"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Note on Episcopal Elections

Whenever I argue, as I did here today, about episcopal elections in the Catholic Church, invariably someone reacts with horror at the prospect of sinful lay people participating. To which my response is always the same: find me an election, to any office however lowly, at any point anywhere in history in any ecclesial body on the planet that was not composed of and conducted by sinners.

Catholics are unused to the idea of episcopal election, but those in the Christian East (including Eastern Catholics) are not. I documented the different synodal-electoral structures and practices across the East in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, reviewing more than a dozen different models for the selection of bishops--some very centralized on the modern Roman model, and others very much involving lay people and parish clergy at the local level.

Is any one model perfect? Of course not. Has any one model a monopoly on producing saints for candidates? Don't be silly. I am well aware that local election by no means guarantees--as I said in the final paragraph of my essay--that we will not have "lunatics" (Adrian Fortescue's phrase). No system is perfect. The idea that papal appointment will always produce competent non-criminals, much less saints, is obviously false to anyone who has been paying attention. Each system has flaws, which is to be expected since they are all composed by and of human beings.

My overall point was a simple one: local election is the minimum necessary to convince the Orthodox of Catholic good faith and desire for full communion. I am, in other words, arguing this out on ecumenical-ecclesiological grounds, not because I'm a romantic populist of some sort.

For those who want to get into some of the historical details about episcopal elections, then let me recommend several works. Joseph O'Callaghan's book, Electing Our Bishops: How the Catholic Church Should Choose Its Leaders, is perhaps a good place to begin for the non-specialist. It is, as the title suggests, more of a plaidoyer than an historical monograph strictly recounting details.

For that, one must turn to Peter Norton's fascinating and invaluable Episcopal Elections 250-600: Hierarchy and Popular Will in Late Antiquity. He shows, inter alia, that "election" sometimes meant ham-fisted imperial appointment, sometimes meant little more than mobs dragging candidates to the altar, and sometimes meant something closer to the popular selection we moderns imagine by that term of  "election."

Norton's study is now just over a decade old. More recent works include the wide-ranging collection Episcopal Elections in Late Antiquity, eds. Johan Leemans,‎ Peter Van Nuffelen, and‎ Shawn W. J. Keough.

Finally, and more widely for those who want to consider the larger issue of synodality, in addition to my book noted above, I also commend to you the wide-ranging, multi-lingual collection Synod and Synodality: Theology, History, Canon Law and Ecumenism in New Contact, edited by Alberto Melloni and‎ Silvia Scatena.

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