How To Get Good Bishops?

Irish theologian Vincent Twomey weighs in publicly on how bishops should be selected. The gist of his argument pertains to Ireland: mediocre candidates, too many dioceses (26), an immediate moratorium on selecting new bishops, a serious self-examination of the Irish Church,

Money quote:

The system to date has failed. I do not deny that Rome may bear some responsibility. But I would place the main responsibility on the fact that the Irish hierarchy has in effect produced a self-perpetuating mediocracy. Incompetence breeds incompetence.

Twomey surfaces a thought from Cardinal Ratzinger from years ago that bishop conferences should devote themselves, in part, to the formation of those who inhabit them. That’s intriguing. How much formation goes into elevating a bishop from the presbyterate? Or is there an assumption that bishops spring fully formed from pastorates? Or diocesan bureaucracy?

Count me a doubter on the notion that bishops can be directly elected from within a diocese. At least in the US, elections are so clogged by the cult of personality, I can’t escape the thought that the secular election process would tarnish a church process in a noticeable way. In most democracies, elections empasize divisions among people. The Church doesn’t need that.

Though I have no idea how to implement such an idea, I believe bishops must be chosen by spiritual discernment. Public elections of any sort are a dead end for us. Careerism and protege promotion could be argued are little better and maybe a lot worse.

I’m less lenient than Fr Twomey with the blame Rome bears on appointing bishops. The buck stops, as it were, with them. They’ve wanted it that way for a century or two now. The treatment of a grave mismanager like Cardinal Law shows they have little grasp on the administrative and spiritual qualities needed for the episcopacy.

My suggestions would be as follows:

– The Congregation of Bishops should be blown up and restarted with a combination of bishops, seasoned pastors, and lay people from around the world. Such a body would be involved with a serious vetting of potential candidates. Such work would take place in parishes and involve extensive input from people who know these candidates, especially the laity.

– The discernment on a bishop should be made mostly at the local level, probably with the assistance of nearby bishops as moderators, but not necessarily archbishops or cardinals.

– Any prospective bishop should have significant experience (ten to twenty years) as a parish pastor or some similar leadership.

Any suggestions of your own, knowing that anything you say will probably be completely ignored by Rome?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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12 Responses to How To Get Good Bishops?

  1. Liam says:

    I agree that direct election as you describe is a cure that is at least as bad as a disease.

    But I do believe that, other than mission territories or dioceses in what amounts to receivership, that bishops should be chosen from within a diocese.

    I also believe in phasing out auxiliary bishops except in far flung, low population dioceses, and getting rid entirely of the idea that episcopal office comes in tandem with curial or diplomatic office. The use of the episcopate as a reward or dignity for curial and diplomatic office mightily dilutes the understanding of the episcopate.

    Now, back to selecting bishops. I do believe in a nomination process that is more robust and structured. It should involve three discrete chambers of discernment for offering nominations:

    1. The diocesan clergy.
    2. Non-clerical religious in the diocese who are within the diocese’s jurisdiction (think monks, nuns, brothers, friars, and sisters).
    3. Laity: perhaps represented by the senior or presiding layperson of each parish and oratory’s pastoral council (or chosen by lot from the laity on each such council).

    I would also suggest that discernment may narrow the list of nominees and then be resolved by lots. See Acts 1:23-26.

    The use of lots as part of choosing leaders has a venerable history outside of Scripture as well. The Most Serene Republic of Saint Mark (aka the Republic of Venice), which was probably the best-governed place on earth for several hundred years (see Finer’s magisterial 3-volume History of Government for an explanation of this assertion), used lots in a creative way:

    (From Wikipedia: New regulations for the elections of the doge introduced in 1268 remained in force until the end of the republic in 1797. Their object was to minimize as far as possible the influence of individual great families, and this was effected by a complex elective machinery. Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge.)

    The point of this system was twofold: the entire leadership class had to become prepared that it might be chosen as doge, but the selection system included many layers of chance to obstruct manipulation. In six hundred years, the system produced but one despot, and he was executed.

    The Venetian system is important to recall because it arose during the peak of high medieval understanding of collegial governance, which not only arose from pre-medieval Germanic cultures but also from Christian culture, especially its Benedictine foundations. The subsequent rise in the early modern era of the nation-state and royal absolutism has blinded us to the innovative collegial structures that preceded it in places like the medieval and early modern merchant republics, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania (before the advent of the veto), et cet. There is much wisdom in past practice to consider

  2. Liam says:

    And, if we are considering how bishops are chosen, we should likewise consider:

    1. Whether bishops should serve for terms;

    2. How the need for a coadjutor might be discerned; and

    3. How bishops might be removed/degraded due malfeasance (I would suggest that provincial and primatial synods have some initial jurisdiction to initiate such a process and recommend judgment to Rome).

    • Jimmy Mac says:

      “And, if we are considering how bishops are chosen, we should likewise consider:

      1. Whether bishops should serve for terms; ——”

      Including the Bishop of Rome, of course. If not him, why anyone?

  3. I prefer the Coptic method.

  4. Liam says:

    Btw, I don’t agree with Vincent Twomey’s recommendation that there should be fewer bishops. Bishops as it is are so distant from parochial life that there are layers of bureaucracy to insulate them from the flock. Rather, we probably need many more of them, but the scope of their individual dioceses would be smaller (with administrative efficiencies achievable at provincial level or even higher for some matters).

  5. Tony says:

    In my diocese, a number of priests are assigned to the chancery in various “directorates” (Director of formation for ministry, Director of Deacon formation, etc.) With the current priest shortage, it seems that these “administrative positions” (with the increased chancery “face time”) should be assigned to Deacons or laity with the priests being assigned to parishes where they’re needed.

    Bishops can be drawn from the ranks of parish priests, not “administrative priests”.

    • Jimmy Mac says:

      Amen, Tony!

      The idea that these administrative functions have to be filled by the ordained is a direct slap at the rest of the church, i.e., the laity, including religious.

      A large number of the laity are better educated, better exprienced and (dare I say it?) more intelligent than a lot of the clerics.

  6. Liam says:

    In the heyday of Roman Christianity in late Antiquity, diocesan administration was the charge of the archdeacon, who administered church property and courts and the like.

  7. John says:

    Two quotes stood out:

    “the Irish hierarchy has in effect produced a self-perpetuating mediocracy. Incompetence breeds incompetence.”

    “the entire [Venetian ] leadership class had to become prepared that it might be chosen as doge”

    Quality in. Quality out.

    The Irish and Venetian leader-selection mechanisms may be less important than the withering or flowering of a culture of competence.

  8. Liam says:


    The Venetian selection process was an important part of the structure for the culture of competence. It was not incidental.

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