Bill Broadway: Papal Succession Stirs Hope for Real Change

Roundup: Talking About History

Bill Broadway, in the Washington Post (4-9-05):

As the College of Cardinals prepares to convene April 18 to elect a new leader, U.S. Catholics know there is little chance that one of their own will succeed Pope John Paul II.

Yet many hope the new pontiff will hear cries for change in how the Vatican operates. They want a leader who will encourage greater communication among all levels of the hierarchical church, a "democratization" that ranges from the election of bishops to increased involvement of laity in parish operations. Such change is possible because it involves governance rather than doctrine, according to canon lawyers and church historians. Calls for a Catholic Church that allows female priests, supports a woman's right to choose abortion and permits married couples to use contraception will go unheard because they would require changes in church teaching, analysts say.

More openness -- a chance for laity to voice opinions to priests, priests to speak openly to their bishops and bishops to speak forthrightly to the Vatican -- is a major concern for Catholics in the United States, said Dean R. Hoge, a professor of sociology at Catholic University who has studied the American church for three decades.

In surveys, a "clear majority of American Catholics want input from the bottom up," Hoge said. "These are not revolutionaries. They just want to have their input one way or another" on such issues as abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia. And many, including priests, would like greater say than is now possible on who their bishop should be.

The election of bishops in the U.S. Catholic Church has a precedent. John Carroll, the country's first Catholic archbishop and founder of Georgetown University, was elected in 1789 by fellow priests.

Rome permitted the one-time election after the 25 or so priests -- all former Jesuits in charge of parishes -- argued that their first bishop should come from their own ranks, said Monsignor Robert Trisco, professor of church history at Catholic University. Carroll in turn announced to his priests his personal choice for a coadjutor, or assistant bishop, to help him govern the growing church.

Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, which are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church but have a different liturgy and governance, elect their bishops through synods and send the name to Rome for the pope's approval. Following Eastern Orthodox tradition, Eastern Rite parish priests, but not bishops, are allowed to marry. Decreeing celibacy optional for Roman Catholic priests -- a solution to the shortage of U.S. priests that was supported by nearly three-fourths of U.S. Catholics -- is open for discussion because a celibate priesthood is not a matter of doctrine, many analysts believe.

Under the norms for appointing Roman Catholic bishops, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, the Vatican's representative in Washington, develops a list of potential candidates by various means, including recommendations from other bishops, said the Rev. Patrick Granfield, a professor of theology at Catholic University.

The nuncio or his associate then uses a questionnaire to solicit opinions from priests, laity and members of religious orders about candidates they know personally. The nuncio submits the names of three candidates for consideration by Vatican officials, who submit their recommendation to the pope, who makes the appointment. The process is done in "the highest secrecy," Granfield said.

There are 272 active bishops in the United States, including cardinals and archbishops, and about 15 new bishops are appointed each year, said Bill Ryan, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Many Catholics would like to see the appointment process become less secretive and include lay and clergy recommendations about who the bishop should be, not just solicitations of people who know the preselected candidates, said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University in Northeast Washington. ...

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