McCarrick Scandal Spotlights Bishops’ Appointment Process

Does the failure to act on reports of the disgraced ex-cardinal’s alleged sexual misconduct reflect problems with the Church’s process of appointing bishops, or were established practices ignored?

Pope Francis leads the introductory prayer and delivers his greeting on the opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican Synod Hall Oct. 3.
Pope Francis leads the introductory prayer and delivers his greeting on the opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican Synod Hall Oct. 3. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

WASHINGTON — When Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for a “prompt and thorough examination” of questions posed by the scandal engulfing Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, he spoke on behalf of a lot of Catholics when he singled out one unresolved mystery.

Why, asked Cardinal DiNardo, did Archbishop McCarrick’s misconduct fail to impede “his advancement” from auxiliary bishop to bishop and from archbishop to cardinal?

Given the scope of the Catholic Church’s established process of identifying, vetting and appointing episcopal candidates, it is a puzzle that deserves careful examination. But some analysts would frame the problem a little differently: Did the failure to act on reports of Archbishop McCarrick’s alleged misconduct reflect problems with the Church’s process of appointing bishops, or were established practices ignored?

“That is a good question,” agreed Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the past USCCB president.

The conference did not respond to interview requests for this story, but Archbishop Kurtz, speaking on his own behalf, told the Register that he was reserving judgment until he could review the findings of an upcoming U.S.-led investigation into the four dioceses where the ex-cardinal had once served (Metuchen, New York, Newark and Washington), as well as the results of the Vatican’s review of relevant archival documents.

“Until we have the facts, we won’t know what caused McCarrick’s situation to continue for so long without action,” he said.

But if Church leaders and authorities contacted for this story are cautious about affixing blame for the failure to remove Archbishop McCarrick after reports of his misbehavior first surfaced almost two decades ago, they are in agreement about the path that should be followed in the vetting of episcopal candidates.

The search for suitable episcopal candidates involves local bishops and lay leaders, the USCCB and the nuncio, the Holy See’s Congregation for Bishops and the pope as the definitive arbiter.

Canon law sets the framework for identifying and vetting candidates.

A “suitable” candidate is a man with “solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues” (Code of Canon Law, 378).

Canon 378 also states that he must be of “good reputation,” no younger than 35 years old, and “ordained to the presbyterate for at least five years.” Further, he must possess advanced degrees in “sacred Scripture, theology or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See.”


Archbishop Naumann

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, told the Register that when he searches for prospective bishops, he looks for “holy men of prayer,” leadership, an ability to direct “multiple ministries” and a willingness to collaborate with fellow priests and laypeople.

“Finally, you look for humility: someone who understands their limitations,” he said.

“Being a bishop is an impossible responsibility, but God makes it possible and brings other people in our lives that help a bishop fulfill his mission,” he added.

The Kansas City archbishop, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, still remembers the “surprise” he felt after learning that he had been appointed auxiliary bishop for St. Louis.

 “There was no prior interview or application,” he said. “You get a call from the nuncio telling you that the Holy Father has appointed you to this position and asking if you accept.”

The lack of prior notice underscores the secrecy of the entire process. And over the years, Archbishop Naumann has learned a great deal about the grave responsibility of naming prospective bishops.

“Every bishop is encouraged to look for candidates, and every bishop is free to propose candidates directly to the apostolic nuncio,” he said.

As the metropolitan archbishop of an episcopal province, he is also required to meet in secret about every three years with other bishops to share and evaluate candidates, forwarding the top choices to the nuncio.

The USCCB leadership follows the same general guidelines and pattern to conduct its own review of possible candidates.

However, Archbishop Kurtz made clear that the outcome of this effort is hard to read.

Any time there is an opening, the USCCB is “always invited to give a list of three names — known as the terna (triad).

“But there is no built-in dialogue or opportunity to know whether our insights are going to be used at all or how they will be used,” said Archbishop Kurtz.


Rome’s Role

The apostolic nuncio leads the initial investigation of top episcopal candidates and usually casts a wide net, seeking confidential assessments from bishops, priests and laypeople before submitting his short list to the Holy See.

Church law holds that the “definitive judgment concerning the suitability of the one to be promoted pertains to the Apostolic See.”

In Rome, the Congregation for Bishops will initiate its own inquiry, soliciting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and other relevant dicasteries for information about a candidate, said Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The unexpected phone call to the man chosen for the post, like the one Archbishop Naumann received, is the final outcome of this elaborate investigation, at least as it is defined in canon law. But Church leaders and experts emphasized that this critical work is also shaped by the personal relationships and priorities of the pope, the nuncio and other high-ranking Church leaders engaged in the process of appointing bishops.

For example, Archbishop Naumann said he had not been in regular contact with the nuncio.

“The nuncio develops a network of people he has a lot of confidence in, and I am not one of those people,” he said matter-of-factly.

In contrast, when Archbishop Naumann had the “privilege” to work with Cardinal Justin Rigali, during the latter’s tenure as archbishop of St. Louis, he witnessed a high level of trust and respect between Cardinal Rigali and “nuncios who were here during the time of his service.”

The basis for that trust, he suggested, was the fact that Cardinal Rigali had served on the Congregation for Bishops and thus was personally known to the U.S. nuncios.


Surprise Papal Picks

The same dynamic can apply when a pope appoints a nuncio with whom he has a strong bond. However, when the papal legate is appointed by a previous pontiff, the newly elected pope may bypass the nuncio and look for guidance elsewhere.

