Throughout most of the history of the Catholic church, bishops were elected from the local diocesan clergy by laity and clergy alike. The bishop of Rome had no direct role whatsoever in those elections.
However, because of the communion that existed, and still exists, among all the local churches, or dioceses, both with one another and with the diocese of Rome and its bishop, the pope was subsequently informed of the results of these elections as a matter of courtesy and protocol.
It was not until the 19th century, however, that the popes began to claim the exclusive right to appoint bishops throughout the Catholic world. Although the pope has exercised this prerogative ever since then, it is hardly traditional.
Catholics in the first millennium would have been taken aback by the papal appointments of bishops, but they would have been utterly shocked to learn that someone who was already the bishop of one diocese would accept election to another.
Such a practice would have been recognized as being in direct violation of the teaching of the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the council that defined the divinity of Jesus Christ and gave us the Nicene Creed. Nicaea’s teaching was reaffirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the council that defined the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Christ.
Canon 15 of Nicaea reads as follows:
On account of the great disturbance and the factions which are caused, it is decreed that the custom, if it is found to exist in some parts contrary to the canon, shall be totally suppressed, so that neither bishops nor presbyters [priests] nor deacons shall transfer from city to city.
If after this decision of this holy and great synod anyone shall attempt such a thing, or shall lend himself to such a proceeding, the arrangement shall be totally annulled, and he shall be restored to the church of which he was ordained bishop or presbyter or deacon.
The Council of Chalcedon, 126 years later, reiterated the teaching of Nicaea in its own Canon 6:
In the matter of bishops or clerics who move from city to city, it has been decided that the canons issued by the holy fathers concerning them should retain proper force.
These two canons, which have never been explicity revoked, were consistently regarded as retaining “their proper force” as late as the year 897, when the body of Pope Formosus (891-96) was exhumed from its resting place nine months after his death. The body was clothed in full pontifical vestments and placed on trial in what became known as the “cadaver synod.”
Among the charges leveled against the deceased pope was that he had accepted election as bishop of Rome when he was already the bishop of another diocese (Porto, Italy), in clear violation of the canons of the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon.
It is significant, however, that no known protest had been registered at the time of his election to Rome, nor was there any known reaction when Marinus because the first bishop of another diocese to be elected bishop of Rome in 882.
The force of these canons obviously did not endure into the second ot third Christian millennium, when the practice of transferring bishops from one diocese to another became common.
In our time, a certain type of Catholic pines for “the good old days: before the Second Vatican Council when, it is mistakenly thought, the Lord’s “organizational plan” for the his church was faithfully honored and implemented.
But we realize now, in the light of history, that what people had become accustomed to in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was not at all a part of the unchanging tradition of the Catholic church.
Fr. Richard McBrien is the Crowley-O’Brien professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
NOTE: If this issue interests you and if you live in the local church of St. Paul/Minneapolis, you may be interested in joining a work/study group focused on the selection of bishops. This group was formed as a follow-up action to the recent prayer breakfast of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR), and is one of a number of work/study groups leading up to CCCR’s 2010 Synod of the Baptized. For more information, call 612-379-1043.