Ask most any Catholic how the church chooses the pope – ask most anyone, for that matter – and they’ll probably give you a pretty accurate account of how it goes: The pope dies (or, these days, resigns), and all the cardinals rush to Rome. They gather in private to talk about who the next pope might be while the media speculate in public. Then they shut themselves in the Sistine Chapel and in full cardinalatial regalia, they cast votes, burning ballots with black smoke until there is a winner, in which case, poof! White smoke and “Habemus Papam!” and a new guy in a white cassock on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Joys and hopes, or griefs and anxieties, depending on who emerges.
Now, ask even a fairly savvy, Mass-going Catholic how their own bishop was chosen and you’ll likely be greeted with a quizzical look, some hemming and hawing and, ultimately, a shrug.
That’s not a knock on Mary or Joe Catholic. That’s an indictment of the system, and it’s a central lesson of the recent, much-discussed report on the rise and scandalous fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In an exhaustive, 450-page document dump on the career of one of the most prominent American churchmen of recent decades, there are obviously any number of episodes to shock our sensibilities and many lessons to learn.
But what may be unique about this report, amid all the various studies and grand jury investigations of this era of abuse, is that it draws back the curtain on the sausage-making factory of episcopal appointments – the lobbying and back-biting, money spread like fertilizer and orthodoxy used like campaign buttons. I think we need to remember this lesson and use it to press for genuine reforms in the selection of bishops.
It’s a recondite process, by design. The church often uses secrecy to signal sacrality, as if there is some divine mystery to choosing bishops that ordinary folk cannot fathom. Hardly. Secrecy is not the same as confidentiality; too often, as the McCarrick report shows, it’s simply a cover to let the powers-that-be game a system that’s not terribly systematized.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a page on their website outlining the various steps, but the best explainers I have read on how bishops are chosen are by Cindy Wooden at Catholic News Service and Ricardo da Silva, S.J., at America magazine. They walk the reader through the way that bishops early on identify potential episcopal talent among their priests, and how questionnaires are sent to certain clerics to solicit their opinions on candidates when a vacancy comes open. Sometimes lay people will be consulted, but no one knows how often or who, or even how many. Maybe two dozen people are asked, but it’s anyone’s guess.
Few even know what is on the questionnaire, which is secret and changes depending on what the pope at the time is looking for. Under John Paul II, questions of “orthodoxy” were paramount; tick those boxes and it didn’t always matter if you were a good pastor or a decent administrator, or any of the other attributes that would make for an effective bishop. The top three candidates are then put in a list called a terna that is forwarded by the nuncio of that country to the Roman Curia and the Congregation for Bishops. That is the curial department that vets candidates for Latin-rite dioceses, which includes the vast majority of dioceses in the U.S. (The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples vets bishop candidates for dioceses in mission territories and the Congregation for Eastern Churches screens nominees who are generally sent by synods of local church leaders Eastern-rite dioceses.)
Members of those congregations meet regularly to discuss candidates, list them in order of preference and then forward that list to the pope, who can go with the recommended pick, or choose anyone from the terna, or send it back and tell them to start over. That’s the platonic ideal. In real life, as the McCarrick report shows, curial officials or papal secretaries can intervene to pick a favorite or block an opponent, and a process that can lead to a wise choice can just as often wind up choosing a dud. No one will ever know why. Bishops regularly have no idea why they were picked, or even that they were in the running for a diocese. The process can take months, or years. Or a few days if it’s considered urgent.
Moreover, while the Vatican likes to cloak the selection process in the mantle of “tradition,” the current system wasn’t even codified until a century ago. Bishops – like popes – have been chosen in any number of ways over the centuries, from acclamation by the crowd to election by clergy to a decree by the local ruler. The Apostles chose Judas’ successor by lots. Moreover, elements of almost all these traditions still exist in various places.
The point is that nothing is set in stone and it’s well past time for the episcopal selection process to undergo an overhaul. The da Silva story in America magazine has a good discussion of some of the best recommendations, many of which have been debated most intently – and with almost zero effect – in the two decades since the clergy sex abuse crisis intensified.
None of this would be revolutionary. The pope would still have the final say, but there would be a much broader consultation and a much more transparent and comprehensible process. The point is not to figure out how to deal with a bishop like McCarrick once his perfidy is discovered, but to stop someone like that from becoming a bishop in the first place. It’s not that hard, and there were enough red flags in McCarrick’s career that any reasonable vetting system would have asked enough direct questions to stop his appointment.
Whatever reforms are eventually made, and let us pray reforms are coming, the principle that ought to guide the selection of bishops is the one that has guided the papacy of Pope Francis: synodality. This does not mean a series of primaries or a nominating convention, but a process of ongoing listening that identifies the needs of a diocese, and not just the needs of the Catholics of that diocese. Remember that a year before the Synod on Young People in 2018, the Vatican used an online survey to solicit input from youth around the world, no matter their religion or faith or lack thereof. The Vatican wanted to know what young people were thinking and what they wanted to see from the Catholic Church, and to let that inform their discussions.
The same principle should guide the selection of a bishop, which is also a question of asking ourselves what a bishop is for. A truly evangelical church shouldn’t be looking only for a manager to oversee an institution, but a missionary to build up a flock.
Will some episcopal egos be bruised in a more open process? Probably. But cardinals who finish as runners-up in a conclave seem to survive the ignominy just fine. If the Catholic Church can elect the Bishop of Rome in a manner so public that it inspires endless cable series and papal potboilers, then we should be confident enough to undertake the more mundane but equally important task of choosing our local ordinary with at least as much transparency, if a tad less drama.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.