Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vatican Secrets - Selection of Bishops

Here is a document hardly ever seen by ordinary Australian Catholics (or indeed any Catholics!!). 

It is a copy of the Questionnaire sent out to a very select group of people seeking confidential advice about possibly candidates for the episcopate in Australia. 

We suggest you read the document first and then see the commentary by Paul Collins that follows it.



A - This questionnaire is "SUB SECRETO PONTIFICIO":  it must be returned to the Apostolic Nunciature with your answer.
B - Please state how long you have known the candidate and in what way you have come to know him.

Appearance, health, application to work. Family's condition. Any predisposition to hereditary illnesses?
Intellectual abilities Temperament and character. Balance and Soundness of judgment. Sense of responsibility.
Prudence, Fairness, spirit of faith and charity. Piety: daily celebration of the Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours. Marian devotion.
Moral integrity. How does he relate to people and to public authorities in the exercise of his priestly ministry?
Is he competent and up to date in Theology and other Ecclesiastical Sciences? General cultural attainment. Foreign languages. Works published.
Doctrinal orientation. Loyalty to the Doctrine and Magisterium of the Church. In particular: the attitude of the candidate to the Documents of the Holy See on the Ministerial Priesthood, on the Priestly Ordination of Women, on marriage, on sexual Ethics and on Social Justice. Fidelity to the genuine Tradition of the Church and commitment to the authentic renewal promoted by Vatican 11, and adherence to the "Statement of Conclusions, 1998".
Devotedness to the Holy Father, the Holy See and the Episcopal Hierarchy. Support for Priestly Celibacy and general and particular Laws of the Church. In particular: as to Liturgical and Clerical Discipline.
Evangelization and Catechesis: preaching and teaching. Aptitude for public speaking. Readiness to administer the Sacraments. Promotion of Vocations. Interest in the Missions and Ecumenical activities. Formation of lay people in the Family and Social fields of apostolate: of young people, of workers, defenders of human rights?
Does he have a capacity for leadership: for dialogue, for evoking and accepting collaboration, for analysis and programming, for making decisions and ensuring that they are carried through? Does he appreciate the role and collaboration of religious and lay people ( men and women )? Is he able to delegate and share responsibility? Has he shown an interest in the problems of the Universal as well as the local Church?

Does he exercise due care of the Church's property? Ability in administration. Sense of justice. Readiness to enlist the help of those experienced in such affairs?
11-    PUBLIC IMAGE  Has he gained the respect of his fellow clergy? Of the people and of the public authorities?
Give a comprehensive judgment on the personality of the candidate and of his suitability for the episcopate. Indicate, if affirmative, whether he is particularly suited for appointment to a residential See, or as an Auxiliary Bishop. Or for work in an urban, rural, industrial or in other social context.
Please suggest the names of persons (ecclesiastic, religious, or lay) who can provide pertinent and useful information about the candidate. Please give names and addresses.

                                                BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION
I- a. Full name of the candidate.
b.    Date and place of birth.
c.     Names of parents.
d.      Was he born in lawful wedlock?
2-      a. Condition of his family: religious, moral, civil, economic; bodily and mental health.
3-      a. In what Seminaries and other Institutes has he studied?
b.      What were the results?
c.       What academic grades did he achieve?
--4- a. Is-he the-author of any publications? b. If possible, indicate titles and editions.
5-      a. Does he speak, or in any way know, foreign languages?
6-      a. Date and place of priestly ordination.
b.      Diocese or Religious Institute for which he was ordained.
c.       Diocese in which he was born.
d.      Diocese to which he now belongs.
e.       Diocese of actual residence.
f.      If a Religious, indicate the province for which he was professed and the date of profession.

