A Proposal for Episcopal Reform

In many ways, the following is an attempt to respond to Pope Francis’s invitation to help reform the Church. Specifically, this short missive intends to shed light on a couple of the problems affecting the episcopacy and how we the faithful can support our bishops’ ministry. I believe there is a strong case to be made that careerism and the massive size of our American (arch)dioceses have contributed to the episcopates’ problems. These two issues have been made worse by the fact that, as many have rightly pointed out, the Church has appointed and promoted a poor crop of men to serve as bishops, especially in the U.S.

Because of these two issues, many of the Church’s bishops for at least the past 60 years have either been negligent or overwhelmed in their responsibilities as pastors to teach and promote the faith or have been a cancer on the Church by either committing or covering up horrendous crimes. Unfortunately, when a bishop does try to teach, few of his brothers support him and, until recently, with the laity angrily demanding it, many of the bishops contributed to the sex abuse crisis with their refusal to police their own.

Furthermore, many of the bishops in the United States have done a terrible job implementing the reforms of Vatican II, substituting what they wanted instead of what the council asked for. Or, worse, allowing others under them carte blanche in remaking the Church. Probably because a diocese is so large, one man cannot adequately supervise it. Unfortunately, these same bishops are being promoted to higher offices in the Church despite their lackluster track record. From a layman’s perspective, it appears advancement in the Church’s ranks is far more important than properly running the Church. As such, the Church, especially in the U.S., needs to reconsider the nature of the bishop’s relationship to his diocese.

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Today, the Church looks too much like corporate America in how it selects and promotes its leaders. Men who either have demonstrated some level of competency as middle managers or, more likely, have friends in high places are rewarded with promotions and a more prestigious title. This is a terrible way to populate the hierarchy. With this style of governance, the different dioceses become a mere stepping-stone to a bigger episcopal throne or position in Rome. For the bishop, laity, and non-Catholics, a bishop’s relevance is tied to the size of the city that he presides over, not the fact that he is a bishop and a successor of the apostles.

In this type of environment, it is no surprise if a bishop is only concerned with the short-term health of a local church and neglects the long-term stability of his flock because, in many ways, they are not his flock. For a bishop climbing the ecclesial corporate ladder, the people in his diocese on Monday might be his successor’s concern on Tuesday. This is a particular problem for a small diocese because once a bishop demonstrates some competence, he is usually promoted into a more prestigious role. Part and parcel in men looking for promotion are the networks they develop to facilitate just that. These networks are a problem for the Church because they tend to promote men with the same ideology or preferences that are not in the Church’s best interest or, even worse, work against its mission.

The Bishop as the Bridegroom, the Church as His Bride
So how do we end these networks and careerism? The answer is obvious; stop transferring bishops from diocese to diocese. When a bishop takes possession of his local church, the faithful need to believe the bishop is marrying that local Church. This lifelong commitment may even serve as an iconic practice to married couples in his care and help to revitalize that sacrament, which today fewer and fewer people receive. (This commitment may even significantly reduce divorces even more than presently.) I am not presenting a novel idea. In fact, the belief that a bishop should remain in his diocese for life goes back to the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. The council explicitly forbade clerics from moving between dioceses. The bishops of the world confirmed this again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. While often ignored—most famously when John Chrysostom was forcibly transferred from Antioch to Constantinople, but then again, the law was invoked rather gruesomely (or perhaps comically) during the cadaver trial of Pope Formosa—it has never been repealed.

The case can be made that since no one in the Catholic Church has followed it—not even the pope—in quite some time (if indeed ever), it is no longer applicable and, in a sense, has been de facto repealed. Besides, Catholicism is not the only ancient church that has abandoned this idea; it is joined by the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Most Catholics would probably be surprised that this was ever Church law, especially since most popes over the last millennium were already consecrated as bishops and presided over another diocese. The last non-bishop to be elected pope was Gregory XVI in 1831.

One serious objection to reinstating this law would be that bishops of unique capabilities would never be able to ascend to more important cities with their larger bully pulpits. After all, the archbishop of New York City, for good or ill, receives far more press coverage than the bishop of Topeka. A powerful and orthodox bishop located in a major American city can shout and be heard across the U.S. because of the mass media tools at his disposal. In other words, transferring a great bishop from Topeka to New York is not a reward for the man but an evangelization tool for the Church; the best and brightest need to sit on the thrones of major cities.

