Democratically elected Bishops?

In the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany (one of the most ancient European sees) Joachim Cardinal Meisner is in the last months of his reign as Archbishop. As the close of his episcopate draws closer, lay folk and some priests are voicing criticism over the way the Archbishop is appointed.

Currently, I understand, Cologne is one of the few sees that don’t get a Bishop assigned directly, but which send lists with candidates to the Pope, who reviews the list and sends three suggestions back. The Pope’s suggestions are to take into account the Chapter’s list, but he isn’t obliged to stick with it. The chapter then secretly votes on who will be the new Archbishop, one of the three suggestions is chosen. I understand there is opportunity to send the Pope’s suggestions back again for another round. For more on this, read about the Prussian Concordat.

Now, however, the Kölner Kircheninitiative (Cologne Church initiative) is causing a fuss by demanding sweeping changes to the method. They demand that no candidate be placed on the list who has not been democratically elected by the laypeople of the diocese. They cite quotes from Pope St. Celestine I and Pope St. Leo the Great.

You can find the Open Letter to His Holiness and the Chapter here, in German:

They have even created a checklist for people to check off which qualities they want the future Archbishop of Cologne to possess. Among them: “tolerance towards those of other opinion”, “Transparency”, “Authority, but not authoritarian” and “Open to the future”. Another section of the document (link below) addresses wishes as to what the new Archbishop address first in his episcopate: “Delegate more responsibility to the local parishes”, “more synodical structures”, “Less focus on priests”, “Enable parish governance by non-priests”, “More pastoral responsibility for women”, “Lingually and liturgically closer-to-real life (realistic) Masses and preaching” and “Reduction of authoritative structures and fear”.

The latter form ends with a field in which people can propose candidates for the Episcopate.

So, basically there are two questions for discussion:

  1. Is this theoretically possible?
  2. What are the pros and cons?

My view is that we should not turn to radical democracy for the appointment of Bishops. While that may have worked in ancient times, nowadays it would cause great problems.

  1. it’s theoretically possible.
  2. I can only think of cons. The biggest con is the lack of religious education at the parish level. This is a world-wide problem. There is no way to make sure that those who are voting are both doctrinally orthodox (they assent to Church teaching) and are knowledgeable of the Catechism and canon law. It’s impossible to select someone whose job it is to teach and enforce those documents, if the electors don’t even know what’s in them.

If they were to, for example, require some kind of test of knowledge and orthodoxy prior to voting, it could be done. But that would be very unwieldy and subject to misuse and fraud.

Currently, I understand, Cologne is one of the few sees that don’t get a Bishop assigned directly, but which send lists with candidates to the Pope, who reviews the list and sends three suggestions back. The Pope’s suggestions are to take into account the Chapter’s list, but he isn’t obliged to stick with it. The chapter then secretly votes on who will be the new Archbishop, one of the three suggestions is chosen. I understand there is opportunity to send the Pope’s suggestions back again for another round. For more on this, read about the Prussian Concordat.

This is pretty much how the process is handled in the US. The nuncio sends a list which consists of recommendations from the other Bishops. The Pope either selects someone from the list, rejects the list or sends a counter list back to the nuncio. The only difference is that, in the US, there isn’t a “secret” vote.

The worst con is that this would set the precedent of Holy Church as a democracy.

While “democracy” (representiationally) is the most desirable civil governance to be achieved, the Church cannot become one, even theoretically

The reason is that the Church is a body, and bodies survive only when solidly led from the head.


Interesting. I was arguing precisely that bit about the Church as a democracy on a Facebook page that posted an article about the initiative. The responses are shocking.

Gee, that’s awful. Sounds like Moses asking God’s people for a line item vote on the Ten Commandments. :confused:

If that had happened, we know what would have happened with adultery…:slight_smile:

So the early Church, in which bishops were elected, was not the true Church after all?

This makes no sense.

Your claim about bodies is just biological analogy (questionable even there), not solid theology.

Jesus is the Head, after all. By your argument, the Church has only been a proper body in the past century or so.


That’s not what he was saying. Times were different back then. Christians at the time were much for loyal to their Church than we would expect today’s “Christians” to be. Those baptised as infants and who then go to Church Easter and Christmas, if ever. They would still be eligible to vote for a Bishop in accordance with their desires.

How are people who don’t know what the Church teaches, or even oppose it, to be allowed to vote? That has been mentioned above. That wasn’t anywhere near the case in the Early Church.

The Episcopalian is right (full disclosure: I was once Episcopalian).

The Office of the POPE was determined by popular election (by Roman citizens) for CENTURIES (see

The system we use now (with the College of Cardinals) has only existed for about half of the Christian Era. Previous Popes (and even further Popes) have been deposed (!), elected, appointed by Emperors, and ascended by the influence of powerful Roman family dynasties. One Pope was the illegitimate son of his Papal father. Google “The Reign of Harlots” for an education into the sordid history of past Papal ascension. It ain’t pretty.

