Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Problem of Episcopal Election

So a friend sent me a piece from the NCR recapping a speech in which Notre Dame don Fr Richard McBrien advocated the popular election of bishops.

Being a veteran of the Philadelphia political scene -- vote early, often and Democrat -- anytime I hear the word "election," I cringe. Not because I don't love democracy, but I've seen over the years how it can easily go... awry.
The topic of [McBrien's] hourlong address was "The Election of Bishops: The Return to Tradition," a reference to the first millennium of the church when such elections were the norm -- beginning in the New Testament with the election by lot of a successor to Judas.

"He who is to preside over all must be elected by all," the speaker quoted the fifth-century Pope Leo the Great.

Eventually, according to McBrien's historical review, "it was only when temporal rulers inserted themselves into this process that the rights of the laity and local clergy began to be shunted aside." More than 30 years ago, the Notre Dame University theologian advocated laypeople's participation in the election of bishops in his book, The Remaking of the Church: An Agenda for Reform. That era was friendlier to such suggestions. In 1971 an official diocesan synod here called for a process to elect bishops.
Full disclosure: the talk was given in the context of a Voice of the Faithful meeting.

Now, there are a lot of people out there -- or, more accurately, five loud ones -- who won't be completely happy until McBrien is publicly tried, convicted and burned for witchcraft. Or something like that.

I'm not one of those people.

However, call me naieve, snookered, or whatever other adjective you might want to come up with, but the premise of popular election of bishops, while alluring in the ideal, would be in reality nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

If anything, the modern means of episcopal selection by Roman appointment has yielded a process which is, by and large, comprehensive, substantive, fairly consultative, immune from the ephemeral blaze of ideological fervor at either pole, and allows more than its fair share of checks. It's not always perfect, and it's not always pretty, but in light of the alternatives, it'd be monumentally foolish to tinker with it.

To accept this line of thought, however, requires accepting the ecclesiological tenet of what the ordination prayer of a bishop calls the "spirit of governance" in the life of the church, and realizing to whom it belongs. These days, that ancient principle is under assault from people much more "Catholic" -- or so they tell us -- than Richard McBrien.

The other day, I was shuffling around a Barnes & Noble and found a copy of John Paul II's reflections to bishops, originally published under the Italian title Alzatevi, Andiamo! ("Arise, Let Us Be Going!") on sale for $4.95. So I picked it up -- something I should've done years ago, but hadn't gotten around to. At least the price was right.

(And, for those of you keeping score, about 50 JP books were on the bargain shelves. But no B16 books were....)

From that text, it's passages like these which show the way, and remind a lot of us of how far we've gotten from it:
[N]othing can take the place of the bishop seated upon the cathedra or standing in the pulpit of his episcopal church, personally expounding the Word of God to those gathered around him. And he, like "every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven, is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom things old and new" (Mt 13:52).
The late, great Wojtyla then went on to praise "the archbishop emeritus of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, whose catechesis in the cathedral attracted crowds of listeners to whom he revealed the treasure of God's Word."

Elsewhere, he says that (emphasis mine)
"The bishop is the sign of Christ's presence in the world, going out to meet men and women where they are: calling them by name, helping them to rise, consoling them with the Good News and gathering them into one around the Lord's Table. For this reason, the bishop, while belonging to the whole world and to the universal Church, lives out his vocation physically removed from the other members of the Episcopal College, so as to be close to the people whom, in Christ's name, he calls together in his particular Church. At the same time, he becomes for these very people a sign that their isolation is ended, because he brings them into fellowship with Christ and, in Him, with all those whom God chose beforehand since the world began, with those whom He alls together today from throughout the world, and with those whom He will call into his Church in the future, until the very last of the elect. All are present in the local Church through the ministry and the sign of the bishop."
Again, they're not my words, but those of John Paul the Great, santo subito and all that. If you don't agree, then you can take your gripe and go scream at the tomb.

Moral of the story: for these guys to have their authority challenged and disputed from below is, in effect, to reject the spirit given them. Said mandate hasn't been given to the flock and, in most cases, with good reason. It doesn't matter who the target of popular venom is, it's all about the point: if we can't agree and accept that the competent authority of the church is exactly that, and we perceive ourselves to be the valid interpreters of church teaching and enforcers of its practice, we delude ourselves into believing that we possess the "spirit of governance." And, well, we don't. Grazie Dio.

Of course, keep in mind that the logical progression of said argument is... episcopal election. Not that you'll ever hear that explicated, but what's new?