Yet, when we look back at history, some of our greatest bishops presided in remote places. For example, Augustine came from the relatively small North African city of Hippo and from there became one of the greatest Church fathers. He did not need to reside in the far larger and more important city of Carthage. Saint Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, did not need to rule in Constantinople to be heard and followed by his fellow Christians during his time. In fact, any bishop of God can speak to the world. While Archbishop Fulton Sheen was affiliated with the Archdiocese of New York, he was never its bishop, but America learned at his feet for years. Moreover, with modern day social media, any orthodox bishop can spread the faith even from the smallest and least populated diocese.

One Bishop, One City, One God
This may also go a long way to rooting out corruption in the Vatican if bishops, either competent or dreadful, are no longer transferred to Rome as a promotion or reward. Theologically, it is odd that a bishop in Rome, who is supposed to be the head of a local church with living people, presides over an extinct community. I understand that all bishops by tradition are given a city to oversee. However, in their case, there are no Catholics in their city. In other words, these Vatican bishops are bodiless heads divorced from a bishop’s real role, i.e., leading the People of God here on earth. In Rome, they are department heads, office workers, and functionaries.

The implication of this seems staggering, especially when one considers how the global Church operates. If a bishop is no longer leading a Vatican council or dicastery then how would they function? Wouldn’t these Roman offices lose their power and prestige without a bishop? The simple answer is no since the pope should be able to pick any priest, consecrated woman, or layperson with real ability to run these offices. A Vatican department head does not need to be an archbishop if he works for the pope—being a priest, deacon, sister, or layperson who represents the pope should be enough.

Simply put, a bishop who no longer needs to worry about advancement can concentrate his efforts and love on the faithful. His people will have an assurance their father in faith will remain in good times and in bad. They will continue to grow together holding each other responsible. With time, the people under a bishop’s charge will better accept his teaching because he will be their servant in and out of season. Furthermore, a bishop who is expected to stay in his see for decades will not only better know his flock, but he will be able to plan in advance, and his decisions will need to be made more carefully because his mistakes will not be left to his successor to rectify for some time.

As for the massive (arch)dioceses in the U.S., the Church needs to rethink how much a bishop can reasonably handle. For example, the Archdiocese of New York ministers to 2.8 million Catholics and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles serves almost 5 million people. These populations are much too large for one man to govern and ensure the spiritual care of his people. Bishops in a diocese of this size must take on so many other roles that are far less important than being a father to his people. Bishops are forced to delegate tasks that should be their immediate concern, such as officiating over confirmations and visiting each of his parishes once a year to preside over Sunday Mass. It is not enough to appoint auxiliary or assistant bishops. However, this runs into the problem of headless bishops, and one could make a good theological case that assistant bishops are not truly bishops. Once the size of a diocese becomes more manageable, bishops can be chosen based on their pastoral ability and not on their administrative experience. While ultimately the bishop has the final say in his jurisdiction, he should be able to delegate administrative work to capable clerics and laymen.

To sum up, Bishops need to return to the role of father for their communities. The first step is they should stay in the place that they are married to. This will allow bishops to concentrate on their flock without being distracted by the allure of promotion. The Church has been hit with both a scandal and crisis of leadership of its own making. Returning to this ancient method may help to avert another leadership crisis. This ancient rule will only help bishops create fruitful long-lasting relationships with their parishioners. This should go a long way to reestablishing trust between shepherd and flock. The people will also be more mindful of their leader and devoted to learning the Catholic faith from him.

Papal Elections
If bishops are no longer transferred from city to city, how do we select a new pope? In some ways it will be the same. The College of Cardinals will still be responsible for selecting the Bishop of Rome. It will, however, be a much smaller college since the Church will no longer need to create cardinals to run Vatican departments. This will leave only cardinal bishops and Eastern Catholic patriarchs presiding over flocks the right to vote. Also, heads of monastic communities should be allowed to join the college. As for whom they would select, it would be incumbent on the college to search for a priest who could be a true father to the Roman people as well as a shepherd for the entire Church. The cardinals would, much like Samuel looking for the new King of Israel, search for a man of God and no longer jockey for position and advance foreign agendas.

(Photo credit: Alan Holdren / CNA)


  • Jason Surmiller

    Jason Surmiller recently graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a Ph.D. in Humanities, History of Ideas. He is a faculty member of Ursuline Academy of Dallas and an adjunct instructor at Brookhaven College.

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