National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 6, 2004

Nation's active bishops:

Mostly 177 older guys locked into a change-resistant culture


My friend “Mel” counts bishops. It started years ago when he was hired by a religious publisher as an editor of their publications. Mel’s incredible editing skills are legendary. He could find a typo in the Gutenberg Bible. He could give his confessor a CD of his 10 best confessions and not omit a venial sin.

Mel began counting bishops when he joined the publishing house because it was important for the company to know where the miters were. The men with antlers often decided which publications would go in the pews. Further, the bishops needed to know the liturgical rules and Mel knew the rules better than anyone.

Mel started counting when such figures were not generally available. Now, retired for some years, he does it as a hobby. I think Mel could give you the fax number of the Syro-Malankara eparchy of Trivandrum, which is based in Kerala, India, and has a branch in the United States. He could track down Adam and Eve’s parish and give you a recipe for the salad dressing Adam uses on his best suits.

According to Mel’s count, there are now 177 active bishops in 32 archdioceses and 145 dioceses in the United States. This doesn’t count the 83 auxiliaries and the 127 retired prelates. Precise numbers are virtually impossible to come by. Bishops are made of old motherboards and go off to heaven at an alarming rate. Presently, only eight are under 50. Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was only 36 when he got his own bathroom and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was 38. However, such youthful appointments are virtually extinct today.

The present U.S. bishops are overwhelmingly American-born. Not many years ago, most future bishops arrived by boat, especially from Ireland. The present crop has only eight FBI -- foreign born Irish -- bishops, with just seven born in Spain and five in Mexico. All told, 16 foreign countries and three regions are represented in the present roster. Because of the paucity of priests everywhere, it’s not likely that the complexion will change much, although we can look for more Asians, Africans and Latinos.

There was a time when an estimated 80 percent of bishops had “a shamrock on their behinds,” as the saying goes. Four of the first six bishops of Chicago came across the pond from the old sod. That figure has shrunk, but it will be decades before the Latino, black or Asian communities are truly represented. The old boy network is simply too strong.

“They’re nice guys,” my friend Mel observed. “But they’re locked in a culture that won’t change.”

There are now 48 active bishops who are members of 26 religious orders, including seven Jesuits, one of whom is a cardinal (Avery Dulles, now over 80 and at Fordham University in New York). Then, there are the Opus Dei members -- only two (perhaps only one) are bishops. The group now has franchises in 13 jurisdictions. While conservative numbers remain small, they have an influence far beyond their numbers.

Mandatory retirement for bishops is 75. However, the pope may extend their leases. He often does so if the incumbent has clout. He is also appointing coadjutor bishops who will automatically succeed if and when the incumbent retires or dies. It ensures that the ordinary-in-waiting can be installed even after the pope’s death. John Paul II has knighted all but about 36 of the present roster.

In 2003, 16 ordinaries reached or exceeded retirement age. And a few more died before reaching 75. At this writing, eight slots are still open. In 2004, only four ordinaries will reach 75.

In 2005, 12 ordinaries and eight auxiliary slots will open. Again, not every bishop lives to be 75. Thus, there are always more openings than these figures indicate. In recent months, at least three under Social Security age have died.

The United States has 14 cardinals, including three at the Vatican. Only nine are under 80 and eligible to vote for the next pope. However, if they linked episcopal rings with the Italian red hats -- around 32 eligibles -- they could create a powerful voting bloc.

However, I am wandering from Mel’s careful listings. It’s just that, if one connects the dots, what emerges is an old boy network that gives lie to the notion that bishops come from under the Holy Spirit’s wings. The process is intensely human. A priest or young bishop without a sponsor hasn’t got a prayer.

Over dinner a few years ago, two wonderfully warm bishops listed the requirements for a nod from the Holy Spirit. “You have to go to bishops’ installations and funerals,” they said. “You have to write about birth control and abortion, married priests and female priests. Of course, there remains the threat of homosexuals. And don’t forget about vocations and the Blessed Mother.”

The recent sexual abuse crisis that has swept the nation and that brought down Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law revealed a man who had placed at least a half-dozen bishops from his archdiocese. It recalls that the archbishop of Milwaukee and the bishop of Joliet, Ill., were refused much-needed auxiliaries on the grounds that the United States already has “too many” auxiliaries. Yet, when the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York requested help, a new bishop was FedEx-ed immediately.

The Italians want their papacy back. They feel that John Paul II is not nuanced enough. Further, he is the first non-Italian pope since 1522, when Adrian VI (or, better, Hadrian VI), a Dutchman, was elected and lived only a little over a year.

At the conclave that elected John Paul II, the Italian cardinals could clearly be heard arguing between voting sessions. They didn’t even want a front-runner such as Cardinal Giovanni Benelli of Florence -- one of their own -- because he was regarded as too pliant toward the stranieri or foreigners. But Karol Wojtyla of Poland, who received only five votes on the first ballot, enjoyed the support of Cardinal John Krol, a Polish-American of Philadelphia. By the eighth ballot, he had 90 or more, although some Italians never moved. The Holy Spirit had nothing to do with it.

It still works that way with local appointments. Few, if any traditions connected with episcopal appointments have anything to do with the original apostles or with the Lord himself for that matter.

Taken together, the statistics put one in mind of the elite country club in a Detroit suburb where the members are largely automobile industry moguls. The club’s food borders on industrial catering, especially the creamed spinach. It resembles the gruel in Oliver Twist. However, only the club’s board can change the menu and by the time a member ascends to the board, he has gotten used to the creamed spinach. Thus, nothing changes.

It also puts me in mind of a recent article in The New York Times about a deteriorating synagogue in New York City’s Harlem. Among other things, it served as a home to a colony of rats who munched on the rich burgundy cloth that covered the sacred Torah. Some time ago, the rabbi raised the old cloth to protect it from the ravishing rodents. In time, the synagogue persuaded the rats to relocate. But the cloth was not lowered. When congregants asked why it remained up high, the rabbi answered, “Tradition.”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is now older than about 170 of the sitting ordinaries. Pay homage at

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004

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