The Locus of Real Reform

I have no idea if Juan Barros Madrid, the newly installed bishop of Osorno, Chile, is a good priest or not.  I have no idea if Bishop Barros has been a good bishop in his previous job as the bishop for the Chilean military.  Most importantly, I have no idea whether Bishop Barros knew about the sexual abuse of minors by Father Fernando Karadima.  The Vatican says that he did not, that there are no "objective reasons" to keep him from being named Bishop of Osorno.  Maybe he truly didn't know anything about the abuse.  Maybe, like many, he chose not to ask questions where we was unprepared for the answers.  Maybe he knew everything.  I truly have no idea.

Here is what I know.  The people in Chile, at least a big swath of them, believe that Bishop Barros should not be their bishop.  So much so that they tried to physically prevent him from entering the cathedral to assume his new job.


Whether or not there is any "objective" evidence of Bishop Barros's culpability, how can he possibly lead the diocese of Osorno?  You cannot lead people who refuse to be led by you, regardless of whether or not their reasons for the refusal are good ones or bad ones.  This is an absolutely untenable situation.

The general response to the Barros incident is to frame it as a referendum on Pope Francis's commitment to taking sex abuse allegations seriously.  That's a valid framing, but I have a slightly different take.  I think the Barros incident is better seen as Exhibit A of the need to reform the process by which bishops are selected.  More specifically, the Barros incident points out that there is an absolutely urgent need to return to some process by which the local community is involved in the selection of its bishop.



In the early church, the local community of a diocese--both priests and laity--selected the candidate to be their next bishop.  That candidate would have to be approved by the other bishops in the area, particularly the metropolitan bishop responsible for a given region.  In fact, the College of Cardinals, the body that selects the Pope, has its origins in the local council of priests, laity, and local bishops in the area around Rome.  Over time, this process became corrupted and dominated by local political interests, such that the feudal lord governing the area had the power to select the local bishop.  Over the course of the second millennium, the Vatican has tried to combat this problem by centralizing the power to select bishops in its own hands.

That policy made sense in 1215, and 1515, and even maybe 1915.  But in 2015, I think excluding entirely the local community of a diocese from the selection of its bishop is a problem.  We don't live in a feudal world anymore--it is unlikely that any one local interest is going to be able to completely dominate the process.  Moreover, I am not advocating removing the Vatican from the process altogether.  The Pope can, and should, ultimately make the decision on who should be the bishop, but the candidates that he may select from will be proposed by the local community.

Right now, in most parts of the world, the process for the selection of bishops goes like this (in some European countries there are different procedures).  First, every three years, the bishops of a particular country or other territory draw up a list of names of potential bishop candidates--not for any particular diocese, but just in general.  Second, when a vacancy occurs, the Papal nuncio (basically, the ambassador from the Vatican) for that country consults with the both the outgoing bishop and the neighboring bishops to assess the needs of the diocese.  Third, consulting the candidate list, the nuncio drafts a terna, or list of three candidates, for the opening.  Fourth, that terna goes to the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, which makes a recommendation of which person to accept, or otherwise requests that the nuncio put together a new terna.  Finally, fifth, the Pope, in consultation with the Congregation of Bishops, picks a candidate.

I see no reason why steps one, two, and three cannot be replaced with some kind of diocesan council.  Let a council of priests and laity come together, discuss what the needs of the diocese are, and vote on a terna to send to Rome.  If Rome doesn't like the terna the diocese sent, it can make them go back and send over another list of three names, just as now.  The Pope still has the final decision, but his decision is defined by the opinions and discernment of the local community of the diocese.

Pope Francis says he wants more decentralization in the Church.  He also says he wants less clericalism and more lay involvement.  This plan, or some version of this plan, accomplishes both.  Right now, the process for selection of bishops is controlled entirely by Vatican bureaucrats and other insiders, who have their own goals and agendas that do not necessarily line up with the needs of a particular diocese.  That seems like the kind of thing that Francis is trying to get rid of, and this plan does that.  It is an entirely administrative and procedural change, so it implicates no theological or doctrinal issues; indeed, it is in an important sense a return to an earlier practice.  Pope Francis could make this change with a stroke of his pen.  The priests and laity of the diocese know that the person who is selected to be their bishop is a person that they collectively endorsed and assented to, while preserving an important check on a particular location "going rogue."  Sure, there will be politics that come from this system, but there are politics with the current system--politics is a component of any human system.

Most importantly, it prevents, or at least lessens, the problem we see in Osorno, Chile.  When a controversial person is made a bishop now, the only place to put blame is the Vatican.  If, by contrast, the local community of Osorno had selected Bishop Barros as one of the three candidates, it might still be controversial, but at least there would have been a debate within the community of Osorno regarding the choice.  And, if the majority of the community had concerns about Bishop Barros, his name would never have been sent to Rome in the first place.  Because of the local involvement, there is a built-in local buy-in when  a new bishop arrives to begin his ministry, as opposed to the current system where people are parachuted into a place due to decisions made in a far-off place.

I think this a reform that is both critically needed and free of the doctrinal and theological complexities of the sexuality-related issues associated with the Synod on the Family.  I hope Pope Francis considers it, or something similar, as part of his administrative reform.

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