The Church is facing a severe crisis. The crisis is manifest in many forms, but most shockingly in the sexual abuse and homosexual predation by clergy. At the root of the problem is the moral state of many who have risen to the level of bishop. These men have grown lukewarm and abused the power entrusted to them. This situation could be better addressed by improving the process both for the election of bishops and for taking disciplinary measures against bishops when needed.
These complicit and enabling bishops, charged with the care of Christ’s fold, have either ignored or, even worse, encouraged homosexual behavior among their clergy; and many have simply looked the other way when this is happening under their watch. As the prophets decried, ‘the shepherds have taken the milk and the wool from the sheep whom they should have protected.’
To be sure, there are good and worthy bishops. We know them personally or have read about them, but the extent of the crisis of sexual and financial abuse in the Church leads us to examine how bishops are elected, and how they are dismissed when necessary.
Saints Peter and Paul and the other Apostles appointed bishops (episcopoii) to oversee the various churches. Following the apostolic time bishops were often elected by the faithful of a community. And St. Paul had set down the criteria for their selection from among the faithful. Centuries later, elections had to be confirmed by the bishop of the closest major see.
Election of Bishops
In practice bishops are often chosen because of their theological or ideological persuasions and friendship with those who hold ecclesiastical power. Blessed John Henry Newman, in his time, was unjustly treated by various bishops. For example, he was initially kept back from episcopal ordination when he fell out of favor with the Archbishop of Dublin.
Today, the election of bishops is made by the pope, who ordinarily chooses from among candidates presented to him by his nuncio in a given country and after the vetting and recommendation of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Candidates are presented to the nuncio by bishops who ask for an auxiliary. The pope also appoints as bishops priests of his choice or those proposed by influential persons in the Congregation for Bishops or others in the Vatican.
Since large archdioceses often have a number of auxiliary bishops, a relatively small group of archbishops, together with the papal nuncio in a given country, have great influence in the selection of bishops. This concentration of power in the hands of archbishops like Theodore McCarrick and other archbishops, has had a harmful, ripple effect on the episcopate of the United States in the form of grooming for a homosexual clergy, men who then eventually rise in the ranks – creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
Dismissal of Bishops
Disciplinary measures for bishops are equally problematic. A bad bishop will literally wreck the physical cathedrals (in “wreckovations”) and concurrently wreck the liturgical life of his diocese, by punishing orthodoxy. This will have the effect of emptying his seminary or, instead, filling it with poor candidates to the priesthood; along the way, he will then punish good, orthodox priests and promote his friends, all the while living a worldly and even scandalous life. Examples abound.
Today a bishop may be dismissed from his office by the pope when there are scandals. But these measures should be taken long before the problem rises to this point by the knowledge of competent authorities upon investigation of allegations of wrongdoing by the laity and clergy.
The 1982 Code of Canon Law (c. 1395) contemplates sanctions for grave faults against the Sixth Commandment committed by clergy, including dismissal from the priesthood. The code did not anticipate these crimes being committed by bishops. However, in a few cases the pope has removed bishops from the clerical state.
The crisis of the episcopate with its deleterious effect on the life of the Church calls for serious measures, which include consideration of some of the following points:
A strong exercise of the Petrine Office to curb abuses of power by bishops, including dismissal from the clerical state. If bishops are simply asked to live out a life of prayer in a monastery, justice is not served or carried out.
A priest in Louisiana explained how the father of a family protects his family: If this father would discover any amoral or illicit activities happening in his home, under his roof, causing potential harm to his sons and daughters, then a true father would grab his shotgun and run the scoundrel off.
Bishops need to take seriously the call to prayer and penance, to strive for holiness as fathers of a spiritual family. They have the example of bishops who were saints. Newman writes of one: “A bright, cheerful, gentle soul; a sensitive heart, a temperament open to emotion and impulse; and all this elevated, refined, transformed by the touch of heaven,—such was St. John Chrysostom; winning followers, riveting affections, by his sweetness, frankness, and neglect of self. In his labours, in his preaching, he thought of others only.”
Bishops must be held accountable to the highest standards concerning their clergy and the laity. And there must be ways to make this possible, which might include regular financial external audits.
In addition to the above, a structural reform in the election as well as dismissal of bishops is absolutely necessary. This would include a process of the vetting of candidates by the laity, equivalent to the publishing of banns before marriage, to prevent candidates with serious impediments from being chosen and appointed. Such a procedure would have easily precluded the election of McCarrick and other now disgraced bishops.
Such a reform must be led by courageous shepherds who live holy lives. But all the faithful, especially the laity, must hold the clergy and hierarchy accountable, and pray and offer sacrifices for the sorely needed renewal of the Church.