The problem with women helping select bishops is not what you think it is

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

July 9, 2022

By Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Pope Francis’s decision to appoint two women to the Dicastery for Bishops was devoid of consultation – and from a pontiff who is constantly tooting the horn for “collegiality” and “synodality.”

When word surfaces that Pope Francis has given another interview, I think it’s not much of an exaggeration to say there is a world-wide ecclesial holding of breath. His latest, to Reuters on July 2, was no exception, being released in dribs and drabs. The most recent shoe to drop was his declaration that he intended to appoint two women to the Dicastery for Bishops – the body charged with the selection of bishops, among its other duties. The dicastery consists of a permanent staff and a group of bishops and cardinals from around the world who meet regularly to vote on potential candidates for the episcopate.

The normal process for episcopal nominations calls for names to be submitted to the apostolic nuncio of the country in question by the ecclesiastical province where the vacancy exists. Those priests are then vetted by the nuncio’s staff, which should involve consultation of clergy, religious and laity regarding the suitability of the candidate (all conducted in confidentiality). The nuncio then presents the Dicastery for Bishops with a ternus, that is, a billet of three names he proposes for consideration. Those names, along with the files detailing the candidates’ fitness for the office, are presented to that group of hierarchs for their evaluation. The one they select is then brought by the Prefect to his regularly scheduled meeting with the Pope for his determination. The Pope can approve the individual in question; he can reject him and call for another round of nominations; or he can name anyone he wants.

The “finalist” is then contacted by the nuncio informing him of the nomination and seeking his acceptance. A standing joke for decades was that the file drawer in Rome with refusals was quite small; that is no longer the case since large numbers of clergy are, in fact, turning down these promotions. That said, it is always rather amusing to hear the vast majority of bishops-elect inform all at their inaugural press conference how shocked they are at this development and how their only desire was to be a simple parish priest!

That’s the process in a nut-shell. So, what about these female additions? At the outset, it is important to say that this in no way involves doctrine; indeed, the dicastery itself is not of divine institution (although some members over the years may have acted so). Will they be voting members or merely consultants? What are their qualifications? Lay women, or women religious, or one of each? Let’s put this matter into some perspective.

First, like all too many of this Pope’s actions, this one is devoid of consultation – and from a pontiff who is constantly tooting the horn for “collegiality” and “synodality.” How demeaning and unprofessional that the bishops of the world have to read a Reuters report to learn about such a papal decision. In point of fact, this “decentralizing” proponent has arrogated more authority to himself than any pontiff of the past six decades.1 He governs the Church with motu proprios. Recourse to such a means, of course, is necessary when the person in power knows he does not have the troops behind his agenda. The failure to consult also results in bad documents; John Paul II and Benedict XVI consulted broadly – even though they were eminently more qualified than the current pope across the theological disciplines.2

Second, if the nomination process is properly conducted at the local level, there should be many women already engaged in the vetting. As I indicated earlier, the diocesan and national phases of the process envision representative input from all of Christ’s faithful – clergy, religious and laity. Let’s make sure that is happening.

Third, returning to the Roman phase, why add only women to the mix? What about men? Lay men, religious Brothers? Even more to the point, what about priests? After all, they are the ones most directly affected by any episcopal appointment. If we’re going to “pack” the Dicastery, why not be really inclusive?

Which leads to the truly big elephant in the ecclesiastical living room: So many people, including Francis, seem to be greatly exercised about giving space to women in the Church. My concern is to give some room for men! Consider the following facts of Catholic life (at least in the United States):

• At the average Sunday Mass, it is not uncommon for the priest to be the sole male in the sanctuary as cantor, lector, servers, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are all females! However, does the average priest feel he can really echo Elizabeth’s greeting to Our Lady: “Blessed art thou among women”? Surely, many priests (particularly of the younger generation) feel quite alienated.

• Parish and diocesan staffs are also overloaded with women, in some instances, almost exclusively women.

• For decades, women have served on seminary/vocation admissions boards to determine the suitability of aspirants. While I have no problem with that practice, I am unaware of any religious community of women who have priests involved in vetting their candidates.

• Having spent my entire priestly life in the education apostolate, I have worked closely and effectively with lay women and women religious. I have had women as my “bosses” and have been the “boss” of women. To be sure, there are a number of faithful Sisters leading Roman institutions at present: the Franciscan who heads the Antonianum; the Nashville Dominican who is the dean of the theology faculty of the Angelicum; the Salesian who is the secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; the Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist (another American congregation) who serves as secretary general of the Governorate of the Vatican City State. On the other hand, I think of the American nun – in lay clothes – who held positions in the Vatican and the USCCB, as well as the French nun (also elegantly attired and coifed) who is the current “number two” in the very powerful dicastery for the Synod and is a known “liberal.” So, once more, the question becomes who is promoting what kind of woman? If we could resurrect Mother Angelica, she might be just what the doctor ordered!

• I am also tired of hearing about the patriarchy of the Catholic Church. Truth be told, every traditional Catholic culture is a matriarchy. Historically, mothers and grandmothers have ruled the roost in any Catholic home. And, in the United States, during the pre-Vatican II era, it was Sisters who formed the Catholic community through our schools, and it was they who commanded the respect and affection of Catholics – and most of the rest of the American population as well. Indeed, it never dawned on any Catholic school graduate that a Sister – or any other woman – was inferior. Further, if you were told in the 1950s or 1960s that a woman was a college president or hospital president, you knew it was a Catholic Sister. Unfortunately, when the vast majority of American nuns lost their way, they also lost their influence – and the esteem of the faithful.

While we’re talking about episcopal appointments, let me offer a few other salient proposals:

• The modern selection of bishops procedure is not sacrosanct. Throughout history, bishops were elected by their clergy or even by popular acclamation of the faithful. Even today, there are still some dioceses where the canons of the cathedral chapter elect a bishop (who is then confirmed by the Pope) or in the Eastern Churches where bishops are likewise elected by the synod (and subsequently confirmed by the Pope). Rather inexplicably, we have just witnessed a mere cardinal-designate arrange for his current auxiliary to become an ordinary (that’s got to be one of the fastest processes in memory).

• Can we dispense with auxiliary bishops? Beyond being “Confirmation machines,” what is their purpose? The theological foundations for this office are so weak that they have to be assigned “titular” sees (that is, defunct dioceses).

• Can we move in the direction of eliminating the transfer of bishops? If the ring on a bishop’s finger means anything, moving him around is little more than ecclesiastical “wife-swapping.” The possibility of episcopal transfers feeds into the worst forms of politicking, clericalism, and careerism. The Fathers of the Church would find this practice revolting.

• Why must the whole selection process be shrouded in secrecy? In my estimation, the only forum requiring secrecy is the confessional. Experience demonstrates that demands for secrecy in the Church usually signal skullduggery afoot.

Is it reasonable to imagine that Pope Francis has thought about any of the issues raised here? Or, is this just another example of papal tokenism – and poorly conceived, to boot – like so many other papal “initiatives”?


1For example, he has insisted that bishops must have Roman approval for a newly ordained priest to celebrate Holy Mass in the usus antiquior or to establish fledgling religious communities.

2Mitis Iudex, the motu proprio supposedly streamlining the annulment process, had all kinds of glitches that have had to be remedied after its promulgation. The document reorganizing the Roman Curia seemed to suggest that a lay person could head any of the dicasteries. In this Reuters interview, Francis walked that back, noting that perhaps the departments for communication, education and culture could be led by a lay person. The issue is that laity do not possess the charism of governance; I would maintain that even the Dicastery for Catholic Education and Culture could have need of governance competence at times.