Here is Paul Collins commentary on this secret Vatican document:
   Sub Secreto Pontificio - 'subject to pontifical secrecy'

Recently Catholics for Ministry received an unsolicited letter containing a copy of a document that the vast majority of ordinary, practicing Catholics would usually never see. Nevertheless it will have already had and will continue to have a real influence on their membership of the church and their faith lives. It is entitled 'Questionnaire for Episcopal Candidates', and it comes from the Papal Nuncio (or ambassador) in Red Hill, a rather up-market Canberra suburb. The questionnaire I received is the one which is currently in use to seek opinions from bishops, a small number of senior priests, and a very small number of carefully selected lay people seeking advice on potential candidates for ordination as bishops in Australia.

Under the heading it is marked in block letters 'SUB SECRETO PONTIFICIO' which means 'subject to pontifical secrecy'. This attempts to suggest that the recipient is bound to maintain an extremely high level of confidentiality about the contents of the document and their comments about the proposed candidate. According to one canonist it binds recipients to maintain the secrecy 'under pain of mortal sin'. However, in fact the threat is meaningless and no one takes a great deal of notice of it. The questionnaire itself says that it 'must be returned to the Apostolic Nunciature with your answer.' 

Nevertheless, these kinds of documents rarely see the light of day. As far as I know the only other example in the public domain comes from Spain where a questionnaire from the papal nuncio about prospective bishops was leaked in November 2002. It is available on the excellent and helpful Women Priests Web-Page at .

To see where this questionnaire fits into the appointment process, it is important first of all to understand how bishops get chosen. Nowadays it is a closed, opaque process in which all power is held by the Vatican and very little by the local church. The Code of Canon Law outlines the general process in canon 377, paragraph 2: 'At least every three years the bishops of an ecclesiastical province … are to compose in common counsel and in secret a list of presbyters … who are suitable for the episcopacy and to send it to the Apostolic See'. 

In countries like Australia the process works like this: the papal nuncio canvasses the names of priests for possible appointment and seeks the views of the local bishops (e.g. the NSW bishops or the Victorian bishops), including especially the bishop of the diocese. Selected senior priests and a few very carefully chosen lay people are also asked, usually through the questionnaire published below. A terna, a list of three names, is compiled by the nuncio. Further checks are made, and then the list is sent to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome. Another investigation is made in the Vatican where they check whether any of the priests on the terna have been reported to any Roman congregation or office for things like 'unorthodoxy', or disagreement with the prevailing Roman line on any issue, or any critical comments about the pope or the Vatican. At the end of the process the list is sent to the pope for decision. He would normally choose the priest at the top of the list.

However, this process is very modern by church history standards. Right up until the nineteenth century bishops were usually nominated by the civil ruler, or were elected by the senior priests of the diocese. At most the pope and the Vatican got a say at the end of the process. In the first millennium of church history most bishops were elected by the people of the diocese with subsequent final approval by the Metropolitan (the senior regional archbishop) and/or the pope. But as liberal democracy spread in the nineteenth century and civil governments became less interested in the appointments of bishops, Rome gradually gained complete control of the whole process so that now there are only a couple of dioceses left (in Switzerland and Austria) in which the canons of the diocese get the right to nominate three names for bishop with Rome making a choice from the canon's list.

The questionnaire from the Canberra papal nuncio is part of the local process whereby names are sorted out. Very little notice is ever taken of the diocesan community or the majority of priests, and some times even out-of-favour bishops are completely by-passed or ignored.  One archbishop was told by a previous nuncio: 'I don't need to consult you; I know what you think'. A lot depends on the peculiar ecclesiastical bias of the nuncio as to what names get nominated. For instance, it was well known that Archbishop Franco Brambilla, Nuncio from 1986-98, was conservative, whereas the American Archbishop Ambrose De Paoli, nuncio from 2004-07, had far more sympathy with the pastoral orientation favored by the majority of the Australian bishops. De Paoli is known to have blocked the appointment of very reactionary priests to the episcopate in a large metropolitan diocese.

In many ways both the Spanish and Australian Questionnaires are similarly unimpressive documents. The Australian one, for instance, leave out the words 'God', 'Jesus', 'Christ', 'Holy Spirit', 'hope', 'ministry', 'belief', 'spirituality', 'prayer', let alone references to fundamental statements of belief like the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, are all omitted. There is no reference whatsoever to the Bible and not a single reference, let alone a quotation, from any part of Scripture. The whole emphasis is on loyalty to the pope, the Vatican and the Holy See.

