National Catholic Reporter ®

April 12, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 33

Send This Page to a Friend   | Printer Friendly Version
Outside of Rome, some things come clear,
And one is growing crisis of leadership

The U.S. church is experiencing a leadership vacuum that, so far, no American prelate has been capable of filling.


I’m currently moving across the United States, lecturing with my colleague Robert Blair Kaiser of Newsweek, and speaking to groups of NCR readers in various cities. These sessions are a terrific opportunity to get back in touch with how American Catholics are thinking and feeling about issues in the church. 

     (The rarified air in Rome can cloud one’s perceptions. This became clear at my first appearance in New York, when I caught myself making casual references to the Apostolic Signatura and the Roman Rota as if they were the Yankees and the Mets. The blank faces told me I had been away too long).

     The current scandals concerning sexual abuse by priests are, of course, much on people’s minds. As I talk with Catholics in various parts of the country, listening to their concerns and trying to think through the implications of their questions, it is becoming steadily more clear to me that we are facing two interlocking crises at once. 

     One concerns the sexual misconduct of a small number of priests. Some have tried to link this crisis to debates over clerical celibacy, women priests and homosexuality, though in each case I find the connection tenuous. These are worthy themes to discuss, but none of them explains sexual abuse, nor would proposed reforms in any of these areas solve the problem.

     The other crisis is the administrative malfeasance of some bishops when accusations of abuse surface. Bishops have covered up the problem, paid the equivalent of hush money, and shuffled abuser priests from assignment to assignment long after they should have known better. This second crisis is not one of sexuality, but of leadership. It is not about theology, psychology or sexual maturity, but of how the managerial class in the church exercises authority, and to whom they are accountable.

     In fairness, it should be noted that the failure to aggressively weed out abuser priests has been, in some cases, a vice born of excessive virtue. Reading through the documentation in Boston concerning Fr. Paul Shanley, one is struck by the lengths to which his supervisors went to give him second, third and fourth chances. They praised him for his positive contributions and struggled to find a place for him despite reservations about both his doctrinal views and his personal conduct. It was a kind of compassion, a desire to prop up a struggling member of the clerical club, that in its own way was commendable. Like all forms of tribal morality, however, its blindness was in failing to extend the same compassion and support to those outside the clerical ranks — above all, to those who claimed to have been abused by Shanley, and to those who might be abused by him in the future.

     It would also be unfair to suggest that every American bishop has been deaf, dumb and blind in the teeth of the present crisis. Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops conference, set an example of plain talk, calling the failure of the Jefferson City, Mo., diocese to disclose past sexual abuse by the Rev. Anthony J. O’Connell before his promotion to bishop a “travesty.” Archbishop John Foley, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in Rome, has said bluntly that candor must drive the church’s response.

     Yet these gestures, welcome as they are, have not been enough to restore public confidence. A Washington Post survey published April 7 revealed that 52 percent disapprove of the way church leaders have responded to the sex abuse crisis, with 45 percent “strongly” disapproving. A majority was either “dissatisfied” (34 percent) or “angry” (36 percent) over the church’s response.

     The U.S. church is experiencing a leadership vacuum that, so far, no American prelate has been capable of filling.

     In light of this situation, many Catholics are asking some very basic questions about how bishops are selected and held accountable. They wonder why these nominations are made in secret in Rome, why the local community doesn’t play more of a role in identifying its own leaders. 

     Under the current system, the papal nuncio is supposed to solicit input about potential nominees from the community, but how reliable this consultation is depends upon the nuncio. Sometimes the process works. Under Archbishop Jean Jadot, nuncio in the United States from 1973 to 1980, consultation was generally meaningful. Jadot would ask the interim administrator of a diocese to carry out extensive surveys of priests, deacons and laity, ranking the needs of the diocese and identifying men who could meet them. Based on this input, the quality of Jadot appointments tended to be high.

     The fact that papal appointment of bishops can work, however, does not mean it has to work that way. A quick review of church history makes the point.

     In the early church, three parties shared in the process: the laity of the local church, the clergy, and the bishops of the region. The third century text Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus, for example, says that a bishop is to be chosen by “all the people” and that this selection is to be approved by assembled priests and bishops. Most bishops in the early Christian centuries were selected this way, such as St. Augustine.

     In the Eastern church, this quasi-democratic process was gradually monopolized by the bishops of an ecclesiastical province, meeting in a body called a “synod.” The Orthodox still choose their bishops by the vote of a synod. 

     In the West, feudalism concentrated power to appoint bishops in the hands of secular lords. The investiture struggle launched by popes such as Gregory VII in the early Middle Ages was designed to secure the independence of local churches in naming bishops. As church historian Capuchin Fr. William Henn has pointed out, direct papal appointment actually runs counter to the Gregorian reform, which promoted the freedom of local churches in picking their own bishops. (A wonderful book for readers interested in the topic is Henn’s The Honor of My Brothers, from Crossroad).

     By the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), three methods of selecting bishops were widely used in the West: nomination by the king or other secular authority, election by priests of a diocese, often in a gathering called a “cathedral chapter,” and papal appointment. Of the three forms, nomination by the secular government was by far the most common. While the pope retained a right to confirm the choice, this was largely pro-forma.

     As late as the middle 1800s, direct papal appointment of diocesan bishops outside the papal states — territories in the middle of Italy ruled directly by the Vatican — were rare. In 1829, when Pope Leo XII died, there were 646 diocesan bishops in the Latin rite church; 555 had been appointed by the state, 67 elected by cathedral chapters, and only 24 appointed by the pope. 

     The infant U.S. church during this period observed the custom of clerical election of bishops. In 1789, Pius VI recognized John Carroll of Baltimore as the first American bishop, ratifying the vote of local clergy.

     Would a return to the tradition of local selection of bishops promote greater accountability on matters such as the supervision of troubled priests? Arguably. In a church whose leadership class is conditioned to take the local community alongside Rome as its point of reference, there might well be more attention to local, not just papal, priorities.

     Of course, in the context of the priest shortage, there is a shrinking talent pool from which to find bishops, and no method of selection is likely to produce perfect appointments. It is also true that local election of bishops in the ancient church sometimes led to gridlock, as various factions disagreed violently, and this could happen again. And, finally, it is true that in some places, direct papal appointment is the only guarantee of independence from governments hostile to the church (China is the most obvious case in point).

     Despite this complexity, two points seem clear. One is that the debate over how to hold bishops accountable to their people will continue; I hear little else these days from American Catholics. I expect the momentum to restore a stronger local role in the nomination process will be considerable.

     The other is that this debate poses no insuperable problems of doctrine or tradition. Church history offers multiple examples of how bishops have been selected, so it is a question of prudential judgment. On this issue, at least, Catholics can challenge the status quo without fear of theological reproach. 

* * *

     Last week I made reference to the Good Friday homily delivered in St. Peter’s Basilica by the preacher of the papal household, Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. A Capuchin friend wrote to point out that Cantalamessa’s homily can be found on-line at I’m happy to recommend it.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

© 2002 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280