As of June 1, the diocese of Birmingham had been without a bishop for two years, while the diocese of Pittsburgh (not to mention the entire state of Arkansas) had been bishop-less for over a year. Without significant change, and soon, this glacial pace in the appointment of bishops is going to create a severe crisis of absentee Church leadership.
An exaggeration? Try this thought-experiment:
There are 222 months between July 2007 and December 2025. During that period, 165 diocesan bishops and 52 auxiliary bishops in the United States will reach the canonically prescribed retirement age of 75. That might suggest that a total of 217 bishops will have to be replaced between Independence Day 2007 and Christmas 2025 — which is a lot of bishops.
Things are actually more complicated, however, for such a simple calculation doesn’t take into account the Ordinaries who will be transferred from one diocese to another, the bishops who may die before 75, or the bishops who may have to retire (or be retired). Nor does that simple calculation reflect the need for new bishops to fill the new dioceses that must be created as the Catholic population of the United States soars from 65 million today to perhaps 100 million in 2025.
Taking all of these factors into account, a conservative estimate would suggest that the Church in America must be given at least 250 new bishops between now and December 2025, or one new bishop about every three and a half weeks.
Which will come as something of a shock, I expect, in Birmingham, Little Rock and Pittsburgh — and perhaps in both the Nunciature in Washington and the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.
For the past two centuries, the Catholic Church shrewdly and tenaciously wrestled with various kinds of governments in order to regain (or, in some instances, gain) the power to order its internal life according to its own standards — to appoint bishops without political interference.
In the mid-19th century, the Pope had a free choice of bishops in a small minority of dioceses around the world; today, the Pope enjoys the freedom to appoint bishops in the great majority of dioceses in the world. This remarkable freedom, unprecedented in Catholic history, is one of the signal accomplishments of Vatican diplomacy since the French Revolution.
Yet that accomplishment is now being jeopardized, not so much from external enemies as from internal sclerosis. The present system for vetting candidates for the episcopate, and then getting them appointed and installed in a timely fashion, needs a major overhaul. Not only does it work too slowly; it doesn’t work strategically.
The actuarial tables have made clear for more than a decade that the senior episcopal leadership of the United States would have to be dramatically reconfigured in the last half of the first decade of the 21st century. Yet there seems to have been no strategic plan to guide this process. Appointments to both diocesan and metropolitan sees are handled independently, one at a time; on only the rarest of occasions does consideration seem to be given to how a move on one part of this complex chessboard affects other possible moves down the line.
Moreover, there is virtually no consultation on the appointment of bishops with knowledgeable members of the Church outside the ranks of the clergy (and such consultation is exceedingly rare with the lower clerical orders). Reformed, evangelically-focused criteria for judging a man’s fitness for the office of bishop, for which many rightly called in the wake of the Crisis of 2002, do not seem to have been devised, much less implemented.
And all of this is happening — or, better, not happening — at a moment when episcopal credibility remains the most severe casualty of the Long Lent of five years ago.
The risk of business-as-usual? Congregationalist ultramontanism, if you’ll pardon the phrase: a Catholic Church in America in which people love their parish priests, love the Pope — and have little sense of connection to the local bishop. That’s not what Vatican II intended in its reform of the episcopate, nor is it what Christ intended for his Church.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.