The questionnaire nowhere mentions the candidate's primary obligation to care for the diocese or to show loyalty and accountability to the priests and people of the diocese. In fact, it turns the Catholic tradition on its head. In the past the emphasis was on the bishop being primarily committed to the local church, but this is entirely omitted in the questionnaire. As a result the document is completely out of kilter with the ancient tradition of the church, in the sense that the ecclesiology of the first millennium talked about a bishop's relationship with his diocese in terms of marriage. That is why bishops could not be moved from diocese to diocese.

Looking at the questionnaire in detail: firstly it completely ignores the prospective candidate's right to privacy. For instance, in the section headed 'Personal' (1) the questionnaire asks about the candidate's family 'condition', and about any predisposition to hereditary illnesses. Any prospective employer in Australia asking for such information would be immediately challenged legally. And what does the word 'condition' refer to here: is it asking about their economic condition, or whether a brother is an alcoholic or a sister an epileptic? This is re-enforced in the section on p 2 where the questionnaire asks for 'biographical information'. It asks the respondent to describe the 'condition of his family: religious, moral, civil, economic; bodily and mental heath'. So the question has to be asked what right does the papal nuncio (a non-citizen in Australian who, as a foreigner, is here on sufferance) have to ask for such information which no Australian prospective employer would dare to ask for fear of litigation.

Another area of real concern is the section on 'Orthodoxy' (6). Here the questionnaire is slanted away from the creeds and the traditional theology of the church toward complete, myopic loyalty to the papacy and the Vatican without any theological feeling for a bishop's many other roles and functions in the church, let alone any sense of accountability toward the diocese to which he is to be appointed. Despite one mention of 'Vatican II', this account of the role of bishops is entirely rooted in the First Vatican Council (1870) and is focused completely on secondary theological issues to do with the priesthood, the ordination of women, marriage and contraception. Social justice is thrown in as a kind of optional extra. It uses terms like 'genuine tradition' and 'authentic renewal' which actually give the game away. This is the kind of rhetoric used by the Vatican to convey their idea of what Vatican II was all about. What they are trying to achieve is what they call 'a reform of the reform', but what they really mean is 'a winding back of the reform'.

The most extraordinary demand of all in the questionnaire is 'adherence to the "Statement of Conclusion, 1998"'. This rather odd document was imposed on the ambushed Australian bishops by a group of senior Vatican bureaucrats at the Synod for Oceania in October-November, 1998. Not a single one of these Vatican clerics who composed the Statement was even a natural English-speaker, let alone an Australian. Six of them were Italians, four were Latin Americans and one was German. Few of them had any pastoral experience anywhere in parishes. It is a safe bet that not a single one of them had ever visited Australia, but this did not inhibit them from informing the bishops that Australian Catholics were suffering from ‘a crisis of faith ... manifested by the rise in the number of people with no religion and the decline in church practice ... [which was due to] Australian tolerance and openness’. The bishops were told this ‘can lead to indifference, to the acceptance of any opinion or activity as long as it does not impact adversely on other people’. The document went on to assert that the Australian church was suffering from a series of crises about ‘Christology’, ‘anthropology’ and ‘ecclesiology’, words that left most local Catholics gobsmacked. The source of these clichés about Australian Catholicism, although it was never admitted by the Vatican, was a tiny, totally unrepresentative group of local, theologically illiterate reactionaries, possibly tacitly and secretly supported by no more than a couple of Australian bishops.

The vast majority of the bishops were furious and frustrated when this totally twisted and distorted view of the church in Australia was simply forced on them at the end of the Synod. While no one pretends that Australian Catholicism is in particularly good shape, the view presented in this quite silly document is so wide of the mark as to be ludicrous. The Roman view simply does not reflect the overwhelming experience of local church leadership, let alone the vast majority of church membership. Despite the fact that they had a vast knowledge of Catholicism in this country, and were on the spot in Rome for an extended period, the Australian bishops were completely ignored. The view of a tiny group of theologically illiterate reactionaries and unaccountable, unresponsive bureaucrats prevailed.

