John F Kennedy was once recorded raging about an Air Force officer who had wasted money on expensive hospital furniture. The president feared that the overspending would have an adverse effect on military budget negotiations. The officer responsible, Kennedy fumed, should be transferred into obscurity – as should his colleague: “I’d have him go up to Alaska, too.”
In the Church, on the other hand, a bishopric in Alaska is still important: a see is a see. And from the point of view of Church governance, the chance to appoint a new bishop is an opportunity.
That’s one reason why Pope Francis’s mid-May decision to join two Alaskan dioceses – Juneau and Anchorage – is such a head-scratcher. Pope Francis named Andrew Bellisario, the bishop of Juneau and the serving apostolic administrator of Anchorage, as first archbishop of the new ecclesiastical metropolis, Anchorage-Juneau.
One wonders whether Pope Francis couldn’t find someone willing to take either Juneau – a territory of nearly 38,000 square miles, with a Catholic population not exceeding 11,000 – or Anchorage, which stretches over more than 120,000 square miles and boasts just over 55,000 Catholics? Or perhaps he could not find anyone to whom he was willing to give one or the other. In any case, he has deprived himself of a see in gift, and made it harder for the local Ordinary to be close to his people in Alaska.
There are serious structural issues with the organisation of dioceses in many regions of the world, most of which are beyond the scope of this small analytical space. Nevertheless, the decision to merge the dioceses of Juneau and Anchorage suggests there are three persistent difficulties, which have yet to receive an adequate response: the number of dioceses; the power of individual bishops; the suitability of candidates.
Local ordinaries have too much power: one way to make them less powerful is to create more dioceses. In practice, however, this would only work alongside reforms to concentrate powers of governance in the metropolitan, while leaving bishops of smaller suffragan dioceses to teach the faith and discipline the sacraments.
The reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, designed to make metropolitans responsible for policing their suffragans in abuse and cover-up matters, was arguably a disciplinary step in this direction. The Holy See has been reluctant to use the new law, but that is a separate issue.
When it comes to qualified personnel, there are few – if any – practical shortcuts.
Pope Francis has tested a more broadly consultative model for the election of local ordinaries, but has yet to offer much in the way of a general programme of reform in these regards. With this, as with other things, he plays his cards close to his cassock, and appears reluctant to disclose his mind.
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