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Posted November 8, 2007

Book: Electing Our Bishops: How the Catholic Church Should Choose Its Leaders
Author: Joseph F. O’Callaghan
A Sheed and Ward Book. New York. 2007. Pp. 195

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

Drawing on the work of church historians, canon lawyers, and liturgists, I hope to provide an educational tool for the general Catholic public who know little if anything about the ancient tradition of popular election of bishops and are inured to expect that their bishops will be appointed by the pope. A flurry of scholarly articles published in the 1970s and 1980s in journals such as Concilium and The Jurist, but not easily accessible to the people in the pews, drew attention to Episcopal elections. In 1971 the Canon Law Society of America published a collection of essays entitled The Choosing of Bishops, and has otherwise attempted to keep the issue before the public; however, the extreme centralization of authority in the papacy has made discussion difficult, if not idle. Believing that the subject needs to be brought up to date, I have tried to create a historical synthesis based on narrative sources, conciliar documentation, liturgical texts, and the commentary of contemporary scholars. My hope is that this will initiate a conversation as well as further study of Episcopal elections by parish and diocesan groups.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Pleas for Reform

As long ago as 1970 the distinguished theologian Bernard Haring, maintaining that “the common good demands the most competent person at a given time,” called for “a bold revision” of the process of making bishops. A bishop chosen after a broad investigation would enjoy a greater moral prestige than one selected after a “secret consultation of a few.” The American church historian James Hennesey demanded “structured, public participation of the whole People of God in the episcopal selection process.” As “the church is an assembly of believers and not just the hierarchy,” Patrick Granfield argued that everyone --- bishops, priests, and laypeople --- should be involved in choosing bishops. If the bishop’s authority derived from the community and was not imposed from above, his position would be reinforced and he would have a sense of accountability to the people he serves, a sense that is necessary to representative government.

Recalling Lumen Gentium’s teaching that the bishop is “the visible principle and foundation of unity in his particular church” and “represents his own church,” the canonist John Beal concludes that a bishop appointed without significant community participation cannot be “considered a legitimate representative of the church.” The Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley warns: “If the present system for the selection of bishops is not addressed, all other attempts at serious reform will flounder and ever greater numbers of Catholics will move towards alienation, disinterest and affective schism.” Similarly, the ecclesiologist Gerard Mannion observes: “Nowhere is there more need for more genuine consultation than with regard to the appointment of bishops, and yet what little is undertaken is routinely ignored.” Andrew Greeley, the sociologist, remarks: “As long as a bishop can be imposed without the consent of priests and people, thus promoting the type of bishops who created the abuse crisis, I do not see how credibility can be restored.” In a research study among Catholics in six countries, all familiar with democratic institutions (Spain, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, and the United States), he found that the majority in each country favored the democratic election of bishops.

The Jesuit Thomas Rausch, noting that the Church through a series of concordats allowed secular regimes, “even repressive ones,” to object to episcopal appointments on political grounds, argues that local churches should be permitted “to name their own bishops,” subject to papal recognition. Citing 1 Timothy’s description of the qualities of a bishop, the theologian James Heft suggests that as the people of a parish where a priest had served would be best know his abilities; they should be consulted as to his suitability for the episcopal office. The Jesuit William Byron proposes that before the names of candidates are sent to Rome, they should be announced in the parishes, much like the banns of marriage, so that if anyone has an objection it can be voiced. Declaring that the responsibility for choosing its leaders ought to belong to the whole Church, the ecclesiologist Joseph Komonchak asks why the past enactments of popes and church councils should not retain their force.

Archbishop Quinn maintains that the present system, “with diminished, even inconsequential participation of bishops, and little or no participation of priests and lay people,” is a deterrent to the eventual union of the Christian churches. Reiterating Quinn’s point, the canonist John Huels and the theologian Richard Gaillardetz suggest that a revision of current procedures would help to alter “perceptions of the Catholic church as a monolithic, quasi-monarchical institution.

Table of Contents:

  1. Bishop and people: a bond of trust
  2. Election of bishops by clergy and people in the early church
  3. Royal nomination of bishops in the early middle ages
  4. To the eve of the Protestant Reformation
  5. From the Protestant Reformation to Vatican II
  6. Contemporary appointment of bishops
  7. "Is he worthy?"
  8. Epilogue: re-membering a dis-membered Church