The Choice of Bishops: A Right of the Church
Many recent events which occupied the headlines have one point in common. The agreement between the Holy See and China, the collective renunciation of the Chilean Bishops and the dismissal of Bishop Martin Holley bring up the question of the choice of bishops. What is the Church teaching? What is the extension of the pope’s rights? To what extend has this right been claimed by the Church in the past? This article will try to briefly answer these questions.
Only the pope can give jurisdiction to a bishop
The power of the bishop is twofold: the power of order or power of sanctifying, by validly administering the sacraments; and the power of jurisdiction or power of governing, by establishing laws.
Through his ordination, the bishop receives the power of order, but the power of governing is given, outside the rite of ordination and directly by the pope.
Some bishops are destined to govern the dioceses; they received jurisdiction over this or that part of the Church. Others are ordained to help those in authority in the task of sanctifying, (in the case of a large diocese, the auxiliary bishops); therefore, they do not receive jurisdiction but only the power of order. Only the pope can give to the bishops, by an act of his own will, the canonical mission, the power of governing.
This doctrine was considered as being part of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church up to the Second Vatican Council. The First Vatican Council was indeed interrupted before being able to solemnly define this question. The 1917 Code of Canon Law clearly stated it. Pius XII will come back on this point on three occasions: (Mystici Corporis, 1943; Ad Sinarum Gentem, 1954 and Ad Apostolorum Principis, 1958).
“The power of jurisdiction which is conferred directly by divine right on the Supreme Pontiff comes to bishops by that same right but only through the successor of Peter…” (Sinarum Gentem)
The bishops and the pope share equally the power to sanctify; both receive it from Christ directly through the episcopal consecration. But, they do not share equally nor in the same way the power of governing and teaching. The pope receives a supreme and universal power, the authority to feed the lambs and the sheep (Jn. 21:15-17), the entire flock of the Church; whereas the bishops receive a subordinate authority that is restricted to only one part of the flock. Moreover, the pope receives this power directly from Christ through his election, whereas the bishops receive it from the pope through the canonical mission.
Changes regarding this appeared in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
“Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college” (Lumen Gentium, cap. III, #21).
The Council made the whole of episcopal powers depending—by the consecration—directly on Christ and not on the pope.
Who chooses the bishops?
Through the centuries, the popes have had to defend their right of choosing bishops mainly against the pretenses of the secular power. The Church had to affirm also that neither the clergy nor the faithful have authority to choose the bishop. Christ called and chose leaders for His Church before any followers. It is to the leaders that He entrusted the mission to gathering followers.
Pius XII expressed it very clearly:
“The foundation of the Church as a society was effected,…not from beneath, but from above, …that is to say, that Christ,…did not confide to the faithful the mission of Master, of Priest, and of Pastor received by Him from His Father for the salvation of the human race, but He gave it and communicated it to a college of Apostles or envoys, chosen by Him , so that by their preaching, by their sacerdotal ministry, and the social power of their office, they would effect the entry in to the Church of a multitude of faithful to sanctify them, to enlighten them, and to guide them to the fullness of the following of Christ” (Discourse to the Sacred Rota, 1945).
Pius IX had to condemned the intrusion of civil authority in the nomination or deposition of the bishops several times, however: “For what concerns the exclusion of lay men from the election of bishops, it is necessary,…to distinguish with care the right to elect bishops from the right to give testimony regarding the life and conduct of those who are to be elected. To recognize as belonging to the laity the right to elect bishops would be to renew the false positions of Luther and Calvin who stated that this power belonged to the laity by divine right. Now, no one is ignorant of the fact that the Catholic Church has always reproved this teaching, and that the people have never had, either by divine right, or by ecclesiastical right, the power to elect bishops or other ministers of divine worship” (Quartus Supra, 1873).
Through the first centuries and up to the Middle Ages, the popes did not always exercise this right of choosing the bishops. It happened that the candidates were nominated or elected by the clergy or the faithful. The elections were not always approved by the Sovereign Pontiff. Undoubtedly, the Roman emperors sometimes intervened in these elections, exercising an influence on the electors. From the beginning of the 6th century the clergy and citizens would nominate three candidates from whom the metropolitan chose the bishop; later, the bishops of the ecclesiastical province assumed the exclusive right of nominating the candidate. Progressively however, the popes began to reserve for themselves the nomination of the bishops. In the West, the kings intervened sometimes in these elections, notably in Spain and Gaul, and even usurped the right of direct nomination. This interference of princes and emperors lasted until the quarrel about Investitures, which was especially violent in Germany, where from the 9th to the 11th centuries, abbots and bishops had become real temporal princes.
The Second Council of Lateran (1139) handed over to the chapter of the cathedral the sole right of choosing the candidates, and this legislation was sanctioned by the Decretals. Through the centuries, the popes did not stop to claim the right to nominate the bishops directly, despite the different favors granted by concordats. The Concordat with Francis I in 1516 granted the king of France the favor to nominate the candidates.
