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China’s ordinations may be traditional after all

NCR Staff

Media reports treated the recent clash between the Vatican and the Chinese government over the ordination of five new bishops as a secular government usurping a papal prerogative. Only the pope, Western commentators routinely noted, appoints bishops (NCR, Jan. 14).

While the Chinese ordinations may well have been a calculated act of defiance, a glance at church history suggests the situation with respect to naming bishops is far more complex. Historically, the papal claim to direct appointment of diocesan bishops is of recent vintage.

In part, the Chinese ordinations became news in light of rising expectations for the normalization of relations between the Holy See and Beijing. Those ties were severed in 1951 with the rise of China’s communist government.

The Patriotic Catholic Association, the Roman Catholic church recognized by the government, is said to have approximately 5 million members; an underground Catholic church that spurns government control has roughly the same number. Many Chinese Catholics, however, take part in both to varying degrees, making exact counts difficult.

In part, too, the date of the ordinations, Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany -- created the appearance of a rebuff to the pope, since he traditionally ordains bishops in Rome on that date.

In procedural terms, however, there was nothing startling about the Chinese move. Selection by the government is how bishops have generally been named for China’s state-sanctioned Catholic church. Though no official count has been released, it is widely believed that many of those bishops later requested, and received, recognition from Rome.

Sources at a meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences in Bangkok, Thailand -- coincidentally taking place just as the ordinations were announced -- told NCR that of the approximately 70 bishops in the state-sanctioned church, only one is under 75. Most are in their 80s and 90s. In that sense, sources said, the ordinations responded to a genuine pastoral need.

In the early church, three parties shared in the selection of bishops: the laity of the local church, the clergy and the bishops of the region.

All the people

The third-century text Apostolic Tradition by the church father Hippolytus, for example, said that a bishop is to be chosen by “all the people” and that the selection is to be approved by assembled priests and bishops. Many early bishops were selected this way, including St. Augustine.

In the Eastern church, this quasi-democratic process was gradually taken over by the bishops of an ecclesiastical province. In the West, the emergence of feudalism concentrated power to appoint bishops in the hands of secular lords; the investiture struggle carried out by popes such as Gregory VII in the Middle Ages was designed to secure the independence of local churches in naming bishops.

As Franciscan Fr. William Henn, a church historian, has pointed out, today’s custom of direct papal appointment of diocesan bishops actually runs counter to the Gregorian reform, which promoted the freedom of local churches in picking their own bishops.

Gradually, the custom of election by the laity died out, replaced in some cases by a vote among clergy. By the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), three methods of selecting bishops were widely used: 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, 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 -- remained 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 papal appointments were largely in Russia, Greece and Albania, all spots with unstable political situations.

The infant U.S. church 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 priests.

In the middle of the 19th century, as the Napoleonic wars ravaged Europe and led to the creation of nation-states often hostile to the church, the papacy began to assert the right to direct appointment. By 1975, of the 2,000 bishops serving the Latin-rite church, fewer than 200 had been named by secular governments and fewer than 20 by cathedral chapters. The rest had all been named by the pope.

A handful of cathedral chapters in Europe retain the right to a voice in the selection process, though John Paul II has at times ignored their wishes -- as happened in Cologne, Germany, when Joachim Meisner was named archbishop in 1988, and in Salzburg, Austria, when Georg Eder became archbishop in 1989.

According to rules published by the Vatican in 1972, priests, religious and laity are supposed to be consulted at the local level before a recommendation for a new bishop is forwarded to Rome. It is the papal nuncio (ambassador), however, who draws up the list of names that goes before the pope, who is free to select a candidate from this list or to appoint someone else.

John Paul’s willingness to disregard local input has led to controversy. In 1986, the pope named an obscure Benedictine monk, Hans Hermann Gröer, to succeed Cardinal Franz König in Vienna, Austria. Gröer’s religious superiors were not consulted on the selection, and Gröer was ordered not to inform them. König told NCR in September that when he gave a list of potential candidates to the papal nuncio, he was told that Groër’s name must be added.

“I said he’s not really prepared to be a bishop,” König said, “but the nuncio said it comes from up above.” (NCR, Oct. 8, 1999). Gröer later resigned in disgrace amid allegations that he had sexually abused novice monks while he served as an abbot.

The Chinese ordinations may illustrate why the papacy wanted to wrest control of the appointment process away from secular powers. However, most governments do not assert a role in naming bishops. Some voices in the church believe it may be time to restore more involvement by the local church.

“Testimony from all over the world points to a widespread dissatisfaction with the present procedure for the appointment of bishops,” wrote retired Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco in his recent book The Reform of the Papacy (reviewed in NCR’s Jan. 14 issue). Quinn argued that the lack of effective participation from laity, clergy and even other bishops neglects the teaching of Vatican II about the local church. It also results, he said, in the selection of bishops solely on the basis of doctrinal orthodoxy.

“It should be possible to find candidates who are not only orthodox in the true sense but who are also endowed with critical judgment, imagination and who are open to new ideas,” Quinn wrote.

Movement of culture

Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley, former chief theological adviser to the U.S. bishops, has likewise called for a new look at methods of episcopal appointments.

“The movement of contemporary world culture is very much in the direction of that widespread inclusion and participative responsibility which characterized the selection of bishops in the early church; but, in its very desire to insure the independence of the church, the present practice of the Roman Catholic church has come to reflect much more the centralizing dynamic of the Roman Empire, which the church at the time rejected for its own practice,” Buckley wrote in his 1998 book Papal Primacy and the Episcopate.

How bishops are selected “cannot be reduced to simply church discipline and practice,” Buckley wrote. He said it touches upon the theological understanding of a diocesan bishop and his relationship with the local church.

Quinn noted that in 1973, the Canon Law Society of America proposed a selection process that called for the creation of a diocesan committee of 10 persons, clerical and lay, who would identify names of candidates through consultation. The diocesan bishop would develop his own list and submit it to this committee.

The bishops of the region would discuss candidates, but only those on the committee’s list. The list would eventually go to the president of the national bishops’ conference, who would (along with a committee of the conference) either make observations or send the list to Rome. The pope would agree to choose only from this list. To date, Quinn said, the proposal has not been accepted.

Both Quinn and Buckley noted that John Paul himself invited discussion on how the exercise of papal authority might be revised in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000