Do we get the bishops we deserve?

Whistleblower Brian Devlin is hankering to hold the hierarchy to account.

I was politely but clearly reprimanded by a bishop I have high regard for in Scotland. We were talking about the opportunities that the Synod is opening up to lay Catholics. I remember saying that the problem with the process was the filtration system – that every idea, vision, and passion of the laity had to pass the gimlet eyes of bishops before they either passed muster or most likely became victim of the delete button of the clerical apparatchik tasked with the editing process. 

He turned and reminded me kindly, but in no uncertain terms, that we are, after all, a Church of Apostolic Succession – that the Holy Spirit works through the bishops. And he’s correct. ‘One, holy, Catholic and apostolic’. But…but don’t we need to look around ourselves? Don’t we need to, at some stage, ask ourselves whether the headlines: the stories of corruption, of sleaze, of sexual malfeasance, of grandiosity, of bullying are telling us something about our apostolic succession? Of course we can dismiss these stories as ‘bad apples’. But I think we know, the sensus fidelium certainly knows, that our apostolic succession has become fatally corrupted. Can we, in all honestly, stand back and objectively review our country’s bishops and conclude that these are the best that the Holy Spirit has decided that we deserve? When we get to the point where we spot a bishop and excitedly declare, “he’s a good one” as though you were spotting a rare Osprey, then you know that we are in trouble.

I want to concentrate on two areas which could be relatively uncomplicated subjects  of reform which would offer some degree of healing to our present, perilous, situation.


Seminaries, for diocesan priests are a failed model. In fact I would go so far as to say that seminaries are dangerous places. Seminaries select men ( and that in itself is another problem, another discussion) and teaches them how to become priests. Well, that’s what it says on the tin. In my experience and study what seminaries actually do is expose and train men in the dark arts of power abuse. Men, some of whom  will go on to be priests and bishops. 

People, including  people working or training in seminaries, wrongly conclude that they are religious communities. They are not. They are grey copies of religious communities. Their purpose is to produce. And what do they produce? Well take a look at the young priests who are being delivered to your parish now. And make that a long, studied look because in amongst those men are our  future bishops.

Seminaries distort and disfigure often already damaged men into a model of priesthood that endangers the Catholic Church. Many of us realise that we have a real problem with narcissistic leaders within our Church communities. Parish priests and bishops who frequently do not have the capacity to empathise. Monsignors who slip into foul mouthed tirades if their decisions or demands are questioned. How are these men screened in seminary? Answer. Atrociously. Especially considering the skill set that good priests require. That, in turn, becomes our problem as they run roughshod over parish and diocesan funds and structures.

Men whose sexual immaturity was one of the reasons they chose seminary and priestly life, since their day of ordination, are called Father, but who, after their six or so years of formation have still not been able to address that selfsame malformed, often self-loathed, sexual identity, allowing them some sort of satisfaction in their homophobia and misogyny. If they can hate it in themselves then surely they can hate the ‘intrinsic evil’ in others.

Seminaries are dangerous places too for the young and naïve. Such is the power of the priestly faculty to decide whether the student ‘doesn’t have a vocation’, because he turned down father’s drunken advances at confession or at a bar night that he’s better gotten rid of.  Oh yes….it does happen.

At a stroke of a pen seminaries can, should, be disposed of.  We could think of examples in comparable professions. A combination of academic study at state university, parish and pastoral placements, psychotherapeutic self development and spiritual direction concluding with fitness to practice examinations and a model of lifelong study and learning would resolve many of the problems that seminaries cause. Including the sort of men who end up as bishops. 

Jesuit Moral Theologian, James Keenan, SJ, writing about the concept of Hierarchicalism (the father of clericalism) in Theological Studies, 2022, talks of the networks that lie at the base of those who will be bishops. It’s all built from seminaries.

“Years ago, Peter Daly authored a witty essay entitled, “Four Easy Steps to Take to Become a Bishop.” The steps were, as follows: “apprentice yourself out to a bishop as his personal secretary”; “get an advanced degree, preferably canon law”; “get a Roman connection; this step is essential”; and, “keep a sharp eye on the weather in Rome.

 Knowing which way the wind is blowing in Rome helps adjust your own sails.” We have to look at how we place young men on different preparatory trajectories away from their own dioceses and into Rome where some men ambitious for episcopacies live. As Daly suggests, if one visits a national college in Rome, whether for the Americans, the Germans, the French, and so on, one will see a culture quite different from the local seminary. In the local seminary, there are not the opportunities for net- working or advancement that one finds in Rome. Indeed, Rome hosts very different clubs than the local seminary. In light of these early formational influences on future bishops, any reform of the hierarchical culture needs to consider the distinctive training of those who are targeted as candidates for the episcopacy.”

Selecting Bishops

Bishops have a habit of looking around at what’s going wrong in the Church and blaming it on ‘isms’. Secularism, humanism, commercialism, socialism. And the biggie: feminism. That’s partly their own ignorance of the world which can be, sort of, understood. But largely it’s because they are products of a system that cushions them in those views. 

Most diocesan bishops are selected by their peers through a secretive process called the Terna. A short list of possible candidates is drawn up, consulted on by a very limited number of people, mostly priests and bishops. The Nuncio takes that list and submits it to the Holy See and eventually an announcement is made. And. That. Is. It. That is how the Holy Spirit works you see. The Holy Spirit, it would seem, does not like openness, does not countenance dialogue. The Holy Spirit dismisses the widow’s mite in favour of  the gold pectoral cross of the selected. 

And we wonder why we are in the mess we are in. 

Bishops, who poison the well that Catholics drink from, choose those in their closest circles, men whose secrets and flaws are very close to their own, to join them in this sacred brotherhood. It’s in their nature not to choose men who might speak out against this broken system. Because it was them who broke it. The entire structure is designed to close down dissent. 

This is all felt very deeply by parishioners. As one said to me today:

“I feel helpless about our diocese, I regularly come across people who feel the same. He doesn’t speak to his people and I could never in a lifetime approach him. He has made damaging decisions and knows this but he has never said sorry, what can I do to put it right. His pastoral letters are peppered with quotes from Pope Francis,  but he doesn’t behave like a person of compassion.”

All across the world there is a movement for change amongst the laity in how the Church operates. Some of those demands, from groups like Root and Branch in the UK and Spirit Unbounded internationally call for literal root and branch reform and I support them fully in that. But these issues discussed here are easily resolved. 

Once again, with the stroke of a pen, Pope Francis, or his successor, could change them for the better. Open the windows, allow the air to circulate. Allow the Spirit to shine. But that comes down to courage and true faith. Does such courage and faith exist? 

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