The actual discipline which reserves the consecration of a bishop to the Holy See and foresees excommunication of a bishop who will consecrate a bishop without pontifical mandate, was established by Pius XII when facing a schismatic Church in China.
Through Church history however, cases of necessity happened where, as during the first centuries, the needs of the souls required the bishops to transmit on their own decision the episcopacy to others. So did St. Eusebius of Samosata in the 4th century who consecrated bishops when going through the Oriental churches devastated by Arianism.
Extreme Cases in History
In the centuries-long fight to defend and preserve this divine right to nominates bishops, popes had to occasionally take extreme measures.
After the French revolution, opening to a schismatic clergy depending on the State and a bloody persecution or exile for the clergy faithful to Rome, France was in an extreme state of desolation and hopeless confusion. It was the time when St. Jean-Marie Vianney who would become the Patron Saint of the parish priests, could witness: “Leave a parish 20 years without priests and they will worship beasts!”
To remedy this situation and save religion in France, Pius VII reached a difficult agreement: the Concordat with Napoleon in 1801. The Catholic religion was to become once again the religion of the State. To restore the clergy, the pope accepted an extreme measure: All 81 bishops of France must renounce the Concordat under pain of destitution. They will be replaced by new ones, 12 of whom would be taken from the Constitutional clergy from which some will not even reject the principles of, nor their attachment to the Civil Constitution that was declared schismatic in 1792. Of the priests, a special oath of fidelity was required in the hands of the prefect, in the presence of the bishop.
One can understand what extraordinary spirit of Faith was needed to accept these troubling measures. It is interesting to notice that the resistance to the agreement of Pius VII and its consequences, the birth to the schismatic Petite Eglise came first from the bishops, then the priests and eventually the laypeople.
As imperfect as it has been, historians acknowledge today that Pius VII’s Concordate saved religion in France.
Another extreme measure which illustrated the pope’s care for keeping the rights of the Church (including the choice of bishops) was the reactions of St. Pius X to the new crisis in France in 1905. The new law of Separation of Church and State broke the Napoleon Concordat and regulated the cult per “Law of Association.” Catholics had to be organized in locally elected “cult associations,” regulated by statutes imposed by the State which were virtually changing the government of the Church. The pope judged it was a question of principles and asked the clergy to refuse the law. Consequently, the Church lost all its assets, properties, schools and hospitals.
In 1906, the pope first condemned the principle of separation of Church and State by the Encyclical Vehementer Nos, then he himself consecrated 14 bishops in Rome for the French dioceses in one historical ceremony and eventually rejected the “Cult Associations” (Gravissimo Officio, 1906 and Une fois encore, 1907). There was no “Gallican” or “Republican” schism, the clergy of France with no exception heroically submitted to the decision of the pope.
End of Secular Intrusion
It is the Second Vatican Council which claimed for the absolute freedom of the Church to choose the bishops.
“…This sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. …this holy council desires that in the future, no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities. The civil authorities, …are most kindly requested voluntarily to renounce the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom, after discussing the matter with the Apostolic See.”
All the concordats with the Catholic States will be indeed reviewed after the council. The error of religious freedom however, guiding the Conciliar Declaration Dignitatis Humanæ, will push the Holy See to request that the Catholic States (Colombia, Valais, Spain, Peru and Italy) renounce Catholicism as State religion. Spain, Peru, Monaco and Haiti were the last states to abandon the granted favors on the nomination of the bishops.
Today, France is the only country with this privilege for two episcopal sees: Strasbourg and Metz. This is due to the complex heritage of these lands. Alsace and Lorraine were owned by France under Napoleon and were then regulated by the 1801 Concordat. From 1871 to 1918 these lands passed to Germany and did not have to endure the Law of Separation of Church and State. When Alsace and Lorraine came back to France after WWI, the special status of the Catholic Church was maintained.
A Right Still Exercised Today
In recent events, Pope Francis’ personal interventions have been noted as authoritative and extreme. It is true that despite the new principles of government including dialogue, collegiality and synodality, the pope did not renounce his power over the bishops. As he can give jurisdiction, he can also take it away.
Similarly, in the crisis involving bishops and sexual scandals, Catholics and non-Catholics at large expect and seek from Rome and the pope’s authority, acts of government which could begin to solve the scandal. Some, indeed, question the Sovereign Pontiff’s responsibility.
And even in the case of the still obscure agreement with Communist China—which does not seem to bring any progress to the expansion of the Gospel—one of the main points of debate is precisely the jurisdiction of the bishops, the needed link for a bishop to be able to govern the Catholic Church.
Communists and other enemies of the Church know quite well that the right of choosing and creating bishops is an exclusive and personal right of the Sovereign Pontiff.