How Are Priests Selected to be Bishops?

Q1: Is there a way for me to suggest that my pastor someday be made a bishop? –Kevin

Q2: Sometimes I hear that this or that new bishop was selected because he’s a good administrator. Doesn’t anybody take into account his personal holiness? –James

A: There’s no doubt that in a perfect world, every diocesan bishop would be both a saint and a savvy financial manager. He certainly ought to be a theological expert as well, to be better able to safeguard the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith as it is proclaimed both from the pulpit and in the classroom. And it wouldn’t hurt if he were a canon lawyer too! It should be obvious to all that humanly speaking, this is usually a bit too much to ask of one man, however prayerful, well intentioned, and educated he may be. Still, the Church naturally wants the best available men for this tremendous responsibility and great honor. How are priests chosen to be bishops?

First of all, the code provides a list of qualifications. Canon 378.1 tells us that a suitable candidate for the episcopate must be a priest outstanding in strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues. This incidentally answers James’s question as to whether a priest’s holiness and spirituality are taken into account—by law they must be.

True, it’s rather difficult to measure a person’s faith and piety in concrete terms; clearly there is by definition some room here for differing opinions. On the more practical side, the same canon states that a priest who is to become a bishop must be at least 35 years old; must have been ordained at least five years previously; and must have a licentiate or doctorate degree in either Scripture, theology, or canon law. It should be noted that if necessary, one or more of these tangible requirements could be dispensed. The whole notion of dispensation from a law was addressed in more detail back in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.” In countries experiencing religious persecution, or poorer countries with little opportunity for education, there may be a dire shortage of priests who meet all these conditions, so in such places a dispensation from some of the criteria might be needed.

We’ve seen the qualifications that a prospective bishop must have; let’s now look at who has the authority to select him. Canon 377.1 states, not surprisingly, that choosing a new bishop is the prerogative of the Pope. The canon notes that the Pope freely appoints bishops, or confirms those lawfully elected. We U.S. Catholics are of course familiar with the appointment of bishops; but when would a bishop ever be elected?

This reference to episcopal elections is tied to a number of dioceses in the German-speaking countries of Europe. They maintain—with the approval of the Pope, of course—a centuries-old practice in which those priests assigned to the diocesan cathedral have the right to select the next bishop of the diocese. The chosen bishop must then be confirmed in his office by the Pope. This procedure is, however, an exception to the worldwide rule, and is tolerated for the sake of tradition. Needless to say, it is a tradition that is entirely absent in our own country, where bishops are appointed directly by the Supreme Pontiff.

So if the Pope, who is definitely not an American and lives thousands of miles away in Rome, has to select a new bishop for a diocese here in the US, how does he know whether this or that American priest might be a good choice? Canon 377.2 provides a system that is designed to help the Pope make an informed decision. The bishops of each province are to compile a secret list of priests who they believe would make good bishops, and they are to send the list to Rome. So as to keep the list current, they are to update it at least once every three years.

What is the province mentioned in this canon? The structure of dioceses into provinces was discussed in more detail in “Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals,” which noted that several dioceses are grouped together under an archdiocese, which is headed by an archbishop (c. 431). Thus canon 377.2 ensures that a relatively small number of bishops (plus one archbishop) are compiling each list. This enables each bishop to have definite input into the process, and to have firsthand knowledge of the priests whom they recommend. If Kevin’s bishop has good reason to think highly of the pastor of his parish, his name may very well already be on the list! It is also possible to include priests who are members of religious institutes—Franciscans or Dominicans, say—who engage in work in a given diocese and whose exemplary performance has got the bishop’s attention. (Further discussion of the differences between diocesan priests and priests who are members of religious institutes may be found in “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty.”)

Note that the bishops are not being asked to suggest priests who might be good bishops for a particular diocese; rather, this list is simply a generic one. It ensures that the Vatican has a pool of names to refer to, if/when the need arises at some point in the future. When the time comes to choose a new bishop for a particular diocese, the bishops of the province have the opportunity once again for input, but now it is much more specific. As canon 377.3 notes, these bishops make their suggestions to the papal legate, who sends them on to Rome.

But what’s a papal legate? Whether American Catholics realize it or not, we have a papal legate right here in the US (c. 363).  The papal legate is the Vatican’s equivalent of an ambassador, and ours works in the Vatican Embassy in Washington. (There’s also a legate who functions as the representative of the Vatican to the United Nations, in New York City.) When a bishop dies or retires in this country, one of the many responsibilities of the papal legate to the US is to submit concrete information to Rome, including names of prospective replacements that would be suitable in this specific case. The legate not only must hear the thoughts of the bishops of the province where the vacancy is located—he may also, if he so wishes, seek the opinions of the priests of the diocese, as well as of those lay persons who are involved in the diocese and who thus may have some constructive ideas based on their own practical experience there. Based on all of this input, the legate then selects three names of possible candidates and submits them to the Vatican. Ordinarily, the Pope reviews the report and chooses one man from the three on the list.

Or at least we presume that this is what ordinarily happens. The fact is, the process is kept secret—but not because the Church has anything shameful to hide, of course. Rather, the prospective candidates are not officially to be told that their names are being considered, a fact which not only takes much pressure off the prospective bishops, but also protects the selection process from the possibility of outside influences. An ambitious cleric, for example, cannot actively “campaign” for the job of bishop! Neither can supporters of a particular priest lobby for his selection. This means that the entire selection process, from the bishops of the province, to the legate, and then to the Pope himself, is completely free. The Pope has the right to look at the legate’s list of three names and decide, for whatever reason, not to choose any of them. The process exists solely to help the Pope make an informed decision; he is not bound by it.

Thus we can see that a system is in place that is designed to assist the Holy Father in his task of choosing bishops for dioceses throughout the world. Certainly it is less than foolproof—those involved in suggesting possible names may be genuinely mistaken that Father X would be the best man for the job. Fortunately, we know that the Holy Spirit has a role in the selection process too! Let’s pray for His continued influence in this important aspect of the Church’s administration, for bishops who are both holy and competent are vital to the well-being of the Church.

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