In recent decades, popes have reinforced centralised control of the Catholic Church by influencing who gets promoted in each country.
his determination to implement his policy of “restoration”, Pope John
Paul II, throughout his 26-year pontificate (the second longest in the
history of the Catholic Church), assiduously used the appointment of
bishops throughout the world as a key mechanism to achieve his
His aim was to “restore” the Church to where it had been before the
reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), reforms that
alarmed him, not least because they created what the late Peter
Hebblethwaite, one of the very best Vatican-watchers, memorably called
“a runaway church”.
John Paul II saw it as his mission to bring this runaway institution
back under firm centralised control, and he used the appointment of
conservative bishops across the globe as a central element in this
The key criterion that all new bishops had to meet was this:
Absolute fealty to him and his vision of what he wanted the Church to be
in the aftermath of Vatican II. So strictly was this policy insisted
upon that one American bishop, emerging from a meeting with John Paul
II, was heard to complain: “He treats us like messenger boys.”
Hebblethwaite, author of acclaimed biographies of Pope John XXIII and
Pope Paul VI, noted that the appointments of bishops remained firmly in
the hands of Rome.
He explained the modus operandi: “Talk of consultation made little
practical difference, and the role of papal nuncios or apostolic
delegates remained decisive. The appointment of bishops remained the
principal means of control over the local churches.”
From the time in the early 1980s that John Paul II rolled out his
“restoration” blueprint, the system of appointing safe but often
mediocre candidates — men who were content to be managers rather than
leaders — became one of its defining characteristics. And Ireland was no
The policy was continued by Pope Benedict XVI and, surprisingly, has
not significantly changed under Pope Francis, despite his reputation as a
“great reformer” (the sub-title of a book by one of his biographers).
The preference for loyal bishops who could be relied upon to do the
bidding of the Congregations of the Roman Curia (they have what canon
lawyers call the “power of governance”) sometimes led to the elevation
of people clearly unsuited to be bishops.
Two glaring examples of this were the appointment of John Magee to
Cloyne in 1987, and that of Desmond Connell (who died recently at the
age of 90) as Archbishop of Dublin in 1988.
The Magee appointment was also a blatant example of the bureaucratic
indifference to the consequences of a decision made in Rome: The good of
the Diocese of Cloyne was not the primary consideration when that
appointment was made.
Those of us in the media who were in Rome for Magee’s episcopal
ordination believed that, because he had been English-language secretary
to three popes (Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II), Cloyne would
be a stepping-stone to Armagh.
We were wrong. Magee was, in effect, being banished from Rome by the
Polish mafia around the Pope; they were tired of his sanctimoniousness,
and the vacancy in Cloyne happened to provide a convenient excuse, and
so he was shipped out.
You don’t have to believe everything about the Vatican and papal
court in a book such as The Power and the Glory: Inside the Dark Heart
of John Paul II’s Vatican by David Yallop, but, at the same time, it
would be naive to believe that all episcopal appointments are made for
the best of motives. They most assuredly are not. And it was ever thus.
Bishops are appointed by the Pope; Canon 377 of the Code of Canon Law
stipulates that “The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops...”
Section 5 of that canon also states: “For the future, no rights or
privileges of election, appointment, presentation or designation of
Bishops are conceded to civil authorities.”
Such rights and privileges were indeed conceded in the past, so to
say that bishops were always appointed by the Pope is historically
Even today, in appointing bishops, the Pope, in perhaps 95% of the
cases, merely rubber-stamps the nominations prepared by the Congregation
for Bishops, one of the key Vatican departments. This shouldn’t
With almost 3,000 diocesan bishops in the world, no pope can be
expected to have first-hand or even third-hand knowledge of leading
candidates when vacancies occur.
Popes have a myriad other matters to
attend to, so they must rely on the bureaucrats of the Roman Curia. And
that’s where the power and influence of papal nuncios comes into play.
They are meant to be the eyes and ears of the pope in the countries
to which they have been assigned. In his book All the Pope’s Men, John
Allen, now religion editor for the Boston Globe, reminds us that nuncios
have “the responsibility for preparing the terna, or list of three
names of candidates for the appointment of new bishops”.
