Friday, August 3, 2007

Hierarchy revisited

In recent months I have written a few posts concerning the statistical state of the episcopacy in the United States with no commentary. I want to draw attention to an article by George Weigel, dated 23 July 2007 and entitled The Coming Crisis in Episcopal Demographics. As I wrote in my last episcopal post: "Including the Dioceses of Knoxville and Green Bay, along with the Military Archdiocese, the number of vacant dioceses has jumped from seven to ten since the last update." This only covers the span of time between 17 April-21 July 2007. Weigel highlights this and also sets forward several challenges for the Church regarding episcopal selection and appointments.

The highlights of Weigel's article are:

1) "There are 222 months between July 2007 and December 2025. During that period, 165 diocesan bishops and 52 auxiliary bishops in the United States will reach the canonically prescribed retirement age of 75. That might suggest that a total of 217 bishops will have to be replaced between Independence Day 2007 and Christmas 2025 — which is a lot of bishops."

2) After making another salient point on demographics, he concludes: "Taking all of these factors into account, a conservative estimate would suggest that the Church in America must be given at least 250 new bishops between now and December 2025, or one new bishop about every three and a half weeks." We're nowhere close to that, especially when bishops who are ordinaries are moved from one diocese to another, which seems to be a trend. It is certainly understandable, even laudatory, when a bishop from within a metropolitan province is made archbishop of that same province, as with Archbishops Niederauer, Kurtz, and Nienstedt in San Francisco, Louisville, and St. Paul-Minneapolis respectively. Who knows, perhaps such appointments from within will lead to archdioceses reclaiming their rightful ecclesiological standing, instead of being eclipsed by USCCB regions. Nonetheless, all cases of transferring ordinaries add to the current problem, which presently amounts to a vacancy a month, at least between April and July of this year.

One remedy, as I have mentioned in both previous posts, is allowing bishops who are seventy-five, in good health, and who are willing to continue serving to serve. I think this a particularly a good idea in the case of cardinal archbishops, since they do not become super-annuated as cardinals until they turn eighty. The Holy Father actually made the issue of retired bishops in good health, of whom there are now many, a topic of discussion at the consistory of the Sacred College of Cardinals, held just prior to the Synod on the Eucharist back in 2005.

3) Most importantly, Weigel observes, "there seems to have been no strategic plan to guide this process. Appointments to both diocesan and metropolitan sees are handled independently, one at a time; on only the rarest of occasions does consideration seem to be given to how a move on one part of this complex chessboard affects other possible moves down the line."

If you are a Church geek like me, the entire article is well-worth a read.


  1. I read your earlier post with delight - sociologists always like numbers as a way of exploring social realities.

    An aspect of the picture that is lacking is the rest of the world. I subscribe to a Feedburner RSS Catholic Hierarchy News and am stunned at the sheer volume of bishops reaching 75, dying, being appointed, new dioceses created. The Church is growing quickly in some parts of the world; dioceses need to be divided or raised to provide the framework for the growing faith of those communities.

    I don't want to suggest that the need for coordinated and speedier appointments for America is not important. Just the opposite: the vast number of appointments needed worldwide amplifies the need for (and potential benefit from) better methods for identifying and naming future bishops.

  2. Dear Sister:

    Thanks for your wonderful insights. I agree, Catholic Hierarchy is a wonderful resource. I also agree that, given the rapid expansion of the Church, more dioceses need to be created. To that end, at least in India and Brazil, and certain, more stable, parts of Africa Pope Benedict is doing just that.

    Quality certainly matters. What Weigel is suggesting is that some consideration be given to reviving historical ways of selecting of bishops.