How Catholic Bishops Are Chosen Is Just Plain Crazy

Bishops sexual abuse

The following description of how Catholic bishops are chosen hits the nail on the head. And the hammer-holder is someone who will surprise you.

“The system usually delivers a Bishop whose only loyalty is upward, and not to his own priests and people.”

We at Horowitz Law love this sentence, because it succinctly explains why child sex crimes and cover ups continue in the church: the top dogs primarily care about the other top dogs.

And we love it because of its source and its author. It appears in a Catholic publication (Commonweal) and was written by a widely-known and respected Catholic professor and attorney Nicholas Cafardi. He’s written extensively about this crisis and nearly 20 years ago was hand-picked by the head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to serve on the National Review Board, a body that would supposedly oversee how prelates were complying with new abuse rules.

So, many consider him an expert in this field. But he didn’t just blast the clerical system that produces bishops. He proposed an alternative.

And his is not a novel reform. Cafardi wants more lay people to play a role in choosing bishops. Apparently, that’s the way it was done ages ago.

We at Horowitz Law think this can only help make the church safer and healthier.

Ask yourself: Who would you rather have help pick your bishop

Parents or non-parents?

Mostly men or a better balance of men and women?

Married people or men who say they’ll forever refrain from sex?

On this blog, we often pan the so-called ‘reforms’ pushed or adopted by church officials, the internal, public relations-driven panels and policies and protocols and procedures.

They nearly always sound good but are rarely followed.

They lead to premature complacency (“Well, at least bishops are trying something!”)

They fritter at the very fringes of this crisis without addressing root causes.

And how priests become bishops is, in our view, one of the “root causes.”

For those unfamiliar with the Catholic church’s structure, a bishop is basically like a king. Technically, he reports to Rome. But practically, he runs his diocese as he sees fit.

And he becomes bishop very largely because of how other clerics regard him. Not so much on objective measures of performance or how rank-and-file Catholics experience him.

Cafardi tells us that even when US priests and bishops put together a list of possible candidates to fill a bishop vacancy, “the pope can reject it entirely and ask for a new (list) with names on it that he suggests; or he can ignore (recommendations) completely and just choose his own man.”

Then, the lucky winner remains a bishop essentially forever.

That kind of system – hierarchical, insular, male-dominated and subject to one man’s whims – is far from ideal (or, as Cafardi puts it, is “deeply flawed, producing bishops who are, in turn, deeply flawed”).

There’s an old proverb of unknown origin that says “A fish rots from the head down.” And until a more open, inclusive and lay-driven system of promoting priests to bishops becomes routine, real reform will continue to elude the Catholic leadership.