Hiring and Firing Bishops


Napoleon Bonaparte was a man who liked
having things his way. To that end, you might say, he set about remaking the face of Europe. Another of the things he liked having his way was the Catholic Church, and to that end he set about remaking the hierarchy in France. In negotiating a concordat with the Holy See, Napoleon included a provision for wholesale change in the ranks of the country’s bishops. And in due course he insisted that Pope Pius VII do as the concordat said — away with those old bishops, in with the new!
Pius, a decent man who suffered bullying and imprisonment at the hands of the French emperor, had no real choice but to comply. Forty-eight bishops were persuaded to resign, and another 37 were forced out. Successors to Napoleon’s liking were appointed in their place. The “massacre of the apostles,” as it was called, was a fait accompli.

During the furor over clergy sex abuse in recent years — first in the United States and lately in Europe — it’s sounded very much as if some of the people infuriated by the scandal wanted a contemporary reenactment of those events two centuries ago. Out with old bishops who reassigned clerical sex abusers and covered up their crimes, thus permitting them to abuse again; in with new bishops who would come clean about the failings of their predecessors and take steps to keep it from happening again. Pope John Paul II heard that often enough in his day. Pope Benedict XVI has gotten an earful lately.
The sentiment is eminently understandable. And some bishops have left office this way, while still others might do so in the future, as new disclosures emerge in Europe or elsewhere. But even supposing that wholesale changes in the hierarchy effected by papal intervention would have been a good idea eight years ago in America, or is a good idea now in Ireland or Germany or other countries racked by scandal, how realistic is the proposal as a general rule? In fact, it’s based on very dubious ideas about the relationship between popes and bishops.
The popular image of this relationship widely shared in pre-Vatican II days depicted bishops as something like branch managers reporting to a home office — the Vatican — headed by a CEO called “pope.” But that was never the case. Even in 1872, when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck claimed in the wake of Vatican I that the pope had “in principle taken the place of each individual bishop,” the German bishops replied that “it is in virtue of the same divine institution upon which the papacy rests that the episcopate also rests.” Pope Pius IX backed them up, saying they’d expressed the “true meaning” of the recent ecumenical council.
Fast-forward to Vatican II. Many believe the most important single issue with which the council wrestled was precisely this — the relationship of bishops and pope — summed up in the word “collegiality.” It’s a fascinating story, often told in histories of the council like Ralph Wiltgen’s still reliable The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber. The result was the treatment of collegiality in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (nos. 18-27).
Christ is said there to have organized the apostles as “a college or permanent assembly,” headed by Peter, and to have given them the mission of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the Church. Since this mission is “destined to last until the end of the world (cf. Mt 28:20),” the apostles named successors, and the successors named successors, and that will continue until the end of time. This is the apostolic succession of the bishops, who have “by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church.” Consecration as a bishop confers the “fullness of the sacrament of Orders,” including the office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing; but these functions “of their very nature can be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college” — that is, with the pope and the other bishops in communion with him and one another.
Lumen Gentium says much more about these matters, and since then few subjects have been more discussed and debated since Vatican II than how the council’s teaching on collegiality ought to be understood and implemented. There are in fact ambiguities and lacunae in the council’s treatment. (Apparently the Holy Spirit is still working on this whole question.) For present purposes, however, it’s important to note that Vatican II clearly rejects the branch manager-CEO way of thinking about bishops and the pope. Rather, as the pope is Vicar of Christ, so also, Vatican II says, the bishops are “vicars and legates of Christ” (no. 27).
That may suggest why popes since the council have adopted an approach to the bishops that some people find little short of maddening — negotiating, jawboning, offering advice and occasional criticism in a manner as fraternal as it is fatherly, but only rarely issuing orders and bossing them around.
Some of the same people who, in the context of the sex-abuse scandal, demand a much more direct, hiring-and-firing approach — with the pope knocking heads together, ordering bishops around, and putting them out to pasture when they don’t measure up — in other contexts demand more autonomy for the bishops and a much stronger episcopal voice (at the expense of the Roman Curia) in decision-making at the top. In the first instance, they champion a Napoleonic version of ecclesiology; in the second, they’d apparently be glad if the Catholic Church took on the decentralized look of the Anglican Communion, with a Bishop of Rome instead of an Archbishop of Canterbury.
But the visible Church we have is the visible Church we’ve got, and the present state of the relationship between bishops and pope, open to development as it is, is probably closer to what it should be than any alternative now in sight. No doubt development will occur over time — just give it a few centuries. Meanwhile, as difficult as it may be in the middle of a rip-roaring crisis like this one, the best advice is: Live with it. For faithful Catholics, there’s no other choice.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • James Findlayson

    In his, Creed in Slow Motion, Ronald Knox referred to the Catholic Church as

  • Brian English

    “Some of the same people who, in the context of the sex-abuse scandal, demand a much more direct, hiring-and-firing approach — with the pope knocking heads together, ordering bishops around, and putting them out to pasture when they don’t measure up — in other contexts demand more autonomy for the bishops and a much stronger episcopal voice (at the expense of the Roman Curia) in decision-making at the top.”

