That the Catholic Church needs a better way to select Bishops is a sentiment that every Catholic, I think, could agree with. It is the headline of an article by Robert Mickens in the National Catholic Reporter, which is worth reading for the way it summarises the Pope’s recurring harsh words about bad bishops.
The Pope is a Jesuit, and in the Jesuit tradition it is normal for superiors to pronounce regular ‘exhortations’ directed at their underlings to try and knock them into shape.
In recent times words have been followed up by deeds, and several bishops have been sacked, usually for one of two reasons: financial mismanagement or sexual misconduct (sometimes, no doubt, for both). The sacking of bishops does not really solve the problem, as it is an acknowledgement that the bishops in question should never have been appointed in the first place. What one really needs is a better way of finding good bishops.
The present system essentially relies on what Italians call ‘raccomandazione’, or what we call the old boys network or cronyism. Men get made bishops because bishops recommend them for promotion; it is not what you know, but who you know.
This used to be the way of appointing civil servants to public office in Britain until Gladstone’s great reforming ministry introduced competitive examinations. Competitive examinations are, at least in theory, impartial, and an impartial system of appointments would overcome the widely perceived favouritism that disfigures the current system.
There is something of the Ancien Regime about the way the Vatican works, despite the way the Pope has railed in recent years about the leprosy of courts. Incidentally, the people who work in the Vatican, lay and clerical – how are they appointed? Are they appointed after the same sort of scrutiny used for civil servants in Whitehall and elsewhere?
One thing Mickens mentions only to discount is the election of bishops. This could work, to my mind, but it depends on who does the electing. One bishop who is elected to office is the Bishop of Rome. Conclaves have a good record of producing high quality candidates. Why not have a conclave in each diocese? It was the traditional role of canons to elect the bishop, but canons, sadly, have become more or less purely decorative in the contemporary Church, as far as I can see.
Will the Pope’s words directed at inadequate and bad bishops have any effect? Given that this problem is a perennial one, that long predates the current pontificate, I doubt it. But they certainly highlight the problem the Church faces. At the same time the Pope has spoken about the inadequacies of many priests: there perhaps the solution to the problem lies, for every bishop is drawn from the ranks of the priesthood. We certainly need better bishops, but we will never have them until we have better priests. And as priests come out of seminaries, perhaps that is where the work of reform should start.
Seminaries were established in the wake of the Council of Trent. Perhaps they have had their day and need to be replaced by some other method of training men for the priesthood which involves living in the community. Then perhaps we may have a better chance of getting pastors who, as the Pope loves to put it, “smell of the sheep”.