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A good time to help bishops resist careerism


As this column is written, the Vatican has not yet named new archbishops for New York or Washington. Appointments are expected soon since Cardinal John O’Connor is now 80 and James Hickey is 79. Catholics in England likewise are awaiting news of a successor to Cardinal Basil Hume, who died in June 1999.

As is always the case when a major bishop’s job opens up, there’s plenty of speculation as to who’s got the inside track. Usually it focuses on candidates who have proven themselves by administering another diocese. Thus Archbishop Justin Rigali is seen as a front-runner for one of the East Coast jobs, in part because of his time in Rome, and in part because he’s been a success as a fundraiser in St. Louis.

Even if Rigali gets neither post, the new leaders in New York and Washington are likely to have served as bishops someplace else.

To the extent anyone thinks about it, this game of musical chairs is justified on the grounds that it’s good for someone with experience to take over the church’s most important jobs. More often, the transfer of bishops is simply accepted as “the way things work.”

Since we seem poised on the brink of some high-profile transfers, this is perhaps a good time to resurrect a call for reform issued last spring from a most unlikely spot -- the Roman curia.

In May, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin said that during his 14 years as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops he had been shocked by the “amazing careerism” of many of the world’s prelates. He recommended that except in rare cases bishops should remain in their dioceses for life.

His comments came in an interview with Trenta Giorni magazine. Asked if he had ever been approached by bishops eager to move up, Gantin said, “And how! I heard demands like this: ‘Eminence, I have been in this diocese already two or three years, and I have done everything that was asked of me.’ … I was very shocked by this -- because the person saying it, sometimes joking and sometimes not, believed he was expressing a legitimate desire.”

The church’s top doctrinal officer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quickly echoed Gantin’s argument.

“In the church, above all, there should be no sense of careerism,” he said. “To be a bishop should not be considered a career with a number of steps, moving from one seat to another, but a very humble service.”

As San Francisco’s retired Archbishop John Quinn points out in his recent book The Reform of the Papacy, the practice of transferring bishops is a remarkable reversal of earlier policy.

Canon 15 of the Council of Nicea prohibited transfers on the grounds that it caused “great disturbance” and the formation of factions. If a bishop moved to another see, the council decreed, he must go back. A local council in Alexandria called a bishop who moved to another diocese an “adulterer,” and a synod in Carthage listed transfers of bishops along with rebaptism and reordination as heretical practices.

The Council of Sardica noted in 342: “Almost no bishop is found who will move from a large city to a small one … Whence it appears that they are inflamed by the heat of avarice to serve ambition.”

The stigma attached to episcopal transfer was so strong that until 882, no man was elected pope who had previously been the bishop of another diocese.

In the most bizarre testimony to this tradition, Pope Stephen VI in 897 had the corpse of his predecessor, Formosus, dug up and put on trial before a rump synod. At Stephen’s insistence, the synod declared the election of Formosus invalid on the grounds that he had previously been consecrated bishop of Porto.

Today many voices insist that the church must be countercultural -- that it should resist prevailing notions of hedonism, individualism and so on. The transfer of bishops presents as clear a case as one is likely to find. Corporate ladder-climbing is as old as Roman provincial governors pleading for better assignments from the emperor, and as modern as junior executives in Fortune 500 firms clawing their way to the CEO’s suite. Anyone concerned with a collapse into secularism should see this issue as the frontline of the debate.

Of course, banning transfers may seem cruel where the people of a diocese are clearly hoping their shepherd will move on. But spectacularly divisive or incompetent bishops usually don’t get the bigger jobs anyway; the only hope is a sinecure in Rome, and there’s a limited supply to go around.

In most cases, Catholics would prefer to know their bishops are not making decisions rooted in ambition -- that their concerns are with this diocese and not the prospects for the next one. The church has always taught that genuine freedom comes only in commitment; here is an opportunity to make that point in structural form.

As for experience, moving from one diocese to another is not the only way to obtain it. Being rooted in one place, knowing its parishes and its people, would surely be just as fruitful.

The world’s bishops are slated to meet next year in a general synod devoted to the topic of the episcopacy. While the question of transfers is hardly the only reform they might consider -- restoring a meaningful voice to the local church in the selection of bishops is another -- it would nevertheless be an opportune moment to dust off the Gantin/Ratzinger plan.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s opinion editor. He may be reached at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000