Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston
with Boston College President, Father William
In a few days I want to review the system of papal elections as one of the chief innovations—or reforms—of the Gregorian Reform was to define the exclusive right of the cardinal clergy of the Diocese of Rome to select a pope. There were two problems. One problem was that the custom had arisen of the Emperor, as Vicar of Christ, to appoint the popes. Fortunately these papal appointees—Sylvester II, Clement II, Damasus II, Leo IX—were good men and men ardent for Reform. In fact, the reason the Emperors usurped the ancient rights of the clergy and people of Rome to elect their pope was that the Romans had a tendency to elect men who blocked reform. Nevertheless, as we shall see, these very same reform minded popes came to see the danger of outside appointment—that the papacy could get caught in politics and the Church might be used for political purposes rather than be allowed to perform its own function given it by its Lord of continuing His work of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
I think this should give us some thought for today in regard to the selection of bishops. At one time, being a historian, I favored a return to the ancient practice that bishops be elected by the clergy and faithful. As I am older—and either wiser or more cynical, I am not sure which—I have come to believe that this would be disastrous at least in our American environment. The danger is that the election of bishops would devolve into the most crass forms of partisan politics. One of the reasons for the failure of “parish councils” to be effective in most American parishes is that we Americans automatically think “majority rules” and we failed to understand that councils were meant to be an opportunity for discernment rather than governance. Americans seemingly cannot help but becoming caught in the whirlpools of politics and then devolve into partisan factions. The fact that American Catholics are already quite divided into social (and political) liberals and conservatives is a harbinger of impending schism should “democracy” be introduced into Church structures. In a culture that has given us the Tea Party, and the recent denouements of the irresolvable debt crisis, the Church would tear itself to shreds in such episcopal elections. We see the issues being faced by the Episcopal Church and to some extent the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America today and I believe this is no time to experiment with democracy in the life of our Church. In fact, I am not sure that Americans any longer merit democracy in their government. In saying this, I certainly do not want to change our form of government, but I would like to see our citizenry wake up to their political responsibilities to be informed about the issues and civil in their political discourse. I remember the words of Benjamin Franklin to a woman who asked him, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, what sort of government we were to have under the new Constitution. Franklin replied: “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.” A Republic demands a responsible citizenship that is informed and educated on the issues before it. Without mentioning names or espousing one political party over another, it is clear that today’s Americans depend on 15 second sound-bites for their information about some very complex questions. It would be even worse if the Church with its two millennia of rich and vibrant theological Tradition fell into this trap. American Catholics—clergy and faithful alike—are too often frightfully ignorant of what it means to be Catholic and fall into the trap of believing what they hear on a “Catholic” radio or TV station or read in blog (even this blog) that portends to speak for the Church. (This blog has always clearly established that it speaks for no one but its author and that it limits its statements to the historical and make no claim of theological competence.)
In expressing my reservations about electing bishops, I am not saying that a process by which clergy and faithful would have a voice in the selection of bishops would not work. I think the system needs change to permit a genuine discernment process. But the easy fix of election of bishops would be, I believe, even worse than the current system of papal appointment. Frankly, it is hard to think of a worse system than the system we now have, but open election would surely be among the possible suggestions. Papal appointment of bishops is an innovation in Catholic practice, for the most part dating only from the early nineteenth century when, after the defeat of Napoleon, the papacy made a series of concordats with the newly reconstituted European States giving the Holy See the right to appoint bishops in their territory. For most of history, bishops were elected. In the early Church they were elected by an assembly of clergy and laity; in the Middle Ages the election tended to fall to the Cathedral Chapters, bodies of clergy that were appointed to staff the Cathedral and often also held the pastorates of the principle churches in the cathedral city. John Carroll, the first American Catholic bishop, was elected by the Catholic clergy of the new republic and he hoped that future bishops would likewise be elected. Alas, this was the very time that the papacy was wresting the right of election away from the European clergy and was hardly going to grant it to the Americans whose overthrow of monarchy was a challenge to everything the Holy See believed in regarding authority and its Divine Right to govern both in the civil and religious spheres.
I think we need to look at the American episcopacy and ask ourselves—and the Holy See—if this is the best they could give us. Granted we have some outstanding men. Sean O’Malley of Boston is heads and shoulders above his peers. Donald Trautman of Erie has a too often overlooked perspicacity. “Teddy” McCarrick, emeritus of Washington and Cardinal-none-the-less, while sly and ambitious, is a man of unparalleled talents who has well served both the Holy See and the American government in many behind the scenes diplomatic maneuvers. A trained sociologist, McCarrick has his hand on the pulse of the American Catholic, but alas has gone unheeded by both his mitered peers and Rome. In fact, the Holy See could not have been more happy to accept his resignation when his 75th birthday came round some years back. Another bright boy whose intelligence won him no friends in Rome is John Quinn who took an early retirement (to the relief of Rome and American conservatives) from his post as Archbishop of San Francisco. Howard Hubbard of Albany and Matthew Clark of Rochester are two survivors of what is now the “Old School” –bishops appointed under the influence of Jean Jadot, the Apostolic Delegate in the late ’70’s. They have done wonderful work in their respective dioceses, but their influence has been eclipsed by the mediocrity of the vast majority post-Jadot appointees. There are other bishops of note, but they seem to be in the minority. Wilton Gregory, once the hope for the future, has fizzled into a bit of a disappointment. Gerald Kicanas was maneuvered out of leadership by the machinations of the intelligent but visionless Cardinal George of Chicago; Timothy Dolan of New York was George’s candidate for president of the Bishops Conference in place of Kicanas. Dolan seems to have some promise, if not of above-average intelligence at least of good pastoral sense. Wuerl of Washington has a record of being overly cautious. He lacks his predecessor’s (McCarrick’s) Machiavellian streak, but he also lacks McCarrick’s dash. As for Olmstead, Bruskewitz, Chaput, Sheriden—well, alas but mediocrity is beyond their highest reach. Chaput’s move to Philadelphia and its prospects of a red hat are an indication that the system is broken. Archbishop Chaput is no Raymond Burke; his Capuchin-Franciscan roots save him from Burke’s pomposity and make him a decent human being but he is not a man of any but the most narrow vision. Overall, the state of the American Episcopacy is appalling. When one looks at the outstanding work done in the early ‘80’s with two superbly researched and well thought out pastoral letters, one on economic morality and the other on the moral issues surrounding nuclear weapons, it is frightening to reflect that today’s hierarchy lack the talent to deliver much needed guidance on contemporary issues. Sometime I will have to write on why (I think) there has been a dumbing-down of American bishops. But that will be in the future. Perhaps a blog on the relationship of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan will give us insight.