagination.

  • Mark VA

    David Cruz-Uribe:

    Christendom did exist – now, whether the idealized vision of it did or did not exist, is an entirely different question. Norman Davies (who, as far as I know, is not Catholic), in the introduction to his book “Europe”, deals with these types of mental constructs:

    On this subject, I try to maneuver between hagiography (a skewed view, in my opinion, too strongly influenced by the histories of just two countries, Spain and France), and its malicious caricature peddled by the secular Left. At any rate, I think that for the Catholic Right this is more of an exercise in nostalgia.

    I do think, however, that there is one thing that would settle things down between the two wings in our Church. The Traditional Latin Mass should be allowed to peacefully coexist with the Ordinary Rite in every parish, or at least in the vast majority of parishes. This is the direction of the Summorum Pontificum, a wonderful expression of our Pope’s generous heart.

    I hope that the new generations, uninfected by our baggage, will have the generosity and the common sense to do the right thing.