We must reform how bishops are elected (and why I would never make one)

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will soon be coming to the end of his time as Archbishop of Dublin, and already speculation has started as to his successor. But there are several other dioceses in Ireland that have been waiting for months and even years for new bishops, and several bishops who have been obliged to minister deep into retirement age. It’s not easy for them, or their priests and people.

Perhaps the Nuncio and his Vatican colleagues are taking their time, giving thought to a radical reorganisation and reduction of the number of dioceses in Ireland. (They could easily be cut by 12 or 14). Or perhaps they have a problem finding suitable candidates. A man is invited to the nunciature to be offered a diocese, but he politely declines, or makes his intentions known even before that.

It’s understandable why good men would be reluctant to become a bishop in Ireland today. He’d be destined for a life of dealing with crisis.

The pool of potential bishops is made smaller by the reduction in the number of eligible candidates. There are not many fit and able priests between the ages of 45 and 60.

And then, of course, the criteria a candidate must fulfil to be considered for a bishopric reduces the pool even more. You have to be sound on Church teaching, a defender and supporter of the party line, with a patron or two in Rome (though, hopefully, this may have eased a little under Francis, who prefers shepherds to culture warriors). It’s why I, or anyone like me, will never be made a bishop. (I always wanted the See of Cashel in order to be patron of the GAA and get the best seats at matches!)

It’s clear that something is wrong with the method for choosing bishops. It’s clear that it needs to be reformed. It’s clear that much wider consultation needs to take place, and it must involve all interested parties in the diocese.

Imagine if we were to go back to the manner of selection that was the norm in the early church.

Each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.

Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He (or, hopefully before long, she) would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would have an intimate knowledge of his flock and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.

Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.

When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.
The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.

Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, many bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.

And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese.

Given the challenges it faces, the Irish church requires good bishops, people with the smell of the sheep. In order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, maybe it’s time to look closely at how bishops are chosen and to return to our ancient practice.

And, while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the medieval titles and robes and headgear. These are anachronisms from the past, but today only invite ridicule especially from younger people. The bishop’s authority will be seen by what he says and does, not by what he wears.

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Trump is not pro-life

One of the most shocking aspects of the long and troubling US presidential election campaign has been the support Donald Trump received from the Christian right. Of course, the Christian right has supported the Republican nominee for president for decades. Evangelists like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others have always been cheerleaders for GOP candidates, using the party of Lincoln as a vehicle to promote their own socially and economically conservative agenda. Aware of the size of this constituency (though it is now shrinking fast) and the influence of its leaders, GOP candidates always make sure to have the Christian right on their side.

Whether one supported their agenda or not, it was easy to see why the Christian right would coalesce around the candidate of the Republican Party. Over more than 30 years, they have shared the same values and worldview. But this year is different. This year the Republican Party nominated a candidate who, one would have thought, could not possibly be endorsed by any respected Christian leader of any denomination. A three-times married narcissist who not only mocks the disabled, disrespects women, uses xenophobic and inflammatory language about immigrants, stirs racial tensions, and threatens anyone who disagrees with him, but who also never had any real interest in religion, should make people like Jerry Falwell Jr recoil in horror.

How could a demagogue like Trump receive the public blessing of a preacher like Robertson or the family of Billy Graham? Seemingly because he meets the only two criteria that they seek in a candidate for the office of president: that you claim to be pro-life and that you are the official nominee of the Republican Party. So what if you label Mexicans rapists and joke about groping women – as long as you say you are anti-abortion and in favour of traditional family values, then all is well and good.

Some US Catholic Church clergy have been no better than their Christian right counterparts. One Catholic parish in San Diego included an article in its Sunday bulletin saying Catholics were going to hell if they voted for Hillary Clinton and claiming Clinton was influenced by Satan. Another priest posted a pro-Trump video with a picture of a naked fetus on an altar. Some culture warrior bishops have contorted themselves in an effort to try to sound neutral while at the same time emphasising the singular importance of the sanctity of life.

Of course, the church is pro-life and must always stress its importance, but does anyone seriously believe that Trump is a pro-life enthusiast? That he would be able or willing to do what previous Republican presidents going back 40 years were unable to do?

And being pro-life is more than being anti-abortion. To be pro-life means to cherish all life from womb to tomb. It means opposing the death penalty, supporting families who are struggling to make ends meet, ensuring a fairer tax system and access to health care. To be pro-life means showing solidarity with refugees forced to flee their homes and homelands. It means rejecting racism, sexism and bigotry wherever they are to be found. A pro-life Christian is a unifier who espouses a consistent ethic of life, a person who is capable of empathy and conciliation, one who believes in building bridges not walls. Donald Trump is not such a person. His language and actions are the opposite of pro-life.

Of course, Hillary Clinton has many faults too. Her record is not unblemished and she is clearly pro-abortion rights, but she is not a narcissist or political extremist who uses inflammatory language to stir up dangerous nativist passions. She may not make a great president but she is far, far better than the alternative.

I won’t be alive to see a woman pope, but I hope that in a few hours I will see the first female president of the United States. I hope it will also mark the end of the unfortunate and unholy alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right.