But, it completely confounds the anti-Catholics that they cannot find a single Doctrinal fault among ANY of these Popes. The Pope who is, arguably, the worst Pope in history (Alexander-4), never attempted to enshrine his sinful conduct into Church Doctrine. In fact, everything that Alexander-4 did in his capacity of Supreme Pontiff is above reproach.

Absolutely, he is correct. The question, however, is whether it would be desirable to have this as radical as it was today. Those in favour may argue for it, those against should be allowed to also. It could be an interesting exchange. :slight_smile:

When you say “those in favor” and “those against,” do you mean the Catholic laity, or the Bishops?

The modern Catholic Church has no practical means of conducting a general “election” of the worldwide laity. Heck, in many nations, political elections are considered “rigged”, according to outside observers. The ancient Church elected POPES by popular election, but only citizens of the city of Rome were allowed to vote.

How would you envision such an “exchange” to occur, and who should participate?

By “those in favour” and “those against” I mean anyone, whether cleric or layperson, who is either for or against the proposition to have Bishops elected as demanded by the Cologne Initiative.

What do you mean, how do I envision it? Those who want radical democratic elections of their Bishop may propose arguments in favour, those who don’t may put forth arguments opposed.

I mean that most of the world (and most of the Catholic world) cannot elect their own political leaders by a fair democratic election.

Why should such jurisdictions somehow figure out how to elect their own Bishops (or Popes), when they cannot even figure out how to democratically elect their mayor?

We may be talking past each other here. When I talk about “those in favour”, I am referring to this thread. The discussion in this thread is what I mean.

Ah, I see what you mean. Sorry if I detracted from your thread.

No worries. :slight_smile:

Not to the same extent, but by the fourth and fifth centuries it was already a fairly serious problem.

I actually agree with you. I would be happy to see all dioceses having the same rights that Cologne apparently still has, though I’d like the further step of having the electoral chapter itself be chosen “from below.”

I actually think that polity-wise the Episcopal way isn’t bad. I find it a bit amusing that Catholics put our doctrinal problems down to our polity, when one would expect that they would result from our separation from the Church and the defects in our Catholicity due to the Reformation :stuck_out_tongue:

At the same time, we have to guard against slavishly modeling the Church’s polity on any secular model, whether the absolute monarchy of the early modern era (which many conservative Catholics seem to view as the ideal model in ecclesiastical affairs) or the representative democracy of the present.


Indeed, the Catholic Church may be similar to certain worldly government types, but none of them is an exact match. It’s close to an absolute Monarchy, but just that: close. It leaves out the Bishops’ role. I believe that in times as ours (at least here in Germany) when there is doctrinal, moral and governmental difficulty (to say the least) within the Church, what we need is more leadership from above, not less. Anything else, to my mind, is giving in to attacks. To my mind, many of the German Catholics need to understand that governance “from above” is not government against the faithful, but for them.

I would argue exactly the opposite. Rejecting reasonable demands is not the way to persuade people that “government from above is not against the faithful but for them.” And as long as the Church responds to dissent by more centralization and by shoring up the Church’s commitment to past political models (which don’t fit the earliest polity of the Church), the fundamental issues behind the dissent will never be resolved. That kind of approach just creates a vicious cycle of dissent and repression which eventually produces an explosion.


I didn’t want to make too long a post that’s why I omitted the details of my position. Of course I am not against reasonable demands, nor am I against lay involvement per se. The problem I see is that Bishops and the Vatican are labelled “authoritarian” automatically for rejecting any demand here. Even if it’s a bad one, be it heretical or what not. It is always spun that way, the naughty reactionary Vatican/Bishop.

Again, I am not against certain demands simply for them being just that: demands for change. If they be reasonable, likely to work out and produce good, then yes, absolutely! Dissent is to be responded to with truth, charity and authority. That’s what I mean by “government for the people from above”. What cannot be done, however, is giving in to dissent and saying “Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s be all happy and throw away all the care for doctrine, morals… who needs that?”. “Decentralisation” cannot automatically be the answer to dissent, since that only empowers future dissent. It runs the risk of causing chaos. That’s why we need solid catechesis, so people understand what it is all about. Only then can we address requests and “decentralisation”. I find lots of the people who demand things as the KKI does, to also demand stuff that is contrary to the Catholic faith at the same time. I’m worried about the signal it would send. Check out Wir sind Kirche if you want to know what I mean.

One last time: My approach is to have clear structures, and the authority of the Church safeguarded in order that Ecclesiastical governance be carried out pastorally (a catch-word thrown about these days) with concern for the welfare of the faithful. A Bishop whose authority and role as shepherd is clearly established is not of himself incapable of doing a great job “pastorally”. That’s what it means: Pastor, shepherd. Authority, doctrine and care for the flock all belong together and can form a healthy whole.

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