January 9, 2019
By Massimo Faggioli
This essay by Professor Massimo Faggioli on the problems and possibilities of electing bishops in the Catholic Church is part of a conversation with Professor Daniel E. Burns, whose response can be read here.
The systemic failure of leadership shown by the bishops in the clerical sexual abuse crisis has revived the centuries-old debate on the procedures for the recommendation and appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church.
Remembering a few historical realities can help us frame the issue. The first is that the power of the pope alone to appoint bishops is a quite recent development in church history. The appointment of bishops has been for most of the history of the church in the hands of no one person only but of a quite diverse typology of actors (local clergy and laity, brothers in the episcopate from the same province, canons of the cathedral, Catholic emperors and kings, and local aristocracy). These players in the institutional life of the church took part in the selection of bishops in different forms that were often unwritten and shaped by customs—and distinct from what we mean by “democratic election.”
The most important element in the appointment of a bishop was not the prelate being chosen by the pope but being in communion with the pope. This is why the recent agreement between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China about the process of bishops’ appointments there has many precedents in history.