How Roman Catholicism Works

Congregationalism and Presbyterianism have their issues, but at what point do you become Sideshow Bob, repeatedly stepping on the rakes, handles hitting you in the head, groaning in response, if you keep running the church this way?

Once the office of bishop was clearly established in the early Church as the unitary head of a diocese (a Roman administrative unit), that office was filled by someone chosen by local people and priests, then ratified by the neighboring bishops, as a sign of the unity of the Church. Even the unbaptized were eligible, as we know from the oft-told story of St. Ambrose, whom the clergy and people of Milan chose as their bishop while he was still a catechumen. The first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, was elected by the priests of Maryland and confirmed by the pope. Today, we are so used to the pope choosing our bishops for us that we think it was always that way. It wasn’t. In fact, the right of the pope to choose bishops was only settled with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a papal document that clearly allocated that power to the holder of the papal office.

Arguably, there is some limited lay input in the selection of bishops. When a priest is being considered for appointment as bishop, the papal nuncio sends out what are called apostolic letters to a select group, which may include laypeople from the area, asking their opinion of the candidate based on some very specific questions. Since the papal nuncio does not actually know the laypeople of a diocese, he normally gets their names from the outgoing bishop, which means that the recipients of the letters are usually wealthy donors. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the areas of query in the apostolic letters were: Has the man ever said anything about birth control, abortion, married priests, female priests, the remarriage of divorced Catholics, same-sex marriage? These questions reveal the biases that gave us so many culture-warrior bishops under those popes. Since the election of Pope Francis, the questions focus more on pastoral concerns. But most of the letters still tend to go to influential (i.e. wealthy) people.

Apart from these letters, there is no other lay input into the choice of bishops. The system is still pretty much an old boys’ network. Each diocese in the United States is part of an ecclesiastical province—every diocese in Illinois, for example, is in the province of Chicago; every diocese in Pennsylvania is in the province of Philadelphia. At their annual provincial meetings, the bishops of each province can put the names of priests they favor on a list of potential candidates for bishop. This is called the provincial list, and every so often the bishops update it. When there is a need for a diocesan or auxiliary bishop in the province, the papal nuncio begins the hunt by looking at the candidates on the provincial list. Laypeople do not get to put names on the provincial lists. And the papal nuncio is not even bound by the provincial list: it is only a starting point in putting together his list of potential candidates. On his own initiative, the nuncio may add the names of priests from other provincial lists around the country, or names that aren’t on provincial lists, to create the list of candidates that he sends to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

The Congregation for Bishops, currently headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, has thirty or so members, including cardinals who work at the Vatican, plus cardinals and bishops from around the world. The congregation vets the nuncio’s list (called a terna because it has three names on it) and may add different names before sending it to the pope. An American bishop (usually a cardinal) who is a member of the Congregation for Bishops has inordinate influence on who becomes a bishop in the United States. McCarrick’s appointment required no consultation with the body of clergy of New York, and no consultation with the body of the laity, beyond those few apostolic letters.

After receiving the terna, the pope can accept it and select a name from it; he can reject it entirely and ask the congregation for a new terna, with names on it that he suggests; or he can ignore the terna completely and just choose his own man.

That’s the system. Here is how bad apples like McCarrick circulate:

His first appointment as bishop was as an auxiliary in his home archdiocese of New York in 1977, where he had been serving as secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke since 1971. Cardinal Cooke, with the consent of the other bishops of the province of New York, had his secretary’s name placed on the provincial list. When the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Jean Jadot, went looking for names for a terna for auxiliary bishop of New York, there was McCarrick on the provincial list. The Vatican report says that between 1968, when McCarrick was first considered for auxiliary bishop, until 1977, when he was appointed, fifty-two apostolic letters were sent out, mostly to bishops and priests in the New York area, suggesting that very few apostolic letters were sent to laypeople. With his limited investigation complete, Jadot placed McCarrick’s name on the terna that he sent to Rome. The Congregation for Bishops did its vetting, the list went to Pope Paul VI (who probably had a conversation or two with Cardinal Cooke), and McCarrick was chosen. His appointment required no consultation with the body of clergy of New York, and no consultation with the body of the laity, beyond those few apostolic letters. It mostly required Cardinal Cooke’s patronage.

2 thoughts on “How Roman Catholicism Works

  1. Holy Moly. This all sounds exactly like the way the political cronies in the Northeastern part of Illinois get selected and keep their offices in the secular political realm. Amazing

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  2. Nothing too surprising for anyone skeptical of the claim that Rome meaningfully reformed itself in the 1560s, 1860s, or 1960s, but informative nevertheless. It is facile to propose that the functionaries who hold the reins over their church simply stop abusing their power and arrogate it to the laity without addressing the power structure that permits such corruption in the first place, but I appreciate that you’re not going to last in Rome long if you start to question the authority itself.

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