Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"I Like McDonald's, Too; But Dioceses Are Not Franchises"

Fr. Michael Tegeder examines the traditional understanding of the local church as an autonomous entity, and the related ancient tradition of “reception.”

From the earliest years of the church, there has been a profound appreciation of the local church. Each diocese is seen as representing the fullness of the church in its locality. There was no other church structure over and above it. Rather, dioceses were said to be in communion with one another.

Due to the presence of the early church leaders, Peter and Paul, the local church of Rome, was given the special status of “first among equals.” The bishop of Rome was seen to have a special ministry of maintaining communion among the other local churches. This primacy was seen to be a primacy of service and not juridical.

One of the real abuses that has occurred since the Reformation has been a creeping centralization of the church with the loss of the local churches’ autonomy. A sign of this is the way that bishops or local church leaders are selected. Traditionally, bishops were chosen by the local church.

As a bishop in the year 200, St Cyprian spoke of the need for the consent of the people in choosing their bishop. One hundred years later, St. Celestine, the bishop of Rome, stated that bishops should not be given to those who do not accept them. Another pope, St Gregory, in the 5th century, said that the one who is to govern over all (as bishop), should be chosen by all. Indeed, the first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, was elected by his fellow priests.

Although the Church still retains the “election” of the bishop of Rome, the pope, we now tend to take for granted that the pope appoints other bishops. In reality this is a fairly recent innovation in church practice. Sadly, this alteration from tradition distorts the reality of being a communion of churches. All dioceses are now seemingly franchises of Rome. Nevertheless, the tradition still has echoes. At every installation of a bishop, the people, as required by the ritual, are to show some sign of acceptance or “reception.” This refers to the local church community approving those who are to lead them.

In extreme cases, this reception by the people is withheld. Earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Rev. Gerhard Maria Wagner as auxiliary bishop of Linz, Austria. Rev. Wagner had stirred controversy by saying that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for the sins of New Orleanians and that homosexuality was curable. Austrian Catholics strongly protested his selection. In the face of mounting opposition, i.e., non-reception, the Pope formally withdrew the appointment of this priest on March 2.

Nevertheless, Roman control reigns. And to aid this there are “king maker” bishops and cardinals who have special connections with Rome (including raising contributions for the Vatican) and therefore have special influence in the selection of local bishops. For instance, the former Archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Maida, has quite a track record. A conservative church commentator calls him the American Church’s primary “bishop scout and trainer.”

The following Detroit priests/bishops have taken control in other dioceses around the country since Cardinal Maida became Archbishop of Detroit in 1990:

Bishop Alexander Brunette, of Helena, MT, 1994-1997
Bishop Dale Melczek, of Gary, IN, 1996
Archbishop Alexander Brunette, of Seattle, WA, 1997
Bishop Bernard Harrington, of Winona, MN, 1998
Bishop John Nienstedt, of New Ulm, MN, 2001-2007
Bishop Alan Vigneron, of Oakland, CA, 2003
Bishop Leonard Blair, of Toledo, OH, 2003
Bishop Walter Hurley, of Grand Rapids, MI, 2005
Archbishop John Nienstedt, St Paul and Minneapolis, MN, 2008
Bishop Earl Boyea, of Lansing, MI, 2008
Coadjutor Bishop John Quinn, of Winona, MN, 2008
Archbishop Alan Vigneron, of Detroit, MI, 2009

In raising these questions, I am not without some sympathy for the bishops. They are sent to dioceses of which they often have no knowledge especially of the local culture. The local church has had no say in their appointments. Once appointed, Rome expects unquestioning acceptance of all Vatican pronouncements and regular reports back to the home office. We are far removed from the “collegiality” promised by Vatican II.

Rev. Michael V. Tegeder is the pastor at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Bloomington, MN.


  1. How wonderful it would be if eventually we could get back to this notion of popular sovreignty within the context of the Church. Father, thank you so much for your historical references of credibility in citing and discussing this issue. They're all the more necessary when conservative factions within the Church try to dispute progressive means of thinking as "heretical" because they deviate from the way the Church has "always done things." As you showed, at least in the case of episcopal appointments, the current practice has not always been the case...

    The controversy in Conneticut also has pertinence to this issue. Even though I do feel that it was wrong if the State was trying to mandate to churches who and who could not serve as the head or members of the their parish councils it's good that this situation raised the issue of parish autonomy and the level of leadership and sway parishoners have within their own respective communities. Hopefully, driven by the breathe of the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the Church will re-evaluate these questions and so many other pressing ones that seem to be driving the Catholic Church further away from individual's lived experiences rather than closer towards them.

  2. The Church is ONE, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, not 2,980, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

    Or would you prefer that it be 35,000, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic like the protestants?