Two East Coast Catholic groups, emboldened by the vision of Vatican II, are advocating for lay participation in the selection of bishops.
The unexpected snag is figuring out how the laity are allowed to
participate in this little-known process.
"I believe that people may be disinterested in the bishop search ...
because they do not believe that [their participation] will make any
difference given the hierarchical decision-making structure of the
church," Dave Rowell, a member of the Albany (N.Y.) Bishop Search
committee, told NCR.
Tom Severin, member of the Ambrosians of Greensburg, Pa., another lay
bishop search committee, concurred. Their group is named after St.
Ambrose, one of the early church bishops elected by popular vote.
"It's something completely new to people. Most people have no idea how bishops are elected," Severin said to NCR.
"In my Bible study group, they were excited about the Ambrosians. But
then they asked if it was sanctioned by the diocese. You could see the
fear on their faces."
Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard turned 75 last October, and Greensburg
Bishop Lawrence Brandt will turn 75 this March -- the age that a bishop
must submit his letter of resignation to the pope. In response to those
events, the Albany and Greensburg search committees were formed to
encourage the people of their dioceses to make known the qualities that
they desire in their next bishop.
Both groups have websites with
information about the process of selecting bishops, the contact
information for the apostolic nuncio and a form where people can
publicly write their aspirations for the next bishop.
The official procedure for selecting bishops is outlined in the Code
of Canon Law: Using suggestions from other bishops, the apostolic nuncio
recommends three candidates to the pope, who has ultimate authority
over bishop appointments.
However, Canon 377, Paragraph 3 offers this
caveat: "The pontifical legate ... if he judges it expedient, is also to
seek individually and in secret the opinion of others from both the
secular and non-secular clergy and from laity outstanding in wisdom."
Both the Albany Bishop Search and the Ambrosians want to take
advantage of that caveat, but they don't want to wait around for the
apostolic nuncio's call, nor do they feel a need to keep their opinions
"Vatican II stressed that the laity should become more active in all
areas of the church. We shouldn't wait for the clergy to approach us to
get more involved -- we should approach them," Severin said.
The Minnesota-based Catholic Coalition for Church Reform drafted a
position paper in November 2012 titled "People's Participation in
Selection of Bishops."
The paper explains how the laity were involved in
electing bishops during the time of the early church: "Bishops John
Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, the great bishops
of the Patristic era, were selected with the people's involvement."
During the Middle Ages, however, noble families and civil rulers began
to control bishop selection, and it wasn't until "the Code of Canon Law
of 1917 ... [that] the Church was able to declare that no rights in the
selection of bishops were granted to civil authorities," the paper
While the church was "justified in centralizing the power to appoint
bishops in secret" as the modern nation-state was developing, currently
"that process works against the freedom of the Church's own members to
express their spiritual needs through a voice in the nomination of their
bishops," the position paper says.
Rowell, speaking on behalf of the Albany Bishop Search, agrees.
"Based upon Canon Law 212 ... we believed that the involvement of the
laity in making their views known in this [bishop selection] process is
not only authorized but perhaps even required by the spirit of this
The second paragraph of Canon 212 states, "The Christian faithful are
free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially
spiritual ones, and their desires." The third paragraph says the laity
"have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred
pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church
and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful."
International lay organization Voice of the Faithful created a Web
portal in 2012 that Catholics can use when their diocese has a vacant
bishop's seat. There is a simple form to fill out at www.votf.org/bishop
where a person can list the ideal qualifications and qualities of the
next bishop, and with a click, the form is sent to the apostolic nuncio.
When Chicago Cardinal Francis George turned 75 in 2012, "nearly 200
Catholics utilized this portal," according to Voice of the Faithful. The
Chicago Tribune reported that George would not allow parish
bulletins to advertise Voice of the Faithful's Web portal because "the
creation of a clearinghouse for communication taints the process," a
spokeswoman for the cardinal told the Tribune.
Voice of the Faithful wrote to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the
apostolic nuncio, for clarification. On Feb. 10, 2012, they received a
response from him: "The Apostolic Nuncio would willingly receive any
expression of a lay Catholic in regard to his or her own concerns in
regard to a new bishop or recommendation(s) that he or she might
propose. Members of the Voice of the Faithful are, therefore, free to
encourage such communications to be addressed to the Apostolic Nuncio."
Viganò verified this letter for NCR, but he added a
stipulation: "I stress to you, however, that any initiative to organize
group responses constitutes a parallel procedure that would not be a
part of the canonical selection process."
In an email to NCR on behalf of Hubbard, the Albany
diocese's spokesman said, "The consultation among clergy, religious and
laity is conducted on a confidential individual basis in order to avoid,
as far as possible, the specter of politicking."
The Catholic Coalition for Church Reform organized a group effort to
recommend bishop candidates to the nuncio in January 2012. The coalition
wrote to Viganò in April, but he sent the letter on to St. Paul and
Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt.
In 2011, Nienstedt had cautioned Catholics in his archdiocese not to
attend events sponsored by the coalition for fear that they might
receive "confusing and inaccurate information about the teaching of the
church, and thereby be led astray" (NCR, Aug. 5, 2011).
Nienstedt's brief response to the coalition's letter to Viganò in
2012 chastised them for listing, and encouraging people to use, the
confidential Vatican questionnaire on episcopal candidates -- "the form
that is used by the Nunciature for their own investigation is only used
for internal purposes and is not shared with outside publics."
Nienstedt also wrote, "The Apostolic Nuncio expressed his willingness
to receive recommendations from any lay Catholic at any time regarding
the nomination of a bishop to a diocese or archdiocese."
"Even if we only accomplish getting people to think about
participating, we've accomplished something," Severin said. "The change
is in the wind."