Why the baptized should be able to participate in the selection of their Bishops


Participation in the selection of our own bishops will make for a new, more vibrant Church in which the people of God – led by the clerical, religious, and lay leaders – will have a voice in what Vatican II declared was our Church.  With movement from the bottom up, the Church will be more welcoming to those outside its doors.  Whether you are an active Catholic, a former Catholic, or a non-Catholic, if your respect for the Church would be enhanced by  a more people-centered Catholic Church, we invite you to be a part of our online community.


Theologians, Church scholars and leaders worldwide express their hope for reform and support the essential need for decentralization of the Church. Let’s consider the background that supports a decentralized Church:

Early Tradition:

The governance of the Church has transformed significantly over the centuries. One of the most important bishop-saints of the third century, Cyprian of Carthage in North Africa, offered explicit testimony about the election of bishops in the early church.”It comes from divine authority,” Cyprian wrote, “that a bishop be chosen in the presence of the people before the eyes of all and that he be approved worthy and fit by public judgment and testimony.” It was Pope Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome in the middle of the fifth century, who gave us the classic principle: “He who is to preside over all must be elected by all.”For political reasons, however, the role of the local clergy and laity in the election of their bishops became practically non-existent by the end of the first Christian millennium. One of the unintended consequences of the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century was the centralization of authority in the papacy. Despite efforts to restore the ancient practice where the clergy and laity as well as the neighboring bishops played a key part in the election of bishops, power passed to the pope and the king or local prince. It was at the beginning of the 19th century, with the concordat between the French emperor Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, that the pope alone was vested with the power to appoint and remove bishops anywhere in the Roman Catholic church. That system has remained in place ever since. Click here for more information on the early tradition of the Church electing bishops.

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council:

“While no reasonable person will expect that all reforms can be effected by one man overnight, a shift would be possible in five years….But today the direction should be made clear again: not a restoration to pre-council times as there was under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but instead considered, planned and well-communicated steps to reform along the lines of the Second Vatican Council,” says Hans Kung, a highly respected German theologian and compatriot of Joseph Ratzinger. In the early 1960s, Vatican II established a new standard for how the Church is to be governed: “The order of bishops… together with their head, the supreme pontiff, and never apart from him…have supreme and full authority over the universal church.” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop emeritus of Westminster and the former leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, reinforced this point of greater collegiality just before the conclave to elect the next pope got underway: “It is not just the pope who rules the Church, it is the Pope with the bishops,” he said. ‘The pope is essential as a centre of unity and truth but he also cannot rule the Church without real association with the bishops.”

Clearly, despite this Vatican II directive, this is not happening in the current status of the Church. Consequently, there needs to be practical organizational structures put in place for the bishops working together with the Pope to reorganize and reform much of the Curia and replace this with a new procedure for governing the Church. As recently as 2001, then Cardinal Ratzinger said: “While the Papacy is an essential element of the Church, there are many possible ways to decentralize governing functions in the Catholic Church.”

Decentralization of the Church:

Going back to our roots and returning to the earliest tradition in the Church, we’d like to join with numerous scholars and church leaders worldwide to urge the pope to invite the people of God throughout the world to elect the bishops in their diocese. In due course, as bishops who were appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI retire, structures would be established for the selection of bishops by the local church to take their place. This would allow for a gradual and non-threatening way to introduce the electoral process. There are several ways to accomplish this as is described in Joseph O’Callaghan’s book, Electing our Bishops: For example, the Pope could issue a declaration stating the qualifications for a bishop. The bishops could then be elected from a slate of candidates nominated by the diocesan pastoral councils (consisting of lay and religious leaders) and the diocesan presbyteral councils (consisting of the clergy of the local diocese). After all, who knows the character and leadership qualities in a prospective bishop better than the local priests? These candidates could be put forth, along with a full description of their background and capabilities, to the local parishes, wherein a vote could be cast. The one chosen by the People of God could then be submitted through the Synod of Bishops for their sanctioning, and onto the Pope for his endorsement. Unless there were grounds for grave objection, the chosen candidate would be recognized by the Pope.

What would selection of bishops by the local community accomplish?

Election of bishops by the local community would return the Church to being equated with the People of God. “The exclusion of the rank and file of the clergy and the laity from the electoral process has caused many to identify the Church with the hierarchy. In this day and age when the implicit trust between bishops and people has been so eroded, it is imperative that all the faithful of the diocese should be free to elect a person whom they know to be worthy of the office. The bishop should be elected for a fixed and possibly renewable term, and should serve the diocese for which he is elected, without expectation of being transferred elsewhere. By taking up again the ancient tradition of the popular election of bishops we will be helping to restore the unity and health of the Body of Christ.”

“A return to the ancient and hallowed Catholic tradition of allowing clergy and people to elect as bishop someone they know and recognize as worthy of the office will do much to restore the trust between bishops and the faithful that has been so eroded,” says Joseph O’Callaghan, author of Electing our Bishops.

Selection of bishops by the local community would create decentralization and lead to the voice of the Church being heard from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Once this form of governance is established, the local church, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, could collegially address the many needed reforms facing our Church today and serve as a resource to the local Bishop in addressing these issues.

