The laity used to help choose bishops. It’s a tradition worth resurrecting

Bishop Milan Lach holds up an icon at a Divine Liturgy of enthronement in Parma, Ohio (CNS)

But for such a system to work, the bishops also need to take up their duties

“The Church is not a democracy,” we are often told. That’s sort of true, but it isn’t meant to be a vast centrally-controlled bureaucracy either. As it happens, the Church used to have a much stronger democratic element: and given the failures of governance exposed by the abuse crisis, perhaps that element should be brought back.

If you were to attend an ordination in the Byzantine Rite, you might be struck by a moment in the liturgy in which the people are called upon to express their view of their future pastor. They cry out, “Axios!” (worthy) or “Anaxios!” (unworthy). This procedure is a shadow and a reminder of the Church’s ancient system of appointment.

Episcopal election in the early Church was usually conducted by a “college” consisting of the archbishop and/or suffragan bishops, parish priests and deacons. Once they had chosen the candidate, they would need the laity to approve. Sometimes it worked the other way round: St Ambrose became Bishop of Milan at the request of the laity. As even the anti-clerical historian Gibbon admitted, “the subjects of Rome enjoyed in the church the privilege which they had lost in the republic, of choosing the magistrates whom they were bound to obey.”

As late as 1054, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida – a most implacable defender of papal authority – expressed the rights of the laity as follows: “According to the decrees of the holy fathers, anyone who is consecrated as a bishop is first to be elected by the clergy, then requested by the people and finally consecrated by the bishops of the province with the approval of the metropolitan … Anyone who has been consecrated without conforming to all these three rules is not to be regarded as a true, undoubted, established bishop nor counted among the bishops canonically created and appointed. [my italics]”

The laity lost their power in two stages. First, popes began to appoint bishops directly, to stop lay rulers from hijacking elections. Then, from the late thirteenth century, kings exploited the weakness of the papacy to nominate all the bishops in their kingdoms – with the Pope’s formal provision a rubber stamp. Today, following the secularisation of European states, lay rulers no longer claim such powers, so almost all bishops are appointed directly by the Pope.

In one sense, this is perfectly legitimate. The Holy See has always maintained what is now called its “universal ordinary jurisdiction”: the right to intervene at will in any church as if the pope were the bishop of that place himself. But in the first millennium the Pope exercised this jurisdiction as if it were extraordinary. In the second millennium, however, the popes have to a greater and greater extent, especially since the end of the nineteenth century, appointed all the bishops in the world, a hitherto unknown phenomenon.

In the last 150 years, Church documents have gestured towards a less centralised model. The First Vatican Council taught: “This power of the Supreme Pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the Holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. On the contrary, this power of theirs is asserted, supported and defended by the Supreme and Universal Pastor; for St. Gregory the Great says: ‘My honour is the honour of the whole Church. My honour is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honour, when it is denied to none of those to whom honour is due.’”

In the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, St John Paul II suggested that the future of the Church might lie in a return to the structure of ecclesiastical government in the first millennium. One of the principal differences between the first and second millennia is the elimination in the course of the second of the laity from the election of bishops.

If you suggest to lay Catholics that they might help to elect their bishop, they are often appalled at the idea. Why? Because they don’t trust their fellow laypeople: they know that many Mass-goers neither believe nor observe the articles of the Catholic faith.

However, this is only half the problem. There is, in truth, a kind of Faustian pact between clergy and laity: “You do not look into our faith and morals and we will not look into yours.” The bishops no longer routinely excommunicate notorious public sinners and heretics. The laity turn a blind eye to the irresponsibility of the clergy. Conflict is avoided – but meanwhile, the problem gets worse. The Church cannot survive much more of this, but the Church will never perish, so either the end of this pact is near or the end of all things.

So we need both laity and clergy to take up their duties simultaneously. The function of a bishop is to teach, to sanctify and to govern. A holy bishop ought to preach the Gospel without fear or favour, root out error and conformity with the world among the priests and people of his diocese, proclaim to those inside and outside his flock the unmerited salvation won for us on the Cross by Our Lord and Saviour, and demand orthodox belief and true repentance of sins. He ought to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the living and the dead with fear and trembling, meek and obedient before the laws and traditions of the Church and see that his clergy do likewise. He ought to ensure that all the people make frequent Confessions and Communions – and that they do so worthily. He ought to lead his flock in the living law of the Gospel, provide for the weak and suffering among them in body and soul, show by his example that heroic sanctity is possible for every Christian, and strengthen the lay faithful in their struggle to conform temporal realities to the demands of Christ’s kingdom.

Some might suppose that greater lay involvement would weaken the papacy, but it is not so. Paradoxically, absolute monarchy is a very weak form of government. In a more republican structure, or rather a “mixed monarchy”, political arguments have to be made in the open and whatever powers the ruler holds he may exercise securely and in an informed manner. He has to state his beliefs and allegiances openly, those who disagree need to make their case in return. In an absolute monarchy he is only as powerful as the reliability of his last circle of advisors. Such a structure encourages concealment, flattery, duplicity and betrayal.

The terrible consequences of abolishing traditional episcopal elections were predicted long ago by Pope Leo I “the Great” (440-461). St Leo predicted that depriving the faithful of their right to approve or reject an episcopal nominee would lead them to despise their shepherds and lose the faith, “let no one be ordained against the express wishes of the place: lest a city should either despise or hate a bishop whom they did not choose, and lamentably fall away from religion because they have not been allowed to have whom they wished.” We always ignore the fathers at our peril.

This is a drastic proposal, but the present crisis calls for it. As a younger and more reckless Joseph Ratzinger famously predicted in 1969:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so she will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members … But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her centre: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.