The selection of bishops

In The Democratic fallacy, 1 MPA 142 (2012), I noted that calls to elect bishops were not to be taken seriously. The other side of that coin, however, is how bishops should be chosen.

Today, the appointment of bishops is more-or-less an exclusively papal function. If we look at history, we see that various methods of selecting bishops have prevailed, of which the most legitimate was probably the election by cathedral chapters. (The investiture crisis illustrates one of the less-noble alternatives.) In such times, however, logistical realities were paramount: How else could bishops be chosen? It would have been utterly impossible for the Roman Pontiff to appoint bishops; practical compromises were necessary.

If we look at scripture, we see that there is only method of selection attested, apart from personal selection by Jesus. Acts chapter 1 witnesses the selection of Matthias, from the ranks of the disciples, by the eleven, to succeed to the bishopric of Judas Iscariot. This is the only scriptural witness to apostolic succession. But this model, too, implicates some logistical realities. It works when the episcopal college numbers eleven and they all live in community along with all the candidates for consecration (cf. Acts 2:42). When there are hundreds or even thousands of bishops, though? Spread throughout the world? Having (and able to have) little or no personal contact with the candidates? This model would be all-but impossible today, and it would have been completely impossible before the advent of modern transport and communications.

Accordingly, I would suggest that the appointment of bishops, today, is quintessentially a petrine function. Our surest model, that of scripture, in which we see appointments made by the episcopal college, is no longer workable. If a function is proper to the entire episcopal college, however, it is also proper to the Roman Pontiff, the head of that college, 1 and if it would be impossible (or wildly impractical) for the entire college to assume a function collectively, it is most fitting that the function fall to the  college’s head, the Roman Pontiff.

To be sure, if a global cataclysm should take place, severing communications and travel and creating a kind of sedes impedita situation, it would be entirely appropriate for local Churches to return ex necessitate to alternative methods for choosing bishops. In the meantime, papal appointment strikes me as the most appropriate means.


  1. Cf. LG22. This is why, in a magisterial context, the pope is able to exercise the infallibility otherwise proper to the entire college of bishops assembled in council.