To take one recent example, Archbishop Carlo Viganò was named the U.S. nuncio by then-Pope Benedict XVI, but he remained in his post after the election of Pope Francis.

In his Aug. 25 testimony, Archbishop Viganò alleged that Pope Francis had relied on the counsel of then-Cardinal McCarrick in the appointment of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago — despite Archbishop Viganò’s reported warnings about Archbishop McCarrick’s record and the fact that Cardinal Cupich was not among the leading candidates on the list forwarded to Rome.

In fact, similar tensions have surfaced during previous pontificates, and experts note that Pope St. John Paul II bucked the preferences of the USCCB when he opted to appoint then-Bishop John O’Connor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as the archbishop of New York and to appoint Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

“The two most important appointments John Paul II made in the U.S. were John O’Connor to New York and Francis George to Chicago,” George Weigel, the papal biographer, told the Register.

“The O’Connor appointment revitalized the pro-life movement when spirits were beginning to flag, and the appointment of Francis George to Chicago set in motion a basic change in the self-understanding and direction of the USCCB, which was confirmed when Cardinal George was elected its president.” 


Shifting Process

Stepping back from the recent crisis in the Church, Christopher Ruddy, an associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, traced the shifting role of the pope in the selection of bishops across the arc of Church history.

In the early Church, “most famously, St. Ambrose was acclaimed and chosen as bishop by the people of Milan,” said Ruddy. “He wasn’t even baptized.”

And in the Middle Ages, monarchs and local rulers were in firm control of the process. As late as the 19th century, the pope had very limited powers in this regard.

“In 1829, when Pope Leo XII died, there were 646 diocesan bishops in the Latin Churches,” said Ruddy.

Of that group, the vast majority were appointed by the state, and 67 were named by cathedral chapters — the leading clergy of a given diocese, he said. “Only 24 were appointed by the pope.”

The exception to this general pattern, he suggested, was the hands-off approach to Church appointments of the Founding Fathers.

“The story goes that at some point Benjamin Franklin was asked by a Vatican diplomat, ‘What role does the U.S. government want to have in the appointment of bishop?’” recalled Ruddy. “Franklin replied, ‘None.’”

Yet over time, the pope’s influence on episcopal appointments steadily increased in tandem with the advance of a more centralized papacy. And by the Second Vatican Council, the Church had repudiated the state’s entanglement in the appointment process.

“In the future, no rights and privileges of election, nomination, presentation or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities,” reads another passage of canon law dealing with bishops’ appointments.


Recent Events

Ruddy noted that the recent pact between the Holy See and China had raised serious questions about the outsized role of the Chinese Communist Party in the selection of the nation’s Catholic bishops. But details of the agreement have not been released, and he said he would delay comment.

Yet if the Holy See’s negotiations with Beijing have sparked a storm of criticism from Catholics within China and beyond, the questions posed by Archbishop McCarrick’s unchecked rise to the College of Cardinals could, if unresolved, shake the credibility of the episcopal appointment process.

And though Pope Francis’ recent acceptance of Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation was framed by the cardinal as a necessary first step toward healing in the Archdiocese of Washington, his critics were surprised to learn that he will continue to serve on the Congregation for Bishops, as one of two Church leaders in the U.S. with considerable influence over the selection of future U.S. bishops.

“Cardinal Wuerl’s suggestion that the Pope appoint someone who has become a bishop since 2002, because they won’t have a [problematic] track record” on abuse, may not solve the problem, said Terrence McKiernan, who leads Bishop Accountability, a watchdog group. ”We know that someone who became a bishop after 2002 may have previously been vicar general, where they might have performed badly.” 

Indeed, experts say future episcopal candidates may also face additional scrutiny over their handling of financial matters and cited growing concerns about Church leaders’ handling of the Papal Foundation to emphasize this point.

Meanwhile, the recent letter from the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who offered a scathing critique of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, was designed to bolster the Holy See’s credibility, but seemed to backfire.

Cardinal Ouellet challenged Archbishop Viganò’s account of the Holy See’s repeated failure to address reports about McCarrick, and yet the prefect’s letter implicitly accepted the substance of the nuncio’s central claims, fueling further criticism of Vatican stonewalling.

Archbishop Viganò responded to Cardinal Ouellet’s criticisms in an Oct. 19 letter.

And now, critics and supporters of the Holy See are waiting to see how the Pope will handle the next important test: the high-stakes selection of Cardinal Wuerl’s successor.

“I don’t know if the normal appointment process was followed with McCarrick,” said one bishop, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “But after the most recent events,” he told the Register, “the process will likely be followed more diligently.”


Trusting the Holy Spirit

Archbishop Naumann, for his part, agreed with the suggestion that an approach mandated by canon law could be tightened up in practice.

“Absolutely, we need to look at how we can hopefully prevent” someone like Archbishop McCarrick from being appointed in the future, he said.

Then he issued a caveat designed to maintain a measure of perspective during a time of destabilizing crisis.

“We need to look at Jesus: If he had gone to a human resources officer and had the apostles evaluated, probably none of them would have qualified,” said the archbishop. “The Lord likes to use weak individuals to make sure we know that he is doing the work, and, personally, I find that consoling.”

No process will be “foolproof” in preventing someone who makes gravely immoral choices from becoming a bishop — “we are dealing with human beings,” he concluded. And yet, we must “trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding this process.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.