Hiring and Firing Bishops


Napoleon Bonaparte was a man who liked
having things his way. To that end, you might say, he set about remaking the face of Europe. Another of the things he liked having his way was the Catholic Church, and to that end he set about remaking the hierarchy in France. In negotiating a concordat with the Holy See, Napoleon included a provision for wholesale change in the ranks of the country’s bishops. And in due course he insisted that Pope Pius VII do as the concordat said — away with those old bishops, in with the new!
Pius, a decent man who suffered bullying and imprisonment at the hands of the French emperor, had no real choice but to comply. Forty-eight bishops were persuaded to resign, and another 37 were forced out. Successors to Napoleon’s liking were appointed in their place. The “massacre of the apostles,” as it was called, was a fait accompli.
During the furor over clergy sex abuse in recent years — first in the United States and lately in Europe — it’s sounded very much as if some of the people infuriated by the scandal wanted a contemporary reenactment of those events two centuries ago. Out with old bishops who reassigned clerical sex abusers and covered up their crimes, thus permitting them to abuse again; in with new bishops who would come clean about the failings of their predecessors and take steps to keep it from happening again. Pope John Paul II heard that often enough in his day. Pope Benedict XVI has gotten an earful lately.
The sentiment is eminently understandable. And some bishops have left office this way, while still others might do so in the future, as new disclosures emerge in Europe or elsewhere. But even supposing that wholesale changes in the hierarchy effected by papal intervention would have been a good idea eight years ago in America, or is a good idea now in Ireland or Germany or other countries racked by scandal, how realistic is the proposal as a general rule? In fact, it’s based on very dubious ideas about the relationship between popes and bishops.
The popular image of this relationship widely shared in pre-Vatican II days depicted bishops as something like branch managers reporting to a home office — the Vatican — headed by a CEO called “pope.” But that was never the case. Even in 1872, when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck claimed in the wake of Vatican I that the pope had “in principle taken the place of each individual bishop,” the German bishops replied that “it is in virtue of the same divine institution upon which the papacy rests that the episcopate also rests.” Pope Pius IX backed them up, saying they’d expressed the “true meaning” of the recent ecumenical council.
Fast-forward to Vatican II. Many believe the most important single issue with which the council wrestled was precisely this — the relationship of bishops and pope — summed up in the word “collegiality.” It’s a fascinating story, often told in histories of the council like Ralph Wiltgen’s still reliable The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber. The result was the treatment of collegiality in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (nos. 18-27).
Christ is said there to have organized the apostles as “a college or permanent assembly,” headed by Peter, and to have given them the mission of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the Church. Since this mission is “destined to last until the end of the world (cf. Mt 28:20),” the apostles named successors, and the successors named successors, and that will continue until the end of time. This is the apostolic succession of the bishops, who have “by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church.” Consecration as a bishop confers the “fullness of the sacrament of Orders,” including the office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing; but these functions “of their very nature can be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college” — that is, with the pope and the other bishops in communion with him and one another.
Lumen Gentium says much more about these matters, and since then few subjects have been more discussed and debated since Vatican II than how the council’s teaching on collegiality ought to be understood and implemented. There are in fact ambiguities and lacunae in the council’s treatment. (Apparently the Holy Spirit is still working on this whole question.) For present purposes, however, it’s important to note that Vatican II clearly rejects the branch manager-CEO way of thinking about bishops and the pope. Rather, as the pope is Vicar of Christ, so also, Vatican II says, the bishops are “vicars and legates of Christ” (no. 27).
That may suggest why popes since the council have adopted an approach to the bishops that some people find little short of maddening — negotiating, jawboning, offering advice and occasional criticism in a manner as fraternal as it is fatherly, but only rarely issuing orders and bossing them around.
Some of the same people who, in the context of the sex-abuse scandal, demand a much more direct, hiring-and-firing approach — with the pope knocking heads together, ordering bishops around, and putting them out to pasture when they don’t measure up — in other contexts demand more autonomy for the bishops and a much stronger episcopal voice (at the expense of the Roman Curia) in decision-making at the top. In the first instance, they champion a Napoleonic version of ecclesiology; in the second, they’d apparently be glad if the Catholic Church took on the decentralized look of the Anglican Communion, with a Bishop of Rome instead of an Archbishop of Canterbury.
But the visible Church we have is the visible Church we’ve got, and the present state of the relationship between bishops and pope, open to development as it is, is probably closer to what it should be than any alternative now in sight. No doubt development will occur over time — just give it a few centuries. Meanwhile, as difficult as it may be in the middle of a rip-roaring crisis like this one, the best advice is: Live with it. For faithful Catholics, there’s no other choice.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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