Reform and the episcopate

I will admit that I took up Rodger van Allen’s article How to build a better bishop with some trepidation. 1 The agenda of many left-leaning Catholics vis-à-vis reform of the episcopate is no secret, 2 and so I expected nothing good. Nevertheless, there is good and bad in this.

Citing (sub rosa) George Weigel’s book The Courage to be Catholic, Allen says that there’s “a broad-based chorus of voices calling for reform in the process for the selection of bishops,” and quotes Weigel as saying that it is “‘a serious mistake’ that [the] laity are not involved in any significant way in the process” of preparing the nunciature’s terna. 3 But Allen goes beyond Weigel in what I take to be his beef that “it has been not just the nuncio but a small circle of Roman officials who have controlled episcopal appointments.” Weigel was concerned with “the procedures and criteria by which bishops are selected”—not the selecting authority. 4

I’m not sold (not least because it is entirely unclear how one would obtain this input and from whom), but it’s a reasonable idea that merits consideration. There is far more merit in the proposal to involve the laity in preparation of the terna than there is in the perennial proposal to elect bishops. But Allen can’t resist tipping his hand on that point:

Rome needs to understand that it is no longer battling nobles and kings who wish to control and exploit the local church. It can safely accept a reform that respects the local church and restores the early tradition, which had the local bishop chosen by and from the people. The norm of Pope Leo I (440-461)–that no one can be a bishop unless he is elected by the clergy, accepted by his people, and consecrated by the bishops of his province–can safely and wisely be restored.

It can’t be and shouldn’t. First, while the Church no longer faces kings who want to pervert the Church for their own ends, she remains beset with enemies who want to tear her apart. And second, this is the very same conceptual mistake that I wrote about last term:

[T]he fundamental error of the demand [that bishops ought to be elected by the laity] is its presupposition that bishops serve their flock in a similar manner to that in which members of Congress serve their constituents. 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. They are our shepherds; we are their flock. Have you ever heard of sheep electing their shepherds? 5

But let’s end on a positive note, because I do think that there is a need for a bishop-related reform. Coincidentally, Matthew Warner has a post discussing What does the diocese of the future look like? Warner faults dioceses for sit[ting] around copying each other or waiting for somebody else” to innovate. “We need our dioceses to lead, not follow”:

Unfortunately, a lot of diocesan offices are just not fully equipped to make this important difference. There are three key reasons for this: attitude, agility and accountability.
Attitude: Dioceses of the future need to have an attitude that is proactive and missionary. But too many dioceses today are mostly re-active and stuck in maintenance mode. They are only looking inward, not outward.
Agility: Dioceses of the future need to be agile and adaptable. … [O]rganizations must be quick, nimble, creative, innovative and willing to take chances with decisive action. But too often they are slow, inefficient and impotent when it comes to solving basic problems. Their personnel are clinging fearfully to the status quo. And their bureaucracy rivals that of the federal government…except they are held even less accountable!
Accountability: Dioceses of the future must be held accountable … [because] people perform better when held accountable. …
… I think the makings of the “diocese of the future” will be found in … [s]mall dioceses [that] are agile enough to come up with great ideas and then actually go do them. … On all three accounts above, though, small dioceses have an advantage. They can correct their attitude with less effort, are naturally agile[,] and are more easily held accountable.

I assume that Warner and I have in mind “diocese” in an administrative rather than geographical sense, that is, as a synonym for the chancery and other organizational apparatus developed to facilitate the bishop’s governing of the diocese to which he has been assigned. On that stipulation, I agree that sending the dioceses to the gym is important, but for perhaps a slightly different reason.

On a few occasions here, I’ve sounded the theme that the most urgent Church reform for which I perceive a need is in the sub-episcopal administrative apparatus—the Roman Curia, 6 chanceries, 7 and the USCCB. Authority in the Church is episcopal; it is personal, not bureaucratic. 8 The bishop is not the chief administrator of a bureaucratic machine that has a life independent of him, after the manner of a cabinet secretary and the department of goverment that she manages; rather, the chancery is the organization that facilitates the bishop’s office. 9 To be sure, “[a]n organization of the Church’s size cannot avoid a level of” bureaucracy, and bishops cannot personally undertake every task that is theoretically in their purview, but “[a]uthority should always be exercised personally,” and the institutions and bureaucracy entailed therein “should always serve as an auxiliary to the ‘ministerial’ church, under the direction and supervision of the bishops.” 10 To the extent that a chancery or curia “is not serving that goal as efficiently as possible, and a fortiori to the extent it is an obstacle to that goal, it should be reformed” 11 For example, while a bishop should be the decisionmaker and court of last resort on every important diocesan matter, procedures that unnecessarily tie up a bishop’s limited time and attention on trivial actually detract from his ability to truly govern his diocese, and should be eliminated. 12

The machinery of Church government–dioceses, i.e. chanceries, and the curia–ought to be responsive and efficient agents of their principals, the bishops. Bloat and dysfunction ought to be trimmed, and most folks will agree with that, but so too should something that is typically prized: Independence. The bureaucracy must realize that it is an instrument of the bishops, not an independent authority. (This is especially acute in the case of entities such as USCCB.) This strikes me as a far more urgent concern than the selection of bishops or the agility of staffs to react to technical change.


  1. It was first published in June 2010 at US Catholic, and today, for reasons that aren’t clear, featured on their frontpage.
  2. See, e.g., Joseph O’Callaghan, Electing our Bishops (2007).
  3. See George Weigel, The Courage to be Catholic 203 (2002). Weigel goes on to dismiss the needs of confidentiality, with which Allen seems entirely unconcerned. See id., at 203-04.
  4. Id., at 202, 204. “[T]he criteria by which men are judged to be candidates for the episcopate,” Weigel said, “are too focused on questions of institutional maintenance and personal agreeability and too little focused on zeal and a demonstrated capacity for countercultural leadership.” Ibid. This is the concern that I have spoken to before in warning about apostolic administrators, see Teaching and governing, 1 MPA 95 (2012).
  5. The democratic fallacy, 1 MPA 142 (footnotes omitted).
  6. See Teaching and governing, supra, 1 MPA at 97 ff.
  7. Cf. id., at 98; Episcopal throughput, 1 MPA 27; The Kansas City fumble, 1 MPA 15.
  8. The place of the Curia, 1 MPA 160, 161; Episcopal throughput, supra, 1 MPA, at 30 n.2.
  9. Teaching and governing, supra, 1 MPA, at 97.
  10. Id., at 99 n.1.
  11. Place of the Curia, supra, 1 MPA, at 161.
  12. Episcopal throughput, supra, 1 MPA, at 29.