The bishops were caught between loyalty to Rome and loyalty to the local church when they returned to a storm of protest in Australia; there was even a Four Corners programme on the issue. Most of them reacted by retreating into sullen silence. Even those who did speak out were put under pressure to shut-up by the Bishops’ Conference which acted, as it so often does, as a kind of controlling ‘club’ that makes sure that no one stands out or offers any form of individual leadership. It is astonishing that such a superficial and ignorant document is now made a normative prerequisite for the episcopate in Australia when the Bible, the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are simply ignored.

The questions on discipline (7) are also quite defective. The whole focus is on the hierarchical church, canon law and 'liturgical and clerical discipline' as though nothing else mattered. Note also the reference to 'support for priestly celibacy'. No room for married priests here! Pastoral experience (8) is defined very narrowly with no sense of the breadth of the Catholic ministerial tradition. However, the discussion of leadership (9) is better, especially with the emphasis on 'dialogue', 'evoking and accepting collaboration', and delegation and sharing responsibility. It even has an emphasis on planning, something sadly missing in many Australian dioceses.

Essentially the key problem with the document is that the idea of a bishop's accountability to his diocese is completely omitted. There is a real sense in which this distorts the traditional relationship between the bishop and his diocese on the one hand and his duty to participate collegially in the government of the universal church through the college of bishops (presided over by the Bishop of Rome) on the other. The questionnaire actually reflects the ecclesiology of the First Vatican Council rather than the Second.

A final note: some weeks after Catholics for Ministry received a copy of the questionnaire we informed the present Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, that we had a copy of the document and we detailed some of the criticisms that I have already outlined. Archbishop Lazzarotto replied pointing out that the questionnaire was 'one among a number of elements in the enquiry process and cannot be understood or appreciated in isolation. At an earlier stage of the process other aspects are thoroughly examined through a widespread consultation of priests, religious men and women and lay people. Obviously this includes in particular the situation of the Diocese and its particular needs.' The Archbishop goes on to day that he has been impressed 'by the very high quality of the contributions that I receive from those whom I consult.'

Catholics for Ministry appreciated the openness and courtesy of Archbishop Lazzarotto's reply, which contrasted with that of Archbishop Philip Wilson's terse reply to the 16,800 Catholics who signed the Petition last year. However, the problem remains that it is the Vatican and the Nuncio who hold all the trump cards and the process remains secretive and non-accountable. That is why we are trying to engage the Papal Nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops in Rome in a process that might lead to us all developing a better approach to the election of bishops in the Australian church. We realize that this will be a very difficult task, but we think that one way of engaging the Holy See might be to get Australian Catholics to develop an alternative to this document.

We have begun the process of trying to do this within Catholics for Ministry, but we are a tiny group and we feel the need for broader consultation. So we are approaching a number of representative Catholic bodies as well as the wider Catholic community. Specifically, what we are seeking are suggestions concerning (1) the process through which bishops ought to be appointed in Australia, and (2) what issues ought to be canvassed and emphasized in the selection process.  We are deliberately leaving this fairly open so that you will feel free to suggest whatever you think is important and relevant.

Catholics for Ministry will draw this material together in the coming months and send it back to you for further comment. Substantially what we are trying to mount is a consultation that will have some influence on the Nuncio, the Bishops' Conference and the Vatican because it is broad based. Please feel free forward anything you send to us to the Nuncio. Feel free to inform the Catholic community what we are doing. Also Please feel free to distribute our letter and the questionnaire as widely as possible within the Catholic community.

You can send your suggestions or comments to
Catholics for Ministry,
PO Box 4053,
Manuka. ACT. 2603
or to

The Nuncio's address is
Apostolic Nuncio,
PO Box 3633,
Manuka. ACT 2603.

And, yes, you're right: the two boxes are just across from each other at Manuka Post Office!!!!