Professor: Lay people should help pick bishops

(Post-Gazette) Roman Catholic laypeople should have a role in choosing their bishop, according to Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University.

The whole process should be handled with more transparency, said Mr. Cafardi, who formerly chaired the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board, which advised bishops on their response to sexual abuse. In fact, he said the abuse crisis itself can partly be traced to an opaque, insider process of picking bishops.

Mr. Cafardi writes in a recent article in U.S. Catholic:

‘Pope Francis says that he wants a special kind of bishop for our church—he wants “shepherds who smell of their sheep.” Let us take our Holy Father at his word: Who knows how the sheep smell better than the sheep themselves? No one. So then why not let the sheep … have a significant say in the choice of our bishops.’

The current process is based on insider recommendations from bishops, up the chain of command to the papal nuncio (diplomatic representative) to the United States and to the pope himself. Priests and some influential and wealthy lay people have an advisory role, but not the lay people as a whole, he writes.

When a candidate is named, he added, the Vatican circulates questions to a select group of those who know him, asking his stances on such issues as same-sex marriage, women priests and abortion — an agenda that “has given us so many culture warrior bishops,” Mr. Cafardi writes. He wonders if, under Francis, such questions as whether the man has a concern for the poor or drives a fancy car will also be asked.

The current system rewards upward loyalty, Mr. Cafardi says.

That, he adds, “helps to explain a lot about the way the American bishops mishandled the clergy child sexual abuse crisis.” They “dithered for years,” waiting in vain for direction from Rome until the crisis exploded.

“Bishops who were more accountable to their people would not have acted that way.”

Instead, Mr. Cafardi says, the nuncio or his representatives should visit dioceses where the bishop is approaching retirement age, hold listening sessions with lay people to learn the needs of the dioceses and the names of humble, simple priests devoted to the needy.

“Some will say this leaves the episcopal office open to campaigning. … Reality alert: Priests already do campaign to become bishops; the laity just do not know about it. … Wouldn’t it be better if this were all out in the open?”