    People fail to appreciate how this actually played out historically. The bishops had absolute authority to remove priests in their dioceses from ministry positions. Much of the recent “crisis” with regard to B16 is based upon people not understanding that.

    On a related note, does anyone know how many active bishops were bishops during the 1970-1990 period? The vast majority of the abuse incidents actually occurred between 1975 and 1985.

  • Avignon Days

    Canon law (1983) which postdates Vatican II (early 60’s) reads this way:

    Can. 331 The bishop of the Roman Church….. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

    Now maybe it should be changed in light of growing concepts but right now it does seem to make him a ceo.

    And it sounds like especially in an emergency, he really could exercize
    supreme and immediate power. He could.

    Why doesn’t he? Because recent Popes are very mindful that Christ wanted the Christian world to be one…”that you may be one as I and the Father are one”.
    Using immediate and supreme power over all the Church at a close rythmn of interference in local affairs would absolutely make reintegration of Orthodox and of Protestants groups far less likely since they left partly on this issue. During Luther’s life, there were Popes who semi-openly had children (Lucretia Borgia was married in the Vatican) and hence centralized power was really a problem at his time.

    If you had a severe Pope on the other hand like Sixtus V from the 16th century suddenly return to the Papacy with his particular rythmn of actually using supreme power (he executed a priest and his paramour), Christ’s willing of the unity of Christendom would be set back a millenium. Somewhere there is a middle path.

  • Charlie

    >Avingnon Days:
    “Can. 381

  • Avignon Days

    Are you saying there are deadlocks in Catholicism between a Bishop and a Pope as in the old padroado days but now despite the words “supreme” and “full” in the other canon…are you saying there is crying in baseball…and Vidalia onions in Sauce Breval?


    How about the reverse. When the local Bishop is trying to do the right thing and is stymied by a bureaucrat from the Curia like Castrillon Hoyos. The Congregation had less on sight info on the Arizona case and presumed to tell the chief pastor of the Diocese how to handle the case. Not the Holy Father is to be blamed but the paper pushers behind the desk.

  • Nick Palmer

    Russell Shaw, many above, and others on IC have begun opening an important line of discussion regarding the Church’s sexual-abuse scandals, and more broadly, its many governance challenges: the Roman Catholic Church as a complex, global organization. Too much earlier discussion centered on a very simplistic model: the anthropomorphized Church.

    The Church is not a he (or a she) in a behavioral sense. It is a semi-organized collection of individuals and groups — formal and informal — that interact in response to both internal and external pressures. Each has its own motivations, biases, incentives, and blind spots.

    The real challenges center around the way in which these individuals and groups interact, the information flows, and what Professor Joseph Bower at HBS calls “impetus.” Bower’s simplified model, developed in the 70s and refined since then, posits three main “levels” of an organization: 1) senior management, 2) middle management, and 3) the rank-and-file. Not rocket science, but soon to be useful. Based on detailed, live observation of real organizations, Bower and others find that senior management actually has a limited set of controls it can exercise. It can hire, fire, and promote; it allocates scarce resources ($, ideas, technology, people); it sets the rules of the game or :”context” (but may have limited ability to police those rules).

    The rank-and-file are actually in direct touch with “reality” — customers, plants, R&D centers, suppliers, and the like. These folks see opportunities and problems, and conceptualize solutions. They lack a global perspective — sometimes they see local conditions as bigger than they really are, other times smaller. They recommend solutions or “projects” which they pass upward to middle management.

    Middle management “filter” the ideas brought to them from below. They do this based on somewhat objective criteria (e.g. expected return, projected demand), as well as more subjective ones (e.g. Do I trust Nick? How might this affect my reputation if it succeeds? Fails? Will I be sanctioned if senior management finds out?). Some of their choice is conditioned by the “context” set by senior management (e.g. strategic plans, decisions to enter new geographies, attitudes toward risk) .These middle managers, in the model, lend their “impetus” to the projects they deem most worthy. They pass them up, with blessings, to senior management for approval or decision.

