Thursday, January 13, 2011

Election of bishops

John Carroll, the United States’ first Catholic bishop, was elected bishop by the clergy of his new diocese in April 1789. Twenty-six priests cast the electing ballots, Carroll received 24 of the votes. His election was confirmed seven months later by Pope Pius VI. Carroll favored the idea that his successor(s) would also be elected. This was not as radical an idea in 1789 as it would be today. In fact, until the French Revolution most Catholic bishops were elected rather than appointed by the Pope. The right of election generally belonged to the canons of the Cathedral Church and the “chapter” of canons, in turn, was most often comprised of the rectors of the principal churches of the See City of the Diocese. More precisely the canons of the Cathedral generally held “prebends” (an endowed “stall” or seat in the chancel of the cathedral) whose endowments consisted of the title (the rectorship) of the principle churches of the Diocese and thus were often called "prebendaries." The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic conquest of Europe deprived the Church of most of its endowments, including the prebendaries, as the vast land-wealth which the Church had acquired over centuries was secularized (confiscated by the State). The Chapter of Notre Dame in Paris, for example, was allegedly so impoverished that it could barely afford to buy a broom for cleaning the Cathedral when Divine Worship was reestablished there 1802.
During and after the Napoleonic era the Holy See through a system of concordats (treaties made with the Holy See) with the various courts of Europe was able to bypass the newly reconstituted chapters and arrogate to itself the right to appoint bishops, though in a number of dioceses, particularly in Switzerland and in the old Austrian Empire, cathedral chapters often still have the right of election today. Generally this is worked out in such a way that a candidate favored by the Holy See is chosen by the canon-electors but on a number of occasions in the past three decades the Holy See has sought, if not to usurp the chapter’s rights, at least to appoint bishops to the respective dioceses before the chapter can exercise its traditional prerogative. The election of the pope by the Cardinals who are nominally the deacons of the diaconal churches and parish priests of the principle parishes (along with the seven Cardinal bishops of the seven ancient suburbican sees, and since 1965 those among the Eastern Catholics partriarchs who have been named to the College of Cardinals) is a surviving remnant of the election of bishops by the clergy of the diocese.
In the early Church the laity participated with the clergy in the process of electing the bishop. This was not always a tranquil procedure. In 374 the Christians of Milan were on the verge of riot as the Catholics and the Arians were in a bitter dispute over who the new bishop should be. Ambrose, as the governor of the region, a political post responsible for—among other things—the good civil order of the citizenry, arrived to quell the disturbance. An immensely popular governor the had the respect and trust of all. Someone in the crowd shouted “Ambrose for Bishop.” The crowd took up the cry. Ambrose insisted on declining—he was not even baptized much less a priest. But the crowd—and then the Imperial Court—would not hear of his refusal and he eventually was baptized, ordained and consecrated bishop. His disciple Augustine was elected bishop by the Christian community of Hippo Regius at the request of his predecessor who wanted a coadjutor to help him while he was still alive. Martin of Tours was elected by acclamation of the people of that city to be their bishop in 371. Lay participation in the election of bishops survived in many places of the Western Church, including Rome itself, until the Gregorian Reform in the eleventh century when the right of election was generally restricted to the clergy. At the same time, however these elections were rarely free. Political pressure by the Emperor, various kings, or powerful nobles was often applied to the clerical electors to choose the candidate that was the Imperial or Royal choice. While some advocate a return to the election of bishops in the contemporary Church, the experience of Protestant denominations which elect their bishops should give us some caution about politicizing Church leadership and about how such politics can be manipulated for doctrinal matters.
The image today is Francisco de Zurbarán's "Saint Ambrose"

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