Is the Church’s way of appointing bishops fit for purpose?

Three years ago I wrote that the appointment of Bishop Barros to the diocese of Osorno would spell trouble for Pope Francis. Unfortunately, I was proved right. For the last three years, trouble has been rumbling, and now, with the mass resignation of the Chilean bishops, it seems no nearer to a satisfactory conclusion. As has been pointed out in this magazine and elsewhere, the group resignation solves nothing but rather leaves Pope Francis with a possible series of next steps, none of which look easy.

While people wonder what the Pope will do now, we should not forget this simple question: how on earth did Barros become Bishop of Osorno in the first place? (Incidentally, he is still in post.) It takes time to appoint bishops. Typically there is an interregnum of about a year, sometimes more, while the long and slow and supposedly thorough process of picking a suitable bishop unfolds. A name emerges only after consultations, which are coordinated by the Papal Nuncio.

Barros’s predecessor was appointed elsewhere on 14th December 2013; Barros was appointed to Osorno on 10th January 2015. So it took 13 months to process the Barros appointment, at first sight. During that time all the potential drawback to the appointment would have had a chance to emerge.

In the first place, the appointment of Bishop Barros must be the responsibility of the Papal Nuncio in Chile, who failed to foresee what was eminently foreseeable, namely that the Bishop would be widely contested not just in Osorno but further afield.

But was due process ignored in this case? Was Barros parachuted into Osorno by powerful friends either in the Chilean hierarchy or in Rome? In other words, did the Church fail to observe the laws and customs she has set herself, thanks to undue influence? Robert Mickens certainly seems to think so, though he admits we have no way of knowing one way or the other. But it is hard to see Barros’s ecclesiastical career (Osorno is his fourth episcopal appointment) in any other light other than as a protégé of some very important and powerful Cardinals. All of which leaves us with a big question: is the Church’s way of appointing bishops fit for purpose?

If the Pope has to find new bishops for Chile, then this question becomes even more pressing. How on earth can he find 30 or so bishops in a relatively short space of time? Typically a nunciature will oversee one or two appointments a year. To appoint thirty fresh bishops would be an impossible task, if one were to follow the usual procedures. And if one were not to do so – well, that was what landed us all in the current mess, it seems.

Just as Barros continues to highlight the problems of the Chilean Church and its administration, so Barros also shines a light on the universal Church. There are numerous bishops throughout the world who should never have been appointed in the first place. Of course, every system will have its failures, and some wrong ’uns will always get through; but when that happens, we expect the mistake to be swiftly corrected, and that does not always happen. After a time, disturbing patterns begin to emerge. The people of God in places like Osorno, and elsewhere, have shown remarkable patience, but patience has its limits. We need action.