    Finally, despite decades of teaching cash-flow analysis and valuation to MBA students, senior managers make their decisions with only a bit of a bow to financial analysis. They actually place much more weight on the amount of impetus, and the identity of the middle manager who provided that impetus. If the boss trusts Ellen more than Nick, her recommended project is much more likely to receive approval. In a simplified sense, senior management looks at a middle manager’s “batting average” when looking to decide. Of course, savvy executives couch their choices as being objective, but…

    Okay, why the long explanation? I believe that this model provides a rich framework to diagnose what has transpired in the Church, and to evaluate possible solutions. Let’s face it, there were certainly priests, nuns, and laypersons screaming bloody murder about sexual predators even in the 1970s. Did that “information” never receive adequate “impetus” from middle management? Or, was it ignored by senior management because of who raised it?

    These are the more refined kinds of questions and analyses necessary. It is my own personal view based on what I’ve read, that Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, beginning around 2000, took aggressive and organizational-culturally appropriate actions to address many of the Church’s problems.

    It would be interesting to apply a Bower-like model to organizing and discussing what we know, rather than, as the press is wont to do, assuming that a letter sent by an irate parent to some office in Rome would automatically find its way to the Pope’s desk for immediate dispensation.


  • Jim

    The Scriptures help us in this regard. St. Paul in 1 Tim. 5 especially verses 17 thru 25 gives warnings and instructions. I think vs 22 ” Do not lay hands too readily on anyone, and do not share in another’s sins. Keep yourself pure.”……If this warning would have been heeded many of the scandals would have been prevented.

    Also vs. 20 ” Reprimand publicly those who do sin, that the rest also will be afraid.” no where does it say move them to another parish!!

    My advise is to heed Scripture and the two thousand years of tradition.

  • Bob G

    Good analysis, and it rings true. That’s the way almost every organization operates. But is there something a little different about the Church, even as a “human organization”? I’d say yes. The Church is the only organization I know of in which the “top executives” have absolute power, especially over those full-timers below them in the organization. (So this excludes the laity, thank God.) Of course this power is somewhat limited by canon law, which sets norms no one can directly overstep. Still, bishops have ways to get around them. My sense is that this power has serious effects on bishops’ egos and perceptions of themselves.

  • William H. Phelan

    Let us assume a See becomes vacant. Who/what appoints the next bishop? A popular vote? Two women in the launderette? The Pope/Vatican? Of course. If the bishop becomes ill or is forced to face criminal charges, whom does he ask to relieve him of his responsibilities? Of course.
    Who tells bishops they must retire at age 75? Who is replacing Mahoney with a conservative bishop? Collegiality has cost the U.S. Church TWO BILLION DOLLARS in settlement costs. Wake up!

  • Nick Palmer

    Bob G — your comment is the kind of discussion that we ought to be having (we being not just the IC crowd, but the Church in general). I wholly agree that my corporate metaphor fails in some areas when applied to the Church. Nevertheless, I’d like to consider the structural parallels from Bower’s model (called the “process model of the firm”) as applied to the Catholic Church.

    It is just your kind of observation that helps us to move beyond the gross simplifications in many discussions, not just of the sex-abuse scandals, but of other Church governance issues as well (can you say “Vatican II”?). The similarities and differences could help us to apply some of the learnings in the business sphere to Church issues.

    Thanx for wading in!

  • Gabriel Austin

    As I have just written to our [arch]bishop, the failure is a failure to be shepherds – in quite the literal sense. How many of our bishops have reacted with annoyance to the bleatings of their flocks? Have many, indeed, have heard the bleatings? Consider the “how dare they?” reactions of Cardinal Daly to the criticisms of the Kennedy showpiece funeral? The bishop who fulminated against criticism of his handling of the CCHD mess? And yet who were more liable to know how the CCHD money was handled on the ground?

    For all the talk about management, it seems to me that there is really very little to do in dioceses apart caring for the silly sheep. The bishops have taken on too much of the ordinary work of the organization. Should they not be concerned about selecting good people to do the daily work of the diocese = a carpenter to do carpenter’s work, a plumber plumber’s, and the rest?


    Still no comments about the fiasco of a Cardinal of our Church praising a Bishop who broke the law and refused to hold a pedofile priest accountable before civil authorities?
    Maybe His Eminence was more concerned that we priests celebrate thw Holy Sacrifice with the appropriate number of genuflections and signs of the cross when celebrating the Extraordinary Rite of the Mass.
    Talk about misplaced priorities!!!

  • seomoz