Allen goes on to quote Cardinal Jorge Mejia, former secretary of the
Congregation of Bishops, as saying that “between 80% and 90% of the time
the first candidate on the terna prepared by the nuncio ends up getting
the job. This makes the nuncio’s role often a decisive one.”
There would, of course, be more direct papal involvement when it
comes to appointments to the major sees — places such as New York,
Boston, and San Francisco in the USA, Munich and Cologne in Germany, and
Paris and Lyons in France, as well as key places in the Third World.
And every pope has a special interest in appointments to places such as
Milan, Turin, and Bologna in his own back yard.
If you are Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then you naturally have a keen
interest in appointments to Buenos Aires and other major dioceses in
Argentina, just as Joseph Ratzinger had a special interest in German
appointments and Karol Wojtyla in all the key Polish appointments.
The big prizes in Ireland — Armagh and Dublin — would rarely show on
the papal radar, though that was probably not the case in the
appointment of Diarmuid Martin to Dublin because of his previous career
in the Vatican.
When Connell was appointed to Dublin in 1988, he was plucked from the
relative obscurity of the philosophy department in UCD and had
virtually no pastoral experience.
Not only was the appointment disastrous, but, in February 2001, John
Paul II decided to make him a Cardinal at a time when Rome could hardly
claim to be unaware of the scandal of clerical sex abuse in Ireland.
Indeed, on January 28, 2001 — in the gap between the announcement
from the Vatican of the Red Hat for Dublin and the actual Consistory –
the Sunday Tribune carried a front page story alongside a large
photograph of Connell with the heading ‘Cardinal failed to move abuse
priest from parish’. Yet the Red Hat went to him.
This was another example of Rome not caring one whit for local
feeling or the pastoral implications of its ultra-conservative
The late Fr Andrew Greeley, the Chicago-based sociologist, in his
2005 book The Making of the Pope, said this about episcopal
appointments: “The extremely conservative bishops John Paul appointed,
usually on curial recommendation, further offended many of the laity and
the lower clergy. He rarely engaged in serious consultation with the
bishops of the world and listened only to the laity that he knew agreed
As Hans Kung put it in his book Infallible?, “new bishops were
selected preferably according to two tried and tested principles of
sound moral standards and the uncritical loyalty to Rome which is called
Selecting men who are “safe” often means choosing mediocrities,
candidates who are conformists and assuredly will not rock any Roman
Hebblethwaite once put it bluntly: “Bishops have been parachuted down
on dioceses about which they know nothing and where they are doomed to
The frustration this can cause in the local churches can
build up and occasionally boil over.
A recent example of this was the call by Fr Tony Flannery, one of the
founder members of the Association of Catholic Priests, for the papal
nuncio, Archbishop Charles Browne, to be removed.
Fr Flannery, who was disciplined by the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith for views he expressed on aspects of Catholic teaching,
said the nuncio was “doing great damage to the Irish Church by the
policies by which he is appointing bishops”.
This is never going to happen, of course; in any case, even if
Archbishop Browne were removed he would just be replaced by another
Vatican functionary operating on the basis of the same set of
instructions from Rome.
The system is the problem; and there is not much likelihood of that
being changed, even under a pope as open to institutional reform as
Francis. It will only change when a powerful (and wealthy) national
church, such as the German church, reclaims its legitimate autonomy when
it comes to the appointment of bishops.
In his book, The Making of the Pope, Fr Andrew Greeley asked the
pertinent question: “Why does the Roman Curia continue to lord it over
the resident bishops?”
As for the appointment of such bishops, he cited the methods
prescribed by two of the most important early popes — Leo the Great and
Gregory the Great — for the election of bishops for all dioceses, Rome
These methods were “summed up in the succinct Latin dictum ‘Qui
praesidet super omnes, ab omnibus eligatur’.
For those unfamiliar with
the mother tongue, that means ‘who presides over all must be chosen by