The Jesuit theologian, Michael Buckley, warned that: “If the present system for the selection of bishops is not addressed, all other attempts at serious reform will founder and ever greater numbers of Catholics will move toward alienation, disinterest and affective schism.” After the sex abuse scandals and the Vatican Curia scandals so widely publicized, election of bishops would revitalize the still active members of the Catholic Church; give thought to the born- raised-and-moved-on Catholics; and restore renewed respect from outside the Church.

How will this process come about?

“This fulfillment of the promise of Vatican II … will not be led from above as it was at Vatican II, but must now come from below – from you and me.” We join with the American Catholic Council in stating that “We recognize that the bishops attending Vatican II voted in overwhelming numbers in favor of the core values of collaboration, subsidiarity, and collegiality. They also embraced a heightened role for the laity, stating emphatically that the Church is the people of God.”

Decentralizing the papacy and the regional election of bishops will come about most effectively from a grassroots voice of the people. Vatican II called for diocesan councils to be set up in every diocese. In his talk to Latin American bishops, Pope Francis called on bishops and pastors to encourage lay participation in “consultation, organization and pastoral planning,” especially through diocesan and parish-level pastoral and financial councils. One reform group, Accelerating Catholic Church Reform, is in the process of setting up ACCR Diocesan Councils throughout the United States. These will operate completely independently of the bishop or archbishop of the diocese. Numerous church scholars and theologians agree that a monarchical type governing structure cannot continue. Hans Küng, asks the question: “What is to be done if our expectations of reform are dashed?…We should then in no way fall into resigned acceptance. Instead, faced with a lack of impulse towards reform from the hierarchy, we must take the offensive, pressing for reform from the bottom up. If Pope Francis tackles reforms, he will find he has the wide approval of people far beyond the Catholic Church. However, if he allows things to continue as they are, without clearing the log-jam of reforms now in progress.…then the call of “Time for outrage! Indignez-vous!” will ring out more and more in the Catholic Church, provoking reforms from the bottom up.” Click here to read the full article by Hans Küng.

Support for this concept:

Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the Jesuit magazine, America, and a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown, University, urges the Church “to return to the system endorsed by Pope Leo I, so that every bishop would be elected by the local clergy, accepted by the people of his diocese, and consecrated by the bishops of his province.” 

More than 350 Catholics in the Chicago Archdiocese offered input on the selection of their next archbishop in the Fall of 2012, facilitated by Voice of the Faithful’s Bishop Selection Input initiative. Nearly half offered their input via a first-of-its-kind web portal, opining on the needs of the archdiocese, desired qualities of the next archbishop, and names of potential nominees. Several dozen bishops and priests were nominated, with all input transmitted directly to the U.S. Apostolic Nuncio for consideration and otherwise kept confidential. The web portal, available at www.votf.org/bishop, remains live and has been tailored for use in any U.S. diocese with a pending or announced vacancy. 

We find added support for our campaign from a just-published work by the retired Archbishop John Raphael Quinn of San Francisco in his new 57-page book Ever Ancient, Ever New, available on our Book page.

An idea whose time has come with the election of Pope Francis:

The selection of bishops by the local church community is an idea whose time has come. For years, countless Church leaders, Church scholars and theologians have been expressing the need for a decentralized Church with greater involvement of the people. Many even wonder whether Pope Francis will have the courage to make major decisions regarding church practices such as communion for the divorced and remarried, marriage for the clergy, a greater role for women, and so on. As Vatican journalist Bob Mickens has said: “The only way Pope Francis can help save the Church from its ongoing implosion is by making structural changes that will foster this doctrine of shared governance between him and all the bishops.” This is the first step toward all other needed reforms in the Church. Our proposal undoubtedly will strike the pope with greater impact if millions of people from all around the world endorse the idea and they in turn forward our website link on to their friends who in turn will send it on to their friends. With a worldwide social media approach, we invite everyone – sleeping Catholics, former Catholics, raised and lost hope Catholics, progressive Catholics, and curious and intrigued non-Catholics and non-Christians – to join us in this campaign. God and the Internet willing, by the first week of October, when the meeting with the Pope and his council is scheduled to occur, we hope to deliver a wide global representation to Pope Francis of this one request:


Share On:

Search Our Site

Explore Our Categories

Latest News

Speaking Out with One Unified Global Voice

"...Until we raise a common voice, we will not only not be heard, we will not even be listened to....   

My hope is that by speaking out together - a strong chorus of calls for reform - we can provide a common, a clear, a strong and ongoing voice for the yet incomplete vision of Vatican II.

In common cause, let us band together across the world. By our desire to be heard on particular issues - all of them important - let us not lose the strength of our common voice by reducing it to a whisper.

In light of this, we invite individuals and organizations to join together in making known our opinions for the good of our Church. By uniting our voices, it is not about abandoning the unique work of your organization but rather about how your work can enhance global reform."

Sr. Joan Chittister, CCRI Special advisor

"We have to join our forces in order to reach a real breakthrough in this window of opportunity." Hans Kung, CCRI Consultor

"When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion." [Ethiopian proverb]

"Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable." [Kenyan proverb]

"(The Christian faithful) have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful." (Canon 212 §3)

CCRI is also interested in helping support various causes in regions of the world by garnering the support of our entire global community for those who need support beyond their parish, organization, or locale. Send us (1) your name and affiliation, or (2) the name of your group with some description of your goals, membership, and numbers. Click here to see those organizations who have already joined together speaking out for reform of our Church.

Social Media

How to Contribute

© 2022 Catholic Church Reform Intl. All Rights Reserved Worldwide