Back to the future, This could be a very interesting development in the decentralization of the church
St. Cyprian believed elections prevented unworthy persons from becoming bishops
One of the members of the Council of Cardinals said the group is considering whether to advise Pope Francis to make it mandatory for Vatican ambassadors to consult with laypeople before making recommendations for possible new bishops in the Catholic Church.
Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias suggested the nine-member group might recommend that ambassadors be instructed to consult with members of a diocese's pastoral or finance councils before passing on names of who to consider for bishop.
"This is a central matter for the church," Gracias said in a June 15 NCR interview. "The bishop is a central figure and the choice of a good bishop is very important for every church. If you choose the wrong person, things can be set back by years in the pastoral life of the church."
The pending recommendation from the Council of Cardinals could mark a significant shift for the church and for the role of Vatican ambassadors, known as apostolic nuncios.
While nuncios are currently allowed to consult laypeople when considering bishop candidates, they are not obligated to do so, and frequently put the focus of their consultations on current clergy members.
"We've had good nuncios," he said. "We're happy with the nunciatures. But we have left it to the discretion of the nuncio whether he will consult A or B, religious or laity. Somebody can decide, 'Well, it's not important for me.' "
"We were reflecting whether we should not make it obligatory," he said.
In a half-hour interview at the Vatican's Domus Sanctae Marthae, Gracias also spoke about his hope that the Vatican will decentralize more authority to local bishops and indicated his openness to the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.
On bishop selection, the cardinal said the council is also considering how to avoid allowing any kind of bias to enter into the process.
"If you know the diocese well ... you will know what this man would think and what that man would think," said Gracias, who leads India's Bombay archdiocese. "You could, without realizing it, ask only those who think in a particular way."
"Unconsciously a bias can come into the people you consult," he said. "So, remove that discretion to some extent to make it more objective."
More authority to bishops' conferences
Gracias also said the Council of Cardinals is considering how to decentralize more authority from the Vatican to local bishops. He said that with the growth of the church in different areas around the world in recent decades the Vatican might now consider relying more on national bishops' conferences.
"The church is so big ... you cannot have centralization," said the cardinal, who leads the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India and the pan-Asian Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. "One office here cannot know everything. It has got to give general directions."
"Ultimately, many permissions have got to come here which I think need not come here anymore," he said. "There was a time maybe when we did not have formed personnel in the local churches. Now we do."
Gracias cited figures that there are now about 5,100 Catholic bishops around the world. Under current canon law, he said, "there's the Holy Father and the bishop. There's no one else in-between. We report directly to the pope."
"There's got to be something else ... to help the Holy Father [and] to help the bishops also," said the cardinal.
"It's unthinkable for me today to go back to a system where there's no [bishops'] conference," he said. "It helps the dioceses so much in catechetics, in liturgy, in family apostolate. We share our experience [and] enrich each other."
One area Gracias said he thought bishops' conferences might be able to take the lead on is liturgical translations.
"[It] has been often asked for by bishops all over the world to help us to get this done at the local level," he said.
"One reason is they have knowledge of the language," he said. "How will you possibly check a language if you don't know it yourself?"
"We have to decentralize," said Gracias. "This church is too big. And today with the modern means of communication you can take advice and therefore conferences can play a very big role, a very big role in all of this."