Provincial Councils and the Choosing of Priests for Appointment as Bishops

By Sullivan, Francis A. | Theological Studies, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Provincial Councils and the Choosing of Priests for Appointment as Bishops


Sullivan, Francis A., Theological Studies


THE AIM OF THIS ARTICLE is twofold: (1) to recall the role that provincial councils have had in choosing priests for appointment as bishops of the dioceses of their province, and (2) to suggest that a return to this practice could be a welcome step toward the decentralization of authority in the Catholic Church by restoring to local churches a significant voice in choosing their bishops. I begin by recalling the nature of ecclesiastical provinces and their provincial councils and factors that led to their development in the early church.

An ecclesiastical province consists of an archdiocese led by an archbishop, also known as the metropolitan, and a group of neighboring dioceses (called "suffragan") over whose bishops the metropolitan exercises vigilance but has no authority. The rise of ecclesiastical provinces in the early church, as Karl Baus explains, (1) was influenced by two factors, the first of which was the practice of Christian missionaries, on entering a new region, to begin by preaching the gospel in the metropolis that would become the provincial capital when the Roman Empire was organized into provinces. Once a Christian community had been formed in that city, the evangelization of the other towns of the province would normally be done by members of the church of the metropolis, and the new churches that resulted tended to look to their "mother church" and its bishop for guidance. The other factor mentioned by Baus was the practice that bishops had adopted by the end of the second century, of gathering in synods or councils to solve their problems by seeking a consensus about their solution. While this occasionally led to holding councils that brought together the bishops of large regions, such as the councils of Carthage attended by the bishops of most of North Africa, it also led, especially in the East, to the regular holding of provincial councils to which the bishops of the province would be called by the metropolitan.

Letters written by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the third century, provide good evidence of the widespread practice of having the bishops gather at a church of their province that needed a new bishop, so that the assembled bishops could come to agreement on the choice of the new bishop in the presence of the clergy and faithful of that local church. In a letter to the church of Legio-Asturia in Spain in which he assured the clergy and faithful that the election of their Bishop Sabinus had followed the procedure required for a valid episcopal election, he gave the following description of that procedure, namely, that it was followed

in practically every province. Hence we should show sedulous care in preserving a practice which is based on divine teaching and apostolic observance, a practice which is indeed faithfully followed among us and in practically every province. And it is this: when an episcopal appointment is to be duly solemnized, all the neighbouring bishops in the same province convene for the purpose along with the people for whom the leader is to be appointed; the bishop is then selected in the presence of those people, for they are the ones who are acquainted most intimately with the way each man has lived his life and they have had the opportunity thoroughly to observe his conduct and behaviour. And we note that this procedure was indeed observed in your own case when our colleague Sabinus was being appointed: the office of bishop was conferred upon him and hands were laid upon him in replacement of Basilides, following the verdict of the whole congregation and in conformity with the judgment of the bishops who had there convened with the congregation as well as of those who had written to you about him. (2)

Another letter by Cyprian makes it clear that the same procedure was being followed in the church of Rome. Defending the legitimacy of the election of Cornelius as bishop of Rome against the charges made against it by his rival Novatian, Cyprian wrote:

And bishop he was made, by a large number of our colleagues who were present at the time in the city of Rome and who have sent to us on the subject of his appointment testimonials which acclaim his honour and esteem and cover him with glory by their praises. …

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