Column: Holy Spirit, not democratic process, guides selection of bishops


by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

After Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral visit to the United States in the fall of 2007, I was watching a television program, featuring a panel of pundits, analyzing the impact of the Holy Father’s trip.

At one point, a Jewish panelist, after expressing his admiration for both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, commented that he gave the College of Cardinals high marks for its selection of leaders for the Catholic Church. He noted that both popes were impressive — not just because of their remarkable intellectual abilities, but because of their moral integrity. He admired that they lived in a manner consistent with what they taught. Then, he quipped: “Maybe our nation ought to look into this method of selecting our leadership?”

At the time of the pope’s visit in the autumn of 2007, we were about at the same point as we are now in a presidential election cycle. It seems every election year there is a certain level of disappointment in the quality of candidates standing for office. Personally, I have great admiration for those who serve in public life for the right reasons. It is a difficult and demanding job, requiring significant sacrifices by both officeholders and their families.

No one has developed a superior form of civil governance than the democratically elected representative government that we enjoy in the United States. Yet, each election year reminds us of the weaknesses of our system. For instance, the failure of the president and the Congress to enact laws that address adequately our current deficit and debt crisis is symptomatic of the vulnerabilities of our system.

Presidents and legislators have to keep their constituents happy in order to remain in office. This makes it very difficult for them to challenge us to make the necessary sacrifices to restore economic stability to our nation.

The grueling election process for president, where success seems driven more by image than substance, discourages many capable individuals from seeking our nation’s highest office. The harsh negative political ads (an apparent must for every campaign) are a reality that many potential candidates would rather not endure — much less inflict upon their family.

The fact that those serving in the House of Representatives must run for office every two years results in the members of Congress being in a constant election mode. Consequently, they have to be very sensitive to constituent reaction, militating against making tough but necessary decisions that are good for the long-term health of our nation.

Our political system also suffers from the need to defeat members of the other political party. Consequently, we often experience gridlock in government because neither party wants the other to gain credit for solving major national problems, e.g., the reform of the economy or immigration.

Sometimes, I am asked by people: How does one become a bishop? Recently, Pope Benedict XVI appointed a new apostolic nuncio (ambassador) to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. The appointment of a papal nuncio for a nation is extremely important, because a significant component of the nuncio’s responsibility is to identify good candidates to serve as bishops.

To assist the nuncio in this work, he asks current bishops to recommend names to him of potential candidates for the ministry of bishop. The church is divided into provinces, much like our country is divided into states. Every couple of years, each province is asked to provide a list of recommended candidates for the office of bishop.

Once the nuncio identifies a candidate that he is considering recommending for a particular diocese, he inquires confidentially through questionnaires to selected bishops, priests, religious and laity about the priest’s suitability to serve as a bishop. Sometimes, people wonder why it seems to take so long for the appointment of a new bishop. Part of the answer to that question is the thorough vetting process that is conducted in examining each candidate.

Once the nuncio has prepared his dossier recommending three potential candidates for a particular diocese, he sends his recommendations and rationale to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. This congregation, which is composed of bishops from all over the world, reviews the nuncio’s recommendations and can either ratify or amend them. The congregation then sends its recommendations to the Holy Father, who ultimately selects and appoints all bishops. The pope, of course, is free to appoint any of the three recommended candidates or to choose someone entirely different from those who have been proposed.

This process is generally the one employed by the church throughout the world, although there are variations in some places because of: 1) historical agreements; 2) the youthfulness of the church in a nation; or 3) the current political situation. For instance, when Poland was under Communist rule, the church, in order to be able to ordain bishops, allowed the government the ability to veto candidates. The Holy Spirit can work through great obstacles. For instance, the Polish Communist leaders permitted the appointment of Karol Wojtyla (the late Pope John Paul II) as archbishop of Krakow, after vetoing several others candidates. They viewed Wojtyla as an intellectual they could control.

The method for the selection of bishops throughout history has varied and evolved over time. Obviously, the selection method is not an element of defined doctrine that is essential to the church’s integrity. We know of examples in the early church where some great bishops were chosen by public acclamation, e.g., St. Ambrose. However, bishops never received their authority through the election of the people. As is evident in the ordination rite of bishops, the bishop can only receive his authority to serve in the office of bishop by a successor of the apostles. In fact, at least two bishops are necessary to ordain a new bishop.

Most Protestant churches have imitated secular culture and employ some sort of democratic process for the selection of their leadership. With the high value we as Americans place on the democratic selection of our civil leaders, this seems an attractive option for also choosing church leadership.

Yet, we can see in the experience of Protestant churches a terrible flaw in this system. Eventually, the popular election of church leaders, who are responsible for determining church teaching, results in popular referendums on church doctrine. We see this in many Protestant churches that have abandoned such central dogmatic truths as the Trinity or eliminated fundamental, biblical moral teaching regarding abortion and/or homosexual or extramarital sexual activity.

Bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter — the pope — have the responsibility for protecting the doctrinal truths of the church, not making up new teaching. Bishops also have the responsibility to apply ancient truths to new cultural and technological circumstances. Not always an easy task!

Is the current method of selecting bishops perfect? I am living proof that it is not! The former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, in exhorting the American bishops to take seriously our responsibility to identify qualified individuals, reminded us that there are no perfect candidates. Otherwise, none of us would be bishops!

Please pray for me and all my brother bishops as we attempt to fulfill our responsibilities as successors to the apostles. Please pray that the Lord will raise up in our time shepherds after his own heart to lead his church.

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