The right of the clergy and people of the diocese to choose their bishops is hallowed by usage from the earliest times, by canons enacted by Church Councils, and by repeated papal affirmation. Today, however, the pope appoints bishops without significant input from the faithful of the diocese.
Since the Second Vatican Council theologians, canonists, and church historians have argued that the process of choosing bishops must be reformed. In 1971 The Second Synod of the Diocese of Bridgeport, convened by Bishop Walter W. Curtis, declared: “The basic Christian principles of co-responsibility, the dignity and freedom of persons, and the rights of Christians have traditionally dictated broad participation in the process of selecting bishops. With this in mind the Diocese of Bridgeport will work to develop means whereby priests and laity may have a voice in nominations of candidates for the Episcopal Office” (2:26). However, nothing further seems to have been done to implement that decision.
Today bishops are usually strangers to the diocese over which they preside and are often transferred to other wealthier and more prestigious dioceses. As a result, bishops are often viewed as agents of an international corporation inRomeand as careerists anxious to move up the ecclesiastical ladder. Even Cardinal Ratzinger decried any sense of careerism among bishops.
The time has come to acknowledge that the People of God, particularly the clergy and people of the diocese, should have the primary role in choosing their bishop, whose leadership will significantly affect their spiritual well-being. All the faithful, clergy and laity alike, are best suited to evaluate the challenges facing the diocese, to indicate the qualities of pastoral and spiritual leadership desirable in a bishop, and to propose candidates whom they believe to be worthy of the episcopal office.
In doing so, the clergy and people will be observing the age-old tradition of the Church expressed by Pope Celestine I (422-32) who said: “the one who is to be head over all should be elected by all.” He added: “No one who is unwanted should be made a bishop; the desire and consent of the clergy, the people, and the order is required.”