Look to Tradition: The Case for Electing Bishops

By DeVille, Adam A. J. | Commonweal, March 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Look to Tradition: The Case for Electing Bishops


DeVille, Adam A. J., Commonweal


A cross Canada and the United States, many Catholic dioceses are without bishops, and nearly thirty more could be without bishops this year if all those eligible to retire do so. Vacancies are piling up as the system that produces appointments is increasingly backlogged. But that system--in which the nuncio collaborates to produce a terna, a list of three candidates whose names are sent to Rome for examination before the pope makes the final decision--presents problems more severe than an excessive workload.

The system fell apart in early January in Poland in a spectacular and ugly way. There, the pope appointed Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus to Warsaw, only to see Wielgus resign just before his installation because of a massive controversy that erupted when it came to light that he had collaborated with the Communists when they were in power.

Two aspects of this tale are especially egregious: First, Wielgus was already a bishop and thus had passed Rome's scrutiny when he was appointed in 1999. Second, even when these revelations came to light and the massive outcry grew, Rome vigorously defended the appointment and initially refused to back down. When it finally did so, its spokesman, Federico Lombardi, SJ, issued a statement crankily blaming unnamed "persecutors of the past and other adversaries" for the fiasco.

The whole affair undermines trust in the Roman system, which obviously failed to scrutinize Wielgus closely enough, and then, when exposed, still tried to force him on the local church of Warsaw. If the Roman curia knew about his past and did not care, it is guilty of malfeasance; if it did not know of his past, it is guilty of incompetence. In either case it shows that the system is totally unreliable.

Rome's reasons for the stiff defense of its decision include not just the usual face-saving concerns of large institutions, but also that the church fought for centuries to have the freedom to make independent decisions and is not about to surrender that to secular pressures. But this was Poland in January 2007, not Canossa in January 1077, and the pressure was from the people of the most faithfully Catholic country in Europe, not from an overbearing German emperor like Henry IV.

Over the centuries Rome has gradually taken over the appointment of bishops, and there were good reasons for this. By the turn of the second millennium, the local prince or political "heavy" with the money and men to enforce his will would often appoint his cronies to plum parishes and dioceses. Many of these appointees had never been ordained, lived openly with concubines, could not read Latin, and were in every respect thoroughly unsuited to holding ecclesial office.

To correct such scandalous situations, and to deal with the widespread political interference generally known as the "Investiture Crisis," popes such as Leo IX (1049-54) and especially Gregory VII (1073-85), who excommunicated Henry IV, rightly began to demand that the church be left alone to make appointments independent of secular control. (The separation of church and state is good not just for the state but also for the church.) The popes increasingly sought to centralize episcopal appointments in Rome, where, it was thought, they could serenely regard the local situation and select the best man for the job without political pressure clouding their judgment.

That, in theory, is how things were supposed to work. Rome, however, never really could make it work for centuries to come. Few realize that it was not until 1917, when the first code of canon law was promulgated, that Rome finally got its way in appointing all the world's bishops. Fewer still realize that Rome was able to insist on its own way because it had the money to do so.

The Cambridge historian John Pollard, in his recent study Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican 1850-1950 (Cambridge University Press), has shown that the Vatican as we know it, an independent city-state having diplomatic relations with 175 countries, and the papacy as we know it, an institution exercising universal jurisdiction over a vast flock, are distinctly modern creations. …

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