The democratic fallacy

Periodically, someone will suggest that bishops ought to be elected, and they will place immense weight on the point that bishops were once elected; they are likely to offer a quote (without sourcing) that he who is to govern all should be chosen by all. 1

While it’s true, after a fashion, that bishops were elected at an earlier time (more on this in a minute), the fundamental error of the demand is its presupposition that bishops serve the people of God in a similar manner to that in members of Congress serve their constituents. 2 In a word, it pictures the Church as a democracy. But she is no such thing; bishops are not our representatives to Rome but Christ’s representatives to us. 3 They are our shepherds; we are their flock. 4 Have you ever heard of sheep electing their shepherds?

Quite aside from the structural error just mentioned, there’s a fault in the argument from history. Michael Buckley, SJ, suggests that “[i]t could well have been necessary … that the shape given to the Papal ministry by Gregory VII was dialectically necessary for the freedom of the local church from secular rulers in the electing of its bishops; while now that same centralizing dynamic is weakening the local church through an excessive focus upon the holy see.” 5 He suggests that because the functions of the episcopal-papal relationship are somewhat dynamic, it can simultaneously be true that it was then necessary for the Pope to appoint bishops and that it is now necessary that that power devolve. What this argument misses, however, is that the opposite is no less a valid inference: It could well have been impossible in earlier times for Popes to exercise the power proper to the successor of Peter. It may be that the limits on papal power in centuries past are the problem and that advances in technology—especially transport and telecommunications—have allowed us to perfect that power.

Buckley’s position seems to be (and the historical argument presupposes a somewhat less sophisticated version of it) that the current practice arose as a practical compromise accepted in response to circumstances that no longer obtain, and that we are therefore now free to return to the ideal past practice. It seems far more plausible to me that the prior practice was a practical compromise accepted in response to circumstances that no longer obtain, and that we have subsequently been freed to progress to the current practice. And as Buckley elsewhere recognizes, we can’t safely assume that “the post-apostolic Church was immediately in such full possession of itself, of its own structure, that it immediately asserted (or assented to)” papal primacy. 6

In sum, the notion of electing bishops seems in tension with the basic function and character of the episcopate, as Vatican II explained, and the historical argument at most proves only that bishops can be elected when practical considerations entirely preclude the operation of the normal appointment process.


  1. In the letter to which I replied here, Prof. Swidler’s letter claims it; here’s another example; for an instructive example of the argument in its elaborated form, see Joseph O’Callaghan, Electing our Bishops (2007).
  2. Cf. LG28.
  3. LG27; cf. LG8, 14.
  4. LG18 ff.
  5. Buckley, Papal Primacy and the Episcopate 50 (1998).
  6. Id., at 21 (quoting McCue, 25 T.S. 161 (1964)).

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