The Boston Globe has a history lesson today about a scandal that Cardinal Connell had to deal with in the first half of the 20th century. They slip in a little plug for Voice of the Faithful’s demand for election of pastors and bishops.
- Contrary to what many people assume, the appointment of church leaders was not always the sole prerogative of the pontiff. As late as 1870, a mere handful of the several hundred bishops in the world were chosen unilaterally by the pope. In most places, including the United States, the pope’s role was largely to select leaders from lists prepared by local pastors and neighboring bishops. This appointment system took account of local needs and knowledge, and it produced churchmen who were intimately connected to their own people.
But that’s how it happens now. Dioceses, as a matter of course, forward lists of priests thought suitable to be named bishop to the apostolic nuncio in Rome (through the bishops’ conference). When a bishopric needs to be filled, Rome requests three names and those are forward to the Congregation for Bishops. They vet the names and give their recommendation to the Pope. For major dioceses and archdioceses, the name usually comes from among current bishops.
The reason why this should work well now is modern communications allows a priest’s and bishop’s reputation to be more widely known and also gives more priests a wider base of experience because theycan travel more and more easily. But it doesn’t work well in practice because of cronyism. Certain bishops appoint favored underlings to important posts in the bishops’ conference or recommend them for jobs in Rome, giving them a leg up when it comes to consideration for a bishop’s seat. That’s why Bishops Banks, McCormack, Daily, Murphy, and several others—ones who were at the center of the Boston scandal—all got their own dioceses. It’s even more pronounced with other bishops—there’s a whole swath of bishops that could be called the Class of Bernadin. So what we have is a combination of the two systems—the one the newspaper excoriates and the one they recommend, except without including recommendations of the laity.
Is this a reason to implement some type of election or broad-based vetting process for bishops and pastors? The answer is still no. How could it possibly work? Only other priests and their bishops have enough day-to-day and long-term experience with priests to make some kind of recommendation. We certainly don’t want some kind of electioneering and campaigning by priests.
So what does the Globeand its VOTF allies want? The obvious answer is that they want more priests in the mold of Fr. “Call me Walter” Cuenin who would be hard-pressed to be selected as a bishop now, but who would certainly receive a lot of support from the more vocal, liberal Catholics.
The article is a slap at the Church’s hierarchical structure, at the importance of Rome, at the respect and honor given to bishops. In other words, it’s criticism that the Church is not more like some liberal Protestant church. It really galls liberals—even secular, anti-religion liberals—that priests and the priesthood are given deference and honor in the Church.