Sunday, May 08, 2011

Taking the Bishop

[Updated May 9th]
The historian Eusebius recounts that when the Roman Christians needed a bishop in about the year 250, they had some possibly miraculous  assistance:
They relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on [Fabian's] head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.
The principle that bishops were elected by the clergy and people was very clearly established in ancient times, even where interventionist pigeons were not involved. Ambrose of Milan was famously acclaimed even while still a catechumen; Cyprian of Carthage is adamant about the principle of popular election.

This may seem to be very far removed from the news last week of the enforced retirement of Roman Catholic Bishop of Toowoomba, Bill Morris. Reactions to this event have been predictably varied, but conservative cheers and more circumspect reflections have had in common a recourse to law, and to secular models and practices. In the blue corner, Kate Edwards justified Bishop Morris' dismissal by suggesting he would have been liable to prosecution under the Trade Practices Act for false advertizing; in the middle of the ring Noel Debien contrasted the Roman roots of Canon Law with the common-law approach of the English-speaking world. In the red corner, Jesuits Frank Brennan and Andrew Hamilton asked pointed questions about due process and natural justice; The Age's Barney Zwartz has given the style of leadership shown by the Vatican a spirited serve.

Bill Morris' own response (quoted in Andrew Hamilton's Eureka Street piece) includes a fascinating and remarkable quote from the Pope's statement to him:
'Canon Law does not make provision for a process regarding bishops, whom the Successor of Peter nominates and may remove from Office'.
This is where the ancient stories of Fabian, Ambrose and the like become something more than antique curiosities. Although they are about the arrival of bishops rather than their departure, the Pope's claim jars with what he knows very well to be the general practice of the Church that gave us the Canon of scripture and the Creeds, and with the same sources of tradition to which he refers (with varying levels of accuracy or credibility) in apparently claiming Bishop Morris had departed from them.

I assume the Pope's is an accurate statement about the legal situation as it stands in current Roman Catholic canons. To give this state of affairs the status of a universal and obvious truth, however, would be absurd. Some might claim untrammeled executive authority is an organic or legitimate development from some notion of Papal primacy existing in nuce in the ancient Church. True, other bishops, not least the Bishop of Rome, were often involved in episcopal elections and depositions, particularly where there was doubt about legitimacy. Through the medieval period, episcopal elections were conducted by Cathedral chapters rather than by popular assemblies (not the Pope). Yet there is no authentic trajectory in Christian tradition from an ancient complexity balancing local and universal concerns to a central authority that recognizes no constraints, rules or principles for its exercise other than personal fiat.

So the problem is not just that the Pope isn't subject to reasonably-conceived ideas of natural justice and due process (although that is, I think, a problem), or that he has a certain leadership style; it is also the erasure from memory of what the Church has actually taught about the relationship between its wider reality and bishop and people locally.

This of course isn't a uniquely Roman Catholic problem. Bishops of the Church of England are not appointed more democratically or transparently than this (although there are known processes and lines of accountability - and they would have better legal redress should anyone try to get rid of them!). Yet mere recourse to saying "this is the teaching of the Church" and then throwing up one's arms helplessly (whether with a grin or a sigh) is not enough. Clearly, if the teaching of the Church is conceived as a living tradition, as the Pope would insist, then it is not just wider legal frameworks but that very tradition which asks some hard questions of any exercise of power like this.