The writer Flannery O’Connor once quipped that “the Church’s motto is The Wrong Man for the Job”. She was expressing a common complaint among lay people: that the Church is not the most skilful manager of human resources. Parishes desperate for an energetic young priest instead receive an elderly one. Go-ahead clergy are sent to liturgically conservative parishes, and so on. The wrong priest can set a parish back for years. The stakes are even higher for bishops: an ill-conceived appointment can demoralise a whole diocese.
But on some occasions the Church does send the right man to the right place at the right time. Consider Charles Borromeo in Milan, John Fisher in Rochester, Francis de Sales in Geneva and Karol Wojtyła in Kraków. Admittedly, all these men were saints, but they show that episcopal office can be an extraordinary force for good.
The Vatican is well aware that the current process for appointing bishops is faulty. That is why the Council of Cardinals, a body set up in 2013 to advise Pope Francis, is currently discussing a major reform. According to Cardinal Oswald Gracias, one of the nine-member group, the council is considering whether to ask the Pope to make lay consultation on bishops’ appointments obligatory. For decades in England and Wales, prominent lay people have been asked their opinion on episcopal candidates. But this has been at the discretion of the nuncio, the Vatican ambassador who sends a list of three candidates for each post to Rome. The cardinals’ council is considering something more systematic: insisting that nuncios consult members of diocesan pastoral or finance councils before making a recommendation.
What happens when there is minimal lay involvement? George Weigel argued in his 2013 book Evangelical Catholicism that the bishops’ conference then becomes a kind of elite society. “The episcopate is not a club in which current members have a privileged say in the future membership,” he wrote. “Nor is it a caste in which those who have achieved higher caste status determine who is fit for similar elevation … The absence of any serious lay input in this process is a mistake.” He pointed out that lay people sometimes recognise leadership qualities in priests that their bishops can’t see.
If the cardinals make this recommendation and the Pope accepts it, it is likely to be welcomed across the Catholic spectrum. The liberally inclined will see it as a necessary (but tentative) step towards the democratisation of bishops’ appointments. The conservative-minded will view it as a way of breaking up self-perpetuating episcopal cliques.
Yet it would be naïve to see the change as a panacea. Lay people, as well as bishops, have their blind spots. They may be unaware of weaknesses in certain candidates that are widely known on the clerical grapevine. They may give too much credence to the outwardly charismatic. There is also no guarantee that members of pastoral and finance councils are representative of the laity. They may be “professional Catholics” with a narrow or tendentious view of the Church’s needs.
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